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Echoes of the Week

The Illustrated London News, vol. 45, no. 1288, p. 518.

November 19, 1864


If any one following on the track of Dr. Thompson, in his exploration of the "sensational" in literature, were to ask for the tap root of this gigantic growth, he might find it in that natural curiosity which attaches to the perpetration and perpetrators of all great crimes. Have not two big books, "Les Crimes Célèbres" and "Les Causes Célèbres," upon this absorbing topic, reached England from France, two amongst hundreds? Do not the "Newgate Calendar" and the twenty-seven volumes of "State Trials" find their purchasers; and have we not had "Curiosities," and "Romances," and certain Chronicles of crime whence, as from a reserve, the captains of fiction have drawn great armies into the field; and, lastly, have we not all during the last week been watching the last act of a murder-tragedy with wonderful interest? Again, were we not all intensely relieved, nay, as much "overjoyed," as the newspapers had it, as good Dr. Cappel himself, when he ran down the ladder into the prison, crying out, "Thank God he has confessed"? Yes, the chief actor in this dire tragedy, who, by wickedness, force of character, obstinacy, stupidity, cupidity, or what you will, had raised himself to the bad eminence he occupied, had moreover attained a certain mastery over the weaker minds by which he was surrounded, and had impressed them with an idea of his innocence. So in this "sensational novel," which we all read in the newspapers, the interest was wrought up to one point, and the culmination--the secret being well kept--only took place at the very last second of time, when, before that fatal trap opened which let the murderer fall from Time to Eternity, he muttered the words, "Ya, Ich habe es gethan"--"Yes, I did it," and thus took a load from all our breasts. The law of the country was well, vigorously, and yet gently administered, and in the whole trial there is nothing of which England need feel ashamed. Nor, certainly, need anyone feel ashamed at the intense interest which a great crime awakens. "But for the grace of God, there goes Wm. Huntingdon," said that preacher, pointing to a criminal.

In reference to this railway murder, the story of which has travelled over all America, Mr. Sala, in his letters from the "Midst of War," reminds us that we are not, after all, the worst off as to travelling, though our carriages are isolated boxes, and there be little or no communication between them. In America they go to the opposite extreme, and, as everybody knows, one can walk down the centre of a carriage containing a hundred or so of passengers. But selfish and dishonest humanity takes advantage even of this open-class travelling, and a gang of 200 ruffians, on the Erie Railroad, lately robbed and insulted every man, woman, and child in a train, and then quietly effected their escape. We may learn from this that convenience and safety in travelling are not to be attained by any one plan, but that they lie, as everybody of experience always supposed them to do, in the middle of two systems. Saloon carriages are useful, carriages reserved for the unprotected female are indispensable also, and a communication or thorough outlook for the guard we must have; and this might be done with a reflecting mirror placed in front of his seat, so that, whichever way he turned, any signal from a carriage would catch his eye....

As gold goes up in New York, and disasters looked at at first by the diminishing end of the telescope assume their real proportions, so the hopes of the Confederates rise and their partisans come forward. Mr. Spence, the "S." of the Times, whose letters on American affairs are always read with interest, has again favoured the public with his views on the "fratricidal war," and, like most Englishmen, is hopeful of the effect of the slave soldier of the South. Everybody's vaticination of a servile war seems to be wrong. Pompey or Cæsar, the bone of contention, may in the long run remain master of the situation; certainly we believe that the negro race will be the only one which will benefit by the contest. If great situations produce great men, and man is the creature of the creative circumstance, now is Cæsar's time. If he do not come forward, he must be content to remain nullus for the next generation. A black Hannibal, on the part of in North, contending with a Scipio Africanus from Alabama, or somewhere else south of Mason and Dixie's line, would go far to settle the question of the equality of the races....

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