01 April 2015

The Man Who Ate Babies: A Parable

This has nothing to do with April Fools' Day, by the way.  

No babies were harmed in the making of this blog.  I  added the subtitle in hopes of not scaring off people who, like me, are squeamish about true crime.  This parable was written by George Harvey, the editor of Harper's Weekly, and appeared in a March 1907 issue.  I discovered it in the second volume of Mark Twain's autobiography and was struck by how relevant it seemed in light of certain events of recent years. 

Oddly enough the question that most concerned Harvey seems to have been well settled, but the underlying issue is still very much with us.  After the essay I will come back to explain the circumstances that led to Harvey's essay.  The only editing I have done to the parable is to remove its introduction and split some paragraphs for ease of reading.

-Robert Lopresti



THE MAN WHO ATE BABIES
by George Harvey

Once there was a man who had the incomparable misfortune to be afflicted with a mania for eating babies. He was an extraordinary man, of astonishing vigor, of remarkable talents, of many engaging qualities, and of prodigious industry.
 

He had education and social position; he could earn plenty of money; and the diligent exercise of his intellectual gifts made him valuable to society. There was nothing within reasonable reach of a man of his profession which he could not have, but over what should have been a splendid career hung always the shadow of his remarkable propensity.

The precise dimensions and particulars of it were not definitely known to many persons. A few men who had a mania like his doubtless knew absolutely; a good many other men knew
well enough; and there was practically a public property in the knowledge that he had, and gratified, cannibalistic inclinations of much greater intensity and more curious scope than those that commonly obtained among careless men.

There was an honest prejudice against him. Persons of considerable indulgence to eccentricities of deportment disliked to be in the same room with him. Sensitive stomachs instinctively rose against him. Yet he was tolerated, for, after all, nobody had ever seen him eat a baby.

One day another man—quite a worthless person—knocked him on the head, and let his pitiable spirit escape from its body. It made a great stir, for the man who was killed was very widely known, and his assailant was also notorious. There followed profuse discussion of the dead man’s character, qualities, and achievements. His record was assailed, but it was also warmly extenuated.

When it was averred that he was an ogre, the retort was that he was not a materially worse ogre than a lot of other men, and that we must take men as we find them, and make special allowances for men of talent. When it was whispered that he ate babies the answer was that that was absurd; that whatever his failings, he was the helpfulest, best-natured man in the world, and particularly fond of children, and good to them, and that if he ever did eat babies he was always careful where he got them, avoiding the nurseries of his acquaintances, and selecting common babies of ordinary stock, who were born to be eaten, anyway, and would never be missed, and who, besides, were in any cases not so young as they made out.

So the discussion went on, and waxed and waned as the months passed. But one day there was set up a great white screen, big enough for all the world to see, and over against it was placed a lantern that threw a light of wonderful intensity, and then came a person named Nemesis, with something under her arm, and took charge of the lantern. And then there fluttered forth all day on the great screen the moving picture of the poor monomaniac and a baby—how he found her, enticed her, cajoled her, and finally took her to his lair, prepared her for the table, and ate her up. Well; it was said that the picture was shocking, and that the public ought not to have been allowed to see it.  Oh yes, it was shocking; never picture more so.  But it was terribly well adapted to make it unpopular to eat babies.

Lopresti here again.  In June 1906 the famous and celebrated architect Stanford White was shot to death by millionaire Harry K. Thaw.  (These events were recalled in E.L. Doctorow's novel RAGTIME.) Thaw said he was driven to the crime by his obsession with White's earlier relationship  with Evelyn Nesbit, a model Thaw had also had an affair with, and later married. 

In court Nesbit reported that White had given her drugs and seduced her  at age fifteen.  Thaw was eventually found  not guilty by reason of insanity.  A few words from Twain's autobiography:


New York has known for years that the highly educated and elaborately accomplished Stanford Whtie was a shameless and pitiless wild beast disguised as a human being...  He had a very hearty and breezy way with him, and he had the reputation of being limitlessly generous - toward men - and kindly, accommodating, and free-handed with his money -- toward men; but he was never charged with having in his composition a single rag of pity for an unfriended woman… [Congressman] Tom Reed said, "He ranks as a good fellow, but I feel the dank air of the charnel-house when he goes by."]

And here is how George Harvey introduced his parable in Harper's:

The President of the United States [Theodore Roosevelt] thinks that the papers that give "the full, disgusting particulars of the Thaw case" ought not to be admitted to the mails. Perhaps not. Perhaps the country at large does not need all the particulars, but in our judgment New York does need most of them, and it would be not a gain, but an injury, to morals if the newspapers were restrained from printing them.

We will try to explain.

5 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

This is going to get interesting

I haven't read George Harvey but I love Twain, and Harvey's sense of humor appears similar.

I can't think who it was at the moment, but I believe an English writer attempted to make a political point about eating Irish babies… which some people took seriously. (Pass the pepper, please.)

Eve Fisher said...

Jonathan Swift, Leigh - "A Modest Proposal".
I've read about Stanford White and the whole scandal in "Ragtime" and elsewhere. What a great essay! The only tragedy is that he had to talk about eating babies, and not about drugging, raping, and ruining young women. But eating babies was easier to get by the censors in those days. Perhaps still is?

Robert Lopresti said...

Eve, I think the point of making it about babies was to, in effect, up the ante. By adapting the arguments some people made about the young women to babies, he showed how outrageous they were. But maybe that's the point you were making?

Robert Lopresti said...

Leigh, my favorite line in Swift's essay: "I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for [English] landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children."

Leigh Lundin said...

A Modest Proposal, yes! Brilliant. Thank you, Eve and Rob.