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A Book of Remarkable Criminals
H. B. Irving
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played hymns for half an hour on the prison organ; like Peace, he knew when to
whine when it suited his purpose; and like Peace, though not with the same
intensity, he could be an uncomfortably persistent lover, when the fit was on him.
Both men were cynics in their way and viewed their fellow-men with a measure of
contempt. But here parallel ends.
Butler was an intellectual, inferior as a craftsman to Peace, the essentially
practical, unread, naturally gifted artist. Butler was a man of books. He had been
schoolmaster, journalist. He had studied the lives of great men, and as a
criminal, had devoted especial attention to those of Frederick the Great and
Napoleon. Butler's defence in the Dunedin murder trial was a feat of skill quite
beyond the power of Peace. Peace was a religious man after the fashion of the
mediaeval tyrant, Butler an infidel. Peace, dragged into the light of a court of
justice, cut a sorry figure; here Butler shone. Peace escaped a conviction for
murder by letting another suffer in his place; Butler escaped a similar experience
by the sheer ingenuity of his defence. Peace had the modesty and reticence of
the sincere artist; Butler the loquacious vanity of the literary or forensic coxcomb.
Lastly, and it is the supreme difference, Butler was a murderer by instinct and
conviction, as Lacenaire or Ruloff; "a man's life," he said, "was of no more
importance than a dog's; nature respects the one no more than the other, a
volcanic eruption kills mice and men with the one hand. The divine command,
`kill, kill and spare not,' was intended not only for Joshua, but for men of all time;
it is the example of our rulers, our Fredericks and Napoleons."
Butler was of the true Prussian mould. "In crime," he would say, "as in war, no
half measures. Let us follow the example of our rulers whose orders in war run,
`Kill, burn and sink,' and what you cannot carry away, destroy.'" Here is the
gospel of frightfulness applied almost prophetically to crime. To Butler murder is
a principle of warfare; to Peace it was never more than a desperate resort or an
act the outcome of ungovernable passion.
Ireland can claim the honour of Butler's birth. It took place at Kilkenny about
1845. At an early age he left his native land for Australia, and commenced his
professional career by being sentenced under the name of James Wilson--the
same initials as those of James Wharton of Queensland--to twelve months'
imprisonment for vagrancy. Of the sixteen years he passed in Victoria he spent
thirteen in prison, first for stealing, then in steady progression for highway
robbery and burglary. Side by side with the practical and efficient education in
crime furnished by the Victorian prisons of that day, Butler availed himself of the
opportunity to educate his mind. It was during this period that he found inspiration
and encouragement in the study of the lives of Frederick and Napoleon, besides
acquiring a knowledge of music and shorthand.
When in 1876 Butler quitted Australia for New Zealand, he was sufficiently
accomplished to obtain employment as a schoolmaster.