Remembering Voltairine de Cleyre on Her One Hundred Fiftieth Birthday

voltairineVoltairine de Cleyre, pictured here, was born on November 17, 1866, 150 years ago today. That would have been right after the Civil War had ended. She was a remarkable woman but we have not read much about her in the American history books. She died when she was 45 years old.

Her unusual first name was given to her by her father who was an admirer of Voltaire.

One thing that struck me about her was an incident that occurred on December 19, 1902. She was on her way to give lessons and was just about to board a street car. Herman Helcher who had fallen in love with her years earlier but had not had his affection returned grabbed her by the sleeve as she was doing this. She turned. He shot her in the chest. She spun around and he fired two more shots into her back. It was expected she would die but she would live for another ten years but she continually suffered as a result of the attack.

She wrote to a friend about the attack: “I believe outside of the actual physical pain of the first three days, my friends suffered more than I did.” She refused to cooperate in the prosecution of Helcher because she believed he was mentally ill and not responsible for his crime.

She would then write a letter to her friends stating: “I write to appeal to you on behalf of the unfortunate child (for in intellect he has never been more than a child)  who made the assault upon me. He is friendless, he is in prison, he is sick — had he not been sick in the brain he never would have done this thing.”

Voltairine recognized that one who is mentally ill could not be held responsible for a criminal act even when she was a victim. This has been part and parcel of our legal tradition since at least the 19th century as shown in this history here. Edward Bennett Williams a prominent lawyer explained how holding a mentally ill person responsible for a criminal act would be the same as holding a dumb animal responsible for something it did. He pointed out in his book “One Man’s Freedom”  how at one time horses and donkeys were put on trial for actions that caused harm.

The Boston Globe has a series on it here that shows how little regard is paid to the mental condition of defendants by the courts.  Unfortunately the plethora of so-called experts willing to testify that obviously sane individuals were not responsible for their crimes has caused this unfortunate situation where jurors tend to disregard all diagnosis of mental illness.

I tried two murder cases where the defendants had less than their full mental capacities. In one, a mother killed her daughter of four years old in an attempt to save her from the people who were coming up her driveway intent on snatching her away and sexually abusing her. I was asked to handle the case by another assistant who had indicted the woman for first degree murder.

Studying the case I came to the conclusion that the woman loved her daughter, and only child, and that her killing of her was caused by her obvious mental instability that had been abetted by a psychologist that had been treating her daughter. Those were the days of the widespread panic when cases like that of the Ameraults and the Fells Acre Day School took place. If you do not know about it read here. A national insanity occurred every much as bad as the Salem Witch trials.

I tried the case straight out putting the psychologist on the stand and taking her over the hurdles. I  showed that it was more the psychologist’s fault the young girl was dead than the mother on trial. I was told the judge said after my cross examination that the wrong person was on trial. The woman was found not guilty by reason of insanity which was the correct finding.

Our society should not be imprisoning people who commit crimes, even the most vile, if they do not know what they are doing. Voltairine who never graduated from high school felt this deep down in her bones. She was known for having pursued another cause in her life but I thought on her birthday her refusal to participate in the punishment of one who had shot her because he was sick in his mind is a nice way to remember her.

4 thoughts on “Remembering Voltairine de Cleyre on Her One Hundred Fiftieth Birthday

  1. Thanks for this post on an unexpected topic.

    In recent times, has anyone ever put forth any acceptably reasoned argument asserting anything to the contrary (or even a hint of such)?

  2. You’re a funny guy. I’ve suspected you of much different than the usual temperament of the members of your Guild in the past. Your profession is replete with prosecutors who notched convictions somewhat more than suspect as easily on their consciences as if they pushed the person in front of a subway train in order simply to be sure they got a good seat on the train. Maybe it has something to do with the air in upper Dedham Square where reside those baronial courts, District and Superior, facing each other across High St. Interesting post.

  3. You wrote “her refusal to participate in the punishment”. A trial is the punishment? Rather, is it not the determination of responsibility for an act unacceptable to society?

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