Special Report By Monica Sullivan
Here's a few news stories ripped from the headlines: In '48, 10-year-old William York was found guilty of murder & sentenced to death, but received a pardon. He had been sharing a bed with a 5-year-old girl & stabbed her when she wet the bed. In '76, three girls of 8, 9 & 10 murdered a 3-year-old by sticking her with pins. Due to their extreme youth, they were found to be incapable of doing wrong & therefore acquitted. Less fortunate was 14-year-old John Bell who robbed & cut the throat of a boy a year younger. His last words before his execution three days after sentencing were, "All you people take heed by me!" None of these children who killed were influenced by popular culture or by the violence in films, on television or in video games. William York of Suffolk escaped the death penalty by enlisting in the Navy in 1748, the year George Washington celebrated his 16th birthday. The oldest of the three little girls in Huntingdon was a year younger than John Quincy Adams & Andrew Jackson, who were 11-years-old in 1776. And John Bell, who begged for the last moment of his life, was hanged at Maidstone Gaol in March 1831, the year James Garfield was born in a log cabin in Ohio. 5,000 people watched Bell die & his words must have struck a nerve in their collective conscience: After that, no more children were hanged.
Even the most cursory study of true crime reveals that children have killed both children & adults throughout the 19th & 20th centuries. Then as now, they killed for a variety of reasons. Then as now, scapegoats were sought & found. Some of the children were dealt with mercifully, some were not. Some adjusted to Society, some did not. Murders by children have always been rare, but as horrifying as murders by adults are to other adults, murders by children have always seemed even more horrifying. This may be due to the idealistic notion that childhood is meant to be a time of innocence, but we don't have to interview millions of kids to realize that children are no more & no less innocent than adults. We only have to draw on our own honest memories as kids. As a 9-year-old in the 4th grade, I recall being just as riveted by true crime stories as I am in 2001 by the "Crime Scene Investigation" television program. One front page story involved a 12-year-old Girl Scout in Marin County who left her mother a note saying she was going to San Francisco for the weekend. The adults in my life didn't approve of a kid my age being interested in true crime, so they hid the newspapers & I didn't find out what happened to her until I grew up & could study true crime books by writers like Colin Wilson & Ludovic Kennedy. My 9-year-old imagination, revolving around advisory warnings about Strangers, was much more terrifying than the actual facts of the case, grim as they were. The Girl Scout had been killed by a boy Friend, not much older than she was. And, that, sadly enough, is a characteristic of virtually all murders by kids. They know their victims & their victims know them. They blamed the Devil in the eighteenth century & Society blames the media as a scapegoat for the Devil in the 21st. They blamed poverty & ignorance in the 19th century & Society blamed affluence & isolation in the 20th. 170 years ago, John Bell cried for the mob of Society to listen to him, much as youthful killers do in 2001. Like him, they are dismissed & punished. As long as these cries receive no other serious attention, other wretched children will continue to join their number.
© 2001 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 3/14/01
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