Thursday, July 30, 2015

On Editors and Crows (1843)

On January 11, 1843, the New England Farmer published a letter from "An Essex Farmer," in response to its reply to the correspondent challenging its crow experiment (last post).  While the letter departed from the scientific theme of the original, it does show how certain values were projected onto newspapers advocating the protection of controversial birds. The letter was run under the heading, "On Editors and Crows."
In reading your reply to the inquiry, I thought you manifested too much of that disposition so common among editors of newspapers of late. I refer to the practice of defending the guilty from punishment, and of accusing all those who inflict that punishment which justice demands, of being hard-hearted and cruel. Who can read what has appeared in some of the papers respecting Colt and Spencer, and not see that they are endeavoring to awaken sympathy in behalf of the guilty, instead of holding them up as examples to deter others from crime?
Mercy to the guilty is often cruelty to the rest of society;--and your reply to the communication of your correspondent of "Hull" shows that there is no character so black but what it may find an advocate among the editors of newspapers. 
Note: "Colt and Spencer" referred to two recent cases heavily covered in the press. The first was the case of John C. Colt, accounting textbook author and brother of gun-maker Samuel Colt, who was found guilty of murdering his of printer Samuel Adams in 1841 and sentenced to be executed. The second was the case of Philip Spencer, son of the current Secretary of War, who was summarily executed in 1842 following a mutiny conspiracy on a US Navy vessel. Both cases produced controversy. Colt (who had effectively introduced double-entry book-keeping to the US) was widely thought to have killed Adams in self-defense; the hanging-without-trial of Spencer was thought to be cruel and unjust. Regardless of the specifics, the writer linked the crow defender with the anti-death penalty position of many "benevolence" leaders, and apparently, newspaper editors.

The writer actually framed his argument in terms of bird protection. Unlike useful insectivorous songbirds, crows, in addition to being thieves, were murderers. 
Now it appears to me that your mercy for the crow is cruelty to the rest of the feathered tribe. Although by feeding him we may protect our cornfields against is depredation, yet will he not go directly from the field where he has been fed, and murder a whole family of young robins?…Did you ever think that the reason why the robin builds her nest so near our dwellings was, to be protected from the crow? And can we feed and protect him, without betraying that confidence which the innocent birds repose in us?
You tell us in one paper to "spare the birds," and then in another that you will feed and protect the crow, who will destroy the eggs and the young of all he can find.
You may feed and protect the crow and listen to his continual and unmusical cry of haw, haw, haw--but you must be careful to keep him on your own premises, and not to permit him to prowl about the neighborhood, killing those useful birds which protect our orchards from insects, and make the air vocal with their melodious songs. 
"An Essex Farmer" had certainly taken the "spare the (useful and melodious) birds" message to heart, but, like many in the history of bird protection, resisted extending that protection to birds that preyed on other birds.

The New England Farmer's response, framed as a crow trial (now a minor genre of sorts), found the bird innocent of thievery (because it paid for its corn consumption with insect destruction) but guilty of murder.
Here we have a hard nut to crack….It was the crime of eating corn for which we begged he might not be destroyed, but left to eat the noxious worms also. Our defense of him thus far is hardly such as will expose us to the charge of trying to screen those guilty of enormous crimes, from the punishment they deserve…Pray do not think the black crow so black-hearted as the human murderer, because he pulls up corn. Do not class us with those of a sickly, if not of a wicked sympathy with the awfully guilty….But now--now the case is altered. Now you, "An Essex Farmer," accuse him of murder! This is a grave charge, and we suppose him guilty. 
Nevertheless, the Farmer rejected the death penalty for crows, and not for benevolence's sake. In respect to the highest level of law (Creation's), the crow was not guilty at all.
What is his plea why sentence of death should not be pronounced against him? Hear what he says:--"Haw, haw, haw"--this is his plea; and being translated from crow language into plain English, it means this:--"He who made me, gave me an appetite for young robins, and the instinct in me which impels me to eat them is but the law of Him who made me…If the robins, whose instincts tell them to seek the protection of man, and build their nests where I dare not go, disregard those instincts, and hatch their young within my range, then, by our common Maker's law, they are my legitimate food…I did only my duty; and black as my outside is, in heart I am much more of a Mackenzie [Spencer's commander who had him executed] than of a Colt or a Spencer." 
Such is the interpretation of his speech. This is his defence. And has he not defended us too? He has cracked the nut. 
Ultimately, the frame of human morality was unavoidable but inadequate when it came to judging birds (one of the reasons why the "crow trial" has an inevitable satiric quality). The portrayal of song birds killed by hunters as the "slaughter of innocents (who only want to cheer us with their music)" had been an effective rhetorical device against wanton killing but licensed the execution of birds of prey. Papers like the New England Farmer were indeed placed in a difficult position when it came to defending those birds precisely because their previous pleas to "spare the birds" had been so successful. 

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