The Crime of Capital Punishment

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Hugh O. Pentecost

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It is a constant amazement to persons awake to the enormity of the offence, that capital punishment continues to be practised in what are called civilized countries. Every consideration of public decency, social morals, ordinary humanity, and plain common sense calls for its abrogation.

It does not prevent or tend to prevent crime. It not infrequently happens that during the week or upon the very day of an execution a murder is committed almost under the nose of the executioner.

Four men were recently hanged in New York, to the scandal of the world. Each had killed a woman—his wife or his mistress. The execution was the talk of the whole country for weeks before it occurred. Everyone knew about it. It was particularly horrible because of the large number of men who were slaughtered. If ever an execution was calculated to strike preventive terror to the heart of a prospective murderer this one was. But there were two women murdered in New York State within two days of that execution, and the famous Luca murder occurred at about the same time.

The fear of the gallows does not tend to prevent murder committed in the heat of passion, as most murders are committed, nor to restrain the deliberate murderer, because he believes that he can conceal his deed. Both in theory and in fact it can be shown to those who are willmg to see it, that capital punishment does not prevent or tend to prevent the commission of crime.

Capital punishment is an offence to enlightened thought and well-educated conscience because it is a measure of revenge, a sentiment which no person or people should harbor. It is said by apologists, that the theory of legal killing is not that of revenge, but that the killing is done merely as a warning to evil-doers and for the safety of society. But this is an afterthought, an explanation which the growing humane sentiment of the people is forcing from the barbarians who defend and practise murder by law. The real reason for capital punishment is that it is commonly supposed that one who commits murder "deserves to die." When the idea of revenge is eliminated from our habits of thought with regard to criminals, capital punishment will be esteemed an act of brutality which no community would think of permitting. When we come to clearly understand that the worse criminal a man is, the more it is our duty to deluge him with moral sympathy and help, the more clearly we shall see that the main motive for capital punishment is revenge; because, as I have already said, an execution is neither a warning to possible criminals nor a protection to society.

On the contrary, it unquestionably tends to brutalize the minds of the people and familiarize them with the thought of killing. As long as the State employs persons for the express purpose of murdering men, those who are not officially employed and paid for it will also engage in the business.

Every judge who sentences a fellow being to death, every juryman who votes for a verdict of death against a fellow being, every sheriff who carries out the sentence, every hangman who actually springs the drop, every priest or minister who assists at an execution, preparing the criminals for death by teaching them that in submitting to the crime about to be committed upon them they are conforming themselves to that which God approves, is a murderer; none the less so because they act in accordance with the statute law and social custom. Some of the most horrible crimes against humanity are committed according to statute law and common custom. And as long as some of these legal murderers are admitted to our best society, and highly honored because of the murderous offices they fill, and all of them except the wretched hangman are quite respectable, murder never will be looked upon with the abhorrence it should produce in every mind.

Wherein is the sense of legally killing a man? Does his murder restore his victim to life? Is it right, can it be right, because one murder has been committed that another should be? A tippling Catholic priest is under sentence of death by hanging in Raleigh, N. C., charged with (although it was by no means absolutely proved) committing an outrageous assault upon a young woman. What good end will be served by hanging the man, even if he is guilty? His crime, if he committed it, was very awful, but will the maiden be any different than she is if her alleged or real assailant is hanged for the offence? There is no sense in hanging the man except for revenge, and that is a motive which cannot be defended among a civilized people. One would think that the outraged girl herself would plead for the life of the wretch who wronged her, rather than willingly go through life with the ceaseless memory that a man had been shamefully killed on her account.

I have no sympathy whatever with that sentimentality that transforms a person into a hero because, he is a murderer. Carrying bouquets to criminals because they are criminals is as silly as it is unfit. A criminal should be made to feel in every possible way that, as a criminal, he has forfeited all right to the respect of his fellows. Neither have I any sympathy with the practice of carrying tracts and delivering religious homilies to criminals. There is no reason why a murderer should be rewarded for his deed by clusters of roses, or compelled to endure the dreary preaching of persons who enjoy rubbing their religion into sinners upon every possible occasion. A murderer is not worthy to be crowned with flowers, and very few of us are good enough to lecture him. We may not be murderers but we are probably not good enough to sit in judgment upon those who are. I do not believe in treating murderers to sentimental gush, or boring them with religious humbug. But neither do I think we should, from the time a man commits his crime until he expiates it on the gallows, show him nothing but the hard, vindictive side of humanity. From the moment a murder is committed, society, in the person of its policemen and prosecuting attorney, becomes a pitiless bloodhound. Clubs, handcuffs, and prison bars fill the criminal's horizon. No pity is shown him. No attempt is made to awaken the good that is in him. No effort is made to redeem him. Society becomes solely an avenger; pitiless, remorseless, thirsting for blood. The human heart turns to ice. The human hand is withheld. The human eye is averted. The human voice grows hard and dry. Society turns into an engine of death, with no more feeling than the cold blade of a guillotine.

