Source type: magazine
Document type: editorial
Document title: “Psychology of the Czolgosz Crime”
Date of publication: 26 October 1901
Volume number: 4
Issue number: 186
|“Psychology of the Czolgosz Crime.” Public 26 Oct. 1901 v4n186: pp. 455-57.|
|McKinley assassination (religious response: criticism); McKinley assassination (public response: criticism); McKinley assassination (personal response); McKinley assassination (opinions, theories, etc.); Leon Czolgosz; Emma Goldman (impact on Czolgosz); society (criticism); society (impact on Czolgosz).|
|Leon Czolgosz; Emma Goldman; William McKinley; Johann Most; T. De Witt Talmage; John Wesley; George Whitefield.|
Psychology of the Czolgosz Crime
The execution of Czolgosz revives momentarily
in the public mind its waning memory of President McKinley’s assassination.
But there is less of the spirit of the wild beast in the expression of public
thought now than when the crime was fresh.
Sensational preachers could hardly win rounds of applause from ten thousand people at a “religious” camp meeting, as Talmage did less than two months ago, by violently expressing from the pulpit regret that the officers of the law who arrested Czolgosz had not committed murder by lawlessly killing him on the spot. Neither would reverend apostles of satanic joy, like the now forgotten clergyman who leaped into passing notoriety, expect to win popular favor by publicly proposing, as he did, that the privilege of assisting at the execution of Czolgosz, by touching buttons simultaneously at different telegraph offices of the country, the buttons to be electrically connected with the chair of death at Auburn, be sold to Christian patriots at a dollar a touch, for the purpose at once of affording an opportunity for the joyful expression of popular hate and of raising a McKinley monument fund. Savage sentiments like these, typical of the mere commonplace utterances of pulpit and newspaper only six weeks ago, appear now in something like their true character.
So nearly, indeed, has the public mind returned to its normal state that one may doubt if any of the propositions for the avowed suppression of free press and free speech, which were so popular immediately after the assassination, would find responsible advocates now. Even the reactionary Virginians, who, in distinct terms, made the assassination their reason for striking a free speech clause out of the state constitution, are now explaining and reconsidering. Though the work of suppressing press and speech will probably proceed insidiously as heretofore, through postal department rulings and federal injunctions, it is evident that the panicky public feeling, which promised for a time to support open measures against these landmarks of liberty, is subsiding.
With this returning sanity, it may be possible to get a candid hearing upon a possible cause of Czolgosz’s crime, to which the public ear was closed while the spasm of hysteria lasted. We refer to the gospel of the strenuous life, which had been inculcated by practice and precept, not by men of the Most type in the name of anarchy, but by leaders of thought and action in the name of manhood, morals, religion, and destiny.
The one thought about Czolgosz and his crime,
regarding which there is and can be no reasonable dispute, is that he acted
We do not mean, of course, that he was irresponsible in a legal sense. The criminal law cannot draw nice distinctions with reference to mental impulses and operations. Given a case in which one man kills another lawlessly, doing so with a set purpose, and being at the time in possession of his faculties, the criminal law must classify him as a murderer. And such appears to be the case of Czolgosz.
But when sociological phenomena are under consideration, not in the forum of criminal law, but in the speculative domain of psychology, we may go farther. We may then say that Czolgosz was irresponsible, in the sense that his murderous act derived its impulse not from his own malice, but from an outside source; in other words, that he was merely an instrument—a willing instrument, it may be conceded—of external influences to which the weakness of his character made him susceptible.
Not only may this be said, but it is said. Those who attribute the crime of Czolgosz to the teachings of anarchist agitators adopt that theory. They assume, and they often assert, that Czolgosz, a weakling, became the irresponsible instrument of a murderous philosophy. And though others attribute the act to other causes, all agree that he was influenced by an external impulse. From this generally conceded fact, then, that Czolgosz was moved by psychological influences external to himself, the inquiry into the question of responsibility for his crime may fairly proceed.
