Shall We Banish the Electric Chair and the Gallows, as France has Banished the Guillotine?

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Shall We Banish the Electric Chair and the Gallows, as France has banished the Guillotine?  (1906) 
by New York World
November 25, 1906 edition of the New York World
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Shall We Banish the Electric Chair and the Gallows, as France has banished the Guillotine?
The Inventor of the Electric Chair Says YES, and Offers a Plea for the Sentiment Against Capital Punishment, Now Active in Many Lands and in Nearly Every State of the Union

The French Government has decided to abolish capital punishment. The guillotine, after a little more than a hundred years of service, is to be banished to the museums.

Four states of the American Union have abolished capital punishment, and in at least one more it has been virtually abolished by the refusal of successive Governors to sign death warrants.

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New York still clings to this relic of barbarous ages, but there are many citizens of this Empire State who believe that the time has come for its abolition. Commodore Eldridge T. Gerry has long been an ardent apostle of that mercy which tempers justice. Assemblyman Eagleton introduced a bill in the Legislature last session substituting life imprisonment for the electric chair as a punishment for murderers, but it was lost by the wayside. Former Police inspector Alexander Williams has said that crime would be reduced if the death penalty were abolished. His point of view is that convictions for murder would be more certain if juror did not dread the responsibility of condemning men to death, and that the fear of the certainty of life imprisonment would act as a greater deterrent to criminals than that of the electric chair, which they have every reason to hope to escape.

Dr. J Mount Bleyer, who invented the electric chair, and through whose efforts this more humane method of killing murderers was substituted by law for the gallows, is one of the strongest advocates of the total abolition of the death penalty. He has written for The World the following plea that New York do as France has done and relegate capital punishment to the realms of history.

Letter from Bleyer[edit]

By Dr. J MOUNT BLEYER F.R.A.M.S.
(Inventor of the Electric Chair)
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We are living in an age of the world's history which requires every individual to live in obedience to "law and order" established by civilized governments. The laws of any country which have for their object the correction and regulation of human action and to determine between the right and the wrong are progressive in their nature, like other institutions of the world. France has taken the lead among nations by abolishing the death sentence -- the most barbarous of all laws -- be it ever said to her credit!

I have always leaned toward the side of that justice which demands that capital punishment be abolished. I have, however, fathered electrocution as the most humane method of execution, and this method has become the law of several states. This mode of legal execution was brought forward by me owning to the fact that it is the quickest and most certain of all death penalties. Nevertheless I am for the banishment of this most barbarous practice. This relic of the dark ages is one of the evils afflicting the enlightened civilized nations of the present era.

In reality capital punishment is only legalized murder. Justice does not go with human passions, and a perfectly dispassionate and unbiased judgment is a myth. The chief aim with a true surgeon is to save a limb, not take it off. So it should be with the state.

The making of a man and citizen is a tremendous undertaking, and so long as the law acts not as a protector and developer of childhood and youth into manhood, saving it from the lurking and insidious foes to heath and virtues that are the true menace of our civilization, so long criminals and murderers will be made by the very law that later steps in to condemn them.

The state is inflicting capital punishment upon a murderer is like the false mother in the judgment of Solomon -- she prefers a dead son to a son whom she can reclaim by justice seasoned with mercy. The true mother should redeem the criminal by keeping him out of harm's way, while at the same time promoting his moral and spiritual welfare and making him by proper punishment and suitable work a useful though restricted member of the State.

If capital punishment were abolished, would murderers suffer any less, since they would receive not only the punishment still open to infliction by the law but also the retribution? In Thibet, for the citizens of which we feel so great a contempt, there is a reverence for that very principle of life that our civilization might do well to follow in many respects, and when where, if there are willing to suffer from the inroads of vermin, at least every man's life is sacred to the law that created him.

The true scientific solution of the difficulty is to redeem the murderer, like other criminals, and to give him a change to work out his salvation on principles dependent upon a true civilization, rather than that bequeathed to us from the middle ages.

When we can produce Life let us take it; until then let us utilize the punishment of criminals for the benefit of the state. As Walpole said, "The worst use to which you can put a man is to hang him."

The greatest argument against capital punishment is that the principle of life must not be violated. The law of justice is unquestionable a life for a life. Yet the active principle of life is so beautiful a fact, so mysterious, so baffling in all its workings, so insoluble even to science -- that is so profoundly bent upon concealing it -- that the scientist confronted with this problem must cry out "Do not destroy that beauty which it is our despair to solve; hold your sacrilegious hands from the crime of destroying that which you cannot restore and which you cannot even understand." It is true that the murderer, sending out of this world a human being in the vigor of life "with all his imperfections on his head," challenges and deserves justice; and there it was that in distant ages the crude ideas of barbarism could find no better solution of the problem than by taking, with all possible tortures, the life of the murderer. Civilization in the course of time gave him a chance for life by instituting a trial before "a jury of his peers." And our so-called civilization has found no improvement upon this system.

