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Concerning People Who Know They Are Going Wrong
by [?]

Some five years ago a mere accident gave to the world one of the most gruesome and remarkable pieces of literature that has ever perhaps been seen. A convict named Fury confessed to having committed a murder of an atrocious character. He was brought from prison, put on his trial at Durham, and condemned to death. Every chance was given him to escape his doom; but he persisted in providing the authorities with the most minutely accurate chain of evidence against himself; and, in the end, there was nothing for it but to cast him for death. Even when the police blundered, he carefully set them right–and he could not have proved his own guilt more clearly had he been the ablest prosecuting counsel in Britain. He held in his hand a voluminous statement which, as it seems, he wished to read before sentence of death was passed. The Court could not permit the nation’s time to be thus expended; so the convict handed his manuscript to a reporter–and we thus have possibly the most absolutely curious of all extant thieves’ literature. Somewhere in the recesses of Fury’s wild heart there must have been good concealed; for he confessed his worst crime in the interests of justice, and he went to the scaffold with a serious and serene courage which almost made of him a dignified person. But, on his own confession, he must have been all his life long an unmitigated rascal–a predatory beast of the most dangerous kind. From his youth upward he had lived as a professional thief, and his pilferings were various and extensive. The glimpses of sordid villainy which he frankly gives are so poignantly effective that they put into the shade the most dreadful phases in the life of Villon. He was a mean sneaking wretch who supported a miserable existence on the fruits of other people’s industry, and he closed his list of crimes by brutally stabbing an unhappy woman who had never harmed him. The fellow had genuine literary skill and a good deal of culture; his confession is very different from any of those contained in the Newgate Calendar–infinitely different from the crude horror of the statement which George Borrow quotes as a masterpiece of simple and direct writing. Here is Borrow’s specimen, by-the-way–“So I went with them to a music-booth, where they made me almost drunk with gin and began to talk their flash language, which I did not understand”–and so on. But this dry simplicity is not in Fury’s line. He has studied philosophy; he has reasoned keenly; and, as one goes on through his terrible narrative, one finds that he has mental capacity of a high order. He was as mean a rascal as Noah Claypole: and yet he had a fine clear-seeing intellect. Now what does this gallows-bird tell us? Why, his whole argument is intended to prove that he was an ill-used victim of society! Such a perversion has probably never been quite equalled; but it remains there to show us how firmly my theory stands–that the real scoundrel never knows himself to be a scoundrel. Had Fury settled down in a back street and employed his genius in writing stories, he could have earned a livelihood, for people would have eagerly read his experiences; but he preferred thieving–and then he turned round and blamed other people for hounding him on to theft.

There are wrong-doers and wrong-doers; there are men who do ill in the world because they are entirely harmful by nature, and they seek to hurt their fellows–there are others who err only from weakness of will. I make no excuse for the weaklings; a man or woman who is weak may do more harm than the vilest criminal, and, when I hear any one talk about that nice man who is nobody’s enemy but his own, I am instantly forced to remember a score or thereabouts of beings whom I know to have been the deadliest foes of those whom they should have cherished. Let us help those who err; but let us have no maudlin pity.