Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, died on this day in 1930. In 1904 he gave a lecture on the topic of law and crime in America at the Author’s Club in London. The lecture was written down by an American reporter and published two days later in Baltimore’s newspaper, The Sun. Below is the text of that article.
Novelist Doyle On Uncle Sam’s Homicidal Mania
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who is better known to Americans as Dr. Conan Doyle, fiction writer, made a brief speech recently at the Authors’ Club in London, in which he gave certain interesting observations on the prevalence of crime in the United States. A verbatim report of Dr. Doyle’s remarks attributes the following statements to him
The British, army in South Africa lost during three years 22,000 men from all causes ; in three years the United States lost 31,000 men from homicide. London, with 6,000,000 inhabitants, had 24 murders last year; Chicago, with less than 2,000,000, had 128. Of London’s 24 9 were hanged, of Chicago’s 128 1 was hanged. The single States of Georgia and South Carolina had each more murders than the whole British Empire. Nor was this due to emigrants ; it was most marked in the purely American States.
It is undeniable that the number of homicides in the United States every year is vastly in excess of those in Great Britain or any European country which publishes statistics of crime.
Whether measured by robbery, divorce or any other symptom, asserts Dr. Doyle, the irregular state of things in the United States bids fair to exceed all European countries combined.
What is the remedy? The British author suggests that in this Republic
the law is loosely administered ; that judges are not as free as they are in Great Britain ; that they are influenced by political motives that there is a pull hither and thither and justice is not administered. Assuredly, he concludes, in the establishment, of a pure, independent judiciary throughout America there is the best possible scope for the energy of Roosevelt.
Of course the versatile novelist, like most foreigners who discuss American affairs, had to make the inevitable slip. He seems to think that President Roosevelt appoints all of our judges instead of the comparatively few jurists who constitute the Federal judiciary. The error is immaterial, however. Ills assumption that judges are mainly responsible for the failure to punish men guilty of homicidal crimes is not borne out by the facts. The responsibility rests chiefly upon juries. In communities in which human life is rated too cheaply and in which there is a public opinion which looks with leniency upon the settlement of personal quarrels with deadly weapons, juries will not be influenced solely by the law or the evidence or the court’s instructions. The judge may seek with all his powers to secure the enforcement of the law. Re will not succeed if public sentiment and local traditions constitute an “unwritten law” stronger than the statutes. In other cases, where the community believes the ends of justice would be served by the conviction and punishment of the accused, the latter by appeals to higher courts and by resorting to the various expedients known to all resourceful lawyers escapes the penalty which he seemed to deserve. There are thoughtful American lawyers, including a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, who bold that there should be restrictions on the right of appeal. If abuses exist because appeals are almost unlimited, it is also true that there have been tearful miscarriages of justice in England because the right of appeal in criminal cases is recognized to a very limited degree there and practically depends upon the consent of the judge in whose court the accused was convicted.
Many Americans will agree with Dr. Doyle that the number of homicides in this country every year is a cause for deep concern to the people of the United States. The homicidal mania is not sectional. It knows no geographical limitations. It can be stamped out only by a stern enforcement of the law. It is gratifying to note a recent tendency on the part of the people of our several geographical subdivisions to sweep before their own doors before they start out to cleanse the premises of their neighbors. Homicide is, indeed, the great national crime. It ought to be checked in the North. the South, the East and the West. It is not argument for the pot to call the kettle black, and hence it is not in that spirit that Americans might call the attention of Dr. Doyle to certain weaknesses of his British brethren. It is said that some years ago President Roosevelt, who then held a less exalted position under the Government than be now fills, was at a banquet at which Rudyard Kipling was a guest. Mr. Kipling expatiated forcibly and at length upon the national crime of Americans, the thousands of homicides every year. Mr. Roosevelt, so the story goes, listened to him attentively and then observed: “I agree with you, Mr. Kipling, we as a nation are guilty of crime. We kill men.” Mr. Kipling was pleased. “But,” added Mr. Rposevelt, “Great Britain also has its national crime. Would you like me to tell you what it is?” Mr. Kipling signified that he would like to have the information. “Well,” replied Mr. Roosevelt, “the British national crime is wife-beating. We kill men ; you beat women.”
In England, according to Mr. Labouchere’s magazine, London Truth, judges make a broad distinction between crimes against property and assault and battery. The man who beats another, or pummels his wife, any female relative or member of the weaker sex, stands a much better chance for a light sentence than the man who shoots or snares a rabbit on property that does not belong to him, or steals goods from his neighbor. Of course this distinction may indicate a more subtle power of discrimination than that which prevails in the United States. But to the impartial observer it would seem that John Bull and Jonathan would be more respected if the former put an end to wife-beating and the later to the killing of men. Both crimes are a disgrace to civilization in the twentieth century.