On this date in 1912, a prolific Springfield thief died in the electric chair.
No, not Snake.
This fellow was Bertram G. Spencer, whose Boston Brahmin name belied a deceptively modest station.
A brakeman by day, Spencer lived a double life as Massacusetts’ boldest burglar in the evenings, when he would raid homes around Springfield at times when he was likely to be caught. (Hey, he did have a day job.) He frequently was intercepted, but for two years nobody ever got the drop on him and the numerous conversations he had with his victims were not enough to crack the case.
This villain comes up short of positively Moriartyesque by virtue of his amateurish chops in acquisition; one of the mystery burglar’s noted characteristics was the frequency with which he passed over the most valuable booty in the house in favor of some inconsequential bauble.
With his penchant for brandishing a weapon at the folks he bumped into, it was only a matter of time before somebody died for one of those inconsequential baubles. On March 31, 1910, schoolteacher Martha A. Blackstone became that somebody when in a panicking reaction to Spencer’s home invasion she failed to pipe down and let him rob — and he shot her dead.
Forensics then languishing in a primitive state, Spencer kept getting away with his larcenous (and then murderous) spree with little more than the expedient of wearing a kerchief and hat to hide his face. How were they ever going to find the guy — unless he did something ridiculous like drop a monogrammed locket on the scene?
Period postcard shows images connected to the Spencer crimes centered around the “B.G.S.” locket he dropped at one site, leading to his detection. Just to really make sure he hung himself, the locket contained pictures of his mother and sister.
Upon arrest, police tossed his home and discovered (quoth the New York Times) “black masks, slouch hats,” and “a big revolver, fully loaded” under his pillow. No word on whether he was twirling his mustache, too.
Where the relieved well-to-do of Springfield perhaps saw only a somewhat preposterous villain — inspired, according to the Springfield Republican, by “a daredevil bravado, a love of the spectacular and a lack of pecuniary calculation which strongly suggested either the monomania of an unbalanced mind or a romantic vanity fed on by penny dreadfuls” — other practitioners in the emerging field of psychiatry saw a systemic breakdown.
Indeed, Spencer became the topic of an open tug-of-war over handling defendants with putative mental disorders in the criminal justice system. The district attorney at the time had Spencer committed without trial, and his doing so — rather than contesting Spencer’s sanity in court — contributed to his loss at the polls in 1910. (The new guy, in his remarks on the case, reclassified Spencer from “insane” to the more prosecutable “moral imbecile.”)
If the public was certain enough about Bertram Spencer’s sanity to elect a guy just to try him, it will come as no surprise that the testimony about Spencer’s abusive childhood and manic-depression cut no ice with a jury of his peers.
While our burglar went to his juridical death (last words: “good night”), a Massachusetts psychologist named Lloyd Vernon Briggs took up the man (alongside more luminous criminals like presidential assassin Leon Czolgosz) as one of his case studies for a 1914 book, The Manner of Man That Kills. A lengthy pdf of the Spencer material — it’s all public domain — is available here.
Briggs viewed mentally disordered prisoners as people who were ill-served by the criminal justice system: more than that, as instances where a society failed itself by failing to recognize potentially criminal mental illness before it metastasized into actual crime, and the adversarial judiciary as a factor in that dysfunction.
Dr. L. Vernon Briggs … made it his goal to end the courtroom spectacle of dueling psychiatrists. …
Briggs was an indefatigable advocate of the psychological links between mental illness and murder. He believed that mental illness and moral degradation were the root causes of crime and violence. … Briggs insisted that the “real offender is society and not the children in the form of men, not the mentally diseased” who commit violent crime.
When mentally ill people landed in court, Briggs believed that the law’s adversary procedures undermined scientific truth and the legal protection provided a defendant. He wanted to bridge the gulf between law and psychiatry by intervening in the process before a mentally ill defendant appeared in court. He was especially critical of the “spectacle in our courts of two or more physicians pitted against one another, testifying to diametrically opposite opinions as to the mental condition and responsibility” of the defendant. Such a procedure, he said, not only humiliates the mentally ill defendant but increases the likelihood that a mentally ill capital defendant will be sentenced to death and executed … Briggs lobbied the public and the legislature for a law that required all capital defendants to undergo a psychiatric examination by neutral experts as son as they were taken into police custody.
