Skip to main content

Give Now

Defective Classes (1891)

The Defective Classes

A Presentation by A.O. Wright, Secretary Of The State Board Of Charities And Reform Of Wisconsin, at the National Conference of Charities and Correction, 1891

Editor’s Note: Albert Orville Wright (1842 – 1905) was a Congregational clergyman, educator and author. Born in Rome, N.Y., Wright graduated from Beloit College (1864). He graduated from Union Theological Seminary in 1867, moved to Wisconsin, and was ordained in the same year.  Among his many accomplishments, he was secretary of the Wisconsin State Board of Charities and Reform from 1880-1891.

The defective classes form a series of small, but very troublesome, tumors upon the body politic. For various reasons, ranging all the way from the imperative need of protection to society up to those humane influences for which our century is distinguished, these classes have fallen under the more or less effective guardianship of government in all civilized countries. Private effort is also doing much to palliate or to prevent the evils which the defective classes bring on themselves and upon society at large.

I propose the following classification of the defective classes, depending upon the three divisions of the mental faculties which are generally accepted by psychologists. Insanity and idiocy are different forms of defective intellect. Crime and vice are caused by defect of the emotions or passions. And pauperism is caused by defect of the will. Blindness and deaf-mutism are defects of the senses, requiring special forms of education, but are not defects of the mind any more than the loss of an arm or a leg. Blind or deaf people properly educated are not a burden or a danger to society, as are criminals, insane persons, or paupers. Their defects are physical, not mental, and they should not be classed with persons who have these mental defects. The above classification has the advantage of starting from the center instead of from the circumference. “The mind is the measure of the man,” and it is the abnormal and defective mind which produces the mischief. Anything which fosters the abnormal and ill-regulated thoughts or passions, or which weakens the control of reason, conscience, and will over the mind, tends to produce insanity, crime, and pauperism. Everything which aids self-control reduces the tendency to these abnormalities.

The distribution of the defective classes by nationality, education, wealth, age, sex, occupation, and the like, is interesting from a scientific point of view, and important from a practical standpoint. A study of the distribution of insanity, crime, and pauperism, may reveal the conditions which create or foster them. And as society has more or less control over social conditions it may become possible to heal some of these ulcers on the body politic, if we know where they are and what irritant produced them. But please notice that I say may, not shall. The small success of all effort in the past toward curing these evils ought to make social reformers modest.

First, the question of sex. Men and women are about equally afflicted with insanity. Either the causes are the same in men and women which produce insanity, or they are equivalent. Heredity, worry, over-work, under-feeding, sickness, and the weaknesses of old age affect men and women equally, and the perils of child-birth and of loneliness for solitary farmers wives are about equal to the dangers from accident and the vices to which men are exposed. But crime and pauperism are liabilities of men much more than of women. There are generally about forty times as many men as women in our prisons. The disproportion is not quite so great in some states, and is still less in European countries. In Europe there is no sentimental pity for a woman on account of her sex. But even in Europe the proportion of men to women is perhaps ten to one. Women do not commit crime as readily as men do; it may be from principle; it may be from cowardice; it may be from lack of temptation. And women do not become paupers as readily as men. In getting out-door relief it is true women are a little ahead of men, but that is because it is easier for a woman to get poor-relief than for a man. And in fact where out-door relief is laxly administered, though it is the women who usually apply for it, there are often lazy men behind them, sending them for it, or else drinking up all their earnings in the comfortable consciousness that the public will support their families. So that even in out-door relief it is probable that the men have a good share of the pauperism. And in poorhouses there are about twice as many men as women.

Second, as to age. About an equal number of each sex are born idiots, and remain so all their lives; so that the question of age in idiocy need not be taken into account, except that idiots are not long-lived. But insanity is a defect of mature years. Going through an insane asylum you are struck with the general age of the patients in contrast with the youth of the attendants. This, of course, is partly caused by the fact that insanity is not very curable. Only about one fourth of the insane recover, a few die, and the rest end their days as chronic insane. But it is also caused by the fact that most insane are middle-aged or elderly before they become insane.

Crime is rarely committed by little children, and when committed is frequently excused by the law, or by the judges and jury. But every visitor to a jail or state prison must notice the comparative youthfulness of the prisoners. The average age of the convicts in state prison is twenty-seven. Or, to put it in another way, the majority of convicts in state prison are under twenty-five. The difference between twenty-seven and twenty-five is accounted for by the difference between an average and a majority. The direct opposite of this is the case with pauperism. The majority of paupers are over fifty years old. Criminals are mostly young men. Paupers are mostly old men and old women. Youth is the age of passion, and perverted passions lead to crime. The author of “The Jukes Family” says that among the descendants of Margaret, the “Mother of Criminals,” it is very noticeable that in youth they were prostitutes and criminals, and in age beggars and paupers. The same perverted instincts which led them to prey upon the community took the direction of crime in the time of strength and of pauperism in the time of weakness.

