Nietzsche, Doc, and the Crime College

Have you ever looked a word up in the dictionary and found something else that you were not seeking but it was interesting? From “The American Heritage Dictionary” – Superman: 2. In the philosophy of Nietzsche, an ideal superior man who, through the exercise of creative power and his ability to forgo transient pleasure, would live at a level of experience beyond the standards of good and evil and would represent the goal of human evolution.”

Friedrich Nietzsche was a famous German university professor and philosopher who lived in the last half of the nineteenth century. The idea of a superman, or ubermenschen, as it appears in the German language, is one of his better-known ideas.

There is a lot more to the idea than the simple explanation shown in the dictionary. It turns out that current moralities and laws do not apply to this superman. He is above them and makes his own laws and morality. How does this relate to Doc Savage? Well, here is where we take a  look at the Crime College.

Throughout his unique career, Doc Savage maintained an odd institution for the treatment of criminals. Criminals and evildoers, no matter how severe or heinous their crimes, were not turned over to legal representatives of the government. These individuals were not afforded “due process” as it is so popularly named today. Their day in court never came.

Rather, Doc Savage was a law unto himself. Crime was presented to the reader not as a social problem but as a medical condition. Law breakers were sent to a secret facility maintained by the bronze man. There they received medical and psychiatric therapy that cured them of their criminal tendencies.

Readers initially learn about the institution in “The Land of Terror” (April 1933). Treatments are described as psychological. Surgery is not mentioned as a course of treatment. Episode by episode, secrets of the mysterious asylum unfold. Criminals have no say in their treatment. Candidates are drugged and shipped to the facility no matter how great the distance. The followers of the Cult of the Moccasin in the Louisiana swamps are sent to northern New York State just as readily as a native New Yorker.

During the series we see an expanding course of treatment given at Doc’s special “Crime College.” In June 1933, during “The Polar Treasure” story, it is explained that graduates also receive surgically induced amnesia, indoctrinated to hate crime, and taught a profession before being reintegrated into the outside world.

The top men at the facility, the surgeons, and psychologists, are all protégées of Clark Savage, Jr., MD. Throughout the entire series Doc Savage is portrayed as an expert in countless fields. However, the author never lets you forget that medical science is Doc’s most accomplished area of study.

Notably, the institution is expanding. Doc’s success in capturing criminals necessitates enlargement of the facility. Doc and men determine that Captain McCluskey have no legal claim to the Oceanic Treasure. They resolve to get it for themselves and use it to expand the Crime College.

The Crime College does not limit itself to the treatment of small-time or petty crooks. A very unusual group of men head north, on a long journey from South America to the Crime College. They are leading men in the local nitrate industry. They are also criminals. Regardless of their social or economic standing, they will be treated for their “disease.”

December 1934 proved to be a blockbuster story with “The Annihilist.” Here, for the first time, some of the secrets of the Crime College are revealed. We learn that the strange hospital is in an isolated spot. Crime, it is revealed, arises from a glandular disorder, which is corrected by treatment at the facility. There is even a drug, a crime drug discovered during research that will cause men to become criminals.

There is little doubt about where the facility lies in regard to the letter of the law. But the law does not concern itself overly much with this unorthodox center. By the story’s end, Inspector Hardboiled Humbolt had a pretty clear understanding of just exactly what the remote mountain facility was. As a duly constituted law officer, he professes ignorance but as a citizen he openly wonders if he can send a few a few special friends over. Inspector Humbolt has joined the club.

A few years back Doc fan Jerry Cooper sent me a copy of an article titled “Crooks Cured by Surgeon’s Knife” from the July 1930 issue of Popular Science. The article centers directly on the idea that crime has distinct physical causes due to glandular disturbances: In other words, it now seems not only possible, but highly probably, that malsecretion (that is, a secretion which is too large or too small, or chemically unbalanced) of some gland is responsible for the greater part of the crime in the world. The article specifically talks about rehabilitating offenders — even habitual criminals — through medical treatments. As Jerry aptly pointed out at the time the article has a lot in common with the theories later espoused at Doc’s Crime College.

By March 1935 Doc Savage and his men have developed a scary reputation in the criminal mind. As a means of intimidation, Monk proposes to kill and cremate a petty criminal. The threat is merely a bluff but Dorgan, the criminal being questioned, believes it genuine. Doc has a fearsome reputation with the underworld.

A new wrinkle is revealed in “The Spook Hole” (April 1935). Doc sends an injured criminal to a doctor with a note entitling him to ten thousand dollars. The criminal will get the money but only after graduating from Doc’s Crime College. The process was continually evolving. The ten grand cash graduation gift was a new part of the treatments.

A few months later in “The Majii” (September 1935) the reader meets a plump man who is head of a large psychiatric hospital. Undoubtedly it is Bellevue, but it is not named as such. The doctor turns out to be one of Doc’s mentors. He is one of the many talented individuals Doc has trained under. The man makes no bones about Doc Savage’s superior knowledge. Just who is the doctor? We never really learn exactly but the question arises as to whether he is the individual referred to in “The Spook Hole.” Is this the man the criminal went to for treatment of his physical injuries? Is this doctor privy to the Crime College? Alas we can on speculate to that answer.

