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.
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
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.
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:
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
We will try to explain.