Briggs was appalled [at Spencer’s case]. He contended that all of the psychiatrists who examined Spencer knew he was insane at the time of the murder and at the trial. Some thought he was medically insane but not legally insane. Briggs denounced the distinction between medical insanity and legal insanity as without a difference. The awful result of the confusion between psychhiatry and the law was the unnecessary execution of an insane person. “The whole legal machinery of the State,” he wrote angrily, “had been put in motin to crush this defective and uphold the Majesty ofthe Law and so it came about that Bertram G. Spencer, a defective from birth, with the mind of a child, was tried for his life and sentenced to death and executed with a smile upon his lips.”
Yes, Mirjam was Jewish. This certainly could not have helped her case, but she was actually killed as part of another genocide: the T4 program, the Nazi policy of involuntary euthanasia on people suffering from deformities, incurable illness, mental illness or anything else that made them into “useless eaters.”
Begun in 1939 with the killing of five-month-old Gerhard Kretschmar, who’d been born blind and missing two or three limbs, the T4 program would end the lives of over 200,000 people, about two-thirds of them after the program officially ended in 1941.
T4 had six death institutions, called “state nursing homes,” which were equipped with gas chambers. The operation was supposed to be a secret, but it was too big to be concealed and before long the German people thought they had a pretty good idea what was happening to their disabled loved ones.
Opencriticism of a fascist government is not advisable if you like your life, so the families were limited to publishing heavy hints in their relatives’ newspaper obituaries.
Perhaps the saddest part of Mirjam’s story is that she should have survived. Of course, none of the T4 victims should have been killed, but Mirjam had excellent odds of surviving the Nazi era … until a particularly boneheaded decision by Child Welfare Services and the immigration authorities in Palestine in October 1936.
What’s Palestine got to do with it, you ask? Mirjam P.’s story is told in Tom Lampert’s documentary history, One Life, and it begins in 1933:
This Adolf Hitler guy made Mirjam’s mother uneasy, and she decided to get her family to safety as soon as possible. Mirjam, fifteen years old, long considered a “difficult child,” had been staying in a juvenile reformatory school and sanitorium for the past eighteen months when her mother called her home. She had been sent there after she stole money from her mother and ran away from home.
Mirjam, her mother and her stepfather emigrated to the city of Tel Aviv in Palestine in September 1933, nine months after Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany.
Palestine didn’t agree with Mirjam; she hated the weather and had trouble learning Hebrew and Arabic. A year after her arrival, she went to live with her father in Haifa. She left after only a couple of days, however, returned to Tel Aviv and embarked on a spree of petty crimes. Her mother asked for help from Child and Welfare Services, who had two doctors examine Mirjam.
The first doctor pronounced that Mirjam had
… an advanced case of severe psychopathy with pronounced ethical defects. She lies, incurs debts, and has stolen repeatedly from her mother and her friends. She has run away from home multiple times … She roams the streets and is in danger of becoming morally depraved as a result of her strong sexual drives. In order to avoid further violations of the law, she must be admitted to a mental institution as quickly as possible. Since such an institution does not exist here, it is absolutely essential that she be sent back to Germany immediately.
The second doctor agreed:
P. is a psychopath with severe ethical defects and insufficiently developed powers of judgement. She tends to thievery and vagabonding, incurs debts, and has already developed the traits of a swindler … In order to avoid the threat of moral depravity, it is urgent that she be admitted to a remedial educational home … I know that no such institution exists in Palestine or in the neighboring countries. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that the patient be sent back to Europe without delay …
Child Welfare Services provided a private tutor for Mirjam, then sent her to a group home for girls, but she didn’t fit in there and was sent back to her mother. Very quickly she fell back into her old habits. She was arrested and put on probation, but she just got arrested again. In a remarkably stupid move by the authorities, she was expelled from the country and sent back to Germany in October 1936. Perhaps Palestine thought they’d given her enough chances.
Back to Germany.