It is no wonder that criminals become hard after the steel hand of the law once grips them. It is no wonder that so many criminals fold their arms across their stolid breasts and coolly look judge, jury, and executioner in the face, before they die, with apparent unconcern. We take all this as evidence of their bad natures, and are glad that such base beings are well hanged. We forget that no matter how brutal the murder that one man commits may be, it cannot be as coldblooded, as base, as heartless, as the judicial murder that is conducted with all the deliberate formality of the law. The deeds of "Jack the Ripper" are fearful and cruel, but they are not so fiendish as that form of murder which conducts a human being through days, weeks, or months, of mental torture preliminary to a deliberate and heartless death at the hands of the hangman.

One of the worst phases of capital punishment, to my mind, is the invariable presence upon the scaffold, as the general assistant of the hangman, of a Christian priest or minister. At every scaffold there is a strange and significant union of Church and State. The State is there in the person of the hangman. The Church is there in the person of the priest or minister. It is the old familiar scene of the State doing deeds of violence and blood in the name of law and order, and with the sanction and concurrence of religion. It is the old combination of the secular arm doing that of which the representative of an ignoble hypothetical God approves. It is a junction of two terrible engines of unhappiness and tyranny — superstition and physical force.

It may be said that to speak of the ministers of religion in this connection and in these terms is unfair, but I think not. Most ministers of the Christian religion are upholders of capital punishment, as they are of every respectable infamy. They co-operate with the "machinery of justice " in preparing the victim of revenge for the slaughter. They are very useful coadjutors, too, because they quiet the victim's mind and, no doubt, prevent many distressing exhibitions of fear which would help to bring legal killing into disrepute. At the last execution in New York the officiating priest actually led one of the condemned men under the noose. The poor wretch was sick with fright and likely to fall down, but the priest did part of the hangman's work for him by leading the man to the shambles to be choked to death.

It is a mystery to me how these pretended disciples of one who was himself cruelly murdered by law, and who was the very apostle of love and gentleness, can engage in this horrible business. Jesus taught that if one should smite us upon one cheek we should turn to him the other, a doctrine as wise as it is humane; that if one forcibly took our overcoat we should give him our undercoat; that we should in all ways return good for evil; that we should forgive those who injure us an indefinite number of times. The whole tenor of his teaching and practice was against everything that looked toward capital punishment. And yet his pretended disciples, the priests and ministers, take part in all the hangings, and I have yet to hear of one who ever walked out upon the scaffold and uttered his protest against the bloody performance as entirely shameful, and particularly so when practised by a people \vho claim to be at least partially civilized. Instead of doing this they do everything they can to make the prisoners feel that in quietly submitting to be murdered they are only accepting a visitation of just punishment that has come upon them by the desire of tLeir Heavenly Judge who is also their Heavenly Father. One of the kind of fathers, it may be supposed, who takes his child into a back room and assures him that it is very painful to be obliged to flog him, and that in doing so he will hurt himself far more than he will hurt the child, and then proceeds to give the child a beating that the brute nature of the father thoroughly enjoys. No doubt these Christian priests and ministers, many of whom are estimable persons, are quite unconscious of the shameful business in which they engage, but it is none the less a fact that they are simply the hangman's assistants.

It is gratifying to know that there is slowly growing a genuine repugnance to hanging, if not to capital punishment altogether. Cases of persons having been hanged who were afterward discovered to have been innocent; cases like the man who has just been set at liberty from Auburn prison, after having been thirty-seven years serving a life sentence, commuted from hanging, it being now discovered that he is innocent; cases of bungling at the gallows, the breaking of the rope, the struggles of the strangling men, the tearing of a victim's head half off, as recently occurred, the blood dripping down on the scaffold; such specific things, added to the general horror of the performance, are gradually helping to awaken the sluggish sensibilities of the people to an appreciation of the enormity of the outrage that is being per- . petrated upon the common sense and moral nature of the people in the name of law, order, and religion. It is gradually being felt that hanging is at least vulgar, if not wicked, and some other method of human slaughter is being sought for. In New York State killing by electricity has been adopted, and one man is already condemned to die in that manner. This certainly seems to be more in keeping with the scientific spirit of the age in which we live, and it has an air of respectability about it that hanging has not, but, in my opinion, it is a more ghastly method of judicial murder than hanging. It is, in fact, a killing device that rivals in horror the worst tortures of the worst ages of the world. A chair is to be constructed, a reclining chair, in cruel imitation of those chairs that are used for restful comfort. Into this chair the person is to be strapped, to prevent his making any unseemly gestures with his legs or arms in case the treatment makes him nervous, or to prevent his leaving the chair entirely if it should occur to him that the attentions of the legal killer were distasteful. After being strapped into the chair, and tickled a little with an electric current for the highly amusing purpose of discovering, by means of the Wheatstone bridge, how much of the fatal fluid will be required to kill him, bandages are to be placed upon the victim's head, which member will have been previously shaved, and also upon other portions of the body, perhaps the feet. To these appliances are to be attached the ends of the wires that are to convey the killing fluid. When everything is ready the executioner will touch a button and the wretched mortal will be shot with a stream of electricity, a stream of fire seven times hotter than fire is wont to be. The creature may have deep holes burned into him without killing him. He may have to be finally knocked in the head with an axe. He may be slowly burned to death in the chair, his body reduced to a charred cinder — murdered and cremated at the same time. Or, if the killing machine works as it is hoped that it will, in one moment of anguish, his life will go out.

