What Shall We Do With This Boy? Jack London Replies to a Vital Question

San Francisco Examiner/June 21, 1903

At the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society is an eleven-year-old boy, Edgar Sonne, whose past is already black and historic for it has made him a pariah in his own neighborhood and household. It is sufficient to state his immediate record of the past few weeks to interest not only those with a penchant for criminal sociology, but every person who is concerned with good government, good citizenship, and good social morality, and whose ethical concepts and hopes for humanity are fine and high.

In two weeks this child of eleven years has been guilty of the following depredations upon society: daylight burglary of the residence of Mrs. Woodman, 433 Capp Street; arrested for the Woodman burglary, committed by the juvenile court to the custody of his mother, theft of twenty dollars from home during his mother’s absence; arrested for theft from home; committed by juvenile court to the custody of the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society; escaped from Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society with a cleverness worthy of an adult and experienced criminal; burglary of mother’s home during the night; arrested for burglary of mother’s home and returned by juvenile court to the custody of the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society.

Questions at once swarm into the mind. What is to become of such a boy? What is to become of society if it does not deal correctly with such a boy and all of his kind? How did such a boy happen to be? And how did society let such a boy happen to be?

In the first place, no matter what extenuating conditions, Edgar Sonne’s welfare must be secondary to the welfare of society. He is a deviation from the normal type of the human; he is, in short, abnormal. And since the majority of individuals composing society are normal, it is not only logical, but right, that they be protected from the depredations of the minority which is abnormal. So far, so good. Edgar Sonne is first and above all responsible to society. He will not be punished in the old retributive sense; but in the new and saner sense his freedom may be interfered with and he be put into social quarantine. By the application of the just and democratic aphorism “The greatest good to the greatest number,” he may be put to much pain and discomfort. On the other hand, there is a responsibility which society owes to Edgar Sonne. It is a fact that all men are, at one time or another, tempted to commit crime. The normal men do not yield to the temptation.

They have sufficient self-control to abstain. And this is the distinction between them and the abnormal men who do yield. The question at once arises; is this yielding due to some inherent and essential weakness of the constitution itself, which cannot be cured? Or is it due to an acquired and nonessential weakness of the constitution which can be cured?

And right here enters Edgar Sonne and society’s responsibility to Edgar Sonne. Society must determine, first, whether or not he is curable. If incurable, if the stuff of his life is too malformed and rotten, then society’s responsibility to itself demands that he shall be put away where he can do no harm But if he be curable, if the stuff of his life may be cleansed and made wholesome, then society’s responsibility to Edgar Sonne demands that every effort be made to effect a cure. And if society does not make every effort, it will be guilty of a sin vastly more grievous than any sin Edgar Sonne can commit.

With this reasoning in mind, I went out to the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society to see what manner of boy Edgar Sonne was. His record had prepared me for the regular type of born criminal or degenerate, but my disappointment was agreeable when I found that he was just an ordinary-looking boy, exceptionally thin, head well-shaped, and face not at all bad or remarkably vicious. His eyes were large, and without much character, while the lines of the face betrayed weakness — but no greater weakness than that of countless men who are respectable members of society.

Rottenness and irregularity of the teeth, an abnormally-shaped roof of the mouth, and certain other minor peculiarities were all that might possibly be classed as stigmata of degeneracy, but which, in themselves alone, signified no more than signify the notable teeth of our strenuous President.

Edgar Sonne did not appear to be a hereditary criminal or degenerate. The stuff of his life had not been marred in making. Of this, not only am I convinced, but Mr. H. W. Lewis, the kindly Superintendent, is likewise convinced. Edgar Sonne talked readily, and we were soon deep in a recital of his boyish impulses, struggles and wrongs. He has a lively sense of wrong, which argues well for him in spite of the wrongs he has done. The “Lictor Boy” who kept him out late at night, compelling him to go without supper and to sell four papers in order to earn a nickel, struck him as especially unfair — likewise his mother, when she swept the bunch of keys into the ash-barrel, charged him with stealing them, and whipped him with a leather trace such as is used to harness a horse to a wagon.

Resenting this injustice, and seeking as men have always sought, and as they still continue to seek by means of civil suits, compensation for injury, “to get even,” in his own language, he promptly robbed his mother of twenty dollars and went off on a good time.

But let no mistake be made. His crimes have not all been of this simple, innocent order. Burglaries and thefts he told me of, where the impulse was not emotional or passionate, but was cold-blooded and acquisitive. He made it plain, unconsciously, of course, that it was easier for him to steal and rob than not to steal or rob. He moved along the line of least resistance, which, to him, was in the direction of crime.

As we talked, further glimpses were given of the forces which had molded the stuff of his life into what it was. Such things as home environment and mother’s love may be imagined from the following data: “Been here two weeks,” he sobbed, once, when he broke down, “an’ she ain’t been to see me. “She put me in the Youth’s Directory when she was movin’ house, and I was there for months.

“She laughed when see saw the policeman had me.” “And what did you do with the money you earned by selling papers?” I asked him. “Took it home to my mother.” “Always?” “No,” he said. “She’d ask me for it, and I’d say, ‘I ain’t sellin’ no papers.’ If she found out she’d beat me. That’s the only thing she can do.” “The only thing she can do!” From our conversation it seemed the only thing she had ever done. Many nights, he said, he slept out in the back yard; nor in the morning did his mother ever ask him where he had been. “She don’t care,” was the way he put it. But there was more to come in process of finding out how the stuff of his life had been marred, not in the making, but after it had been made.

