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Condensed from Colller's, The National Weekly (March 27, '26)
William G. Shepherd
E was writing his last letter to his mother before they took him to the electric chair. In his last days his mother had written him a letter, reminding him of his innocent early boyhood and telling him to pray. And now, in his cell, he was answering her.
A warden saw that good-by letter; he told me about it because he was trying to make me understand how hard and cruel our new generation of toughs had become. The letter ran something like this:
"My Darling Mother: I thank you for all that you have done for me during my life"-several paragraphs of such thanks, and then this:
"You tell me to call upon Jesus as I did when I was young. Well, all I've got to say about this is that, if you mean the Jesus who they say was nailed to the Cross, there wasn't enough left of Him out in the big world where I went, when I left home, to wad a shotgun with."
Not all of that good-by letter reached the mother's eyes; the warden was too kind. "The boy had no heart," the prison official explained to me.
The only trouble with that boy was that he was one of America's new, unexplainable criminals. Penitentiary wardens all over America have tried to tell me lately how tough the new criminals are coming these days.
You and I, reading the newspapers, learning of the unexplainable crimes of some of our youth, have come to suspect or to believe that a new kind of criminal has arisen in America. But these penitentiary wardens know this new and unexplainable criminal is with us. They have him in their prisons.
Ask the warden to describe the hardness and the toughness of this new criminal and words fail him. He
falls back on concrete cases. you, puzzled, about this youth or that, and lets you draw your own conclusions. And I must pass the puzzle on to America.
Here are stories of these new criminals that I have found during the past few weeks in some of our penitentiaries:
The other day an amazed and wideeyed prison official told me about a young convict I had seen an hour be fore sitting on a bench playing with another young fellow. I had picked this young convict out of a crowd, for he was a striking figure. And he was as full of play as & puppy. There were over 600 convicts sitting in that great, long room; they spend their days on the benches there doing nothing. To each of these criminals this boy was a criminal hero, the last word in devil-may-careness.
"What can you do with a fellow like that?" a prison official asked me. Then he told me the boy's story. "He is a lifer, and lucky to be alive. comes of a good home in Ohio. One night he helped to murder a storekeeper in a robbery. He wanted dance and movie money. When the police caught him he kidded them. In court when he was tried he was arrogant to everybody. When the jury found him guilty of murder in the first degree he only smiled. He didn't turn a hair when the judge sentenced him to death. When they brought him here to the penitentiary he played the hero among the convicts. His mind was all right--he read plenty of books-but he didn't have any feeling.
"Well, the day for electrocution came. They took him to the death cell to get him ready."
I had seen that death cell. A man about to die who could keep his courage there would be superhuman.
A barber cut a patch of hair from the back of his head." (The electrode must touch the flesh, directly.) "The young fellow complained about that in a half-joking way. Just 13 minutes before he was to die a guard came running in with a reprieve from the governor. The governor had changed the sentence to life imprisonment.
"What do you suppose that young fellow did? Well, sir, after they had read him the reprieve he turned around to the man who had cut his hair and said: 'Well, that's a hell of a fine haircut you gave me! It'll take six months to grow that out again.' "What can you do with a fellow like that?" asked the jailer. "And we're getting a lot of his kind these days. He wasn't any more excited by his reprieve than he was by his sentence. The trouble with these young fellows these days is that they have no emotions."
As clean cut a young fellow as you could want to see plays a saxophone in the band of one of our penitentiaries. He reads inodern novels; he writes rather well. As he stood in the band handling his instrument like an expert he attracted my attention because of his evident refinement. He had poise and assurance.
He's there for life. He tried to rob the home of a well-to-do and respected family. The father of the household bravely arose from his bed and went out in the hallway to defend his family. Out there he found this young man, heroin-crazy. The young man fired his revolver and killed the citizen with one shot. Then he ran away, but he was later caught.
He was buried in the death cell for weeks-in a room next to the electric chair. His plight never seemed to worry him. When the governor changed his sentence to life imprisonment he showed no great joy.
"I didn't worry very much in the death house," he told an official visitor. "I used to say to myself: 'Well, I've had about every sort of a kick I could get in this life. Maybe there's a kick in going over the other side'."
A hush always falls over a prison the day a man is to die. Prisoners
are restless and nervous. In some prisons they wail in their cells during the killing. One of the most terrible recollections of this writer's life is of hearing some years ago the wails of hundreds of cell inmates in the Cook County jail in Chicago while five men were being hanged. The prisoners throughout the day imagine the terror of the man in the death house, living his last hours. Imagination has them in its grip.
