The Death Penalty Revisited

The Death Penalty Revisited


by Jonathon Kneeland


There are currently about 7.7 billion people on the planet. A few of these people we could get by quite nicely without. One such man, in his early thirties, is Nathaniel David Jessup. He is currently facing two separate murder charges. One of these murders was committed in prison while serving time for a series of other crimes. Clearly, prison didn't work. In addition to being charged for murdering a cellmate, Jessup is also headed to trial for the murder of a 58-year-old woman. His lesser crimes include choking a young boy and the attempted abduction of young girls, as well as various assaults, weapons offences and thefts. I offer that he is simply waiting to be put down as a means of ending his assault on decency. I don't see any reason why we shouldn't oblige him.


Reading about Jessup got me to thinking about some others. Why do we keep the likes of Clifford Olson, Robert William Pickton or Paul Bernardo alive? It should be very economical and efficient to hang them if it were allowed. Why isn't it allowed? Why did we get rid of this very useful and natural practice? One of the reasons is that it is considered uncivilised for governments to execute citizens. But I would say that this argument is weak, as it doesn't take into account the fact that the murderer has removed himself from civilisation and draws his victims, by force, into a world of barbarism and cruelty. There is no good reason why we should not allow the murderer to draw a type of justice consistent with his own actions into his world as well. It is imbalanced to allow the murderer to choose a hellish end for his victims, and then to demand a high level of decency, civility, and an excess of procedure and administration for himself. This seems to me to be encouraging the murderer to laugh at his victims and their families.


One of those laughing at victims and their families, and who is also an excellent candidate for hanging, is the nonhuman Kruse Wellwood. Along with his friend, Cameron Moffat, Wellwood tortured and mutilated a young woman to death. If you read the details, you won't be able to forget them. Wellwood is now applying for day parole. This is naturally creating additional and unnecessary despair for the young woman's family, as well as ridiculing all of humanity. If you have a strong stomach, you might read the details of this crime. Then, you might ask yourself if there is a single reason why this awful puke and his equally repulsive sidekick aren't simply dropped through a hole in the floor, each with a rope around his neck.     


Here, I introduce H.L. Mencken's excellent essay On Hanging a Man. Please read his essay with the idea that it is from a very slightly earlier period in our history. That period in our history necessarily produced stronger and more practical people who were generally more truthful in their speech, and less inclined to the sloppy and delusional language that our current political correctness craze produces. His logic is sound, and I see no reason why his arguments do not fit well into our current society. It may be time to reopen this debate.



On Hanging a Man


From my Forward to By the Neck, by my brother, August Mencken; Hastings House, publishers, New York, 1940. With additions from the Baltimore Evening Sun, Aug. 16, 1926


In my capacity of newspaper reporter I have been a spectator at nine hangings. It is my firm impression that this operation, if competently carried out, is a humane method of putting criminals to death, though perhaps it is not quite as quick as electrocution. The drop now used in the United States could be improved, as I shall indicate, but it is seldom that it causes any unnecessary physical pain or mental anguish. The blow delivered to the criminal's upper works when he reaches suddenly the end of the rope is at least as formidable as a crack on the head with an ax, and I believe that in most cases it causes immediate unconsciousness, or, at all events, such a scattering of the faculties that the condemned is hardly able to suffer. The rope, if properly knotted, thereupon presses heavily upon the blood vessels supplying the brain, and if any trace of consciousness survives it must be suspended by anoxemia in not more than eight or ten seconds. It is highly probable that this pressure, producing an irreversible cerebral anemia, is the actual cause of death in most cases. Fracture or dislocation of the cervical vertebrae is the exception rather than the rule, and asphyxia is scarcely more than a by-product. A criminal executed by a competent hangman shows no sign of suffering. He drops straight through the trap, and when he comes to rest he remains motionless. There is no struggle. After a little while the legs draw up a bit, but not violently. The heart keeps up a gradual diminishing beat for ten or twelve minutes, but all consciousness has departed, and the criminal dies without apparent pain.


In England a ring is inserted at the end of the rope, with the other end passing through it, and as a result the pressure that I have mentioned is more violent, and the criminal probably loses his senses almost instantly. The hangman's knot that is generally favoured in the United States is rather less efficient, if only because rope slides across rope less facilely than across metal. But when the knot is made by competent hands it works very well, and is not cruel. An advantage of hanging is that it does not mutilate the body of the victim. The rope naturally leaves marks on the soft tissue of the neck, but it does not break the skin, and the marks themselves have almost disappeared before the body leaves the place of execution. Electrocution, as everyone knows, sometimes produces burns, and moreover, it involves shaving at least a part of the head. Putting a man to death with poisonous gases is even worse, for it causes a general discoloration, and there is no reason to believe that it is either quick or painless.


