To expect large civilized communities dwelling together to be free from crime would be to imagine an Elysium on earth, for where poverty exists crime will assuredly be found, and poverty will never be divorced from civilization. It would also appear that, in accordance with the growth and expansion of the young city in other respects, vice and crime kept pace, while youthful depravity early began to trouble the good people then as it worries the same class of persons to-day…..
What trouble they proved to the police of some years ago, and the frequency with which crimes of every kind were committed, is best evidenced by referring to the records of that time, when jails and prisons were crowded and courts and judges were kept busy trying offenders against the laws, while the entire police and detective force was unable and inadequate to successfully reduce the occurrence of the one or diminish the number of the other. It was at that time appropriately styled the "Thieves' Paradise," for even after some daring and expert felon had been captured by the authorities and securely lodged in jail, the meshes of the law, as it then existed, were so large, and the manner of administering justice (?) so loose, that the higher class of criminal, possessed of political influence, or, better still, of money, invariably escaped the punishment his crime deserved. The very police themselves were, in many cases, in league with the thieves and shared in the "swag" of the successful burglar, expert counterfeiter, adroit pickpocket, villainous sneak and panel thief, or daring and accomplished forger; hence crime, from being in a measure "protected," increased, criminals multiplied…..
Youthful vice and depravity, of all grades, is, unfortunately, the natural result of that civilization which finds its outgrowth in large and necessarily closely-packed communities. Where ground is dear, poor people must seek rooms in dwellings where the rent is cheap, and these dwellings are, for the most part, erected in cheap neighborhoods—and cheap neighborhoods mean questionable companionships and associations, and bad associations beget a familiarity with immorality of all kinds. No one can question the truth of this.
The unconstrained freedom of the street, therefore, is undoubtedly one great source of danger to the young but there are many others which, in varying degrees, conspire to ensnare and corrupt them. So that the wonder is that so many escape rather than that so many are contaminated.
The manner in which poor people—the very poor—live in the city is, of itself, fearfully demoralizing in its effects upon their children. Oftener than otherwise, a family, in some cases six or seven in number, will occupy but two rooms; one, a kitchen, the other, a sleeping apartment. In the latter room are sometimes the father, mother, one or two daughters, say ten, twelve or fifteen years of age, and as many sons, younger or older, as the case may be. Just think of it! think of the tender age at which these children are familiarized with what should be as a sealed book. Think of—what frequently happens—a drunken father reeling to the marriage bed in such a room! Think of brothers and sisters of such ages lying side by side, and think of the mistakes that might occur when—which is possible—the whole family may have taken liquor and the floor is one common bed. There are hundreds of families living in this big, charitable city in this degrading manner. Is it any surprise that children here are bad and criminally vicious at five years of age and upwards?
Boys and girls appear to be alike in one respect—the streets of the city are full of them at all hours of the day and night. The water, however, would appear to act like a magnet upon the needle, having peculiar attractions for them at all times, and to which vicinity, at night in summer, they naturally gravitate.
Little blame can be attached to these unfortunate boys and girls, for they are just precisely what their associations have made them. They learn to swear, smoke, chew, steal, before they can walk, and grow up to be what they are.
In consequence of their associations they hear and see things whose influence is almost wholly bad and pernicious. Those disguised advertisements in the newspapers called "Personals" are of this evil character. To young girls, with minds imperfectly disciplined, there is a fatal fascination in the mystery of surreptitious appointments and meetings. Mystery is so suggestive and romantic, and the young girl who, from piqued curiosity, is tempted to dally with a "Matrimonial" or a "Personal," is an object of commiseration. From dallying and reading and wondering, the step is easy to answer such notices. She believes that she has a chance of getting a rich and handsome husband, who will take her to Europe, and, in other respects, make her life a sort of earthly paradise. The men who write such advertisements know this besetting female weakness and bait their trap accordingly. And so a young girl, too frequently, walks alone and unadvised into the meshes of an acquaintanceship which leads to her ruin.
Many of them, amid unhealthy influences and corroding associations, preserve the white flower of a blameless life, and become the honored wives of respectable citizens. But these are a small minority. At the same time it is useless to disguise the fact that there are others whose character needs stronger colors for proper delineation than have hitherto been employed.