What we have to seek, consequently, is the influence most likely to have injected into his weak mind the murderous impulse in obedience to which he acted.
His own explanation that he was inspired by
a speech delivered by Emma Goldman at Cleveland must be dismissed as utterly
untenable, except upon the theory that he is not only psychologically but legally
irresponsible. None but an insane man could have been inspired by that speech
to commit murder.
The substance of the speech, embodying the worst parts of it as we may be sure, has been published by the Chicago Tribune. Instead of advocating assassination, either directly or by suggestion, Miss Goldman appears to have opposed it. And she opposed it in a way which leaves no room for fair suspicion that she did so only in letter while favoring it in spirit. The very significant fact should be noted also, that a squad of police attended her lecture with instructions to  stop her if she expressed incendiary sentiments.
It is possible, of course, that Czolgosz did derive his murderous impulse from this lecture. But if he did, we repeat that he must have been an insane man. Only an accident, in that case, made Miss Goldman’s speech the exciting cause. Being insane, he would have been moved as readily by his crazy interpretation of any other speech which he might have happened to hear.
Upon the hypothesis that Czolgosz was not insane, we must drop the Goldman theory and look further for the source of his murderous impulse.
We shall get a clew by recurring for a moment
to the hysteria that followed the assassination.
It seemed to be satanic in its manifestations. Men of weak character became, as it were, possessed of devils. Whatever excited their hostility aroused them to the pitch of murderous wrath. Their reason had fled. They were sane enough in the legal sense. They knew right from wrong, and were sufficiently discreet to avoid overt acts that might bring them into the clutches of the criminal law. But they were not in the full sense responsible. Impelled by some external influence, they were in a frame of mind to “run amuck,” and were restrained only as fear of unpleasant consequences to themselves intervened. All this was plain to sober observers.
What was the influence that turned the minds of those men, men not personally malicious nor murderous, into the channels of irresponsible criminality? Was it not the panicky conditions of the time, generating a general spirit of revenge, to the influence of which men of weak character might be especially susceptible?
In all kinds of panic it is noticeable that individual characteristics alter, seeming for the moment to be affected by the prevalent spirit. There is a common impulse different from the normal impulse of every individual concerned. Mobs exemplify this psychological phenomenon in one way; revival meetings exemplify it in another.
The theory is certainly plausible that individuals are influenced to good or evil actions by the spirit of the mass. We call it spirit for convenience of expression; but it makes no difference to the point under consideration, whether the phenomenon is spiritual or not, the simple and indisputable fact being that when strenuous conditions dominate the common mind, be they good or evil, they generate or accommodate a corresponding spirit, influence or force which is apt to take possession of and visibly express itself through susceptible individuals. If the strenuous conditions be good, this force seems to have an affinity for men of good inclinations and strong character; if evil, for men of evil inclinations or weak character. When, for instance, a great religious revival stirs the masses, like that in which the Methodist church was born, a Wesley or a Whitefield appears; but when the masses are excited by some startling crime, which generates vindictive feelings, this evil impulse in the common mind finds visible or tangible expression through the kind of individuals who take part in lynchings.
But this psychological theory, if sound, does not apply to what are known as panics exclusively. If true in times of panic, it must be true at all times, that susceptible individuals are influenced to action by the common mind. And is not this obviously true? Even in the most placid periods do not the actions of individals [sic] take color and direction from what the Germans call the “Zeit Geist”—the spirit of the time? It must, therefore, be true—and pursuant to the psychological theory we have noted, certainly is true—that at any time of evil stress or tension of the common mind an evil psychological influence is generated, which, finding vent through evil or weak and therefore susceptible individual minds, expresses itself concretely in individual crime.
Upon that hypothesis what more probable explanation of the irresponsible crime of Czolgosz could there be than the strenuous life of aggression and destiny which the American people were passionately learning to lead?