It is unpleasant, I grant you, to see a man put to death, but the brutality of it is immensely overestimated by those who have never enjoyed that honour. They forget this technical skill can make even killing painless and humane. And they forget that the victim himself is almost always a brute with little more sensitiveness than an ox. This was certainly true of the late Whittemore, whose exitus I witnessed recently. He went to his death with a swagger, and obviously full of an imbecile delight in the attention he was attracting. His occupations in his last days were those of a happy half-wit, and his final message, delivered through the tabloid newspaper, the Baltimore Post, was precisely the type of defiant rubbish that such a moron would be expected to formulate and delight in. The whole thing, to him, was gaudy show, and it was quite impossible for any rational man, observing him at the end, to have any very active sympathy for him.


A new State law has got rid of the obscene crowds that used to flock to hangings, and of the bungling that once made them revolting. The gallows at the Penitentiary is admirably designed. Whittemore dropped at least ten feet and he was unconscious instantly. Save for one brief drawing up of the legs as he died he didn't move an inch. The old-time jail yard gallows was a wooden structure with a high step, and the condemned had to climb up that step. It was a dreadful ordeal. He could see the noose a long way off. But Whittemore, stepping out of a second-story door on to a high platform, was on the trap before he saw the rope at all. If he had not delayed the proceedings to bawl a nonsensical farewell he would have been dead in less than a minute after he emerged. As it was, he dropped in less than two minutes. Was the thing horrible as a spectacle? No more than the most trivial surgery. One does not see a man hanged. One sees a black bag.


I have spoken of Whittemore as a moron. The term is probably flattering. His farewell message in the Post and his philosophical autobiography in the same instructive paper, published a few months ago, showed the mentality of a somewhat backward boy of ten. Such professional killers, I believe, are nearly all on the same level: a Gerald Chapman is very rare among them, as a man of honor is rare in congress. The sentimentalists, observing the fact, employ it as an argument against capital punishment. It is immoral, they contend, for the State to take the life of a creature so palpably stupid, and hence so little capable of sound judgement and decent behaviour. But all this, it seems to me, is full of bad logic. The State of Maryland did not kill Whittemore because he was a moron: it killed him because he had demonstrated conclusively that his continued existence was incompatible with the reasonable safety of the rest of us. What difference did it make whether his criminality was due to lack of intelligence, or, in the case of Chapman, intelligence gone rancid? The only important thing was that he was engaged habitually, and apparently incorrigibly, in gross and intolerable attacks upon the public security. What was to be done about it? He had been sent to prison without effect. He actually committed a murder in prison. There remained only the device of taking his life, and so getting rid of a dangerous and demoralizing nuisance.


To argue that society, confronted by such a rogue, has no right to take his life is to argue that it has no rights at all – that it cannot even levy a tax or command a service without committing a crime. There are, to be sure, men who so argue, and some of their arguments are very ingenious. But they have not converted any considerable body of reflective men and women. The overwhelming majority of people believe that, when a man adopts murder as his trade, society is justified in putting him to death. They have believed it in all ages and under all forms of government, and I am convinced that they still believe it today. The execution of Whittemore was almost unanimously approved in Maryland. If he had escaped the gallows there would have been an uproar, and it would have been justified.


The opponents of capital punishment have firmer ground under them when they object to the infliction of the death penalty upon criminals other than professional murderers. The public opinion of Christendom long ago revolted against its employment to put down minor crimes: for example, theft. There has been, of late, a revolt against its use even in certain varieties of murder, and that revolt, I believe, is largely responsible for the increasing difficulty of getting convictions in capital cases, and the increasing tendency of the courts to upset convictions by legal quackery. The truth is that our criminal codes need a thorough overhauling. The old categories of crime are only too often archaic and irrational. It is absurd to hang an aggrieved husband for killing his wife and her lover, and let a professional murderer live, because, in a given case, the State is unable to prove premeditation. The test should be, not the instant intention, but the antecedent circumstances.  Every one of us, under easily imaginable conditions, may commit a premeditated murder. But that possibility does not make us professional criminals, and it does not necessarily justify the death penalty in case we succumb. Juries have obviously felt that way, for many a murderer has escaped under the so-called unwritten law.


Judge Frederick Bausman, of the State of Washington, a very intelligent jurist, once suggested a way out. All crimes, he said, should be divided into two new categories; those which a reasonable and otherwise reputable man, under the circumstances confronting the accused, might be imagined as committing, and those showing only deliberate and gratuitous criminality. Under the first heading would fall many crimes of passion and many ordinary thefts. Under the second would fall the doings of the Chapmans the Whittemores. The man who commits the former is often used too harshly; the man who commits the latter is almost always used too softly. What sense is there in the old rule of evidence that the record of the accused, save he go on the stand himself, may not be brought against him in his trial? It is hypocritical and vain, for juries consider it not-withstanding. It is unjust, for the record often contributes to a sound judgement, as it did in the Whittemore case. The important thing is not to play a game according to a set of tight and stupid rules but to punish and put down crime. The way to do that is to proceed swiftly and harshly toward professional criminals. I believe that every gunman should be hanged after his first shot, whether it kills or not. To stop short of that is to put the rights that he has deliberately forfeited above the public security. In other words, it is to convert the judicial process into a scheme for protecting and fostering crime.  

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