Such imaginings are almost baseless, especially when one of our new criminals is in the death house. Not long ago a guard in a death house became suspicious because the man in the death cell was so quiet. He investigated. His prisoner, who was to die for murder within six hours, was busy lettering a cardboard sign with charred matches. He was marking
out these letters: "Room to Let."
In a penitentiary tailor shop I saw a young man of less than 20 sitting on a table, tearing apart an old coat. His fingers were long, slender, sensitive. His black shoes were carefully polished; his trousers were pressed; his hair properly combed. He had a whole lifetime ahead of him in for he had been convicted of
Why I Live in Tahiti
Condensed from The Atlantic Monthly (April '26)
URING a recent brief visit to America my Aunt Harriet showed deep concern as to my reasons for choosing a small tropical island in the mid-Pacific as a place in which to live. We talked through dinner, after dinner, and until far into the night-I warming to my theme, becoming all but eloquent regarding the advantages of solitude and a simple, fairly primitive way of living; my aunt asking from time to time very pertinent questions. At length she brought the discussion round to the question of one's duties, rights and privileges as an American citizen. I said that I would always recognize my duty to go to the aid of the country in time of war; as for the rights and privileges, I was willing to forgo them in order that I might live according to my own ideas of what constitutes living. My aunt was surprised that I had no deep feeling of patriotism toward America as a whole, but this seems to me natural, inevitable. Patriotism is based upon community of blood, language, tradition, ideals; and, needless to say, there is no longer such community in the United States, nor can it be again for centuries to come-if ever.
"I see now what is wrong," my aunt said. "You're an anarchist! You may not admit it, but it's true. If you had your way you would live in a place where there is no government at all!"
But is there any reason why one should not seek out a place where one may at least play at anarchy? This is possible in Tahiti, which is one of the reasons why I live there.
In order to play at anarchy with any success, two conditions are essential: one must follow an art or profession or trade which provides the necessities of life; and it must be of such a kind that it may be practised,
for the most part, in solitude. I have such a trade. It is journalism.
How does one play at anarchy? One simply lives as though there were no government in existence. The conditions are almost ideal in a small island colony. But you must have no axes of any sort to grind, or exchange, or expose for sale. When that is the case you may have very pleasant relationships with those who do. They realize that you are not competing or trying to compete with them; therefore they reveal to you only the best sides of their natures, and at length you are all but convinced that they have no other sides to reveal.
"But you must find time hanging very heavily on your hands," you may say.
Never-but for the sake of absolute veracity it is well to qualify that. Boredom is a universal spiritual disease and all men suffer from it at times, no matter where they may be. But I can say, truthfully, that attacks of it grow increasingly rare in Tahiti. In America, the most virulent cause of boredom, in my own case, was to see multitudes of people engaged in useless, joyless occupations. To be sure, many of them did not appear to be aware of the awful tedium of their lives, but, being a sensitive man, I suffered vicariously for them. This is the least endurable of all suffering. In Tahiti I escape it, for, with the exception of the gov ernment employees, there is no one engaged in joyless work.
After a month or two of this quiet, uneventful life you find that you are losing your old conception of time. It never intrudes itself as something not to be wasted You do waste it,-prodigally, I suppose, in the high-latitude sense: that is, you no longer make unremitting use of it to your own ma
terial advantage-but I am not at all convinced that this is to be deplored. Often you will go for an all-day ramble up some grassy plateau which rises gradually toward the mountains, climbing on and on until you reach a vantage point where, on the one hand, you have a view into the depths of a great valley dappled with the shadows of the clouds; and, on the other, of the palm-clad lowlands and the broad lagoons beyond; and, beyond them again, of the sea-50, 60 miles of blue sea. There, listening to the silence, busy with your own thoughts or deep in fathomless reverie, you will sit until evening, surprised that evening comes so soon; and the strange thing-from the old, high-latitude point of view-is that such a waste of time brings not anxiety but peace of mind. It is easy to believe that you have been fulfilling, during those long hours of idleness, a small but important function in the scheme of things. On such days you are convinced that loafing is.a virtue and that three-fourths of the unhappiness of the world is caused by the fact that men have forgotten how to loaf.
The strange thing, to me, is that so few people seem to want any solitude. They fly from it as though it were the wrath to come, and seem to have lost the capacity for being aloue even during very brief periods.
