Read A Criminal History of Mankind Online

Authors: Colin Wilson

Tags: #Violent crimes, #History, #Sociology, #Social Science, #True Crime, #Violence, #Crime and criminals, #Violence in Society, #General, #Murder, #Psychological aspects, #Murder - General, #Crime, #Espionage, #Criminology

A Criminal History of Mankind















Colin Wilson



London Toronto Sydney New York






Granada Publishing Limited

8 Grafton Street

London W1X 3LA



Published by Granada Publishing 1984 Copyright © Colin Wilson 1984


British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data


Wilson, Colin


A criminal history of mankind,


1. crime and criminals — History


I. Title 364.09 - HV6O25


ISBN 0-246-11636-6




Printed in Great Britain by

Richard Clay (The Chaucer Press) Ltd, Bungay, Suffolk





All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.



Scanned : Mr Blue Sky

Proofed : Its Not Raining

Version : 2.0

Date    : 03/12/2002



I was about twelve years old when I came upon a bundle of magazines tied with string in a second-hand bookshop - the original edition of H. G. Wells’s
Outline of History
, published in 1920. Since some of the parts were missing, I got the whole pile for a few shillings. It was, I must admit, the pictures that attracted me - splendid full-page colour illustrations of plesiosaurs on a Mesozoic beach; Neanderthal men snarling in the entrance to their cave; the giant rock-hewn statues of Rameses II and his consort at Abu Simbel. Far more than Wells’s text, these brought a breathless sensation of the total sweep of world history. Even today I feel a flash of the old magical excitement as I look at them - that peculiar delight that children feel when someone says, ‘Once upon a time ...’

In 1946, Penguin Books republished ten volumes of Wells to celebrate his eightieth birthday, including the condensed version of the
Outline, A Short History of the World
. It was in this edition that I discovered that strange little postscript entitled ‘Mind at the End of Its Tether’. I found it so frustrating and incomprehensible that I wanted to tear my hair: ‘Since [1940] a tremendous series of events has forced upon the intelligent observer the realisation that the human story has already come to an end and that
Homo sapiens
, as he has been pleased to call himself, is in his present form played out.’ And this had not been written at the beginning of the Second World War - which might have been understandable - but after Hitler’s defeat. When I came across the earlier edition of the
Short History
I found that, like the
, it ends on a note of uplift: ‘What man has done, the little triumphs of his present state, and all this history we have told, form but the prelude to the things that man has yet to do.’ And the
ends with a chapter predicting that mankind will find peace through the League of Nations and world government. (It was Wells who coined the phrase ‘the war to end war’.)

What had happened? Many years later, I put the question to a friend of Wells, the biblical historian Hugh Schonfield. His answer was that Wells had been absolutely certain that he had the solutions to all the problems of the human race, and that he became embittered when he realised that no one took him seriously. At the time, that seemed a plausible explanation. But since then I have come upon what I believe to be the true one. In 1936, Wells produced a curious short novel called
The Croquet Player
, which is startlingly different from anything he had written before. It reveals that Wells had become aware of man’s capacity for sheer brutality and sadism. The
Outline of History
plays down the tortures and massacres; in fact, it hardly mentions them. Wells seems totally devoid of that feeling for evil that made Arnold Toynbee, in his
Study of History
, speak of ‘the horrifying sense of sin manifest in human affairs’. Wells’s view of crime was cheerfully pragmatic. In
The Work, Wealth
and Happiness of Mankind
he spoke of it as ‘artificial’, the result of ‘restrictions imposed upon the normal “natural man” in order that the community may work and exist.’ He seems quite unaware that the history of mankind since about 2500 B.C. is little more than a non-stop record of murder, bloodshed and violence. The brutalities of the Nazi period forced this upon his attention. But it seems to have been the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the revelations of Belsen and Buchenwald, which convinced him that man was bound to destroy himself from the beginning, and that ‘the final end is now closing in on mankind’.

I am not suggesting that Wells’s view of history was superficial or wrong-headed; as far as it went, it was brilliantly perceptive. As a late Victorian, he was aware of the history of mankind as a marvellous story of invention and achievement, of a long battle against danger and hardship that had resulted in modern civilisation. And it is certainly true that man’s creativity is the most centrally important fact about him. What Wells failed to grasp is that man’s intelligence has resulted in a certain lopsidedness, a narrow obsessiveness that makes us calculating and ruthless. It is this ruthlessness - the tendency to take ‘short-cuts’ - that constitutes crime. Hitler’s mass murders were not due to the restrictions imposed on natural man so the community can exist. They were, on the contrary, the outcome of a twisted kind of idealism, an attempt to create a ‘better world’. The same is true of the destruction of Hiroshima, and of the terrorist bombings and shootings that have become everyday occurrences since the 1960s. The frightening thing about the members of the Japanese Red Brigade who machine-gunned passengers at Lod airport, or the Italian terrorists who burst into a university classroom and shot the professor in the legs - alleging that he was teaching his students ‘bourgeois values’ - is that they were not criminal lunatics but sincere idealists. When we realise this we recognise that criminality is not the reckless aberration of a few moral delinquents but an inevitable consequence of the development of intelligence, the ‘flip side’ of our capacity for creativity. The worst crimes are not committed by evil degenerates, but by decent and intelligent people taking ‘pragmatic’ decisions.

It was basically this recognition that plunged Wells into the nihilism of his final period. He had spent his life teaching that human beings can be guided by reason and intelligence; he had announced that the First World War had been fought to end war and that the League of Nations and world government would guarantee world peace. And at that point, the world exploded into an unparalleled epoch of murder, cruelty and violence: Stalin’s starvation of the kulaks, the Japanese ‘rape’ of Nanking, Hitler’s concentration camps, the atomic bomb. It must have seemed to Wells that his whole life had been based on a delusion, and that human beings are incorrigibly stupid and wicked.

If Wells had understood more about the psychology of violence, he would not have allowed this insight to plunge him into despair. Criminality is not a perverted disposition to do evil rather than good. It is merely a childish tendency to take short-cuts. All crime has the nature of a smash and grab raid; it is an attempt to get something for nothing. The thief steals instead of working for what he wants. The rapist violates a girl instead of persuading her to give herself. Freud once said that a child would destroy the world if it had the power. He meant that a child is totally subjective, wrapped up in its own feelings and so incapable of seeing anyone else’s point of view. A criminal is an adult who goes on behaving like a child.

But there is a fallacy in this childish morality of grab-what-you-want. The person who is able to indulge all his moods and feelings is never happy for more than a few moments together; for most of the time, he is miserable. Our flashes of real happiness are glimpses of
, when we somehow rise above the stifling, dreamlike world of our subjective desires and feelings. The great tyrants of history, the men who have been able to indulge their feelings without regard to other people, have usually ended up half insane; for over-indulged feelings are the greatest tyrants of all.

Crime is renewed in every generation because human beings
children; very few of us achieve anything like adulthood. But at least it is not self-perpetuating, as human creativity is. Shakespeare learns from Marlowe, and in turn inspires Goethe. Beethoven learns from Haydn and in turn inspires Wagner. Newton learns from Kepler and in turn inspires Einstein. But Vlad the Impaler, Jack the Ripper and Al Capone leave no progeny. Their ‘achievement’ is negative, and dies with them. The criminal also tends to be the victim of natural selection - of his own lack of self-control. Man has achieved his present level of civilisation because creativity ‘snowballs’ while crime, fortunately, remains static.

We may feel that Wells must have been a singularly naive historian to believe that war was about to come to an end. But this can be partly explained by his ignorance of what we now call sociobiology. When Tinbergen and Lorenz made us aware that animal aggression is largely a matter of ‘territory’, it suddenly became obvious that all wars in history have been fought about territory. Even the murderous behaviour of tyrants has its parallels in the animal world. Recent studies have made us aware that many dominant males, from lions and baboons to gerbils and hamsters, often kill the progeny of their defeated rivals. Hens allow their chicks to peck smaller chicks to death. A nesting seagull will kill a baby seagull that wanders on to its territory from next door. It seems that Prince Kropotkin was quite mistaken to believe that all animals practise mutual aid and that only human beings murder one another. Zoology has taught us that crime is a part of our animal inheritance. And human history could be used as an illustrative textbook of sociobiology.

Does this new view of history suggest that humankind is likely to be destroyed by its own violence? No one can deny the possibility; but the pessimists leave out of account the part of us that Wells understood so well - man’s capacity to evolve through intelligence. It is true that human history has been fundamentally a history of crime; but it has also been the history of creativity. It is true that mankind could be destroyed in some atomic accident; but no one who has studied history can believe that this is more than a remote possibility. To understand the nature of crime is to understand why it will always be outweighed by creativity and intelligence.

This book is an attempt to tell the story of the human race in terms of that counterpoint between crime and creativity, and to use the insights it brings to try to discern the next stage in human evolution.


During the summer of 1959, my study was piled with books on violent crime and with copies of
True Detective
magazine. The aim was to compile an Encyclopaedia of Murder that might be of use to crime writers. But I was also moved by an obscure but urgent conviction that underneath these piles of unrelated facts about violence there must be undiscovered patterns, certain basic laws, and that uncovering these might provide clues to the steadily rising crime rate.

I had noted, for example, that types of murder vary from country to country. The French and Italians are inclined to
crime passionel
, the Germans to sadistic murder, the English to the carefully-planned murder - often of a spouse or lover - the Americans to the rather casual and unpremeditated murder. Types of crime change from century to century, even from decade to decade. In England and America, the most typical crimes of the 1940s and ‘50s had been for gain or for sex: in England, the sadist Neville Heath, the ‘acid bath murderer’ Haigh; in America, the red-light bandit Caryl Chessman, (he multiple sex-killer Harvey Glatman.

As I leafed my way through
True Detective
, I became aware of the emergence of a disturbing new trend: the completely pointless or ‘motiveless’ murder. As long ago as 1912, André Gide had coined the term ‘gratuitous act’ to describe this type of crime; the hero of his novel
Les Caves du Vatican
(which was translated as
Lafcadio’s Adventure
} suddenly has the impulse to kill a total stranger on a train. ‘Who would know? A crime without a motive - what a puzzle for the police.’ So he opens the door and pushes the man to his death. Gide’s novel was a black comedy; the ‘motiveless murder’ was intended as a joke in the spirit of Oscar Wilde’s essay about the loiter who murdered his sister-in-law because she had thick ankles. Neither philosophers nor policemen seriously believed that such things were possible. Yet by 1959 it was happening. In 1952, a nineteen-year-old clerk named Herbert Mills sat next to a forty-eight-year-old housewife in a Nottingham cinema and decided she would make a suitable victim for an attempt at the ‘perfect murder’; he met her by arrangement the next day, took her for a walk, and strangled her under a tree. It was only because he felt the compulsion to boast about his ‘perfect crime’ that he was caught and hanged. In July 1958, a man named Norman Foose stopped his jeep in the town of Cuba, New Mexico, raised his hunting rifle and shot dead two Mexican children; pursued and arrested, he said he was trying to do something about the population explosion. In February 1959, a pretty blonde named Penny Bjorkland accepted a lift from a married man in California and, without provocation, killed him with a dozen shots. After her arrest she explained that she wanted to see if she could kill ‘and not worry about it afterwards’. Psychiatrists found her sane. In April 1959, a man named Norman Smith took a pistol and shot a woman (who was watching television) through an open window. He did not know her; the impulse had simply come over him as he watched a television programme called ‘The Sniper’.

Encyclopaedia of Murder
appeared in 1961, with a section on ‘motiveless murder’; by 1970 it was clear that this was, in fact, a steadily increasing trend. In many cases, oddly enough, it seemed to be linked to a slightly higher-than-average IQ. Herbert Mills wrote poetry, and read some of it above the body of his victim. The ‘Moors murderer’ Ian Brady justified himself by quoting de Sade, and took pains in court - by the use of long words - to show that he was an ‘intellectual’. Charles Manson evolved an elaborate racialist sociology to justify the crimes of his ‘family’. San Francisco’s ‘Zodiac’ killer wrote his letters in cipher and signed them with signs of the zodiac. John Frazier, a drop-out who slaughtered the family of an eye surgeon, Victor Ohta, left a letter signed with suits from the Tarot pack. In November 1966, Robert Smith, an eighteen-year-old student, walked into a beauty parlour in Mesa, Arizona, made five women and two children lie on the floor, and shot them all in the back of the head. Smith was in no way a ‘problem youngster’; his relations with his parents were good and he was described as an excellent student. He told the police: ‘I wanted to get known, to get myself a name.’ A woman who walked into a California hotel room and killed a baseball player who was asleep there - and who was totally unknown to her - explained to the police: ‘He was famous, and I knew that killing him would make me famous too.’

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