There are those among pretty girls who simply give up their leisure time to surreptitious appointments. This is the worst and most dangerous form in which this prevalent vice stalks abroad, and it more clearly stamps the character of a community than does its more open and brazen manifestations. Many causes may lead to a woman's becoming a professional harlot, but if a girl "goes wrong" without any very cogent reason for so doing, there must be something radically unsound in her composition and inherently bad in her nature to lead her to abandon her person to the other sex, who are at all times ready to take advantage of a woman's weakness and a woman's love. Seduction and clandestine prostitution have made enormous strides in the city and especially among the young women and girls within the last decade.
The mode of life of the merchant or business man does not bring him in contact with crime or the haunts of criminals. It is only when the startling head-lines in his favorite morning paper call his attention to some frightful crime committed, that he learns either of its character, or location, or the causes which produced it. To this lack of knowledge on the part of the respectable portion of the community of the location of questionable places and the haunts of felons, is to be attributed many of the robberies which, from time to time, are chronicled in the newspapers. In the case of "the stranger within our gates" the danger of straying into the sloughs of vice and consequent victimization, is of course greatly increased.
Concert saloons and pretty waiter girls are treacherous things to meddle with. Neither can be depended upon and generally both have unsavory reputations. The only thing pretty about the girls is a pretty bad record. Most of these girls live in what are called furnished rooms, and it is to those that they take their male friends when they leave the saloon, stopping on the way, of course, for "supper." In some cases the girls are panel thieves—but that is rare. In nearly all cases they have lovers and generally provide home comforts for their masters, but in all cases they are for hire. The nature of the business they follow demands their attention at night, so that they sleep nearly all the day. The great majority of them are veritable thieves. To drug a man who carries money, or ply him with liquor until he is unconscious and then rob him of all he has, is a very common proceeding, particularly when afterwards he is put out on the street and left, when the chances are more than a hundred to one that he neither recollects the place where he was nor the girl who stole his money or his valuables. The proprietor, if he can, divides the stolen amount with the girl—with the lover always.
Many persons contend that certain kinds of criminals inherit their law-breaking propensities. There are others, less charitably disposed, perhaps, who strenuously insist that all criminals, without exception, are simply born with a natural desire to be bad, and would not be otherwise if they could; that they are prone and susceptible to the worst influences because they incline that way. There are others, again, who as strongly and vigorously urge that felons, of whatever grade, class or character, are made so by circumstances, in which poverty, idleness, inability to obtain work, temptation, and a thousand other things, conspire to be either the direct or indirect causes of the individual falling from the straight path and entering the crooked path of crime. But, from whatever motive, by whatever temptation, whether forced or led, certain it is that both male and female criminals have some peculiar ideas of crime, entertained, perhaps, for reasons only known to themselves. The chances of escape from detection are, no doubt, seriously weighed and carefully considered by the persons bent upon committing felony as a mode of livelihood, and, undoubtedly, some special line is selected, as the particular branch of the profession to be followed, in accordance with the physical and mental fitness of the man or woman to succeed in it.
In other words, they gradually become "specialists," like other professional persons in the respectable walks of life. It may be safely said, however, that a thief in one thing is a thief in all things. He would be callow, indeed, who would predicate that a professional burglar would hesitate to commit highway robbery because his weapon was a jimmy, or that a panel thief would turn up his nose at picking an inviting pocket. It is all in the line of business, and neither professional would lose caste. No doubt both men and women select the peculiar line of crime for which they imagine they are physically and mentally best adapted, and which, in each particular case, seems to offer the most facilities and immunities…..
Woman, courted, flattered, fondled, tempted and deceived, becomes in turn the terrible Nemesis—the insatiate Avenger of her sex! Armed with a power which is all but irresistible, and stripped of that which alone can retain and purify her influence, she steps upon the arena of life ready to act her part in the demoralization of society. As someone has remarked, "the lex talionis—the law of retaliation—is hers. Society has made her what she is, and must now be governed by her potent influence." Surely the weight of this influence baffles computation! View it in shattered domestic ties, in the sacrifice of family peace, in the cold desolation of once happy homes! See the eldest son and hope of a proud family, educated in an atmosphere of virtue and principle, who has given promise of high and noble qualities. He falls a victim to the fashionable vice, and carries back to his hitherto untainted home the lethal influence he has imbibed. Another and another, within the range of that influence, suffer for his lapse from moral rectitude, and they in turn become the agents and disseminators of fresh evils.
(To be continued)
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Danger! A True History of a Great City's Wiles and Temptations, by William Howe and Abraham Hummel)