From the February 1965 issue of the Socialist Standard
“They pull the lever and away he goes,” Mr. Albert Pierrepoint, public hangman, in evidence to the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment.
One of the conclusions of the last Royal Commission on Capital Punishment was that, in the words of one of its witnesses, hanging is “ . . . certain, painless, simple and expeditious.”
Whatever the truth of this (and there are some horrible rumours which contradict it) the fact is that hanging was not originally designed as a quick and humane method of dispatching a criminal. The poor man was often dead before they hung him up. The idea was to display him in as humiliating way as possible, strung up in public for the mob to spit and jeer at—and to take warning from.
Thus hanging was regarded as a particularly abject and dishonourable form of execution. Beheading used to be considered more dignified and soldiers, immersed in the fatuities of military chivalry, still prefer the firing squad.
The capital crimes to which public hangings were supposed to be a massive deterrent could once be as trivial as stealing five shillings from a shop. In 1830 there were no less than 220 offences which carried the death penalty. But far from deterring the criminal, public hangings were something like carnival events for him. When they were abolished in 1868, The Times sighed with relief:
We shall not in future have to read how, the night before an execution, thousands of the worst characters in England . . . met beneath the gallows to pass the night in drinking and buffoonery; . . . how, at the very foot of the gallows, they committed with impunity deeds of lawless violence, scarcely less reprehensible than the crime of which they had come to witness the expiation.
The end of public hanging still left a lot of gruesome ritual, which has been slowly dismantled. No longer is a black flag hoisted and a bell tolled, or a notice posted, at a prison after an execution. No longer does the executed person suffer the last indignity of being left hanging for an hour after his death.
These reforms left the execution a cleaner, more clinical affair, but still a ritual. The condemned prisoner had to be weighed and measured, and secretly observed by the hangman, before the length of his drop could be calculated. (There is an official table on which this calculation was done.) The execution had to be rehearsed with a bag of sand as a stand-in. Finally, amid unbearable tension within the prison, the execution itself.
Now, it seems, the whole thing is finished. After about 150 years of battle, the abolitionists’ appear to have won. Unless something unexpected—and, let us be clear, unplanned for— happens in the House of Lords, Mr. Sidney Silverman’s private member’s Bill will soon become law. The hangman’s noose has rattled and jerked in this country for the last time.
The origins of capital punishment are obscure; in Saxon England a killing could be expiated by payment of blood money. The method of execution has varied; beheading, stoning and impaling have all been used. The offences which carried the death penalty have also varied. The 18th Century was a bumper period for the executioners; 156 offences were made capital between 1714 and 1830.
The first mumblings of opposition were heard in the early nineteenth century. In 1810 Sir Samuel Romilly tried to introduce a Bill to abolish the capital penalty for stealing five shillings from a shop. It soon became obvious that, to avoid the severity of the death sentence, juries were aquitting guilty men. Plainly, the interests of capitalist law and order demanded that something be done and thus began the long, slow, retreat of the hangman. »
In 1832 cattle stealing was removed from the list of capital crimes; in 1833 housebreaking. By 1837 there were only fifteen capital offences left and by 1861 the number was down to four, where it stayed until 1957, when the Homicide Act changed the definition of murder.
The restriction or the abolition of capital punishment has always provided a battleground of controversy. The Chief Justice of England, Lord Ellenborough, opposing Romilly's 1810 Bill, said:
. . . the expediency of justice and the public security require that there should not be a remission of capital punishment in this part of the criminal law.
This sort of argument has always been used by those in favour of hanging, who have conjured up lurid prospects of crime running rife once the shadow of the hangman was removed.
In 1930 a Select Committee recommended the experimental abolition of capital punishment for five years, but no action was taken. In 1938 a motion in similar terms was carried by the House of Commons, but was also ignored. In 1949 the House of Lords, its benches thick with blue blooded backwoodsmen, threw out an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill which would have suspended hanging for five years. The Labour government, perhaps with a sigh of relief at the avoidance of an electorally tricky issue, pushed the Bill through without the amendment.
Then came the Royal Commission, to enquire into the modification—not abolition—of the death penalty and the Homicide Act of 1957, full of anomalies and causing more dissatisfaction than ever. All the way along the line the reformers have been bitterly resisted. At one time the bishops and the judges were solidly against any alteration in the law; now many of the bishops and some of the judges are on the other side.
Lord Ellenborough is dead, but his ideas go marching on. These are some of the arguments offered in the Commons against the Silverman Bill: “ . . . we are going to get more children murdered, and it will be entirely Mr. Silverman’s fault.” “I do believe you can deter the professional criminal who goes and acquires a pistol, and goes out to rob . . . ”
This sort of argument is almost wholly inspired by emotion, and although it is easy to become emotional when contemplating the murder of a child, or a revolting sex murder, or a cold-blooded shooting, we should remember that pathological brutality is not confined to murderers. When Derek Bentley was hanged, the Manchester Guardian reported that among the crowd of several hundred outside the prison were people who regularly attended executions. One of them remarked: “Pretty small turn out, all considered. Haven’t missed one of these in fifteen years.” And one of the disquieting facts unearthed by the Royal Commission was that there were an average of five unsolicited applications a week for the job of hangman.