Optimism is a crowd quality; and it is only fair to say that during my residence in Tahiti I have met but very few optimists. I have often won. dered why it is that this small island should draw so many authentic pessimists. They are of all nationalities, from every walk of life, men of education, men of no education; but, diverse as they are in many respects, they have two qualities in common: they are all interesting men, and all are suffering from disillusionment. Almost without exception, these men are lookers-on at life, out of sympathy with the spirit of their times; and so, not being able to act with any enthusiasm, they talk.
Many of them, through years of practice, have become past masters in
the art of conversation, and it is this that makes them such interesting companions. I used to wonder why it was that even small gatherings at home were usually so tedious. To be sure, words flowed perpetually, but they had little significance or interest. We were bored with each other without knowing why. The trouble was, I think, that we did not know how to talk or what to talk about. Things and events alone had importance as matter for conversation; 30 we discussed them, and, if you had had the courage and the patience, you might have sat through an endless number of those so-called conversations without hearing so much as a fleeting reference to an idea.
The best method of getting things done at home is to set aside a day for doing them. We have Mother's Day when we must think of our mothers, and Father's Day when we must think of our fathers. Well, why not have an Idea Day when those who are too busy during the rest of the year think and talk ideas to the exclusion of everything else?
My experience leads me to believe that good talk is likely to result, even in groups of quite ordinary individuals, when favorable conditions lead to favorable occasions. In Tahiti one has ample leisure, not only to talk, but to think between periods of talk. Men come together after weeks or months of solitude, their minds surcharged with energy, their opinions carefully weighed and sorted against the time when they may be brought forth in company. During their lonely meditations, they are seized by great convictions or great doubts, and to share these is as necessary to them as breathing. The moment two or three of them meet, the conversation immediately centers around ideas, for things are conspicuous only by their absence, events by the rarity of their Occurrence. What a satisfaction it is to escape the dominance of thingsnot to be perpetually reminded of them, stimulated to think of them or to want them, or to acquire them without wanting them! Very few people here have accumulated possessions.
As for the pessimists I have been speaking of, nearly all have achieved affluence in the Diogenic sense, estimating their wealth in terms of the things they can do without.
Although not yet among the truly opulent ones in this sense, I live much more cheaply than would be possible, even for a journalist, in America. In fact, my scale of living is about that of a small mechanic even that of a day laborer-at home.
My disillusioned friends are great readers, and this is another important minor advantage of living here: one has both the leisure and the inclination to read extensively. Most men Would agree that literature is the finest of the arts, music alone excepted. If this is true, then the time one gives to the reading of good books should be considerable, and here it is 80. In America, although I got through many books during the course of a year, it was reading with the eyes for the most part-rarely were mind and spirit fully engaged. There were too many distractions, and even when most deeply absorbed I was conscious all the while of the likelihood of interruption, so that I entered only halfheartedly the world of the imagination, like a doctor who goes to the theater expecting at any moment to be called away. For reading, one must have solitude and the assurance of freedom from interruption, and in Tahiti as nowhere else I have been able to fulfill both of these conditions. have a small house which stands on a peninsula about an acre in extent. No road passes through it-only a footpath used by two or three native families. The house faces the sea, with a no thwest exposure, and the nearest neighbors in that direction are some 800 miles away. Those to the right and left are closer at hand,
but they are the most discreet and thoughtful of neighbors and never intrude. Often I see no one for days, and in the secluded, sunny silence of the place it is easy to imagine that I am living on an otherwise uninhabired island. Here, many a time, secure from interruption, I have read for a solid week-mornings, afternoons, evenings, living in books more intensely than I have ever lived in the world of reality.
There is one more reason for living in Tahiti which has great weight with me: in a small island world one may comprehend all individual, social, and This political activity at a glance. adds enormously to the pleasure of living. One is bewildered by the complexity of life on a great continent. Here there is diversity without complexity, a mingling of races comparable to that in America, but on a small scale. To visit the Tahiti market of an early morning is to see the world in miniature: Polynesians, Chinese, French, English, Americans, Russians, Danes, Scandinavians; and it is of endless interest to see how these diverse elements accommodate themselves to their environment and to each other. But the ultimate result of this mingling is already clearly apparent. Within 50 years the Chinese have conquered Tahiti as completely as they will conquer all of French Polynesia well before the conclusion of this century.
But the Pacific is wide, and spangled with islands as the sky with stars. Although there is but one Tahiti, other crumbs of land exist where the anarchists may still find solitude and peace of mind, scaling lofty mountains for a distant view of the world, or walking lonely beaches, deep in unprofitable thought. 9.
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