For the sake of argument

If hangings continue— make them public

ERIC NICOL SUGGESTS August 1 1959
For the sake of argument

If hangings continue— make them public

ERIC NICOL SUGGESTS August 1 1959

If hangings continue— make them public

For the sake of argument

ERIC NICOL SUGGESTS

TORONTO (CP) — A record crowd of 28,000 last night watched Joseph Doaks die on the gallows in Varsity Stadium. The first person to be publicly hanged under floodlights — to accommodate those fans who work during the day — Doaks met death calmly.

The event was televised by the CBC for out-of-town viewers, and in the ratings topped Ed Sullivan’s show . . .

Facetious? Not at all.

I suggest that the public hanging is the logical desideratum for those who would retain capital punishment as a deterrent—still a majority of Canadian citizens, according to the most recent publicopinion polls.

It is true that lately the Governor-General-in-Council has commuted to life imprisonment about ninety percent of death sentences. But Mr. Justice A. M. Manson of B. C. has damned this practice as flouting the law of the land, which is firmly backed by the belief, virile both in parliament and among the public at large, that the death penalty must be kept on the books for its effect as a deterrent.

No other defense

No other argument for c.p. remains respectable. The. eye-for-aneye chestnut has been generally repudiated as an attempt to find divine sanction for an act of pure revenge.

As chastisement the death penalty is even less defensible, being a corrective whose benefits to the offender are singularly short-lived.

In short, unless it is a deterrent the gallows — or the electric chair, or the gas chamber — is nothing. Nothing, that is, but a brutal vengeance, a killing whose agony of suspense far exceeds as torture anything the condemned person may have perpetrated.

Then should not the deterrent be as widely publicized as possible? If the state is to take a human life, should not this precious appropriation be exploited to the full measure of its value as a warning?

Our medieval ancestors were more sensible about this, not only hanging their victims in public but also drawing and quartering them. Cutting down the hanged man while there was still the breath of life in him, disemboweling and dismembering him — who could ask for a more specific deterrent than this.

Yet, on evidence, these grisly exhibitions did nothing to discourage crimes of murder and theft among the rowdies, or treason in the mighty. As Arthur Koestier reminds us in his Reflections on Hanging, at that time when thieves were hanged for their crime, the crowd milling about the scaffold was thoroughly worked over by packs of pickpockets.

However, this is a departure from the point of my thesis. Merely as an aside I mention that some of us believe that capital punishment fails to justify itself as a deterrent, that most capital crimes are acts of blind passion or stupidity or bank robber’s panic that never reckon the consequences. Just let it be footnoted that these crimes are controlled by social, psychotic and economic factors rather than the threat of the gibbet, as is easily demonstrable from the moderate crime records of countries (total: thirty-three) that have abandoned legalized killing.

End of digression. We’ll assume now, for the sake of argument, that hanging is a deterrent, and I shall try to persuade you, if you are not already convinced, that the vulturous scaffold and its performance should be seen by as many potential murderers as possible.

I anticipate the objection that a public hanging would draw no audience, in this day and land of greater sensibility, and that the public en masse would turn a shuddering back on the terrible sight.

However, I believe I am correct in saying that the largest single crowd—well over 100,000 annually—to attend a sports event on th¡s conticontinued on page 41

A VANCOUVER NEWSPAPER COLUMNIST AND THE AUTHOR OF SEVERAL BOOKS, ERIC NICOL IS BEST KNOWN FOR HIS HUMOROUS WRITINGS.

continued on page 41

continued from page 7

“The probability of strangulation is a lively one, and even worse bunglings are commonplace”

nent is the one that gathers to watch the five-hundred-mile motor race at Indianapolis. This eager multitude does not, one may safely presume, assemble for the exclusive pleasure of inhaling blue exhaust fumes. Isn’t the titillating possibility of a spectacular smashup, with racing cars cartwheeling in flames into death and destruction, the main attraction?

Lest it be protested that Canadians do not share this ghoulish delight in violence, we need look no farther than the popularity in this country of professional wrestling, hockey, lacrosse, football and other pastimes in which the emphasis is never entirely off dismembering the opponent.

Recently too the Ontario town of Lindsay introduced bullfighting to this country, a bloodless variety admittedly but indicative of a yearning for something less antiseptic. The public hanging would almost certainly catch the fancy of these hot-blooded people of southern Ontario.

Please understand: I am not suggesting that the public’s behavior at a hanging should be in bad taste. Popcorn and soda-pop sellers could not be tolerated, difficult though it might be to keep them out of the grandstand. No admission could be charged for such an affair, and it might help to maintain a high tone by opening and closing with the massed singing of hymns.

Those of the public who will balk at attending the public hanging, on grounds of indulging a base curiosity, will be able to find in the television broadcast the same comfortable privacy, without loss of dignity, presently enjoyed by our white-haired little old ladies who ogle the televised efforts of Whipper Billy Watson to disjoint Nature Boy.

A mere novelty, you say? People would soon tire of the public hanging as a spectacle? Here we can find assurance to the contrary, from witnesses of numerous hangings, that the possibility of the hangman’s botching the job looms large, and that even those prisoners who refuse to struggle for life before the trap door is sprung will often do so at the end of the rope.