In any case, facts and experience should outweigh emotion, and the facts leave little room for doubt in the matter.
The arguments in favour of capital punishment usually fall under three headings: That society should take its revenge for a murder; that murderers should be restrained, and the most effective way of doing this is to kill them; that the death penalty is the surest deterrent to murder.
These arguments are typically negative. Revenge is quite useless to the murderers victim and so is restraint by execution. In any case, the number of murderers who need restraining— who are so deranged that they are liable to commit a second murder— is very small indeed. Both these arguments ignore the positive fact that the death penalty deprives society of a good chance of preventing future murders, because it destroys the best source of discovering why the murderer committed his crime.
Finally, the supposed great deterrent does not deter. All experience abroad, in places where the death penalty has been abolished, indicates that it has no effect on the incidence of murder. In Italy, indeed, the ending of capital punishment in 1945 (it was first abolished in 1890, but reintroduced under Mussolini) coincided with a decline in the incidence of murder.
It is true that since Mr. Silverman’s Bill was introduced there has been a sudden upsurge of murders and shootings. With or without capital punishment, crime waves have been known before. There was one in the late forties, attributed to a backlash of wartime conditions and training. In early 1961, there were seventeen murders in one period of only twenty-three days.
The annual figure of the number of murders known to the police was rising before the 1957 Homicide Act. A little time after the Act became law the murder figure fell, then rose, then fell again.
What does this prove? The Royal Commission called up a world wide survey on capital punishment by the American criminologist, Professor Thorsten Sellin. He summed up his conclusions:
. . . whether the death penalty is used or not . . . both death penalty States and abolition States show rates (of murder) which suggest that these rates are conditioned by other factors than the death penalty.
The abolitionists' case, then, is made. Even by capitalism's standards, the death penalty is an outworn slice of more barbaric days. But the issue should not be allowed to get out of proportion.
A certain amount of fuss was made about the fact that a free vote was allowed on Mr. Silverman's Bill, leaving M.P.s to vote as what they call their conscience guided them. That may be all very well when the House is discussing something like capital punishment, which after all is only concerned with human lives and then with only about a couple of hundred of them a year.
But the vast majority of crime is not against people; it is against the property laws and privileges which are an essential part of capitalist society. When Parliament is debating these, there is never a free vote and no member exhibits a conscience. The Whips are on, and voting is strictly on party lines.
The opponents of capital punishment—men like Mr. Silverman, Victor Gollancz, Lord Gardiner—have argued that hanging is a futile barbarity. But at the same time they have supported the social system which is just as barbarous, just as futile—and universal in the degradation which it imposes.
Soon after the debate on the Silverman Bill, for example, the Soviet Union essayed yet another sequence in the endless minuet of disarmament talks, by proposing the renunciation of atomic weapons. The United States, who know the routine well, responded in the expected way; they rejected the proposal as “insincere " and instead called on China to sign the Test Ban Treaty.
This is playing with almost universal death and destruction. Yet no M.P.’s conscience was offended and there will be no Private Members Bill to abolish the cause of nuclear weapons.
In the same debate, Brigadier Terence Clarke, Tory M.P. for Portsmouth West, said that the abolition of hanging should be referred to the British public. This does not, of course, mean that members of Parliament intend to consult us on all matters of life and death. We shall not be asked whether we want any more Bomb tests, nor shall our opinions be sought on a possible future declaration of war. The use of nuclear weapons has never been the subject of a plebiscite, and never will be.
Brigadier Clarke is typical of the people who regard murder, and other crime, as an isolated personal failing, unconnected with social influences. To them, criminals are evil, and should be punished in accordance with their crime.
To say the least this is an inadequate conception and not "only because its distinction between “criminal" and “legal" (tilling is convenient to capitalist society. The act of killing an “enemy” in wartime is specifically excluded from the legal definition of murder. Brutal murderers in uniform are heroes; the same sort of person in civvies is a vicious thug.
Crime, like so many other social problems, needs a completely new approach, free of the restrictions arising from the private property basis of capitalism. We have already pointed out that the mass of crime consists of offences against property. To abolish capitalism would wipe all of them out.
Let us go further. The end of capitalism will mean the end of the poverty and the social conceits which are a persistent incentive to violent crime. It will mean the end of the slums where violence festers and where people are in some ways more like beasts than human beings. It will mean the end of the frustrated, the desperate, the sensation-seekers brutalized by the fabulous world of the trash fiction heroes.
It will mean that people will have the chance to behave socially, humanely and to live undistorted lives. In that society of freedom, crime will be an incredible irrelevance. There may be an infinitesimal number of murders, committed by the congenitally sick who wreck their derangements in violence. For the first time in history, such people will be dealt with, in freedom, with sympathy—and effectively.
We have a long way to go, and what sort of a milestone is Mr. Silverman’s Bill? It is no more than a creaky, reluctant step away from a primitive ritual—by a social system which , prefers its barbarians to be more sophisticated.