France, foremost, calls the halt to capital punishment. The American nation cannot help but follow this lead.

Capital Punishment's Progress Toward Abolition[edit]

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As man has become gradually more and more civilized he has tempered with mercy the administration of his justice. To-day criminals are put to death the world over by methods that are as instantaneous as possible. Torture which was until very recently a part of everday execution, is now looked upon with horror.

The methods of execution now used by the several nations are many. Great Britain, Austria, and several of the United States still cling to hanging. The theory of the gallows is that the drop breaks the criminal's neck and kills him instantly, but this holds true only when the knot is perfectly adjusted; when, as is so often the case, some trilfing maladroitness in the tying of the "hangman's knot," the victim's neck is not broken and he simply strangles to death. So many revolting scenes have been witnessed at hangings during the slow strangulation of the swinging victim that New York and many other States have substituted the electric chair, which has the merit of certainty and instantaneous action.

The Garotte Still Used in South America[edit]

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The garotte, still used in Spain and most of the Spanish-American countries, is a collar attached to an upright post, through both of which passes a powerful wooden screw. The criminal's neck is placed in the collar, and the executioner, with one sharp turn of the screw, breaks the victim's neck. It is a method similar in its action to hanging, but more certain to cause instant death.

In Turkey, Persia and some other Oriental countries the bow-string is the method of execution. This is a stout cord of catgut placed around the victim's neck with two slip-knots, which are suddenly drawn tight by two strong men. This kills the criminal by strangulation.

The guillotine, which is used in some parts of Germany, and has been used in France and Italy ever since the French Revolution, is a heavy knife which drops between two upright posts and instantly severs the victim's head. Italy abolished it many years ago; many states of Germany, while allowing it to remain on their statute books, have ceased to enforce it, and now France is to abolish it. The immediate reason for this is the inability of the Government to find any man willing to take the place of the executioner. But public opinion had long been in revolt against the barbarity of these beheadings, which always took place in public, and the Government, in deciding to end them forever, is but obeying the mandate of the people.

Capital punishment has been abolished in Italy, Norway, Roumania, Holland, Portugal and Russia, while in Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Bavaria and several of the states of northern Germany the rulers refuse to sign death warrants, and criminals, thought sentenced to death, are virtually made life prisoners.

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It will amaze many people to learn that there is no capital punishment in Russia, yet it is a fact. Murderers and traitors are sentenced to the mines in Siberia, but they are not put to death unless tried by court-martial in a military or naval court, in which case they are shot to death.

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Burning at the stake, drawing and quartering, breaking on the wheel, skinning alive and other barbarous methods of execution once common throughout the world have long been relegated to the pages of history, along with the rack, the thumb-screw and other tortures as methods of examining witnesses. But it is only 200 years since they were burning witches Quakers in New England, and the pious Puritans of Salem no more realized that they were acting like barbarous savages than did Calvin realize it when he burned Servitus at Geneva, or than Torquemador when he burned heretics in Spain, or than Cromwell when he burned Archbishop Laud on Tower Hill. A woman was burned to death in London in the year 1790 as punishment for killing her husband. It is not so many years since the civilized world emerged from the darkness of barbarism in its treatment of criminals, and it will be only a few years more before the world comes to a realization of the fact that the divine mandate, "Thou shalt not kill," is equally binding upon the State as upon an individual.

The Arguments Against the Death Penalty[edit]

The opponents of capital punishment, apart from the purely ethical argument, base their contention on the following assertion: When a man kills another he does it one of two ways: either he is driven by a sudden gust of passion or inflamed by drink or desire, in which case he is for the moment mad and never considers the possibility of having to suffer for what he is about to do, or he slays after careful and deliberate preparation, after making all his plans to conceal his crime and to make certain his own escape, in which case he calculates that he will not be punished at all, so it matters not to him whether the legal penalty for murder be death or imprisonment, for he expects to escape it entirely. Therefore, in neither one case nor in the other is the death penalty a deterrent. But, say the opponents of capital punishment, the infliction of the death penalty makes jurors reluctant to convict, and therefore brings the law into disrepute, while if life imprisonment were the penalty convictions would be more certain and justice would not be travestied so often.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).