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From the NS archive: Hanging

14 March 1931: On the stark toll capital punishment has inflicted on British society.

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In 1931 George Orwell wrote in his essay "A Hanging" that when he “saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide”. A few months earlier, Henry W Nevinson, a war correspondent and a campaigner for universal suffrage, made a sober and unsettling argument against capital punishment in the New Statesman and Nation. Combining evidence from a recent select committee report with the experience of prisoners and officials themselves, Nevinson writes of the pity “due to every human being passing through the difficulties of life like ourselves full of strange capacities for good or evil, and of hopes of possible change to better things”. Capital punishment was eventually abolished for murder in the UK in 1965, though it remained a punishment for treason until 1998.  

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So the wretched man Rouse has been hanged after all. I will not dwell upon the petition for his reprieve, signed by such a number of men and women. In a merciful people like the British it is always possible to find thousands to sign such a petition where the smallest doubt as to guilt exists. Nor will I enumerate all the causes which seemed to justify a reprieve – such causes as the violent prejudice aroused against the accused by the publication of the details of his private life; the unknown identity of the dead man; the difficulty of imagining that the motive attributed to Rouse occurred to him as he drove along; or the question raised by the judge himself, whether there was evidence enough before the jury to hang the man, even though be might be guilty. The case is decided. There is now an end of hope. It is unlikely that anything more will be heard of it to all eternity, unless, perhaps, the identity of the supposed victim is established.  

That is one of the terrible defects in the law of capital punishment. The execution is irretrievable. Nothing can undo death. No matter what evidence may come to light, atonement for a legal error is impossible. In some cases the verdict has been definitely proved false after the sentence of death has been passed. The case of Oscar Slater is recent and notorious, for he had been reprieved after sentence, and was subsequently proved entirely innocent. But when a man or woman has been actually hanged, it is seldom that others take the trouble to investigate the case again just for the sake of clearing a reputation. Few have the persistence or the instinct for justice of Conan Doyle, least of all when the death of the prisoner has ended interest in his case. Undoubtedly innocent people have been hanged even in recent times, and their doom was irrevocable. As Lord Buckmaster, an ex-Lord Chancellor, said in his evidence before the Select Committee on Capital Punishment, the Report of which was published last December, otherwise we must assume that the verdict of a jury is an infallible thing. And besides the case of Oscar Slater he quoted the case of Habron, who was condemned to death on what looked like absolutely certain evidence for a crime to which Charles Peace afterwards confessed. Habron was reprieved for his youth. If he had been a few years older, he would have been hanged, though he had nothing to do with the murder. The crime of putting him to death would have been irrevocable, and there an end.  

But let us assume the guilt of the man who is one morning to be killed by his fellows in cold blood. Supporters of the death penalty say, quite truly, we all have to die some time or other, and a few years cannot make much difference. They also say, again quite truly, that thousands of men are killed in war, and only the Quakers and pacifists make a fuss about it. But dying quietly of illness or old age is a very different thing from being summoned to die while in good health, and probably in the prime of life. And as to death in war, thousands of Englishmen have known the silent horror pervading a trench as the watches creep nearer and nearer to zero. Yet when a man goes over the top he is excited he has a chance of killing rather than being killed, and he is not alone. To myself, who have witnessed every kind of death, even by execution in Turkey and Russia, the fear or anguish of waiting through the previous night in gaol and watching the light of morning slowly appear before the warders and the chaplain come to pinion and lead the way to the platform, below which a lever for the drop is lurking – that is the most terrible form of death I can imagine, unless we include death by torture, which in this country we have ceased to practise or approve. 

But horrible as is the fate of the condemned prisoner whether innocent or guilty (as, for instance, the atrocious scene when Mrs Thompson was dragged to the scaffold stupified with opiates), and awful as is the suffering during the execution itself – a suffering about which the warder and other officials are commanded by the Home Office to say nothing – yet the effect upon the officials themselves and the whole neighbourhood is equally deplorable.  

There is no chapel on the day
On which they hang a man,
The Chaplain's heart is far too sick, 
Or his face is far too wan.
Or there is that written in his eyes 
Which none should look upon. 