The public has never fully appreciated the significance of the trial judge’s sentence: “to be hanged by the neck until dead.’' As the two last words indicate, death is not necessarily instantaneous.

Those who have read Mr. Charles Duff’s authoritative A Handbook on Hanging will remember that the clean breaking of the vertebrae is by no means routine in this type of execution. The probability of death by strangulation is a lively one, and even more completely bungled hangings are commonplace.

In this regard Canada holds some kind of record, with the hanging of Antonio Sprecage. in 1919, which took one hour and eleven minutes “until dead.’’

The last public execution among the so-called civilized nations, aside from atrocities of war. was that in France in 1939 of a murderer named Weidmann. The press photographers were, of course, on hand for the event, and the subsequent editions of the Paris newspapers were so well documented with horror that the government was scandalized, accusing the papers of pandering to the public’s lust for sadism, with the result that the guillotine was moved indoors.

This instituting of private executions

was a great help to the Nazi forces of occupation, who had a precedent for cloaking their disposal methods.

Perhaps you still are thinking that this plea for public hangings is a mere flight of gruesome fancy. If so I draw the

reader’s attention to an article (“Réflexions sur la Guillotine") written for La Nouvelle Revue Française d'Outre-mer by the distinguished French writer and philosopher Albert Camus. Bitterly attacking the conspiracy of silence sur-

rounding the state’s killings, their exclusion as a topic of polite conversation, he says:

“It is to the body politic what cancer is to the body of the individual, with this

difference that hardly anybody has yet argued for the necessity of cancer.”

The awful hush extends even to the identity of the hangman, who feels required to assume an alias in his professional career, as though he were commining a crime rather than carrying out the law for which we, the state, are responsible. He is as guiltless as the rope.

Yet we shrink from the hangman as well as from the service to the public that he performs. Very few of the eminent churchmen and other dignitaries who applaud capital punishment would think of having Mr. Ellis to tea. Is this his reward for carrying out a duty to the public welfare, a job that involves notoriously bad hours?

Moreover, as Mr. Duff has eloquently pointed out in his manual on hanging, now' that hangings are becoming more and more occasional, the hangman has no opportunity to keep his hand in, to practice his delicate technique.

Thus our public hangings bid fair to be enlivened by the kind of unexpected development that deserves to be witnessed, such as that occasion when the hanged gentleman’s straining neck muscles

proved so obstinate that several warders had to jump on his legs to add their weight to the peal of horror.

All witnesses agree that watching a hanging is an experience that cannot be duplicated or even approached by merely reading the press report of an execution. If the reporter w'ho attends a hanging were to describe in detail everything that transpired, from the state of mind of the person who has weeks or months in which to contemplate the fact that he is about to have his neck wrung, to the final, desperate, contorted struggle that the will to live makes against unnatural death—such a report would never get past the editor’s desk.

After all, it’s a family newspaper.

No, the only way to get the full benefit of the killing as a deterrent is to pack the wife and kids into a car and get down to the stadium in good time to find a seat that isn’t behind a pillar.

Let’s do away with the furtive midnight ritual that is observed only by a handful of men who can’t particularly benefit from the spectacle—the warden, the chaplain, the doctor and the other professional witnesses.

Surely the condemned man deserves at

least a rousing send-off, a chance to show that, if he couldn’t live well, he can die well. Whether or not he feels sufficiently justified, like Sidney Carton, to say, “It is a far, far better thing that I do. than I have ever done,” he deserves the right to earn that other tribute, that Malcolm pays to the traitorous Cawdor:

"Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.”

To rob even the most miserable rogue of this occasion for a last bit of glory — is this not too petty a larceny with which we are all charged?

Somebody must pay for our secret feefing of guilt, for our part in taking a God-given life, but it hardly seems sporting to make the hangee contribute.

Instead let’s show the world that Canada believes in capital punishment with a conscience clear enough to make each and every hanging a public event.

Let’s make sure once and for all that Canada’s faith in hanging as a warning to potential murderers is not shaken one jot by our first-hand witnessing, every blessed mother’s son of us, the dreadful drama of the gallows.

In his play Strife, in which striking workers and stubborn company man-

agement grind out a painful tragedy of obduracy, John Galsworthy has one of the company’s directors cry out:

"I protest, I protest! I’m a humane man—we’re all humane men!”

To which young Edgar Anthony replies scornfully:

"There’s nothing wrong with our humanity. It’s our imaginations, Mr. Scantlebury.”

The public hanging, televised coast to coast at a peak viewing hour, will make it definite that Canada’s support of the death penalty can in no measure be ascribed to lack of imagination.

The public hanging will make it possible for every Canadian to assess more accurately the need for legalized killing, both as a deterrent of which not a single case exists of its having deterred anybody, and as a quaint custom which in lieu of morris dancing links us with the picturesque past.

And when the CBC flashes the credits on our TV screens, supered over the shot of men cutting down the hanged body. I hope to see, in good big letters:

PRODUCED BY

YOU. ★