Mr. Lewis put his hand over the boy’s mouth, completely covering it, and told him to blow out through his nose. He obeyed but no air was expelled. His hand went up to the crown of his head. It hurt him there, he said, whenever he tried to blow air through his nose. Directed by Mr. Lewis, I looked into his mouth. The tonsils were so enlarged that the passage between them was no more than an eighth of an inch wide. The palate, instead of hanging down, was thrust by the tonsils straight out to the front at right angles to its normal position.

An examination had been made by a surgeon, I learned, who had found the post-nasal cavity entirely filled with a growth of adenoids or tumors. Mot only did this adenoidal growth absolutely close the nose to the passage of air, but it exerted an ascertained pressure on the brain itself. Deafness was also beginning to come on.
In answer to a question from me, he admitted that he could not run so far, or fast, or long as the other boys. “It makes my heart beat,” he said indicating its action by a fluttery motion of the hand.

It was patent that he did not get sufficient air into his lungs. Instead of breathing down to his stomach, as a healthy boy should, he breathed high up in his chest — higher up than any woman breathes. As a result, his blood lacked oxygen, was impoverished. In consequence of this, the whole physical organization was impoverished, starved. Body and brain were in an anemic condition. He rolled up his sleeve, exposing a scrawny, emaciated arm, sharp at the elbow and with no more than a faint semblance of the biceps, which reminded one forcibly of the famine pictures of starving children in India.

If this were the condition of his body, resulting from impoverished blood, what, from the same cause, must be the condition of his brain and mind? His record is the answer. As emaciation was the result of his starved body, so was criminality the result of his starved brain. For there is a direct and intimate relation between the body and brain, between the flesh and the spirit. If dyspepsia is capable of giving a bias to a good man’s soul to such an extent that it is impossible for anything less than an angel or martyr to live with him, then the condition of Edgar Sonne’s mind and soul can be readily imagined.

“Not pre-natal at all,” said Mr. Lewis, referring to the adenoid growths. “Contracted after birth, like warts, from bad physical surroundings, such as insufficient ventilation, or from so simple a thing as sleeping continuously with the head under the covers.”

“Can these growths be removed?” I asked. “And can these enlarged tonsils be reduced so that sufficient air may find its way to the lungs?”

“Certainly,” said Mr. Lewis.

“And could all this have been done years ago?”

Mr. Lewis was emphatic in his affirmation.

Here, then, was criminality prior to the criminality of Edgar Sonne—the criminality, first, of his mother, in permitting this diseased condition to go unattended; and the criminality, second, of society, for the same reason. For if society arrogates to itself the punishment of youthful offenders, then it must take upon itself the responsibility for the making of youthful offenders. If society provides jails and policemen for children, it should likewise provide physical examinations and physicians. This is not a sentimental consideration. It is eminently business-like and practical. Had society taken hold of Edgar Sonne years ago and amended his moral nature, by enabling him to breathe properly, it would have saved money. As it is, policemen, detectives, judges, superintendents of aid societies, patrol wagons and what not, have run up a pretty item in society’s expense account. And, worst of all, nothing has been gained. Society has still to doctor Edgar Sonne, and it will be a more expensive and serious doctoring than it would have been had his disease been checked and cured in its commencement.

“Every neglected child is a menace to society and the State,” says Judge R. S. Tuthill. And Jacob Rils, “Just in proportion to the neglect of them now, will be the smart of them hereafter.”

But to return to Edgar Sonne. His whole history and development seem clear and plain. The stuff of his life was apparently normal in the making. It possessed a multitude of potentialities, the uses or abuses of which his adventure into the world would determine. With these potentialities, the gifts of heredity, he came into the world, a soft and pulpy infant, to be moulded by the physical and social forces which would bear upon him. What these forces were, we have seen. An unchecked, untreated disease, which impoverished and caused an abnormal condition of mind and body; and a harsh, unlovely, and unsympathetic home and neighborhood environment which gave the criminal bias to the sickly body and brain and moral nature.

What is to be done?

Mr. Lewis answers this question most eloquently.

“First, we will give him a tonic treatment of the body; build up and strengthen him as much as possible. Then we will operate upon him, reduce the tonsils and remove the adenoids. Then, and not until then, will we be able to treat the mind. And it will be a tonic treatment, too. The abnormal condition removed, plenty of fresh pure blood surging through the brain and we will build up the mind and the moral nature until they become healthy, wholesome and good.

“Give me three months,” he added, with sparkling eyes, and with a certitude born of intimate experience with all manner of youthful offenders. “Give me three months of a healthy brain to which to make mental and moral appeal, and I’ll show you a transformed boy.” The outcome of the operation and of Mr. Lewis’ efforts will be eagerly awaited. Edgar Sonne’s youthful errors and society’s mature errors may be retrieved together. But how much better it would have been had society caught Edgar Sonne when he was younger? –- years and years younger!

The historic works of Jack London and other major journalists are freely available from The Archive of American Journalism: www.historicjournalism.com