“Human Tragedy” by Albert S. Ashmead, M.D., New York, published in The Medical Brief: A Monthly Journal of Practical Medicine, April, 1908
Balzac in his La Comedie Humaine has one of his characters say: “There are in modern society three men who can never think well of the world—the priest, the doctor and the man of law. And they were black robes, perhaps because they are in mourning for every virtue and every illusion. The most hopeless of the three is the lawyer. When a man comes in search of the priest he is prompted by repentance, by remorse, by beliefs which make him interesting; which elevate him and comfort the soul of the intercessor whose task will bring him a sort of gladness; he purifies, repairs and reconciles. But we lawyers, we see the same evil feelings repeated again and again; nothing can correct them; our offices are sewers which can never be cleansed.
How many things have I learned in the exercise of my profession? I have seen a father die in a garret, deserted by two daughters to whom he had given 40,000 francs a year. I have known wills burned. I have seen mothers robbing their children, wives killing their husbands and working on the love they could inspire to make men idiotic or mad, that they might live in peace with a lover. I have seen women teaching their child of their marriage such tastes as must bring it to the grave in order to benefit the child of an illicit affection. I could not tell you all I have seen, for I have seen crimes against which justice is impotent. In short, all the horrors that romancers suppose they have invented are still below the truth.”
And the doctor? He sees best the human tragedy. If all the evil that is so freely known to us were depicted in literature, what a world of horror would there be exposed! I have seen a mother slowly poison to death by arsenic her 11-year-old daughter in order that she might reap the benefit of $170 of cursed child-insurance. I have seen a husband who poured a fatal dose of carbolic acid down the helpless throat of his dying consumptive wife, mother of his three children, because he had grown tired of the trouble and expense of nursing her. This human beast had the decency, six weeks after, to hang himself to his garret rafter.
I have heard, while delivering an unmarried 15-year-old girl of a full-term child, a devil’s whisper issue from the mouth of the girl’s father, who leaned across my shoulder: “A hundred dollars more is yours if the child is born dead.”
I have been asked by a boarding-house proprietress, when handing her for delivery to the public administrator the keys, watch and $85 in money, which I had found on the person of an old man who had just died of apoplexy in the house: “Why find more than two dollars?”
Two such human minds, to poison, kill, to rob a corpse, is not crime. Every doctor could recall incidences like these—yea, paint even worse pictures of human depravity. If there be one of my profession who, after years spent in its exercise, can still feel enthusiastic over his knowledge of human nature, I shall be glad to know it, for I have none; it is all departed. Humbug is the way nature presents herself to me. My view is well known. We should all, in our optimistic way, go slow, for the gods are gleeful, and grin behind the backs of men. My heart is today of human existence, heavy—every day, heavy. The deliberate deceit of the law of things is at last to me revealed. I live in the past and with the dead.
I am well acquainted with Balzac’s writings. He seems to have been ever a keen observer of human nature, with a very considerable wealth of expressive power, leading others to see what they had not theretofore observed. Whether he drew deductions and advanced accurately to conclusions I hardly know. But we can do that for ourselves, from the material that is furnished to us by those who write books. Blessed be the printing press—the ark on the tossing wave of life. Thereto our weary spirits may return to rest from their wanderings, with none to molest or make then afraid.
All the writers, of whatever shade of thought, admit, in some way, the presence of evil in the very warp and woof of life. It is in the Lord’s Prayer, where He asks the Father to “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us form evil.” Human nature is very low. I despair of its eventual freedom of dross. The net of the fowler is spread for every winged spirit.