The same country she had fled from to escape Hitler. The same country where by now, under Hitler’s regime, Jews had been banned from public high schools, universities, the civil service, the army and the medical field, where Jews had been deprived of their citizenship and the rights that went with it, where Jewish-owned businesses were boycotted, where things showed every sign of becoming worse and did.
To Germany Mirjam had been sent, to prevent “serious damage to … herself, to her family, and to society as a whole.” She was eighteen years old.
Mirjam spent a few weeks with her grandmother in Berlin, but she left because she was afraid (justifiably so) that the Nazis would put her in an “education camp.”
For the next several weeks she traveled around Europe, going to Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. She tried to find a job but she lacked the necessary papers. In March 1937, she was arrested in Zurich for borrowing money under false pretenses and not repaying it. After twelve days in jail, the Swiss dropped her off at the German border.
Back at square one, Mirjam got into trouble again for petty crimes and served eight months in prison. Then she confessed to having sex with a German boyfriend, in violation of the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor. Mirjam’s boyfriend was prosecuted and claimed he hadn’t known she was Jewish; Mirjam stated she had told him shortly after she met him. He was acquitted in December 1937.
After her release from jail, Mirjam was admitted to the Heckscher Psychiatric Hospital and Research Institute in Munich. She had her intelligence tested and performed poorly. Nurses at the hospital stated Mirjam was a demanding patient, she was lazy, she left her room a mess, she would not take responsibility for her mistakes, and she didn’t have realistic expectations for the future.
After three weeks there, the hospital sent a report to the Jewish welfare office in Munich, which indicated she hadn’t changed much since she was evaluated in Palestine:
In our judgment, P. is a mediocre but normally endowed, weak-willed, unrestrained, and asocial psychopath. Predominant are her physical urges, her limited powers of judgment and insight, and above all her lack of ethical and moral inhibitions. She is incapable of leading a responsible and purposeful life … External compulsion might gradually teach her the value of regular, long-term work and an orderly, honest life.
The evaluator suggested Mirjam be sent to the work unit of the State Mental Institution and Nursing Home.
A 21st-century reading of these evaluations suggests Mirjam was suffering first from Conduct Disorder and then its adult equivalent, Antisocial Personality Disorder. Conduct Disorder is noted “by a pattern of repetitive behavior wherein the rights of others or social norms are violated. Symptoms include verbal and physical aggression, cruel behavior toward people and pets, destructive behavior, lying, truancy, vandalism, and stealing.”
Antisocial Personality Disorder is diagnosed only in adults and is defined as “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.”
Both disorders are marked by impulsivity, recurring trouble with the law, persistent stealing and lying, and lack of empathy for other people, all traits Mirjam had. These conditions, while serious, would not by themselves merit inpatient psychiatric treatment today — although, in these days of managed care, almost nothing does.
In April 1938, Mirjam escaped from the psychiatric hospital and quickly found herself in jail — petty theft again. Writing from jail during her pretrial detention in May, she asked to be expelled from Germany so she could go live with her father in Palestine, because “as a Jew it is impossible for me to amount to anything here.”
Instead she was sentenced to fourteen months in prison. After her release, in mid-June 1939, the court committed her to the Philippshospital in Goddelau. It was her next-to-last stop on the road
On February 1, 1941, the Charitable Ambulance Service (a tool of T4) picked up 29 Jewish patients from Philippshospital. On February 4, 67 Jews, including the 29 Philippshospital patients, were registered in the logbook at the T4 death institution Hadamar.
Their names were not recorded, but chances are Mirjam was among the group. At Hadamar,
Up to 100 victims arrived in post buses every day. They were falsely told to disrobe for a medical examination. Sent before a physician, instead of examining them he assigned one of a list of 60 fatal diseases to every victim, then marked them with different-colored band-aids for one of three categories: Kill; kill and remove brain for research; kill and break out gold teeth.
Ten thousand people would die there before the end of the war, through gassing, starvation and deliberate drug overdoses.
The district attorney’s office inquired as to her whereabouts and received a death notice from Cholm Insane Asylum: “We wish to inform you that the patient Mirjam Sara P. died here on May 27, 1941. Heil Hitler!”
In fact, she was probably killed earlier than this; the death dates of T4 patients were often pushed forward so the institutions could continue to charge fees for their care.