The question of education is often stated as if education favored insanity and opposed crime and pauperism. As a fact, I do not think that education has so great an influence either way as many may seem to think. We were told half a century ago that it was cheaper to build school-houses than jails and poor-houses. We have dotted the country over with school-houses, and we find that jails and poor-houses are just as necessary as ever. But some one may say that this is because there is no effective compulsory education, and because we have an unusual number of ignorant foreigners coming to our shores. But this is sufficiently answered by looking at Germany with its homogeneous population and compulsory education, and compulsory religious, as well as secular, education at that. In Germany crime and pauperism and insanity are increasing, as they are with us. Criminals, paupers, and insane all average a little below the rest of the community in education. Their smaller knowledge and less natural ability make them break down into insanity more easily, and also more easily drift into crime or pauperism. The best statistics of criminals have been kept for over half a century by the Eastern Pennsylvania Penitentiary. The result of these statistics seems to show that idleness, rather than ignorance, is the mother of crime. An investigation which I made a few years ago by personal inquiries from poor-house to poor-house in Wisconsin satisfied me that about one-third of the paupers are made so by idleness, one-third by liquor, and one-third by all other causes combined. In my judgment the idleness which makes truants from school, and therefore poor scholars, leads to crime or pauperism in many cases, and in those cases it is not ignorance which is the cause of crime, but idleness, which is the cause of both ignorance and crime.

The question of social standing is not of as great importance in this democratic country as in Europe. Paupers, of course, do not come from the wealthy or the middle classes. Many of the laboring classes do drop into pauperism through misfortune or vice. But many of the paupers are not even of the laboring class, but come from the outcasts of society. The same is the case with the criminals. They do not come chiefly from the wealthy or middle classes. But they are very largely from the very outcasts of society. The insane are found in all classes in considerable numbers.

But the laboring class furnishes more than its share of insane, and the outcasts an immense proportion to their number. Criminals and paupers and tramps frequently become insane, — I should say ten times as many as from the same number of average humanity.

The advantages and disadvantages of city life have often been talked of. Many people suppose that the excitement and strain of city life conduces to insanity. Others say that the loneliness of country life has the same effect. An English physician has taken the pains to tabulate the statistics of insanity for the city of London for forty years, and for several purely agricultural counties in the south of England with about the same population for the same period, and finds that there is no difference between city and country in the amount of insanity. But for crime, all statistics show clearly that crime is concentrated in the cities, which are the refuge of the criminal classes and the nurseries of young criminals in the neglected street children. Pauperism is greater in the city than in the country, though this may arise from the corrupt municipal governments encouraging pauperism to win votes.

The effects of climate have not been much considered. But I believe it will be found that warm climates do not have so great a proportion of insanity as cold climates. It is certain that in Europe, Greece has a much less proportion of insanity than Norway. In this country there is much less insanity in the South than in the North in proportion to population. A part of this is due to the negroes in the South having a small proportion of insanity, and the foreigners in the North having a large proportion. But it is possible that climate has also something to do with it. I cannot discover that climate has anything to do with crime. Pauperism is increased in cold climates by the greater difficulty of getting a bare subsistence.

Much has been said about the rapid increase of the defective classes, especially of the insane. Statistics show this both in Europe and America. But statistics of the mere numbers of insane at any given time are very deceptive. The greater humanity with which the insane are treated now than a hundred or even twenty-five years ago has preserved their lives and thereby caused an accumulation of the insane. This greatly increases the numbers who are alive at any given time, but does not show that any more persons become insane in any one year than ever. Careful statistics have been kept in England with reference to the latter point, and it is found that there was an increase in the proportion of commitments to the total population up to a recent time, but that it now seems to have reached its highest point and become stationary. It is believed that the increase in the commitments was caused partly by the discovery and placing in institutions of cases that would otherwise have been hidden at home, and partly by calling things insanity which formerly would have been called by some other name; such as senile, dementia, epilepsy, eccentricity, or primary dementia. I believe that these statistics show that insanity is not now increasing faster in England than the population.

In the United States insanity is obviously increasing very rapidly. In ten years in Wisconsin the insane under public care have increased from about seventeen hundred to over three thousand. This is partly due to the causes discussed above. But it is also due to another fact, to which I think I was the first to call attention: that the ratio of insanity to the population is much greater in the older states than in the newer ones, and in the older counties of Wisconsin than in the newer ones. The rapid increase of crime in this country is, doubtless, an incident of the rapid growth of city population. But probably the more careful administration of the laws has increased the number of prisoners, while the system of reformatories for boys and girls, and all the good influences of Christian civilization, have been resisting the increase of crime. It is noteworthy that a better prison system in England than we have in this country, joined to the private reformatory work of all kinds, has brought the increase of crime to a stop, and that there is absolutely less crime in Great Britain now than there was fifteen years ago, notwithstanding the increase of population.

The same causes have made an increase of pauperism in this country — the growth of cities and the foolish or corrupt use of public money in aiding undeserving applicants for poor-relief.

