"Ability Misapplied"
September 19, 1903
Saturday Evening Post

Dublin Core


"Ability Misapplied"
September 19, 1903
Saturday Evening Post


“Ability Misapplied”

Vale, Madame Humbert! [1] The world, always keen-sighted and just in the long run, gave her something very like applause the other day as she went out of its sight into the darkness of her prison cell.

No doubt she is a cheat and a swindler, but equally without doubt she is one of the ablest women now living. The old, homely woman, who with no other apparatus than a locked safe and two imaginary brothers could year after year swindle millions in hard cash out of shrewd financiers, must possess ability and imagination in an admiral degree.

Madame Humbert had the intelligence, the iron will, the mastery over others which might have qualified a great scholar or diplomatist, and even if she, a woman, had used these powers in a decent, useful way, they would have been of great service to the world.

Why were they not of service? The only thing the world can do with this woman, it appears, is to shut her up in a solitary cell, to cut her off from her kind for years. Here, surely, is a loss worth our looking into! And not in this Frenchwoman alone, but in every one of thousands of shrewd, able men and women who fill our own jails, and whom we are taxed to support, are qualities which if they had been used rightly would have served the state and the world.

Why did they not serve them? Why has this wholesome human stuff been converted into a rotten, festering mess? Simply because these men were not guided by morality and religion, having been taught neither morality nor religion at the outset of their lives.

The argument is as old and patent to the dullest sense as the multiplication table. If you sharpen the wits and not the conscience of a boy, you put a knife into the hands of a murderer instead of a surgeon.


1. RHD’s unsigned editorial refers to Theresa Humbert, who was tried in Paris for what the French premier termed “the greatest swindle of the century” (“Madame Humbert Faces Judge with Defiance,” San Francisco Call [9 Aug. 1903], 1).



S. M. Harris



S. M. Harris, “"Ability Misapplied"September 19, 1903Saturday Evening Post,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed February 20, 2019, http://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/83.