Publication information
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Source: Independent
Source type: magazine
Document type: editorial
Document title: “The Insanity of Assassins”
Author(s): anonymous
Date of publication: 7 November 1901
Volume number: 53
Issue number: 2762
Pagination: 2663-65

“The Insanity of Assassins.” Independent 7 Nov. 1901 v53n2762: pp. 2663-65.
full text
Leon Czolgosz (trial: personal response); Leon Czolgosz (mental health); Leon Czolgosz; Leon Czolgosz (as anarchist); insanity; punishment; criminals (dealing with).
Named persons
Leon Czolgosz; Emma Goldman; Kali; William McKinley; Brigham Young.


The Insanity of Assassins

     THE lawyers selected to defend the assassin of President McKinley had a hard task. It was easy for them to defend themselves for undertaking it; it was necessary for the decent administration of law that they should. But they made no very vigorous attempt to defend the assassin. The only pretense of a defense they made was to ask of the jury to consider whether a sane man could be guilty of such an atrocious crime. They must decide whether so great a criminal is not necessarily no criminal at all, only insane. [2663][2664]
     Before the trial the assassin was carefully examined by physicians skilled in all forms of insanity, and they agreed that he was not insane. It might be said, or imagined, to be sure, that the universal indignation at the crime had perhaps made the experts too willing to represent the mental condition of the accused such that he should not escape punishment; and accordingly it has been a great satisfaction to know that the autopsy showed no brain lesion, but that every organ was normal, and indicated absolute good health and mental sanity. No wrong had been done to the man under the law. He was a fit candidate for capital punishment.
     And yet the question will arise in some minds, and that, too, among men of culture and learning—perhaps especially among them, because they try most to separate and distinguish—whether a man with such a fixed, false belief of duty is really sane. Let us once more consider the case of this Czolgosz.
     In the first case we have a man of sound brain and fair mental capacity. The State of Michigan allows him to grow up illiterate. Here falls the first responsibility. He has a fairly quick intelligence. He thinks about the conditions of society. He is not wholly absorbed in getting his own bread and butter. He is thrown in with a class of active disseminators of the doctrines of anarchism. They declare that society is cruelly organized, that governments are robbing the many to enrich the few; that legislators and laws, that courts and trials, are all controlled by the few that they may oppress the many; that rulers, Kings and Presidents, are but the tools and creatures by whom wicked wealth grinds the poor, and that such oppressors have no right to live. This is the doctrine he heard from the lips of Emma Goldman and bands of anarchists whose meetings he frequented. He saw the same thing in the cartoons of popular papers. He believed what they said, believed it fully, believed it consistently, which means that he believed it genuinely enough to attempt to carry out its doctrines into action. His last words, his final refusal to see a priest, all agree with the conclusion that he honestly believed that he was doing a service to society and to the world by putting out of the way the man who represented cruel law, and who was, as speech and picture had assured him, the instrument by whom the combinations of wealth oppressed poor Labor. It was a full, honest belief that by assassinating the President he would benefit the world.
     The first question then is this: Is a false belief a proof of insanity? The second question: Is a false belief a just bar to punishment?
     If a false belief is an evidence of insanity, then we are all partially insane, for we all have false beliefs. The whole world was then insane when it believed that the sun revolved about the earth. Then all worshipers of false gods, or followers of false religions are insane. It is evident that the erroneousness of one’s belief is no evidence of insanity.
     Nor is it any such evidence of insanity that one’s belief contradicts the general belief of the community. In that case every reformer is insane. Then we are making men insane when we seek to convert the heathen to Christianity. Then Brigham Young would have been sane in Utah, but insane in Illinois.
     It makes no difference how monstrous one’s belief may be; it may yet be the belief of a sane man. One’s belief depends on his surroundings and the teachings he has received. One grows up naturally to believe in polygamy in Morocco, and it was perfectly natural that Czolgosz, associating only with anarchists, listening only to their arguments and ravings, should accept their belief. If any one confines his reading to one side of a question he will surely accept that side. One who looks only on the silver side of a shield believes it all silver, and his belief is not insanity. Probably we all have some false beliefs of that sort. Plenty of sane people, from their reading and hearing, believe that Chinese and negroes and Indians have few rights that white men are bound to respect. They are mistaken, not insane.
     We say that the monstrousness of one’s belief does not prove him insane. There still exist in India the remains of a religious sect called Thugs. Less than a century ago they numbered thousands of members. They were worshipers of the goddess Kali, and it was their [2664][2665] belief that they should murder inoffensive people in honor of Kali. They had their rules and rites of murder, handed down from father to son. They worked in bands, and under all possible disguises ingratiated themselves into the confidence of travelers, and then strangled and buried them. Their victims numbered not less than thirty thousand a year. The British officers, who suppressed them, or have nearly done so, declared that many of them were gentlemen of conscientious life, cultivated and eminently respectable, who fully believed they were doing their duty, as they had been taught their religion from infancy. Some of them had the record of hundreds of murders. But they were not insane; they were simply victims of an erroneous belief as to duty. To them the sacrifice of travelers to Kali was as meritorious as was the work of the man who operated the fatal battery at Auburn Prison; and Czolgosz equally believed that he was doing his duty, for he had been so taught.
     Then should such a man, not insane, but who commits a crime believing it to be a virtuous act, ignorant, blundering; vain, conceited, ambitious, perhaps; should such a man be punished?
     Certainly; he expected it, and he should not be disappointed. Whether he should be punished depends on the idea we have of the main purpose of punishment. If its main purpose is to benefit and reform the criminal, then he should not be punished, but should simply be put where he can be instructed and learn better ideas, and be kept meanwhile out of mischief. If, on the other hand, the chief purpose of punishment is to protect the community, then, if that is the best way to protect the community, a conscientious, community-loving assassin should be executed. It makes no difference how honest he may be in his belief. He may be as earnest as the worshipers of Kali; the more earnest and conscientious the more dangerous he is, and the more needful it is to punish him; not that the very few men as earnest and as willing to immolate themselves will be restrained thereby, but that men, much more numerous, with less martyr spirit, may be deterred from making an attack on society. The plea of insanity should not save them.



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