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


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


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


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


CRIMINAL JURIES ELECTORAL CROWDS facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail