Seduction of the Innocent
6. Design for Delinquency
The Contribution of Crime Comic Books to Juvenile Delinquency
"'We do not know the cause.' Is it not absurd to think of 'the' cause? Should we, over that, neglect the facts we have?"
The case was handled with the utmost secrecy. "The F.B.I.." the papers later proudly reported, "took no chances." Over twenty Federal agents armed with the latest weapons we strategically posted among bushes and along the road, ready shoot it out with whatever violent enemies of society had sent the extortion note, with a threat to kill, to a Vanderbilt. They were waiting for the deadline, when the extortion money w to be handed over.
When it came, a slim schoolboy appeared from his hiding-place. In his pocket he carried a toy pistol. Quickly he was surrounded by the armed might of the United States Government which - without being aware of it - was fighting juvenile delinquency.
The boy was fifteen years old, was questioned three honr was found "guilty of juvenile delinquency" and sentenced six years in a Federal correction institution where, in the judge's words, he would be able "to adjust himself satisfactorily."
This is by no means an isolated instance. The fight of if armed might of the law against children has become routine. One Sunday night a patrolman in New Jersey reported to police headquarters that he had seen some suspicious movement in a meat market. Two squad cars sped to the scene and came to screeching stop. Six policemen rushed out of the cars with drawn guns and surrounded the store. Then two of them entered it, ready for battle. Their quarry turned out to be - a handsome, blond, curly-headed little boy of six. His companions, who had fled when the rope snapped as they we lowering him through a skylight, were twelve and thirteen. The little boy, too young even for a juvenile delinquency charge, had started his career as a burglar at five, rewarded by his companions with a steady supply of candy and crime comic books.
In California two police cars pursued an automobile in mad chase. The car had been stolen, evidently by criminals who had previously broken into a store. As the cars were speeding along, the police fired a salvo of shots. When the car came a stop, the policemen, guns in hand, walked np to it cautiously. Huddled in the seats were - six children. The youngest was eight, the oldest thirteen.
The authorities are fighting juvenile delinquents, not juvenile delinquency. There is an enormous literature on juvenile delinquency. One might think that society hopes to exorcise it by the magic of printer's ink. It would seem that the real scientific problem is conveniently overlooked. Juvenile delinquency does not just happen, for this or that reason. It is continuously re-created by adults. So the question should be, Why do we continuously re-create it? Even more than crime, juvenile delinquency reflects the social values current in a society. Both adults and children absorb these social values in their daily lives, at home, in school, at work, and also in all the communications imparted as entertainment, instruction or propaganda through the mass media, from the printed word to television. Juvenile delinquency holds a mirror up to society and society does not like the picture there. So it goes in for all kinds of recrimination directed at the children, including such facile high-sounding name-calling as "hysteroid personality," "hystero-compulsive personality," and "schizophrenic tendencies."
I have seen many children who drifted into delinquency through no fault or personal disorder of their own. When they wanted to extricate themselves they either had no adults to appeal to or those who were available had no help to offer. One evening at the Lafargue Clinic a thirteen-year-old boy came to see me. He was the head of a gang and, as a matter of fact, it was one that had lately been involved in a fight with a fatal shooting. I found out later that while he was in the Clinic he had two much bigger boys stationed in the corridor and at the street entrance to function as bodyguards in case a rival gang might appear. He was much concerned: "I want to stop the bloodshed," he said. There had been some friction between his boys and some boys of another gang. At this particular moment, he told me, '~the school is the most dangerous place," for that is where the boys would meet. "I am afraid they will fight with knives. We have our own meeting-place - nobody can find it. It is in an abandoned house." He wanted some of his boys to stay away from school for a while and during that period wanted to arrange a real peace. "But," he said, "it can't be done because the truant officer gets you and, of course, you can't explain it to him, and you can't tell it to the teacher, and you can't tell it to the police, and you can't tell it to your parents."
When we checked the situation later we found that what he said was precisely true. Had any adult in authoritv been as earnestly concerned about these gangfights as this boy was, they could have been stopped. The secret meeting-house, incidentally, was stacked full of textbooks for violent fighting- crime comics.
Delinquent children are children in trouble. Times have changed since the famous Colorado juvenile-court law of 1903. Now delinquency is different both in quantity and quality. By virtue of these changes it has become a virtually new social phenomenon. It has been reported that juvenile delinquency has increased about 20 per cent since I first spoke about crime comics in 1947. It is, however, not their number but the kind of juvenile delinquency that is the salient point. Younger and younger children commit more and more serious and violent acts. Even psychotic children did not act like this fifteen years ago. Here are some random samples of what today's juvenile delinquents actually do. A great deal that has been written and said about juvenile delinquency is invalid because the writers are obviously not familiar with today's cases:
1) Three boys, six to eight years old, took a boy of seven, hanged him nude from a tree, his hands tied behind him, then burned him with matches. Probation officers investigating found that they were re-enacting a comic-book plot.
2) A girl of eight, her six-year-old brother and a boy of thirteen threw a rock at the face of a three-year-old boy and beat him with a stick. Among other injuries the boy had "cuts inside his month."
3) A boy of eleven killed a woman in a holdup. Wheen arrested, he was found surrounded by comic books. His twenty-year-old brother said, "If you want the cause of all this, here it is: It's those rotten comic books. Cut them out, and things like this wouldn't happen." (Of course, this brother was not an "expert"; he just knew the facts.)
4) An adolescent tortured a four-year-old boy, kicking him severely in the eye so that hospital treatment was necessary. Reason: "I just felt like doing it."
5) A seven-year-old girl broke into four homes and stole money, watches and jewelry.
6) A train was derailed by three boys, one of whom was eight, another ten.
7) A boy of thirteen committed a "lust murder" of a girl of six. After his arrest, in jail, he asked for comic books. "I refused, of course," said the sheriff.
8) A boy, who had participated when a group attacked and seriously stabbed another boy, was found with a knife which had a legend inked on the sheath: "KILL FOR THE LOVE OF KILLING."
9) A boy of twelve and his eight-year-old sister tried to kill a boy of six. They threatened to knock his teeth out, stabbed through his hands with a pocket knife, choked him, kicked him and jumped on him. The police captain said, "It is the worst beating I've ever seen, child or adult."
10) A ten-year-old boy hit a fourteen-month-old baby over the head with a brick, washed the blood off the brick and then threw the baby into the river.
11) A fourteen-year-old crime-comics addict killed a fourteen-year-old girl by stabbing her thirteen times with a knife. He did not know her.
12) Four boys, two of fourteen, one fifteen, one sixteen, carried out a comic-book classic. They beat the sixty-eight-year-old proprietor of a little candy store with a hammer and while he was lying on the floor one of the fourteen-year-olds drove a knife into his head with such force that the hilt was snapped off.
13) When a well-to-do surgeon received an extortion note demanding $50,00O and threatening harm to his young daughter, experts deduced from the note that it was the work of an "adult male psychopath under emotional strain." It turned out to be a fourteen-year-old girl.
14) There have been whole series of cases where children threw rocks and bolts and fired air rifles at passing trains, and automobiles. One eleven-year-old boy who informed the police about this got such severe comic-book torture-by-fire from a group of boys that he had to have twenty-three skin grafting operations and twenty-six blood transfusions.
15) At the age of eleven, one boy attacked another with a switchblade knife. Later he organized a "shakedown racket," demanding money from children at knife point. If a boy resisted, the miniature racketeers would knock him down and their chief would stab him several times in the chest and back. At fifteen this boy instigated an attack on another boy. "The victim lay on the ground, beaten to a bloody pulp, and died." When they found no money on him, they stripped clothing from his body, while he lay in his death agonies.
16) A boy of eight who led three other boys in nine safecracking expeditions had bought himself a new pair of sneakers after one job so the detectives could not trace his footprints.
17) Typical story: a fourteen-year-old boy shot a policeman with a shotgun.
18) While their parents were away, two boys, nine and eleven, hit their little sister (two years and eight months old) with a hoe handle and trampled her to death.
19) In one city within a few months there were five separate instances where very young children were tortured by boys from five to eight years old in comic-book fashion: a four-month-old had a rope tied around his neck and pulled tight until he was unconscious and his face was pierced with safety pins in several places; a little girl was found by a truck driver unconscious and bleeding, being poked with sticks and kicked by a group of young boys.
20) Two fourteen-year-old girls robbed a taxidriver while he was stopped for a traffic light. One of them pressed a knife into his back and demanded his money. Then the other grabbed the ignition key from the dashboard and both fled.
21) A boy of eleven poured kerosene over a boy of eight and a girl of twelve. He lighted the kerosene with a paper torch and burned the children to death.
22) A nine-year-old boy killed a five-year-old girl by stabbing her more than one hundred times.
Let us also lift the lid a little bit to show what is going on in some schools:
In a public school heroin is sold on the premises. (It also was sold on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital where juvenile drug addicts are detained to cure them of their drug addiction.) In two other schools, police officers circulate on the grounds and in the corridors to prevent violence. A mathematics teacher in still another school who had to give an examination needed a policeman present in the classroom to guard her. In several schools, pupils threatened younger ones with beating and maiming them, collecting money from them either once or regularly and taking their watches and fountain pens. Often the young victims do not dare to tell the names of their tormentors. In one such school when two victims were asked by the teacher they refused to answer, saying, "We don't want our eyes cut out!" In this particular school, one boy was beaten with a broken bottle from behind and cut so severely that seven stitches had to be taken around his eyes.
In still another school, a fourteen-year-old girl pupil was actually raped during the lunch recess in one of the corridors on the sixth floor. In a girl's school, a woman teacher was attacked and beaten by six girls aged twelve to fourteen. Police and radio cars had to speed to another school where two thirteen-year-old pupils attacked a teacher, one with a long stick and another with a picture taken down from the wall.
A regular race riot occurred in a metropolitan school. One teacher was punched in the eye, a police officer was struck and scratched. A police detail had to be sent to keep order in the building and the neighborhood. There are schools where one out of every five boys has been in Children's Court. To several high schools detectives have been sent disguised as porters or pupils to check drug addiction and/or violence. Wire-tapping equipment has been installed by police in school buildings.
In a letter to Time magazine (1953), James A. Michener, the well-known author, draws attention to a school where women teachers always try to stay near the door. Otherwise, as one of them put it, "the big boys might trap her in a corner and beat hell out of her." In a junior high school known to me, women teachers do not dare to go on the staircase alone for fear of being attacked or robbed by pupils. A policeman is permanently assigned on duty in this school. When questioned about his easy assignment, he answered, "Sometimes it gets real rough!"
In one school a pupil always functions as a monitor and is stationed next to a toilet. A teacher questioned about this routine answered that she did not know whether the monitor is supposed to suppress violence, sex acts, vandalism or drug addiction. The type of vandalism that occurs is exemplified by the high school where children ripped out a toilet and threw it out of the window.
A thirteen-year-old boy stabbed an attractive young woman teacher eight times in the back and again in the face when she had fallen to the floor. Authorities were bewildered by the behavior of this boy, who came from a good home background.
I could continue this list almost indefinitely. There is nothing in these "juvenile delinquencies" that is not described or told about in comic books. These are comic-book plots. In comic books, usually these crimes remain unpunished until the criminal has committed many more of them. Children are not so lucky. They face severe punishments whenever they are caught. Educated on comic books, they go on to a long postgraduate course in jails (with the same reading-matter). To every one of these acts correspond dozens of lesser ones, hundreds of minor ones and thousands of fantasies.
Up to the beginning of the comic-book era there were hardly any serious crimes such as murder by children under twelve. Yet there was a world war and a long depression. So we adults who permit comic books are accessories. Speaking of just such crimes, however, a Municipal Court judge defends crime comics in Parents' Magazine with these three standard hypocritical arguments: "First of all, censorship would be worse"; "second, there is danger in overprotecting our children"; third, "violence and brutality are a part of the pattern of our lives."
It is becoming more and more apparent that what all delinquent children have in common is unprotectedness. I have found in every delinquent child that at one time or another he had insufficient protection. That implies not only material things, but social and psychological influences. Of course children get hurt at home and by their parents. But the time when children in the mass are most defenseless, when they are most susceptible to influences from society at large, is in their leisure hours. And children's leisure is on the market.
Nobody knows exactly how many juveniles under twenty-one commit murder in the United States. But it is two or three a day. According to Federal statistics in 1948, about one in every eight persons arrested was a minor. The Federal Government does not have accurate statistics as to the number of homicides committed by children in the pre-adolescent and pre-teen group.
How unprotected children are is shown by the glib use of the word teen-ager in talk about juvenile delinquency, putting into one category such different age groups as that of a boy of thirteen and that of a young man of nineteen. One of the best-informed members of the judiciary, Judge Samuel Leibowitz, pointed out in a paper on "Crime and the Community" that "the defendants in crimes of violence in recent years are getting younger and younger, and nowadays they include mere children who should be in knee pants - at the age when in former years they would have come into contact with the law only for swiping apples or upsetting pushcarts."
A New York magistrate stated in open court that "it is fantastic the way mere children are being brought into court." After having published over the years innumerable optimistic handouts from interested public and private agencies, the New York Times said in 1953: "It is difficult to think of children as burglars, gangsters, drug addicts or murderers. Such has become the reality, however."
Juvenile delinquency is not a thing in itself. It can be studied only in relation to all kinds of other child behavior. And it is a mass phenomenon which cannot be fully comprehended with methods of individual psychology alone. Children do not become delinquents; they commit delinquencies. The delinquency of a child is not a disease; it is a symptom, individually and socially. You cannot understand or remedy a social phenomenon like delinquency by redefining it simply as an individual emotional disorder.
It is on the basis of such an approach, however, that important mass influences on the child's mind have for years been completely overlooked. And it was precisely in this way that the comic-book industry could take over a large part of the time, the minds and the money of children from five to sixteen.
When I first made known the results of my studies about comic books, most people, including psychiatrists, psycho-analysts, psychologists, teachers and judges, had paid no attention to their effects on children. A billion times a year an American child sits down to pore over a comic book. What is the attraction? As late as 1951 a liberal magazine, The Reporter, carried an article on "The Comic Book Industry" in which it gave what it thought was the answer: Children are charmed by comic books because in them they can follow "the fortunes of cowhands and mice." That is how we deceive ourselves and others. "Cowhands" do occur in Western comics; but Western comics are mostly just crime comic books in a Western setting. Animal comics may feature "mice"; but animal comics are only a small part and are not habit-forming.
The average parent has no idea that every imaginable crime is described in detail in comic books. That is their main stock in trade. When questioned more closely even experts who have defended the industry did not know what an endless variety of crimes is described in detail in story after story, picture after picture. If one were to set out to show children how to steal, rob, lie, cheat, assault and break into houses, no better method could be devised. It is of course easy and natural for the child to translate these crimes into a minor key: stealing from a candy store instead of breaking into a bank; stabbing and hurting a little girl with a sharp pen if a knife is not handy; beating and threatening younger children, following the Superman formula of winning by force.
The way children transpose adult crime into their own sphere is illustrated by the protection racket so often described in comic books, where small shopkeepers have to pay to gangsters to keep their shops from being damaged. At a Hookey Club session a fourteen-year-old boy said,
"There was one fellow, he was a friend of mine. He got the bright idea on the protection racket. He got it from crime comic books. I know he read them a lot. He used to say, 'You know what would be a good business? Making protection out of shoeshine boys.' He put that scheme into working. There are about twenty-five shoeshine boys in that district. He figured this would be the perfect setup. He used to make them pay a dollar a week and if they did not pay, their boxes or other equipment would be broken. He asked me to go in on it. I didn't because it was pretty cheap. He kept it up for several months. Two or three boys worked with him. One had a zip gun, the other had a stiletto. He was the chief, he had nothing. In other words, he was smart. If they caught him he would be empty-handed. He learned that from comic books, too. One of the boys who was paying protection told his mother. They went down to the station house and told the police the setup."
The contempt for law and police and the brutality of punishment in comic books is subconsciously translated by children into conflict with authority, and they develop a special indifference to it. Gerald, a boy of eleven, stole from stores with a group of older boys. One night after such an exploit two police-men followed them. Gerald had a B.B. gun, turned around and shot at one of the policemen. He was charged with armed robbery. When the whole group was in Children's Court the judge talked to them very seriously. Gerald told us all about that. "Didn't you feel strange in court?" he was asked. "No," he replied. "I read the comics and I feel I am used to it."
Taking into account every conceivable possibility, comic books present the details of how to commit crimes, how to conceal evidence, how to evade detection, how to hurt people. In a recent comic book which has the "Seal of Approval of Comics Magazine Publishers," and is sold in New York subways, you learn that after a robbery you can escape more easily if you shoot out the source of light; you learn how to trade in guns; how to hijack ammunition; how to impersonate regular soldiers (I have had several cases of young people doing just that); and, of course, how to torture and kill a "squealer."
Anyone who has studied many truancy cases knows that children are tempted to use medical alibis. I know some who got the idea and even the methods of execution by transposing into their own childhood setting the lessons of comic books. In one which has the "Seal of Approval of Comics Magazine Publishers" young men fake disease to get out of the army. Coming out, as it did, during the Korean War, this lesson was directly useful to upper teen-agers and indirectly to schoolboys.
"Didn't I bluff my way out of the army?" says the hero-criminal. "Got a medical discharge without having anything wrong except indigestion! If you work it right, no doctor in the world can prove you're bluffing!"
A comic book appropriately entitled The Perfect Crime describes "an old and nearly foolproof scheme" to be worked on drugstores. You select one where the owner works alone, telephone him and ask him to deliver something for an emergency case. While he is out you rob his store.
"Pickin' a name from the phone book of somebody who lives in the neighborhood puts real class into this little gimmick! Hah!"
