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A Book of Remarkable Criminals

Convicts represent those wrong-doers who have taken to a particular form of
wrong-doing punishable by law. Of the larger army of bad men they represent a
minority, who have been found out in a peculiarly unsatisfactory kind of
misconduct. There are many men, some lying, unscrupulous, dishonest, others
cruel, selfish, vicious, who go through life without ever doing anything that brings
them within the scope of the criminal code, for whose offences the laws of
society provide no punishment. And so it is with some of those heroes of history
who have been made the theme of fine writing by gifted historians.
Mr. Basil Thomson, the present head of the Criminal Investigation Department,
has said recently that a great deal of crime is due to a spirit of "perverse
adventure" on the part of the criminal. The same might be said with equal justice
of the exploits of Alexander the Great and half the monarchs and conquerors of
the world, whom we are taught in our childhood's days to look up to as shining
examples of all that a great man should be. Because crimes are played on a
great stage instead of a small, that is no reason why our moral judgment should
be suspended or silenced. Class Machiavelli and Frederick the Great as a couple
of rascals fit to rank with Jonathan Wild, and we are getting nearer a perception
of what constitutes the real criminal. "If," said Frederick the Great to his minister,
Radziwill, "there is anything to be gained by it, we will be honest; if deception is
necessary, let us be cheats." These are the very sentiments of Jonathan Wild.
Crime, broadly speaking, is the attempt by fraud or violence to possess oneself
of something belonging to another, and as such the cases of it in history are as
clear as those dealt with in criminal courts. Germany to-day has been guilty of a
perverse and criminal adventure, the outcome of that false morality applied to
historical transactions, of which Carlyle's life of Frederick is a monumental
example. In that book we have a man whose instincts in more ways than one
were those of a criminal, held up for our admiration, in the same way that the
same writer fell into dithyrambic praise over a villain called Francia, a former
President of Paraguay. A most interesting work might be written on the great
criminals of history, and might do something towards restoring that balance of
moral judgment in historical transactions, for the perversion of which we are
suffering to-day.
In the meantime we must be content to study in the microcosm of ordinary crime
those instincts, selfish, greedy, brutal which, exploited often by bad men in the
so-called cause of nations, have wrought such havoc to the happiness of
mankind. It is not too much to say that in every man there dwell the seeds of
crime; whether they grow or are stifled in their growth by the good that is in us is
a chance mysteriously determined. As children of nature we must not be
surprised if our instincts are not all that they should be. "In sober truth," writes
John Stuart Mill, "nearly all the things for which men are hanged or imprisoned
for doing to one another are nature's everyday performances," and in another
passage: "The course of natural phenomena being replete with everything which
when committed by human beings is most worthy of abhorrence, anyone who
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