The gospel of the strenuous life had been preached
from high places. Its ideal was war. This was welcomed for its own sake, as
inspiring robust ambitions and giving strength to character. War was described
as making heroes, and peace milksops. Throughout this strenuous life there ran
rivulets of human blood, and over it there hung the heavy shadow of wholesale
murder. It was to be the middle age tournament come again, but with slaughter
enough to have turned the stomach of your middle age knight.
And in this sanguinary spirit an imperial destiny was working out. The first republic of Asia had been strangled in infancy by the first republic of America. Its people having been bought for a price of a moribund European monarchy, their resistance to the criminal aggression of forcible annexation had been met with terms of unconditional surrender and punished with the blight of the most desolating and deadly war in modern history, the analogous war of the English in South Africa alone excepted. The American republic, turning its back upon its ideals of liberty and peace, was exchanging the substance of world influence for the reputation of a world power.
There was in this country as well as in England, what the New Age of London pointedly names a “neurosis of slaughter.” Just as that paper quotes Christian English women as saying of the Boers, “I would shoot them all,” and describes these women as showing “no tremor of horror over the record of the deaths of the children in the camps,” but rejoicing “that the iron is thus made to enter the soul of the Boer women who exhort their husbands to fight to the death,” precisely so were Americans urging on a bloody war of conquest in the Philippines, and brutally rejoicing at the frightful slaughter and terrible devastation of our invading armies.
A complete revolution in the common mind had taken place. It was no longer moved by appeals to righteousness but only by appeals to love of power. Destiny was becoming the standard of national duty. The colleges were playing battledore and shuttlecock with moral principle. That might, not right, is the higher law, was becoming the dogma of the man in the street. Fidelity to the prin-  ciples the flag represented, had given way, as the test of patriotism, to adoration of the bunting of which it was made. Lynchings had grown common. Brutal hazings had revived among college students. On all sides the evidence was abundant that the people themselves had become lawless. In the common mind a spirit of anarchy was being generated in the name and by the methods of the strenuous life.
This was the psychological environment of the susceptible Czolgosz when he shocked the world with his crime.
It may not be that Czolgosz derived his murderous
impulse from those evil influences. But if he did not, then it is folly to look
for it beyond the malice of his own heart, or a disease of his own brain. If
any external influences—other than direct instigation, of which there is no
evidence—are responsible for this crime, they must be influences not only of
sufficient concentration to have possessed the man, and, in the psychological
sense, to have used him; but also of a character corresponding to his act. To
those requirements the mental condition of the American people which we have
described conforms. It was for the time the distinguishing characteristic or
spirit of the American mind; and it was strikingly pictured forth by what Czolgosz
did. What the imperialistic spirit, the spirit of the strenuous life, the spirit
that acknowledges destiny for its deity, the spirit of scholastic atheism which
ignores the moral law, the spirit that puts might above right, the spirit of
masterful domination, the spirit that delights in deadly combat, the spirit
of murder garbed in the apparel of patriotism—what these blended in one in the
common mind are in the abstract, precisely that was Czolgosz’s crime in the
concrete. If Czolgosz was a victim of obsession at all, then this must have
been the evil influence that controlled him.
At any rate, with the possibility of an influence such as that to explain his crime as the act of an irresponsible weakling obeying an external impulse, it is absurd to turn to minor influences. The teachings of anarchists, the rhetorical and pictorial caricatures of a yellow press, political opposition to the party in power, together with all the other asserted influences by which Czolgosz might have been affected, are too insignificant to be compared with the influence of the vicious spirit of the time which has exalted power above justice, war above peace, and national ambition above moral obligation.
And whether these psychological speculations be well founded or not, the American people will lose nothing if they reflect for a season upon Czolgosz’s crime as an outward manifestation or visible picture of an evil spirit of enormously destructive possibilities which had found lodgment in the common mind. There is a lesson here that should not be lost.