Variations of this theme are also described in comic books and of course quite often enacted in real life. In a case I am familiar with, a young man called a store to ask them please to stay open a little longer so he could buy something. Then he came late, when there was only one man in the store, and held it up.
One Western comic gives an illustrated lesson in foul fighting (he "chopped a powerful rabbit punch") and brutality (he "rammed his knee into Mossman's face with a sickening thud" and then, when his victim was on the ground, kicked him in the face).
One story gives a price list for hurting people in the protection racket:
EYES BLACKED $ 4.00
Another comic book shows how a youngster can murder for profit. He gets a job as a caddy, loses the ball, then kills the player when he goes searching for it.
Many comic books describe how to set fires, by methods too various to enumerate. In some stories fire-setting is related just as a detail; in other stories such as "The Arson Racket" the lesson is more systematic. There are other sidelights, like how to break windows so you cannot be found out; all this highlighted by the philosophy of the character who says: "From now on - I'm making dough the easy way - with a gun-! Only SAPS work!" That lesson, incidentally, is true of crime comics as a whole: glamour for crime, contempt for work.
"Fixing" of sporting events has recently been front-page news. I have one accused boy under psychotherapy right now. In comic books that is old stuff: "Here's 500 now, and you'll get 500 when it's over!"
Of course playing hookey from school is one of the smart things described by comic-book characters:
"But we better hurry or we'll be late for school!"
"Aw, the heck with school, Harvey! I'm not goin' today. Brains will never get you any place. It's MUSCLES that'll do it! Look at the easy duce-spot [sic] it made me just now!"
So varied are "the fortunes of cowhands and mice!"
In the spring of 1951 a teen-ager driving a stolen car tried to run down a policeman who had stepped out of his radio car to arrest him. People wondered at such cold-blooded brutality. How can a young boy get such an idea? For comics readers this is a lesson of the elementary grades, described and illustrated over and over again.
Junior may be too young to wish to forge checks, but many children whom I have seen have forged their parents' signatures for school purposes. Forgery is, of course, also described in comic books. The preferred method is to pick up a blotter which has been used and copy the signature with the aid of a mirror.
Stealing of automobiles has become a great nuisance. Any young boy who succumbs to temptation in this direction, although he may have been brought up not to do it, has seen in detail just how to go about it. Comic books describe it often and fully, from incidental thefts to the 'hot-car racket."
From one book you can learn how to cut through the glass and break into a store and how to stop the noise when you do break in: "Pile the blankets on to smother the noise!"
In countless books, it is brought home that it is wrong not to kill - because the victim may tell. Nothing is overlooked in these crime comics, however mean. One book shows how to steal the money box from the blind man who runs the newsstand. Of course, as in the vast majority of criminal acts depicted in comic books, this particular act is successful and not punished.
The very title of some stories makes it clear that there is a lesson in the story, and what the lesson is. For example: "Lessons For Larceny," with a sub-title, "Watch for Trouble when a Swindle Backfires."
I have seen many children, delinquent and not so delinquent, who kept their school report cards or absence notices from their parents. Comic books give visual aid about "the mailbox angle" used for stealing checks. In an apartment house "with self-service elevators" you let the elevator go to another floor. But how to get the letter out of the mailbox? "Yeah! It's coming out! This pencil and gum did the trick!" I have seen several children who did exactly that - taking mail from their parents' mailbox - and who had learned it from this source.
Many comic books explain in word and picture how to throw knives. In fact, I have learned from them quite a bit about the tricks of it myself. And lest the child might think - as naively as the adult public which permits all this - that the stories are just stories, not applicable in the next neighborhood gang fight, millions of comic books have illustrated advertisements:
THROWING KNIFE. Properly shaped and balanced for throwing . . . Penetrating point . . . Tool Steel . . . Thrilling stunts . . . Hard hitting . . . Easy-to-throw . . .7 inches . . .($1.98)
Children who have thrown such knives have got into serious trouble. The adults who advertise them, supply them and show how to use them have not in a single instance been charged even with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
In the comic-book syllabus stealing of every variety is amply covered. A man's pocketbook is stolen on the subway. Millions of little boys learn how to do that: "Did someone shove a newspaper in your face? And were you shoved from the rear at the same time? I can see that's what happened. The pickpocket got it while you were upset by the shove." Lesson completed.
How to steal a woman's pocketbook is outlined, too. According to the stories it may be done skilfully and peacefully, but if that does not work, just hit them over the head. This sort of thing has been done by a number of children.
