Monstrous Youth: Murder and Modernity in Fin-de-Sicle France

Stephen Toth, Associate Professor of Modern European History, School of Humanities, Arts & Cultural Studies

While recent murders in the United States have brought to prominent public attention the child or adolescent who kills, this is certainly not a new phenomenon nor is it limited to the American experience. Through a microhistorical reconstruction of three notorious cases of murder committed by boys in fin-de-siècle France, this project roots  our current dialogue surrounding such acts in a longstanding gothic sensibility that was experiencing a popular resurgence in the late nineteenth century.  The young murderers of this study both captivated and repelled the general public and learned observers alike for they posed a profound challenge to the dominant imagining of youth, both in terms of what it meant to be young and the perceived capacity of the young for wrongdoing.  As there was nothing in the popular or scientific lexicon from which to draw upon when discussing “murderous youth”--other than the failure of childhood innocence--an older, mythic form of the child as savage and amoral “monster” reemerged in the various discourses surrounding these crimes. The rhetorical deployment of the latter construction was a desperate effort to reaffirm what was considered “ordinary” or “normal” in children and youth, a conceit which could only remain intact if those who killed could be labeled as “Other.” The various discourses surrounding these cases illuminate volatile ambiguities underlying conceptions of criminal insanity in youth and a profound concern regarding cultural modernity and moral decline, particularly among young males of the working class and poor who were seen as the seedbed of much unrest and disorder.

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