Posts Tagged crime

Psychopathy as a “New Malady”

25 June 2011

The first popular use of the term “psychopath” is commonly traced to to an 1885 article in the Pall Mall Gazette, which has not heretofore been easily available online. It turns out to be a short piece in the “occasional notes” section of the newspaper’s issue for January 21st, which reports a perverse case in which psychopathy had actually served as a winning criminal defense:

The acquittal, at St. Petersburg, of Mdlle. Semenova, accused of being implicated in the murder of the child Sarah Becker, has been the cause of a scene closely resembling that witnessed at Paris when Mdme. Clovis Hugues was restored to her admiring friends. The reason, however, for the acquittal of the Russian lady differs greatly from that which saved Mdme. Hugues. The evidence all through the trial was dead against Mdlle. Semenova, and it would have fared badly with her but for the declaration of an expert M. Balinsky, a Russian mad-doctor, who, pointing out to the jury the hysterical bearing of the culprit, persuaded them that she was suffering from “psychopathy,” and therefore morally irresponsible. For the benefit of those who are as yet ignorant of the meaning of psychopathy—a term which before long will be naturalized in our courts—we give M. Balinsky’s explanation of the new malady. “The psychopath,” he says, “is a type which has only recently come under the notice of medical science. It is an individual whose every moral faculty appears to be of the normal equilibrium. He thinks logically, he distinguishes good and evil, and he acts according to reason. But of all moral notions he is entirely devoid….Beside his own person and his own interests, nothing is sacred to the psychopath, &c., &c.” The short and long of it sees to be that if egotism is fully developed in a human being he becomes “morally irresponsible”—a very convenient doctrine, to which, however, mankind will have to add as a corollary that whenever a fully developed psychopath is discovered he shall be immediately hanged.

In less than four years after the publication of this article, London would meet Jack the Ripper.


Who was Madame Restell?

18 June 2011
Ann Lohman arrested by Anthony Comstock

Click to Enlarge

The cover of The New York Illustrated Times for February 23rd, 1878 depicts the arrest of the notorious abortionist Ann Lohman, alias “Madame Restell,” by the moral crusader Anthony Comstock. Flanked by reporters and deputies, the statuesque crime-fighter is pictured with a search warrant in hand, which he reads to the lady villain in the attitude of a holy messenger, banishing evil by its sacred words. Comfortably situated amongst the opulent furnishings of her Fifth Avenue mansion, Madame Restell wears a cool, appraising expression, as if to say “Ah, Comstock, my nemesis—I have been expecting you.” Her right hand is clenched into a fist, which overlaps the womb of a veiled woman who weeps with shame in the background.

Dubbed the “wickedest woman in New York,” Madame Restell built an empire of cruelty; promoting vice, and profiting upon the mistakes of married women and wayward girls. She plied her trade openly, publicizing her services through thinly-veiled advertisements in the penny press. Though she was object of perennial public scandals and outbursts of moral outrage, she shamelessly flaunted her wealth, parading about the city in a showy carriage with four horses and a liveried coachman. She evaded justice by bribery, by clever legal maneuvering, and by threatening to expose the identities of her wealthy clientele—or so, that’s how the story goes.

Ann Lohman and her relations left no journals or correspondence to offer us insight into her true actions, personal feelings or motivations. She has been the subject of two modern biographies, Allan Keller’s Scandalous Lady and Clifford Browder’s The Wickedest Woman in New York. Each of these, in weaving its narrative, has been forced to rely heavily upon hostile newspaper accounts, courtroom transcripts, police memoirs, and anti-abortion tracts, as these are virtually the only sources available. History has recorded the story Madame Restell almost exclusively in voice of public condemnation—a circumstance that immediately begs the question: who was she, really?


The Life and Madness of Edward H. Rulloff

7 May 2011
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The brain of Ithaca genius / murderer Edward Rulloff on display in the Uris Hall brain collection.

Edward H. Rulloff's Brain, on Display at Uris Hall, Cornell University

Visitors to Cornell University’s psychology department would be hard pressed to overlook the eight pickled brains, preserved in heavy glass jars, which are proudly showcased on the second floor of Uris Hall. A small sample of the 122 specimens in the university’s Wilder Brain Collection, each belongs to a notable scholar or learned individual whose think-meat was once deemed worthy of anatomical examination. One of these brains, however, is not like the others. If the brain of Edward H. Rulloff, a.k.a. Professor Leurio, were able to come alive, glowing and pulsating as it issued angry, murderous commands to you from inside your head, it would.

Rulloff was a criminal genius who left no question of how he should like to be remembered. One week prior his execution in May of 1871, he had this to say:

…you cannot kill an unquiet spirit, and I know that my impending death will not mean the end of Rulloff. In the dead of the night, walking along Cayuga Street, you will sense my presence. When you wake to a sudden chill, I will be in the room. And when you find yourself alone at the lake shore, gazing away at gray Cayuga, know that I was cut short and your ancestors killed me.

Rulloff was a murderer and a thief whose savant-like intelligence and erudition have invited comparison to Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. He committed robberies throughout his life in order to fund his grandiose research into the science of philology; an obsession that may have had unrecognized origins in a deep-seated sense of remorse.

Binghamton journalist E. H. Freeman was Rulloff’s jail-house confessor. His 1871 biography, The Veil of Secrecy Removed, recounts much of Rulloff’s story in his own words. It is the story of a long and ignominious criminal career that begins in Dryden, NY, where Rulloff established himself as a botanical physician, and married a seventeen year old pupil named Harriet Schutt.


Ameer Ali is Plotting to Strangle You

23 April 2011
Confessions of a Thug, p.79. "My Second Victim"

Confessions of a Thug, p.79. "My Second Victim"

Philip Meadows Taylor’s 1839 novel Confessions of a Thug captured the imagination of 19th-century Britain with its chilling depiction of an organized death cult preying upon the hapless travelers of India’s wild and desolate roads. Based upon real accounts Taylor gathered during his work suppressing the Thuggee cult for the Nizam of Hyderabad, the book is ominously introduced as an authoritative exposé in which true events have been faithfully woven into a fictionalized narrative.

As portrayed by Taylor, the Thugs are the votaries of Bhowanee (Kali); the destructive aspect of the Supreme Being. Endowed with superior intelligence and cunning, they are sent forth to make “sacrifices” on her behalf. The reward for their piety is the plunder they gather from their victims. In so far as they observe her omens and obey her taboos, Bhowanee grants them protection from earthly authorities.

Their modus operandi is to inveigle wealthy marks into joining their camp, or to merge with travelling caravans who seek protection in numbers while making treacherous journeys through foreign lands. “Thug” being the Hindi word for “conman,” they proceed to charm and manipulate their travelling companions into lowering their guards. Then, at some remote, well chosen-spot, a signal is given and each Thug simultaneously strangles his assigned victim with a roomál (hankerchief). The bodies are quickly stripped and deposited in preprepared graves, which are then skillfully disguised, as by building fire pits over them to explain the disturbance of the earth. In order to quietly and routinely commit mass murder, the Thugs must operate with military efficiency. Each man is trained to perform a repertoire of specialized roles, including those of strangler (bhuttóte), grave-digger (bélha), inveigler (sótha) and those who bury the dead (lugháees). (more…)