To a considerable extent these three defective classes link into one another. It is hard to say whether a tramp is a pauper or a criminal. Many criminals may be called insane, and some are so adjudged when they have money or friends to help them, and some insane have criminal tendencies. A very large per cent. of criminals become insane in prison or afterward. A considerable number of paupers become insane. The children of the one class pass easily into the other class. Street children who are the children of misfortune, are easily drawn into crime. Here and there in our country, and in every other one, are knots of defectives all tangled up together, families closely related furnishing a whole population of criminals, paupers, idiots, and lunatics among themselves. Such was the family in Ulster County, New York, called by Dr. Dugdale “the Jukes family,” to disguise their real name. Such is the “tribe of Ishmael” recently described by Mr. McCulloch in Indianapolis. The interchangeability of these defects is very clearly shown in these cases.

What are we now doing with the defective classes? With some exceptions all civilized nations are pursuing the following lines of policy: Pauperism is relieved and discouraged. The treatment fluctuates between the extremes of lavish relief and stringent discouragement, but is generally a compromise between these two extremes. Insanity is cured, if possible; if not, it is usually protected in institutions of some sort. Crime is punished in prisons and prevented in reformatories.

These methods express the average wisdom of the present generation, which is far in advance of what has previously been done for the defective classes. It does not follow that this is the best that can possibly be done for them. In fact, here and there experiments are in progress which I believe represent, not the average wisdom, but the best wisdom of our times. Here and there private societies have taken up the work of eradicating pauperism, not by relief, which often encourages it, nor by merely repressive measures, but by carrying out the motto of the charity organization societies, — “Not alms, but a friend.” And Rev. J. H. Crooker of Madison has recently shown that this is not a new discovery, but is a century old, when it was more fully applied to public poor-relief than it has since been. The methods of reforming criminals and thus reducing crime have been discovered and applied in the British Isles, while in America they have been only so applied in a few places. The methods of treating the insane have been growing milder and more humane in Europe and America within a few years. In my judgment, the State Hospital of Alabama and the county asylums for the chronic insane of Wisconsin mark the highest point yet reached in the direction of liberty for the insane. At the rate of progress which we are now making it will take a generation for the average American treatment of the defective classes to reach the standard set for pauperism by the charity organization societies for crime by Elmira and Concord, and for insanity by the Wisconsin system of care for the chronic insane.

Our measures of treatment of the defective classes sometimes increase the very evils we mean to cure. Poor-relief, instead of relieving pauperism, very often increases it; insane asylums seem to increase the number of the insane; prisons, of criminals. This, however, is not a necessity of the case, but only an incidental evil, which needs to be guarded against.

We must also allow that our humane methods of treatment, in addition to the good effects which they have, do also tend to increase the numbers of the defective classes by prolonging their lives and by making their lot a more desirable one. I have already mentioned the accumulation of insanity by the mere prolongation of life in the insane in civilized countries. It is still a question whether this does not sufficiently account for the greater number of insane in civilized over savage countries. Where the insane are killed as witches, or executed as criminals, or killed by private vengeance or malice, or allowed to die by neglect, and where only the robust can survive the hardships and perils of life in any case, it is not wonderful that the insane existing at any given time are few. So also with pauperism. If no poor-relief is given, there will be no paupers, for some will starve and others will steal. But crime seems to decrease with milder punishments; whether these are the causes of the decrease or only a result of the general civilization of society, which is reducing both crime and punishment alike. It is also true that we discover and do something for a large number of cases now who would not be known as defectives under a less perfect administration of government. This is one of the causes of the apparent increase of insanity, as I have already said. Crime is more completely looked after, and things are called crime now which would not have been called so a few years ago.

But, on the whole, I believe that the measures we are taking to treat the defective classes are really reducing their numbers. For one thing, we keep them shut up in institutions, where they are not allowed to propagate their kind or to teach their vices. A notable exception to this is the county jail system, where prisoners are herded together in idleness to constitute schools of crime and vice. Our methods do also cure many of the defectives. About one-fourth of the insane are permanently cured. From half to two-thirds of the criminals are never convicted a second time. Many paupers and tramps do finally drop back into society again. It is, of course, a struggle which may be made to appear to be tending one way or the other, according as we are optimistic or pessimistic in the bent of our own minds. But I take the side of the optimist and believe that we are gradually healing up these ulcers upon society.

The best sign of the future is that public sentiment and legislation are steadily tending in the direction of prevention as well as cure. Some measures of prevention, like the various phases of child-saving work, have been already fruitful of good results. In other cases it is still doubtful what is best to be done in the way of prevention. But I believe the time is coming when, by the combination of public and private effort, we shall greatly reduce, if we do not entirely eradicate, the defective classes.

In my dealings with them I am sometimes tempted to despair of humanity. But then I look at our churches and schools, our literature and our industries, and, best of all, our happy homes, the pledge of the future, and I take heart again. And I remember that after all the total number of prisoners, paupers, insane, and idiots in the United States is only one per cent. of the population, a less proportion than any other civilized country has.

Wright, A.O. (1891, May). The defective classes. Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction.  Indianapolis, IN: National Conference on Social Welfare.  Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=10867.

Source: National Conference on Social Welfare,


View graphic version