How Epidemics Of Crime Are Caused

As the 19th century gave way to the sawn of the 20th century, and with the advent of the criminal psychologist, newspapers became more and more concerned with actually understanding what it was that caused a person to become criminally inclined.

The Dundee Evening Telegraph, on Thursday, 31st July 1919, looked back on the antics and careers of several criminals – including the Whitechapel murders of 1888 – and pondered what it was that made those who resorted to breaking the law tick:-



Famous Detectives and Notorious Cases.

The wave of criminality which has swept over the country within recent weeks does not lack precedent. Crime is akin to disease in the fact that epidemics of both occur with unfailing regularity. The foregoing statement can be borne out, and substantiated by records of past offences.

Criminologists who have made the subject a special study, and have spent years attempting to throw light on a dark question, give it as their opinion that epidemics of lawlessness are due to what is termed “imitative crime.” To more explicit – minds of a certain nature are attracted unconsciously or otherwise – by particular classes of crime, and this attraction becoming an obsession they impulsively commit a similar offence.


Various well-known men, whose careers are inseparably linked with the sordid side of life recognise the vast amount of danger that there is in suggestion, and one, the late Dr Danford Thomas, a most experienced and painstaking London Coroner, made it a hard and fast rule never to return to relatives of suicides the weapons with which the deed was done.

He once gave a glass out of which poison had been drunk to the next of-kin, and he then drank poison out of the same glass.

In another instance, he handed a I razor – which in this case was the lethal instrument used by the suicide, and here again the same weapon was used with the same fatal result. Irresistible


It is little wonder, therefore, that Dr Thomas insisted on retaining such gruesome exhibits, and, in the process of time, he formed a museum that is probably without equal in the country.

“The very means of death in such cases,” he was accustomed to say, “suggest another tragedy. Their influence appears to be irresistible.”

Some years ago a man committed suicide by flinging himself from the top of a New York skyscraper. Others did the same, and it became necessary for special men to be detailed to watch people ascending the lifts.

There was an epidemic of tragedies – all ascribed to the influence of suggestion.


It is twenty-nine years since a series of seven murders in the East End of London were ascribed to “Jack the Ripper.”

These were followed by others, the work of different persons, but alike in almost every gruesome detail.

Later, a similar series of murders startled in the United States.


Dr Forbes Winslow, mental specialist and criminologist, described them as “unquestionably imitative.”

Speaking on the subject, Dr Winslow said:- “Men and women with what is known as a “criminal bent” are particularly influenced by occurrences in the underworld. They invariably possess strong imitative faculties. The criminal brain cannot create – it always copies.”

A photograph of Dr Forbes Winslow.
Dr Forbes Winslow


It is long since a series of fires broke out. in Liverpool. They were caused by incendiaries. The police, in pursuing their inquiries, were able to prove that they were by different people who had no sort of association with each other.

The hooligans of Hoxton and the “Peaky Blinders” of Birmingham – so-called because they wear peaked caps – are lively examples of imitative crime.


There was formed in Shoreditch a band of ruffians who called themselves “The Black Brotherhood.”

They were the terror of the district. They robbed, assaulted, blackmailed. Respectable shopkeepers were compelled, under penalty of having their shops looted, to pay tribute.

Almost immediately other bands sprang up till there came what can only be described as a “Reign of Terror.”

When at length one of the chief offenders was laid by the heels, his defence was – “I was only doing the same as the others.”


M. Bertillon, greatest of French detectives, declared that every single crime was followed by others of a similar character.

A man was stopped, killed, and thrown into the river on one of the bridges across the Seine.

Other crimes similar in every way happened in sequence on other bridges.

“Any seeming variation,” he declared, “is followed by a succession on the same lines.”


Everybody recalls the escape from Devil’s Isle of Eddie Guerin.

Afterwards, the warders’ had a bad time of it in pursuing other and less fortunate prisoners who, emulating Guerin, made a dash for freedom.

Do you remember the case of a young stowaway who concealed himself on an outward-bound boat, and gave as his reason that he “wanted to see the world”?

The youngster’s example fired other youths, with the result that scores of stowaways were discovered, and all gave the same explanation of their conduct.


Burn, the American detective, in a discussion on imitative crime during a stay in London said:- “There are hundreds of evil-doers who are not really bad; they are purely out for adventure – something that will break the drab monotony of life.

They read of a smart theft, a daring hold up, or an amazing burglary, and they promptly try to do the same.

It is the imitative faculty, the instinct for copying, sometimes with the intention of going one better.”


The shoemaker Kopenick held up the Mayor of a German town and emptied the coffers of the Treasury into his own pockets.

There followed almost immediately a host of minor and less brainy Kopenicks, who, however, were neither so successful nor so mirth-provoking.

A contemporary actually published a warning that “all copyists of Kopenick must understand that the game was played out. There is only one Kopenick who will go down in the pages of history as a delightful jest.”


Crime that seemingly pays – for no offence against law and order really pays in the long run  – is certain to be multiplied.

The affair of De Browne, the pedlar of Throgmorton Street, in the City of London, is a case in point.

The vagabond, who was eventually tracked down and sent to prison, aped lameness and paralysis, and so drew contributions from generous-hearted city men.

Yet, he travelled second-class from London Bridge to his home near Sydenham, devoured oysters by the score, and spent many expensive week-ends by the silver sea.

When the facts came out in the Police Court, there was a rush of other vagrants for his “pitch,” and a new host of lame and halt and blind vagrants sprang up in every part of the Metropolis.


A gang of coiners was run to earth in Soho. The details showed that they carried on the game artistically, and had singularly effective plant.

Each of the men was sent into penal servitude.

This, however, instead of being a preventive, appeared to supply ideas to other crooks who, with cruder material, managed to “place” a considerable number of florins and half crowns upon the market.

There was, in fact, what a Scotland Yard man described as, “an epidemic of flash money.”


Shoplifting is jus infectious as scarlatina or measles.

In a London Police Court the other day a woman of “independent means” pleaded as an excuse for the theft of a brush and comb that she was compelled to the deed by the example of another woman, who had been bound over to come up for judgment if, and when, called upon.


“Crimes have their seasons and their particular fashions,” said a detective, whose experience in dealing with all manner of offenders is certainly unsurpassed.

“Given one crime that is out of the ordinary, a succession of a similar kind is as certain to follow as the night is the day.

It is a pity that so many people are weak-minded and are content to follow leads which are entirely evil. Many a criminal owes his downfall to the activity of the imaginative faculty.”