In some comic books it is shown how the youngest tots are picked up bodily, held upside down and shaken so that the coins will fall out of their pockets. Not only do I know from boys that they have practiced this, but similar cases have been reported, like the one where children invaded a settlement house, stabbed one of the workers, smashed equipment and "turned boys upside down to get the pennies from their pockets."
Often comic books describe real crimes that have been featured in the newspapers. In adapting them for children the following points are stressed: the daring and success of the criminals is exalted; brutal acts are shown in detail; sordid details are emphasized; if there are any sexual episodes they are featured. In 1952 three men escaped from a penitentiary. They stole cars, evaded the police, kidnaped people, held up a bank, and were finally caught in New York where they were living with three girls. A real children's story! In the first picture there is an unmade bed, a half-nude man and a girl. The prison break is described like a heroic feat. The ease with which you can steal cars in the country from a farmer is pointed out to youngsters who do not know that yet. One of the criminals boasts to a little boy that he has killed fifteen or sixteen people, "I lost count."
The girls living with the criminals are featured, two of them hiding behind a shower curtain. There are seventy-six pictures of exploits; in the seventy-seventh picture the police take over with a cheap wisecrack.
All this is only a small sample from my collection and an infinitesimal part of the whole story. Juvenile delinquency is not just a prank nor an "emotional illness." The modern and more serious forms of delinquency involve knowledge of technique. By showing the technique, comic books also suggest the content. The moral lesson is that innocence doesn't pay.
If it were the aim of adults to terrify children as persistently, as clearly and as graphically as possible, they would have to invent the comic-book industry. When I first announced my findings that these comic books are primers for crime, I was greeted with these arguments:
1) It is not true. Only the rarest comic book does that.
2) It is not true any more, though it may have been true in the past. Now that is all changed.
3) If true, it was always thus.
4) Crime comic books have no effect at all on children's behavior.
5) Crime comic books are a major force in preventing juvenile delinquency.
6) Crime comic books are not read by children, but only by adults.
7) Comic books affect only "emotionally unstable" or "insecure" children and not the average child.
All these arguments have influenced the public. That they are self-contradictory was evidently overlooked or forgiven.
What is the relationship of crime comic books to juvenile delinquency? If they would prevent juvenile delinquency, there would be very little of it left. And if they were the outlet for children's primitive aggressions, this would be a generation of very subdued and controlled children.
Our researches have proved that there is a significant correlation between crime-comics reading and the more serious forms of juvenile delinquency. Many children read only few comics, read them for only a short time, read the better type (to the extent that there is a better type) and do not become imbued with the whole crime-comics atmosphere. Those children, on the other hand, who commit the more serious types of delinquency nowadays, read a lot of comic books, go in for the worst type of crime comics, read them for a long time and live in thought in the crime-comics world. The whole publicity-stunt claim that crime comics prevent juvenile delinquency is a hoax. I have not seen a single crime comic book that would have any such effect, nor have I ever seen a child or young adult who felt that he had been prevented from anything wrong by a comic book. Supposing you wanted to prevent promiscuous, illegitimate sexual relations, would you publish millions of books showing in detail where and how the man picks up the girl, where they go, the details of their relationships in bed and then how the next morning somebody breaks into their room and tosses them out of bed? A comic-book defender would say this teaches that "Sex does not pay.
The role of comic books in delinquency is not the whole nor by any means the worst harm they do to children. It is just one part of it. Many children who never become delinquent or conspicuously disturbed have been adversely affected by them. Pouring sordid stories into the minds of children is not the same as pouring water over a duck's back. One would think that this would be the most elementary lesson in child guidance. But child experts have overlooked this for years without really studying children's comic-book reading.
How can a doctor discover that a man's diet is a contributing factor to his illness when he omits to ask the man what he eats, approves of what he is eating (without looking into what it really is) and does not know what these foodstuffs contain? This type of guidance has been practiced on children for years.
In 1951, Harper's magazine, in a piece attempting to refute my comic-book conclusions, quoted triumphantly the statement of a judge that he "never came across a single case where the delinquent or criminal act would be attributable to the reading of comic books." Should not such a statement carry tremendous weight in my investigations? How could I disregard it if I wanted to be thoroughly scientific?
So I did look into it. I checked. How many juvenile delinquents had come into this judge's court, altogether? One single case! Could he really defend the millions of crime comic books as they are? He had this to say, "I am firmly convinced that children should not be permitted to read the more lurid type of comic magazines, those which portray crime, violence, killing and sex situations. I am opposed to those books which are sadistic in tone. An unrelieved diet of violence and crime can do no good even to those children who are well-adjusted. Some children might readily obtain ideas of violence from comic books. Many children lack in maturity and judgment to control their actions after reading such books."