That is no mere imagination of the poet. In his evidence before the select committee Mr Glanville Murray, a prison chaplain of 28 years' service, said: "It cannot be denied that an execution is a moral shock of such a nature that it is impossible to say what may be its ultimate effect on mind and body. The final scene must always be a haunting and imperishable memory – the dreadful hooded figure on the scaffold; the thud of the falling drop; the awful plunge into the yawning pit, and the jerk as the rope tautens and sways. No one can leave the slaughter-shed without a deep sense of humiliation, horror and shame."

As to other officials besides the chaplain who, as a Christian and highly educated man might be supposed to be peculiarly sensitive to the horror, General Dudgeon, governor of an Edinburgh prison, gave evidence: "Personally I think it is a horrible business. In a way I felt quite unclean after having taken part in a hanging. It casts gloom over the whole place. It certainly is a most horrible business."

One prison governor told the committee that the effect upon the prison population generally was "wholesome". But the medical officer at Birmingham Prison said the effect upon the prisoners was extremely depressing and unsettling. A member of the Society of Friends, who was in prison as a conscientious objector during the war, told the committee that "a kind of morbid and unwholesome atmosphere, to say the least, is spread throughout the whole prison, before, during, and after an execution". As to the effect upon the neighbourhood when a man or woman is to be executed in a gaol nearby, everyone who has been present then will remember the excited tension, the real hysteria, of the population lasting all night and culminating as the fatal hour draws near. On such occasions some appear to lose their reason, and cases of suicide in imitation of the hanging are known.  

It is certain that the infliction of death upon the murderer attracts attention to the details of every murder case, and the newspapers supply the demand as fully as they can. The popular interest is not due merely to the excitement we get from a good detective story, in which a murder seems to be the essential theme. It is also the excitement of watching a struggle involving death, as in a gladiatorial show, though in this case the chance of death is all on one side. Remove the chance of death from the accused prisoner and interest in the details of the murder is much reduced. One may assume that the interest in the details of murders is unwholesome, as stimulating the mind to brood over horrors, and, in many cases, stimulating it to imitation. For horrors are very infectious. Even the finest minds may be so infected that the thought of hanging becomes an "obsession". I think it was so, for instance, with the noble and highly imaginative mind of Thomas Hardy. We may see that terrible attraction of pity and horror in many of his stories, and in Dorchester, I noticed, he carefully pointed out to me the scenes of former executions. He took me to the hillside where, as a boy, he used to sit looking down into the cottage below and watch the hangman having his tea, and wonder how he could eat and drink when he was to kill a man in the morning.  

A similar sentiment is aroused in nearly every murder trial and one cannot condemn it for it springs from the pity due to every human being passing through the difficulties of life like ourselves full of strange capacities for good or evil, and of hopes of possible change to better things. That is the reason why juries will sometimes refuse to condemn if death will be the result of their verdict, though the evidence against the prisoner is strong. Before the committee the Home Office authorities denied this, though at a previous investigation the Home Office admitted it. The whole question was discussed before the committee, and the result may be found in the evidence and in the report, or in Mr Roy Calvert's careful and balanced review of the evidence (The Death Penalty Enquiry, Gollancz, 2s 6d). To myself the evidence seems almost equally balanced. But I notice that 30 per cent of recommendations to mercy presented by juries are refused.  

The one and only reasonable objection to the abolition of the gallows appears to be that raised by Sir Herbert Samuel when the select committee was first appointed. He said: "People say that the burglar does not take a revolver with him for fear he should be tempted to shoot, knowing that if he shoots he may be hanged. That is a very strong argument if it is sound."

Sir Herbert asked the committee to collect experiences from the countries where capital punishment has been abolished or has fallen out of use. The evidence was collected, and tended to show that the carrying of arms had not increased in those countries, but had increased in France where capital punishment still obtains. Prison authorities argued that the British nature is so different from that of Danes, Finns, Norwegians and other nations that no conclusion for ourselves can be drawn from their evidence. All of us must admit the danger that if burglars take to firearms the police will demand similar arms for their own protection, an armed police is dangerous, as we have seen in other countries. By far the sanest conclusion is that taken by the select committee itself in the definite recommendation: "That a Bill be introduced and passed into law during the present session providing for the Abolition of the Death Penalty for an experimental period of five years in cases tried by Civil Courts in time of peace."  

Deeply occupied as the government are, that bill would reflect the highest credit upon their term of office.  

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