One more interesting fact surfaces regarding Doc’s unusual treatment center. We are told that it has been in operation a “long time.” “The Majii” is only the thirty-first adventure. Less than three years have passed since the first story. That short amount of time hardly accounts for the operational period alluded to in the story.

In “The Men Who Smiled No More” (April 1936) the reader becomes acquainted with the Domyn Islands. It is a mining facility operated by a company of which Doc is a stockholder. Many of the rehabilitated graduates who have no close ties or occupations are sent here to work at well-paying jobs.

Graduates begin making guest appearances in the stories. In “The Vanisher” (December 1936) Doc Savage is wanted by the police in connection with the murder of a Federal agent. Doc encounters a cab driver who enthusiastically offers his assistance. The man is one of Doc’s graduates.

Throughout the series we are repeatedly told that a deep hatred of crime is instilled in graduates as part of their treatment. The fact that Doc is now wanted by the police makes no impression upon the man at all. He offers his unconditional support to the bronze man. It is a revealing scene. Loyalty to Doc Savage supersedes the law.

Doc’s new-found status as a wanted criminal gives the newspapers an opportunity to vent their spleen. Doc’s never-ending refusal to grant an interview is a source of irritation to many members of the fifth estate. Newspapers are quick to fan the flames and sale more papers. Prominent in the headlines are questions concerning the many individuals who have completely disappeared after coming in contact with Doc’s organization.

While not present in the published edition, the original manuscript for “The Vanisher” also possesses an interesting passage regarding the Crime College.

“To prevent the cured criminals from being returned to prison, Doc had a rather unusual working agreement. The governor of the state owed the bronze man a debt of gratitude, and by way of repaying same, managed the issuance of pardons to such individuals as Doc designated.”

This is an astonishing bit of news and raises questions concerning Doc’s unique crime curing facility. Whether or not the authorities knew exactly what was going on at the Crime College they were willing to act on Doc’s recommendations regarding pardons. However, this story was so extensively rewritten that the above passage became superfluous. It is an important insight into Dent’s unrecorded ideas, and it raises some interesting thoughts concerning the operation and legal angles around the crime college.

As of February 1937, “The Derrick Devil,” the Crime College has an unblemished record. The amount of recidivism is zero.

Another graduate appears in “The Feathered Octopus” (September 1937). He drives the ambulance that carries some captives to the College. A significant portion of this story occurs overseas. That presents no impediment to their treatment. A steamer is diverted to pick up the candidates for transport to upstate New York.

“Repel” from October 1937 provides an intriguing glimpse of the treatments. Readers learn the actual criminal remediation constitutes a small portion of the overall treatment. It is a painful lesson for Cadwiller Olden. The “bad” Baldwins are recent Crime College graduates. Their course of treatment was swift and did not involve surgically induced amnesia. More interesting is the attitude struck by Doc Savage concerning the fight rules. Doc’s statement about the lack of rules is very mindful of Nietzsche’s ubermenschen.

Graduates appear in ever increasing numbers with “The Red Terrors” (September 1938). Doc’s yacht crew consists of treated men. More importantly we learn that many of the men become operatives in a vast “information-gathering agency” that Doc runs. It is an important asset in his life’s work of fighting wrong doers.

A month later the scope of this agency seems to have expanded (“Fortress of Solitude,” October 1938). It is a worldwide agency comprised solely of men processed through Doc’s Crime College.

Another aspect of the Crime College treatment appears. Doc Savage offers to perform surgery on everyone. There is a two-fold purpose in this offer. First it would destroy their memories of the horrible events they have undergone. There is a strong suggestion of cannibalism during the period they are marooned in the icebound ship. Secondly, and more importantly for Doc, they would not remember anything about the Fortress of Solitude.

“Mad Mesa” (January 1939) is insightful regarding admission to the Crime College. A couple of minor criminals are sent to the institution. One of them is a waitress who was only a minor criminal, but she gets the full treatment anyway. Draconian is an apt description for the punishment here and it would be such to an ordinary person. But Doc is a “superman” who is above the standards observed by ordinary mortals.

In a deviation from the standard treatment, “The Dagger in the Sky” (December 1939) provides an opportunity to work with a group of men who control much wealth. Doc explains that they can be trained to become philanthropists. The police make an appearance in “The Spotted Men” (March 1940). The police take custody of the mobsters but later turn them over to Doc for shipment upstate to the Crime College. The police are assisting Doc! Like all good things, this eventually comes to an end.  In “The Evil Gnome” (June 1940), the police apprehend Doc’s prisoners and thus thwart the men’s chance at rehabilitation. “The Flying Goblin” (July 1940) gives readers a glimpse of the crime college. It is no longer so remote that an unknown car cannot simply drive up to the gate. The story begins with the escape of one of the patients.