What about this judge's probation department? One of his chief probation officers was asked whether they ever inquired of any defendant about his comic-book reading. He replied, "The subject played no part in our thinking of any great consequence, any more than the reading of the average run of publications such as Life."
Superintendents of reformatories also made the "not a single case" statement. What about them? Not only do their records show that they made no examination in this respect, but some institutions are filled to the brim with the worst kind of comic books which keep the inmates occupied and quiet.
Comic-book reading in child-care institutions and reformatories is particularly harmful because these children are so restrained otherwise. Superintendents may not take official cognizance of it, or may have the illusion that only Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse' are available in their particular institutions. A boy of thirteen was brought to me. He had just spent two years in a model reformatory-like institution. (Reformatories do not like the name reformatory, but they cling to reformatory methods.) This boy had got into trouble for stealing. He was a great comics reader, but in the reformatory "they would not allow the murder and mystery ones." The boy himself told me that the real practice was somewhat different from the rule. Reading crime comic books was "the only fun" he had had while in the institution.
Crime comics are certainly not the only factor, nor in many cases are they even the most important one, but there can be no doubt that they are the most unnecessary and least excusable one. In many cases, in conjunction with other factors, they are the chief one.
Edith was a delinquent girl of fourteen. Over the years the family had had contact with some twenty-five social agencies. It was a history of illness, vocational dislocation, disruption and financial difficulties. The girl, good-looking and anxious to get help, had serious aspirations to make something of her life.
Surely in such a case one cannot disregard the social conditions, nor can one ascribe delinquency directly to them. One must search for the particular in the general, the individual in the social, and vice versa. There is no such thing as abstract frustration leading to abstract aggression.
What goes on in the mind of such a girl? Where does the rationalization come from that permits her to act against her better impulses? Her ideal was Wonder Woman. Here was a morbid model in action. For years her reading had consisted of comic books. There was no question but that this girl lived under difficult social circumstances. But she was prevented from rising above them by the specific corruption of her character development by comic-book seduction. The woman in her had succumbed to Wonder Woman. By reading many comic books the decent but tempted child has the moral props taken from under him. The antisocial suggestions from comic books reach children in their leisure time, when they are alone, when their defenses are down.
An official psychiatric report on a nine-year-old delinquent had summed up the situation as follows: "It is felt that the mother is neurotic and has been unable to afford Alfred the needed depth of feeling required for him to achieve a firm personality structure." This is the typical high-sounding double-talk so widely employed these days with regard to troubled children. I saw his much harassed mother, who had been fighting a losing battle to protect her son from bad influences on the street and in the crime comics. What had society given him to provide him with a "firm personality structure"? Crime comics in an endless stream.
Judge Jacob Panken has observed three separate cases where children got hold of lighter fluid, saturated another child with it and set him afire. He found in these three instances that these children, coming from different boroughs, favored a particular comic book which has on its cover a burning human being in flames. He felt that in each instance the comic book shared the responsibility, that "it is the straw which breaks the camel's back."
A fifteen-year-old boy was accused of having shot and killed a boy of fourteen (the authorities chose to consider this accidental), of having thrown a cat from a roof, of having thrown a knife through a boy's foot, of sadistic acts with younger children, of having shot at a younger girl with a B.B. gun. After a full study of the psychological and social background, we came to the conclusion that the fact that he was an inveterate reader of comic books was an important contributing factor. His favorite comic book, read over and over, contained no less than eighty-one violent acts, including nineteen murders.
Even if the Howard Lang case had been the only one - there were many others - it should have been enough to make adults take steps against crime comics. This thirteen-year-old boy killed seven-year-old Lonnie in a dreadful fashion. In a lonely wood he stabbed him many times with a pocket knife, choked him, stamped and jumped on him, and then dropped on his face - four times - heavy blocks of concrete. After this, with the help of another boy, he hid the still-living victim under a heap of leaves. Lonnie lived another twelve to fourteen hours before finally dying in agony. The judge in the case, Judge Daniel A. Roberts, commented especially on the influence of crime comic books on Howard. He took judicial notice of twenty-six of the boy's comic books and stated that they showed "the homicidal, near-homicidal and brutal attacks upon the persons of the characters depicted by means of knives, guns, poison, arrows and darts, rocks off cliffs, etc." "It was testified," he went on, "that the defendant had observed or read these comic books since before he could actually read." Judge Roberts further characterized these comic books as "startling in the extreme, and nauseating and degrading to the moral sense. That these publications are permitted to be sold to the youth of the country is a travesty upon the country's good sense. The crime and horror comics are extremely ugly in appearance, caused by their creators' diabolic twist of mind . . . sordid killings and gruesome plottings . . . something must be done . . . by law if the publishers will not properly censor their own work."