Now, supposing this wicked contrivance works to the charm of the detestable person who could be tempted by money to devise and construct it, think of the mental torture to which the condemned person is put! The victim of the common murderer is not forced to thus horribly anticipate death. He is not obliged to sit in a chair and see and hear his worse than Quilp-like slayer making, in cold blood, the preparation for his death. And then consider, too, that by the new contrivance this victim of the State is to meet his death in silence and alone. There are to be no witnesses of the grim and dastardly deed; no reporters, no crowd of special constables, no little group of spectators such as always at scenes of hanging enable the dying men to feel that they are in company in their last moments. There will be no expectation that thousands of persons will read the full account of the event the next day. There will be no sustaining sense of being the centre of interest for an hour, at least. This new kind of judicial murder is to be done in secret, and anyone who is familiar with the stories of torture that come to us from the dark ages knows that there were very few of the brave victims of torture in those days who could endure the suffering in solitude.

This new system of judicial murder seems to me worse than the roastings of the savages, worse than the burnings, and pinchings, and stretchings of the Inquisition; worse than these if for no other reason than that it is to be practised by those who claim to be enlightened, civilized beings. Nevertheless, there are some favorable points about it, one of which is that it is the result of a demand that there shall be a change in the manner of our killing; and another is that henceforth in one State judicial killing will be done in secret. This is a tacit confession that it must be done hereafter in secret or not much longer at all. When the State begins to be ashamed of what it does the practice is doomed, you may be sure.

It may now be asked what form of punishment should be substituted for the death penalty. It is not necessary to my purpose in writing this article that I should dwell upon that subject at all. This article is written mainly for the purpose of protesting against the crime of capital punishment, and not for the purpose of explaining what can or should be substituted for it. It will not, however, be out of place to say that the most natural substitute for the death penalty, under our form of government, would be imprisonment for a term sufficiently long co demonstrate that the offender might be safely allowed to go free. It is just as vicious, of course, to imprison a man for revenge, as to hang him for revenge. There is, therefore, no valid reason why a murderer should be punished at all. It is right that he should be apprehended and confined until it is determined whether he is of such a nature or disposition as to be likely to commit more murders. But if this view of the case is too nearly in accordance with humane considerations to suit this cruel and bloodthirsty age, then the obvious mode of punishment to substitute for judicial killing is imprisonment at hard labor for life. This is far too cruel a punishment to visit upon anyone for any crime done under the impulse of passion, but among a people who so frequently say: "Hanging is too good for him," and who are so given to lynching, it is as much of a modification of our present practice as we could expect to get.

It would be far better for society if instead of speculating on the forms of punishment we turned our attention to the means of preventing the crimes for which we punish the offenders. It has been observed that most of the murders occur among the poor people, and upon the top floors of tenement houses; that is to say, among the poorest of the poor. The connection between poverty and the crime of murder, like the connection between poverty and all other crime, is demonstrably close. If we could cure the social disease of poverty, the seeds of crime would be destroyed. The people rarely think of this. They think it is our business to punish crime; but it is our best business to prevent it. Our present organization of society manufactures criminals faster than we can possibly take care of them. Poverty degrades men; it robs them of leisure, which is absolutely necessary for the development of mind, and the proper control of the passions; it keeps the people hungry and fierce; it imbrutes them; it makes Ishmaels of them — their hand is against society as the hand of society is against them. Plant a generation of paupers, and you will reap a crop of criminals.

If we are wise we will turn our attention to the most important problem of this or any age: how to so enrich the people that the temptations to crime will be minified to the last possible degree. The solution of the problem is as simple as it is important. For every millionaire we shall have a thousand tramps; for every monopolist we shall have a hundred burglars; for every woman who lives in idleness upon the fruit of others' toil, filched from them under the name of interest or rent, we shall have a score of prostitutes; for every vacant land owner and money limiter — the twin man-starvers — we shall have a murderer. One is the seed from which the other grows. Eliminate your monopolists, the king of whom is the owner of vacant land, and your problem of crime is settled. With open opportunities for men to apply their labor to natural wealth productions, tenfold more wealth would be produced and equitably distributed; and with wealth many times multiplied and equitably distributed, a criminal would be more of a curiosity than the original three-toed horse.

But we need not wait for the disappearance of criminals before we abolish the death penalty for crime.

  • Hugh O. Pentecost, “The Crime of Capital Punishment,” The Arena 1, no. 2 (January 1890): 175-183.