April 27

Justice 1760 style

5  comments

I read an editorial in the New York Times yesterday and an article today about the recent issue of the supposed cruelty of lethal injection as a means of carrying out the death sentence. If you haven’t been keeping up, what’s at issue is whether or not lethal injection, which was developed as a more humane way of executing people than hanging, electrocution, gassing, shooting, etc., is a ‘cruel’ form of punishment itself. The idea that lethal injection, at least as administered in the US, is far from the painless drifting off to sleep that most imagine stems from an article last year in The Lancet, a British medical journal.
The authors contend that although the usual mixture used to execute–a combination of an anesthetic, an agent that paralyzes the muscles, and an agent that stops the heart–includes a drug that puts the condemned person to sleep before the other drugs do their job, that, due to lack of training on the part of the people administering the injection, the anesthetic is often given incorrectly or in too low a dose to render the executee unconscious. If this is true the person receiving such an injection would be fully or partially conscious while being paralyzed, unable to breath or even blink his (or her) eyes and would basically smother to death without any observable evidence of doing so. To an observer it would appear that the condemned was resting comfortably or even snoozing while in reality he (or she) was in agony. If these claims are true, it would mean that the lethal injection method of execution would be comparable in terms of discomfort to the old way of executing supposed witches in this country, which was to tie them down and stack stones on them until they couldn’t breathe. It would be a real tragedy if, in an effort to be more humane, we took a step back to much less enlightened times.
The Supreme Court has taken up the issue while In California an execution has been delayed by the courts until the state can obtain the services of a physician to properly administer the deadly injection. So far, no physicians have stepped forward to offer their services.
And don’t count on me to volunteer; I wouldn’t do it for any amount of money. My own thoughts are jumbled and murky on the death penalty issue, but one thing I’m adamant about is that I would never be the one personally responsible for carrying it out.
Things evolve with time. It wasn’t so long ago that capital and corporal punishment were much different than they are today.
A few months ago I posted on an article on the latest diet from a 1760 news monthly The London Magazine. I seemed to remember when I read the thing that there was something in it about an execution. I went back an looked, and sure enough, there was an entire article about the execution by hanging of a true ‘gentleman’ versus your standard issue common criminal. The article described his demeanor, what he wore (he was dressed to the nines), what he said after mounting the scaffold, and how well he died. I would reprint the entire article here because it is quite interesting, but I about went blind typing the last one on diet, and the execution one is even longer.
In this same magazine there is a section called The Monthly Chronologer that is a day-by-day journal of events since the last issue giving blurbs of the news that the editors thought would be of interest. The entry from Friday, May 23, 1760 is:

Ended the sessions at the Old-Baily [London’s famous criminal court]; at which sessions Ann Hullock, for the murder of her bastard child, received sentence of death, and was accordingly executed on the 24th. Seventeen were sentenced to transportation for seven years, one for 14 years, two to be whipped, and one to be branded.

When I look up transportation in my copy of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (which was compiled in 1755) it gives as one definition:

Banishment for felony

We’ve evolved from an era called The Enlightenment when criminals were hanged, whipped, branded, and exiled without a second thought to an era where we worry about whether the condemned feel any discomfort. I would say we’ve made progress.


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  1. “We’ve evolved from an era called The Enlightenment when criminals were hanged, whipped, branded, and exiled without a second thought to an era where we worry about whether the condemned feel any discomfort. I would say we’ve made progress.”
    I quite agree with you on that score.
    Interestingly enough, criminals were transported to the U.S. before the Independence and after that, Australia.

  2. Hi Mike,
    “I would reprint the entire article here because it is quite interesting, but I about went blind typing the last one on diet, and the execution one is even longer.”
    Things have changed quite a bit in the technical sphere as well since the 18th century! Today we have something called OCR (optical character recognition) – which will save your eyesight … and a whole lot of typing. I use the Adobe Acrobat software which will not only convert a scanned document into a easily emailable pdf tile (small file size) but while it is doing so it will recognise the text so that you can cut and paste it at will. Magic! – now that’s what I call progress!!
    Interestingly transportation while sounding terrible, was quite often the best thing that could have happened to many petty criminals, particularly if they has some skills useful in the ‘new world’ – which as the previous poster suggests was likely to have been your country or later mine (Australia). Many convicts went on to successful careers and considerable wealth and influence with the new opportunities that transportation offered.
    Cheers,
    Malcolm

  3. I thought of scanning it but figured it probably wouldn’t pick up because the paper is so dark and the print is faded and a little rough around the edges. And, back then they used fs for the second s when there were two and for the only s if there were just one. For instance, fresh would be spelled frefh and stress would be strefs. I figured with all this it would take as much effort to get it scanned and corrected as it would to type it from scratch, and after the diet fiasco where I almost went blind, I wasn’t about to do that.

  4. >>My own thoughts are jumbled and murky on the death penalty issue, . . .
    As are those of many of us. One of the things that determine a person to take one action, as opposed to another,( assuming the person is not insane or blinded by overwhelming passion) is a weighing in the mind of the possible consequences of the one, versus the other. It is that which causes us to not touch the hot stove that second time, or to quickly bend down to pet a strange dog, etc. We remember either what happened to us last time, or what we saw happen to someone else who did the same thing.
    As a criminal weighs the consequences of committing an act that has the death penalty associated with it, the “nerve”, or lack of, that society has previously demonstrated in carrying out death sentences on others, thus comes into play. Now if our criminal, in this case, is contemplating an heinous act against a loved one of mine, I think I want him envisioning sure and swift punishment. It just might tip the scales. I want every possible inhibitor, in play.
    Thinking about the death penalty in this way, shifts attention away from the compassion-related speculations regarding the effects on the person being executed, and towards the deterrence value that protects victims-yet-to-be. Imagine those victims-yet-to-be, to be your loved ones, and how to feel about the death penalty becomes a little clearer. Of course, the deterrence factor is lost, if you allow 20 years of appeals. Those who argue that the death penalty does not deter, do so in the current endless litigous climate.

  5. “I wouldn’t do it for any amount of money. My own thoughts are jumbled and murky on the death penalty issue, but one thing I’m adamant about is that I would never be the one personally responsible for carrying it out.”
    And I dont want others executing a fellow human in my name. It is a terrible and awesome task – the executioner and all of us share responsibility.

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