Front Page Titles (by Subject) 26.: EFFECTS OF GAMBLING LANCET, 9 NOV., 1823, PP. 214-16 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I
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26.: EFFECTS OF GAMBLING LANCET, 9 NOV., 1823, PP. 214-16 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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EFFECTS OF GAMBLING
This article gives early indication of Mill’s participation in the nature vs. nurture debate, in which he enlisted on the side of education and environment, without endorsing the views of the necessitarians or Owenites. The case here referred to is that of John Thurtell (1794-1824), who murdered a fellow-swindler, William Weare, on 24 Oct., 1823, and was hanged on 9 Jan., 1824. Mill’s reference to “students of our profession” is surely a guise intended to associate his argument with the concerns of medicine (or it may have been added by the editor); he had no medical training, and his brief legal training is not specially germane. The article, Mill’s only contribution to the Lancet, the (initially) weekly radical medical journal, is headed “[From a Correspondent] / The Late Murder / Effects of Gambling,” and is described in Mill’s bibliography as “An article on the evil consequences of gaming which appeared in the Lancet of 9th November 1823”
(MacMinn, p. 4).
when human nature exhibits, as she occasionally does, an example of all kinds of wickedness concentrated in one man, we feel a melancholy interest in looking back upon the events of his life, and tracing the various circumstances which, by their conspiring influence, formed his mind to guilt, and eradicated all those associations, or prevented them from being formed, which cause an ordinary character to shudder at the thought of shedding the blood of a fellow creature.
Indolent and superficial reasoners would willingly arrest the inquiring mind in the search after those hidden causes by which the human character is formed. If a shocking instance of depravity presents itself to their notice, they do not say. That man was an idler, a drunkard, or a gamester; but That man was naturally of a bad disposition: as if men were robbers and murderers by constitution, and gave proof in the cradle of the atrocities which they were destined to commit.
With what face can a man who believes in innate depravity, hold up the fate of a murderer as an example, and warn all who are witnesses of it, to beware of the vices which conduct men to such an end? As consistently might a believer in fatality enlarge upon the necessity of obeying the dictates of prudence. The person to whom the admonition is addressed, might well reply, that it is unnecessary, since, if his nature is corrupt, it is in vain to struggle against it; but if he has a natural disposition to virtue, all exhortation to follow that disposition is superfluous. This doctrine, therefore, must raise up a blind confidence in the minds of the innocent, and must prevent them from taking the necessary precautions against those baneful habits which lead to vice: while they, who have already entered into the downhill path of wickedness, are prevented from a timely reform, by the thought that all their efforts would be unavailing.
Nor is the doctrine which we are combating less unfounded than mischievous. It is truly astonishing upon how little evidence this opinion has obtained currency in the world—such currency that the phraseology to which it has given rise, is, perhaps, equally universal with the use of language. It remains yet to be proved, that men are born either virtuous or wicked—either predisposed to morality or to vice. The only proof which it has ever been attempted to assign, is the enormous difference which exists between the most virtuous and the most vicious of men. The differences of character are indeed great; but so are the differences of external circumstances. And as it is generally admitted that circumstances often overcome the effect of natural predisposition, while no proof has ever been given that natural predisposition can overcome external circumstances: we are at liberty to conclude, that in ascribing to any person a natural and original disposition to vice, men are following the very common practice of representing as natural that which is only habitual, merely because they do not recollect its beginning, and will not take the trouble to inquire into its cause.
If, then, wickedness is not the effect of nature, but of external circumstances, that inquiry cannot fail to be interesting, which traces up that complicated and lamentable effect to the several causes which produced it. But most of all will such an inquiry be valuable, if it points out to us as the original root of all the evil, not some circumstances peculiar to the guilty individual, but habits and practices common to him with a great number; and which, although they do not conduct their votaries either to equal depravity or to equal punishment, infallibly bring about a radical corruption of character, and lead them continually to the brink of the most atrocious crimes.
Our readers will have long ago anticipated the subject of our present observations. The principal perpetrator of the late murder, John Thurtell, was a murderer only after he had been a gamester, and only, as it appears, because he had been a gamester.
The process by which gaming effects so complete a corruption of the character is two-fold. First, It reduces the gamester, not gradually, but suddenly, to that necessitous state where the temptation to crime is the strongest. Secondly, There is no practice capable of being pointed out, which so entirely roots out all good habits, and implants in their stead so many bad ones.
We are satisfied that if the unfortunate men who are executed for theft, or forgery, were interrogated concerning the original and primary cause of the distress which occasioned the crime, it would be found, in a great proportion of instances, that this distress was brought on by gaming. But it is not even by the distress which it creates, and the temptation which it frequently holds out to crime, that this destructive vice produces its worst effects. A mind which experiences the agonizing vicissitudes of the gaming table, soon becomes so habituated to strong excitement, that, like the body of the habitual drunkard, it is insensible to every stimulus of a gentler kind. It is totally and for ever unfitted to resume habits of diligence and industry; and the habits which it has acquired are in themselves, such as, above all others, tend to produce crime. Continually liable to perish by starvation, the gamester does not consider his perils much enhanced when, to be released from that danger, he exposes himself to the terrors of the law. And the habit of relying upon chance makes him trust to the chance of escape, even when the possibility is next to nothing. In no other way can the apparent coolness and indifference of Thurtell be accounted for, where it must be evident that the chance of escaping detection scarcely deserved the name of a possibility.
It is a question well deserving of consideration, how far Government or its officers are justified in any direct interference to prevent these practices. It would be a chimerical expectation, that the vice of gaming could be eradicated by positive enactment. But there can be no doubt, that public gaming-houses contribute greatly to the encouragement of this vice. Unwary persons, perhaps, recently arrived in London, (and we particularly address our observations to students of our profession,) and not yet aware of the dangers to which they are exposed, are frequently entrapped, and carried into one of these houses, where they are made drunk, cheated of their money, and, perhaps, by frequent repetition, reduced to poverty, while they contract, at the same time, inveterate habits of gaming. We think that the exertions used for the suppression of these houses are not by any means so active as they ought to be. Many notorious hot-beds of vice are still permitted to exist; and we are convinced, that upon diligent inquiry, their existence would be found to be connived at by the police officers, who have no interest in diminishing the number of offences, though they have in obtaining possession of the persons of the offenders. We think that Mr. Dyer, Mr. Swabey, and Mr. Rogers, would be better employed in extirpating this nuisance, than by sending respectable men to the tread-mill for having the misfortune to be taken ill in Hyde Park,1 or for being considered by police officers “reputed thieves.”2
[1 ]John Watts (in his 77th year), “a most respectable individual,” being “taken with a violent pain in the bowels” while in Hyde Park on 20 Aug., “was constrained . . . to obey the imperative call of nature.” Taken up by a police officer, he was committed by Dyer, the magistrate in the Marylebone Street office, to a month’s hard labour in Coldbath Fields prison. He was not allowed even to notify his family of his whereabouts for more than twenty-four hours and was released only on 31 Aug., without, however, having endured the treadmill. See “Liberty of the Subject,” Globe and Traveller, 30 Sept., 1823, p. 2.
[2 ]See No. 25.