Birmingham Jones turns out to be an odd patient. His hobby, it appears, is killing people. He is a particularly bloodthirsty individual. He is also the first person to flunk out of the Crime College. We learned that Bill Larner, who was introduced in “The Evil Gnome was a particularly vicious criminal. However, he was successfully treated and became a useful citizen. Birmingham Jones’ therapy is unsuccessful because of certain head injuries he had received earlier in his criminal career. He has a peculiar mental short circuit that blocks any kind of medical treatment.

For a story with a Crime College graduate taking center stage, “The Flying Goblin” is a pretty flat. Birmingham Jones, who has the potential to be the most interesting character in the story, has a limited appearance. One of the more debatable items in the book is the ultimate fate of Mr. Jones. Near the end of the story Doc explains:

“Birmingham Jones, when picked up at the island, will probably never be sent back to the college. He likes too well to kill people.

All understood what the bronze man meant.”

The last sentence is the kicker. Just what did the man of bronze mean? Was Doc going to euphemize him? Was Birmingham Jones going to get an express ticket to hell courtesy of Doc Savage? This may appear to be a complex problem but it has a simple answer. Birmingham Jones had committed two murders on the high seas. There is a witness to this crime. At the time of the novel, murder was punishable by death in practically every major country in the world. I feel confident that Doc Savage simply let the legal authorities manage the situation. It should also be noted, at least in the US criminal justice system, that executions followed close behind convictions during this era.

Two months later in the September issue the Crime College takes center stage again with “The Purple Dragon.” Hiram Shelleck is a graduate who is firmly entrenched as an upright citizen in a small Colorado town. Hiram, we learn, has been a decent hardworking citizen for ten years. What does that mean? It means the Crime College has been in operation since at least September 1930 — at least two and half-years before “The Man of Bronze.” Then we learn that Hiram Shelleck believes it to be 1929 rather than 1940! It would be logical to assume 1929 was the date he “enrolled” in the Crime College so apparently the thing has been going on for some years now.

Another interesting fact arises. Doc Savage is a heroic figure to Hiram Shelleck. It is mindful of the attitude expressed by the taxi driver in “The Vanisher.” This further reinforces the idea that the Crime College regimen includes a strong indoctrination of loyalty to Doc Savage.  It is clear from the events told in this story that the “decriminalization” process employed at the Crime College followed a regimen of psychological and chemical treatments. The surgical aspects of the curriculum dealt only with the removal of past memories.

At various points throughout the next several issues an assorted mix of criminals are packed off to the Crime College. The next notable mention occurs in “The All-White Elf” (March 1941). Doc’s crew heads for a refuge to regroup. Monk is surprised to find two men he knew from a previous encounter. They are Alec and Joe and they are successful oyster fishermen. The significant fact here is that Doc knew where they were while Monk did not.

The Crime College makes another big appearance in “The Talking Devil from May 1943. Blackmail is at the heart of the story that involves discrediting several graduates from Doc’s facility. A couple of interesting things also crop up. Readers soon realized the facility is not the secret that it should be. Rumors and inklings of its function abound. Several newspapers launch an attack on Doc with questions about the College raising the most concern.

Graduates begin popping up all over the place. Here is a statement by Long Tom: “Sam Joseph is No.1, Long Tom said.” Doc Savage has no idea what Long Tom is talking about. It turns out that Sam Joseph is a graduate. This is astonishing. Long Tom gives Doc names of several other individuals whom he does recognize. Sam Josephs is an anomaly.

Long Tom’s remark about being No. 1 could be interpreted in two ways. He may mean that Sam Joseph was the very first patient processed by the Crime College. The other alternative is that he is simply the first of the other graduates who are being framed. These are the same graduates whom Doc Savage recognizes by name, but not Sam Joseph.

To think that Doc Savage would forget that Sam Joseph was a graduate leaves one flabbergasted. It just would not happen, especially since Sam was apparently the very first patient. What is going on here? One solution is that the Crime College has been in operation much longer than supposed. That it was the elder Savage, Doc’s father, who started up the strange institution and began rehabilitating criminals before Doc ever became aware of its existence. Also note the obvious lack of awe Sam Joseph has for Doc Savage. This attitude is completely unlike that of the prior graduates we have met in prior stories.

The account seems to further verify that many of the authorities are perfectly aware of exactly what the Crime College is but are more than willing to turn a blind eye. The local District Attorney should be included in the list of people in the know. His statement is little more than a wink and a nod. If there was any doubt about it, that notion is quickly dispelled when the gang leader’s fate is explained.

We are left with the fundamental question of what exactly motivated Doc Savage to operate such an institution as the Crime College. Was he a proto-superman operating under the ideals espoused by Nietzsche? But then again countless other convincing arguments can surely be made to rationalize such methods. They only need someone to lay them out.

Friedrich Nietzsche was an interesting man. Besides the idea of ubermenschen, or superman as it is popularly translated, he was the father of many famous quotes.  Alas to say, all that serious thinking and philosophizing was not without its cost. Nietzsche developed severe mental problems and spent the last years of his life in a mental institution.