On Hanging

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/November 25, 1910

Dr. Crippen, who weighed but 140 pounds, was given a drop of seven feet. Death was instantaneous and was caused by the fracture of the vertebrae. The whole proceedings, from the entrance of the cell by the executioner until Crippen was dead, occupied but 60 seconds—Thursday’s Sun.

Crippen’s Good Luck

Lucky Crippen! Had the hanging taken place in an American jail instead of in gloomy old Pentonville Prison, the drop would have been, not seven feet, but five feet, or perhaps even less, and in consequence the good doctor, instead of dying instantly and painlessly, would have lingered on for 8,10, or 15 minutes, writhing, spinning and plunging in midair to the sickening horror of the young reporters, political doctors, curious grand jurymen, assiduous photographers and others assembled around the scaffold.

The theory of hanging is that it breaks the condemned man’s neck and so puts him out of the world quickly and without unnecessary anguish. In England, it would seem, that theory is borne out by the facts, for they allow plenty of rope over there, and so the long drop, even in the case of a light man, commonly ends in a yank sufficiently powerful to dislocate the vertebrae. But in the United States it is usual to make the drop no more than five or five and a half feet, and so it often happens that the doomed man dies of strangulation—slowly and terribly. I have seen eight men hanged, seven of whom died of this slow strangulation. Not one of them got through the dread business in less than five minutes. At least two took 10 minutes. One was still moving his knees at the end of 12 minutes.

Hanging As It Is.

This last poor fellow was a young negro, apparently about 21 or 22 years old. When he dropped two accidents happened. In the first place, the rope proving over-stiff, failed to draw tightly around his neck. In the second place, the wind made by his sudden descent lifted the black cap from his head—and his face, with eyes wide open, was presented to the spectators. For the first minute those spectators stood watching, fairly petrified by horror. Then, one by one, they took to their heels. An old and hardened newspaper reporter, who had seen 25 or 30 hangings in his time, dropped his pencil and pad of paper and fell in a faint against the wall of the jailyard. A deputy sheriff went over like a man shot. The crowd melted away. Only a doctor or two, the hangman and a couple of reporters remained.

I sketch the picture lightly, suppressing much. If every detail were drawn, this article would spoil many a dinner. I only wish it were possible to put in those details and spoil those dinners, for only in some such fashion will the public ever be induced to think seriously upon the unspeakable savagery of capital punishment. The average man, reading of a hanging in a newspaper, misses its horrors completely. All he sees is the just infliction of the law’s penalty upon a man who has defied the law. The whole affair seems workmanlike, dignified, virtuous. The culprit, he reads, died quickly. “There were no untoward incidents.”

The Appalling Last Scene.

But let that average man see a hanging himself. Let him go to some cramped and ill-smelling county jail in the gray of the early morning and have a look at the condemned man waiting in his cell trembling, sobbing, huddled upon a miserable cot. Let him take his stand at the cell door and observe the harrowing events of the long, long wait—the entrance of the “spiritual adviser” (in Maryland he is usually a frowsy, Pecksniffian negro preacher), the last meal, the singing of a hymn, the reading of the death warrant, the appearance of the sheriff, the beginning of the march to the scaffold, the utter and hideous agony of it all. Let him follow then to the jail yard and see the poor fellow climb that ghastly ladder. Let him see the shirt collar thrown back, the noose brought down and adjusted, the cap drawn on. Let him then hear, in that awful stillness, the last whispers of the “spiritual adviser,” the snick of a bolt, the nerve-racking thud of—

And then, when he has recovered and can appear at meals again, let him lay his hand on his heart and say that he still believes that murder is the only cure for murder?

In Blackstone’s day no fewer than 160 crimes were punished by death in England. Today in Maryland there are but two which carry that savage penalty. In Michigan, Wisconsin, Rhode Island and Maine capital punishment has been abolished altogether. One by one the nations of Europe are falling in line. Holland, Romania and Italy have dismissed their hangmen and axmen and no longer take life in the name of the law. In Belgium, though the old law still stands, there has been no execution since the sixties. In France it is only the extraordinarily atrocious criminal, the professional butcher, the incurable, that reaches the guillotine. In Portugal the only remaining capital crime is treason in time of war. Even in Russia, which we all regard as barbarous, the punishment for murder, save when the crime is political, is not death, but imprisonment.

 Murder And The Law.

How long will the United States lag behind? Our punishments grow more humane every year—all, that is, save our punishment for murder. We turn our burglars, robbers and swindlers out upon parole and try to make better men of them. We assume, even against the facts, that they will repent their crimes, that their sober second thoughts will save them, that they are not wholly bad. But the crime of murder, though it is more often inspired by overwhelming passion than any other crime, is still legally beyond all hope of forgiveness, just as the murderer himself is still legally beyond all hope of repentance and reformation.

Practical justice, of course, has met the situation by throwing a thousand obstacles in the way of the execution of the law. Murderers escape death upon absurd pretexts and technicalities, not in violation of public opinion, but in obedience to public opinion. In other words, our attitude toward capital punishment is exactly like our attitude to many other outworn and preposterous things—we approve it officially and oppose it actually. This chronic dishonesty, this embracing of the appearance and eluding of this substance, is not, of course, an exclusively American quality. It was visible, for example in the later days of the Roman Republic—and those who read Froude’s “Caesar” will quickly learn what fruits it bore.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

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