Glenn R. Winters, editor of the Journal of the American Judicature' Society, a leading publication on jurisprudence, commented on Judge Roberts's observation that it "may be verified by an examination of practically any copy of any of the magazines." Mr. Winters further wrote in this connection that people are entitled to the cherished right to believe that comic books "had nothing whatever to do with making a potential murderer out of Howard Lang and that he would have been as likely to go the same way on a literary diet of The Bobbsey Twins and Pilgrim's Progress, but millions of American parents deeply concerned about surrounding their children with proper influences will not be so convinced."
At the retrial of the case Judge John A. Sbarbaro also referred specifically to the bad influence of comic books. The judge said, that in his opinion: "After much consideration of this evidence the Court feels it to be his duty to make certain specific suggestions for much needed legislation . . . regulatory statutes restricting publication and distribution of harmful features of so-called comic books."
Despite all this, little Lonnie seems to have been forgotten and his horrible comic-book death has been in vain.
A very experienced youth counsellor in the course of group therapy in an institution asked two groups of delinquent boys whether and what they had learned about delinquency from comic books. From the first group, composed of nine boys from thirteen to fifteen, everyone said that he had received helpful suggestions from comic books:
1) Now listen to this. If you see a bathroom window lit up you know someone is at home. If it's still lit next day, no one is at home. They leave the key in the mailbox, under mats or in corners. If you see a milk bottle and a note in it, the note gives you a pretty good idea of the house. If you keep up with the notes, you know everything.
"Another thing: after a bride and groom get married they have a lot of presents they keep in the house, so the only thing you have to do is get two tickets to a show like Oklahoma, cost about $5.50 apiece. You send them to the bride and groom and they're pretty sure to go. On most tickets they have a date, so that you know when they go. When they're gone, you go in and take your time and help yourself.
"As smart as I am, I never thought of this. I got it all from the comics."
2) "I got my bad ideas from the comics, stabbing, robbing, stealing guns and all that stuff. In a comic book I read two kids rob a store and steal guns and get away and grow up to be bank robbers. So I did the same thing - only I didn't grow up to be a bank robber - yet!"
3) "I read about a perfect robbery and used parts of it. This was in a crime comic magazine and it said these three men were still at large and didn't get caught, so I figured I could pull the same stuff."
The second group was made up of ten boys, twelve to sixteen. Except for one boy, all described the delinquency lessons of comic books:
1) "In the comics I saw a cat kicked by a man so I kicked the cat because I saw it happen that way.
2) "I saw how to carry a gun in a suitcase and a shopping bag. If I ever had to do it, that's the way I'd do it."
3) "I learned how to break a seal off a freight car from the comics and how to put on another so you don't get caught."
4) "I learned how to rob cars from the comics. They tell you, if the door's open, how to switch wires.
5) "I got this from the comics. The patrolman would make his beat. We'd find out what time he goes past and back. We saw how they take a strip from a window and take out the window, and we did the same. Another idea we got was taping the windows and cracking them. Then you take the tape off and pick the glass out. When a train goes past, like the Third Avenue El, we'd crack the window with our fist. We got all this from comics."
Some members of the Hookey Club described some of their delinquencies which had not been found out. One boy told how he had snatched purses from women. "In the comic books it shows how to snatch purses. You should read them if you got the time [To me.]. It shows a boy going to a woman and asking her where the church is. She naturally drops her arm and goes waving. So you just grab the purse and run. Usually they can't run after you. She has the bag in her hand, waving to a certain place. You just grab her arm. It was in different comic books. They all build that stuff up. You pick desolate places, where nobody is around." If such delinquent fantasies are stirred in hundreds of thousands of children, it is inevitable that some of them will carry out their fantasies in fact.
There is no doubt that the impulse to commit a delinquent act is important. What counteracts the impulse, however, is equally important. In the children I have studied, I have endeavored to determine what perspective of life the child had and what it came from. Children, like adults, are impelled in different directions, good or bad. It is up to us to determine the factors which in the individual case tip the scales. To disregard the comic-book factor is unfair to children, particularly in the light of the severe punishments they so often receive, after they have become delinquent. A little attention beforehand would do away with a lot of detention afterwards.
Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham (Rinehart & Company, Inc. New York, Toronto 1953, 1954)