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CROWDS TERMED CRIMINAL CROWDS





A crowd may be legally yet not psychologically criminal--
The absolute unconsciousness of the
acts of crowds--Various examples--Psychology of the authors of
the September massacres--Their reasoning, their sensibility,
their ferocity, and their morality.


Owing to the fact that crowds, after a period of excitement,
enter upon a purely automatic and unconscious state, in which
they are guided by suggestion, it seems difficult to qualify them
in any case as criminal. I only retain this erroneous
qualification because it has been definitely brought into vogue
by recent psychological investigations. Certain acts of crowds
are assuredly criminal, if considered merely in themselves, but
criminal in that case in the same way as the act of a tiger
devouring a Hindoo, after allowing its young to maul him for
their amusement.

The usual motive of the crimes of crowds is a powerful
suggestion, and the individuals who take part in such crimes are
afterwards convinced that they have acted in obedience to duty,
which is far from being the case with the ordinary criminal.

The history of the crimes committed by crowds illustrates what
precedes.

The murder of M. de Launay, the governor of the Bastille, may be
cited as a typical example. After the taking of the fortress the
governor, surrounded by a very excited crowd, was dealt blows
from every direction. It was proposed to hang him, to cut off
his head, to tie him to a horse's tail. While struggling, he
accidently kicked one of those present. Some one proposed, and
his suggestion was at once received with acclamation by the
crowd, that the individual who had been kicked should cut the
governor's throat.

"The individual in question, a cook out of work, whose chief
reason for being at the Bastille was idle curiosity as to what
was going on, esteems, that since such is the general opinion,
the action is patriotic and even believes he deserves a medal for
having destroyed a monster. With a sword that is lent him he
strikes the bared neck, but the weapon being somewhat blunt and
not cutting, he takes from his pocket a small black-handled knife
and (in his capacity of cook he would be experienced in cutting
up meat) successfully effects the operation."

The working of the process indicated above is clearly seen in
this example. We have obedience to a suggestion, which is all
the stronger because of its collective origin, and the murderer's
conviction that he has committed a very meritorious act, a
conviction the more natural seeing that he enjoys the unanimous
approval of his fellow-citizens. An act of this kind may be
considered crime legally but not psychologically.

The general characteristics of criminal crowds are precisely the
same as those we have met with in all crowds: openness to
suggestion, credulity, mobility, the exaggeration of the
sentiments good or bad, the manifestation of certain forms of
morality, &c.

We shall find all these characteristics present in a crowd which
has left behind it in French history the most sinister
memories--the crowd which perpetrated the September massacres.
In point of fact it offers much similarity with the crowd that
committed the Saint Bartholomew massacres. I borrow the details
from the narration of M. Taine, who took them from contemporary
sources.

It is not known exactly who gave the order or made the suggestion
to empty the prisons by massacring the prisoners. Whether it was
Danton, as is probable, or another does not matter; the one
interesting fact for us is the powerful suggestion received by
the crowd charged with the massacre.

The crowd of murderers numbered some three hundred persons, and
was a perfectly typical heterogeneous crowd. With the exception
of a very small number of professional scoundrels, it was
composed in the main of shopkeepers and artisans of every trade:
bootmakers, locksmiths, hairdressers, masons, clerks, messengers,
&c. Under the influence of the suggestion received they are
perfectly convinced, as was the cook referred to above, that they
are accomplishing a patriotic duty. They fill a double office,
being at once judge and executioner, but they do not for a moment
regard themselves as criminals.

Deeply conscious of the importance of their duty, they begin by
forming a sort of tribunal, and in connection with this act the
ingenuousness of crowds and their rudimentary conception of
justice are seen immediately. In consideration of the large
number of the accused, it is decided that, to begin with, the
nobles, priests, officers, and members of the king's
household--in a word, all the individuals whose mere profession
is proof of their guilt in the eyes of a good patriot--shall be
slaughtered in a body, there being no need for a special decision
in their case. The remainder shall be judged on their personal
appearance and their reputation. In this way the rudimentary
conscience of the crowd is satisfied. It will now be able to
proceed legally with the massacre, and to give free scope to
those instincts of ferocity whose genesis I have set forth
elsewhere, they being instincts which collectivities always have
it in them to develop to a high degree. These instincts,
however--as is regularly the case in crowds--will not prevent the
manifestation of other and contrary sentiments, such as a
tenderheartedness often as extreme as the ferocity.

"They have the expansive sympathy and prompt sensibility of the
Parisian working man. At the Abbaye, one of the federates,
learning that the prisoners had been left without water for
twenty-six hours, was bent on putting the gaoler to death, and
would have done so but for the prayers of the prisoners
themselves. When a prisoner is acquitted (by the improvised
tribunal) every one, guards and slaughterers included, embraces
him with transports of joy and applauds frantically," after which
the wholesale massacre is recommenced. During its progress a
pleasant gaiety never ceases to reign. There is dancing and
singing around the corpses, and benches are arranged "for the
ladies," delighted to witness the killing of aristocrats. The
exhibition continues, moreover, of a special description of
justice.

A slaughterer at the Abbaye having complained that the ladies
placed at a little distance saw badly, and that only a few of
those present had the pleasure of striking the aristocrats, the
justice of the observation is admitted, and it is decided that
the victims shall be made to pass slowly between two rows of
slaughterers, who shall be under the obligation to strike with
the back of the sword only so as to prolong the agony. At the
prison de la Force the victims are stripped stark naked and
literally "carved" for half an hour, after which, when every one
has had a good view, they are finished off by a blow that lays
bare their entrails.

The slaughterers, too, have their scruples and exhibit that moral
sense whose existence in crowds we have already pointed out.
They refuse to appropriate the money and jewels of the victims,
taking them to the table of the committees.

Those rudimentary forms of reasoning, characteristic of the mind
of crowds, are always to be traced in all their acts. Thus,
after the slaughter of the 1,200 or 1,500 enemies of the nation,
some one makes the remark, and his suggestion is at once adopted,
that the other prisons, those containing aged beggars, vagabonds,
and young prisoners, hold in reality useless mouths, of which it
would be well on that account to get rid. Besides, among them
there should certainly be enemies of the people, a woman of the
name of Delarue, for instance, the widow of a poisoner: "She
must be furious at being in prison, if she could she would set
fire to Paris: she must have said so, she has said so. Another
good riddance." The demonstration appears convincing, and the
prisoners are massacred without exception, included in the number
being some fifty children of from twelve to seventeen years of
age, who, of course, might themselves have become enemies of the
nation, and of whom in consequence it was clearly well to be rid.

At the end of a week's work, all these operations being brought
to an end, the slaughterers can think of reposing themselves.
Profoundly convinced that they have deserved well of their
country, they went to the authorities and demanded a recompense.
The most zealous went so far as to claim a medal.

The history of the Commune of 1871 affords several facts
analogous to those which precede. Given the growing influence of
crowds and the successive capitulations before them of those in
authority, we are destined to witness many others of a like
nature.





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Previous: HOMOGENEOUS CROWDS



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