The Executions

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The Executions

W. T. Stead (The Northern Echo, January 5, 1874)

This morning, before most of our readers see these lines, three murderers will have ceased to exist. The New Year will then have brought its ghastly burden to the criminals who now lie in the condemned cell, the hangman will have done his duty, and those limbs which in the excess of lusty strength inflicted murder upon three innocent individuals but a few months ago, will then be stiff, cold, and lifeless.

It is a mournful thing to think of from any point of view, although we are inclined to think that the mere termination of the three lives is the least mournful aspect of the matter. Three lives taken by the hangman are as small drops in the great ocean compared with the number of lives violently brought to a conclusion every day in the year. There is scarcely a railway company in the kingdom that has not sacrificed ten times as many lives, rather than spend a little money in the adoption of necessary improvements; there is scarcely a single extensive colliery where more men have not been killed by the carelessness of their fellow workmen, and there is certainly not one port on the North-East Coast whose shipowners have not disposed of at least twice as many lives by sending overladen or unseaworthy vessels to face the waves of the ocean. The victims of the Railway Companies, the miners and the shipowners have done nothing to deserve their fate; these men at Durham but suffer a righteous retribution. It is astonishing how much false sentiment there is upon the subject. This very day, according to the Registrar General’s averages, there will be slain, in one way or another, no less than forty-seven persons in these islands alone. Forty-seven per diem is the average number of so-called accidental deaths in this community. Modern Society, with its highly complex arrangements, its gunpowder mills, its railways, its steam engines, and its steamships, demands a daily holocaust of forty-seven innocent victims, or nearly two per hour every day that we live. If Society had been other than it is, we should neither have had a daily average of forty-seven violent deaths nor should we have had to hang three men this morning in Durham Gaol. So far, therefore, as the mere fact of an abrupt termination of life is concerned, we ought to be far more profoundly affected by the regular daily sacrifice of nearly four dozen innocent men than at the occasional hanging of three scoundrels. Both result directly from the constitution of Modern Society, and in bewailing the death of the few, while calmly ignoring the slaughter of the many, we resemble those who strain at a gnat while swallowing a camel. Take another illustration. The number of preventable deaths in this country is enormous. Every day of the year the earth closes over the corpse of some one who, but for defective drainage, and fever-breeding house property, would have lived at least as long as any of the three criminals would have done, had their career not been cut short by the hangman. Yet nothing is more probable that the very men who are literally murdering many innocent persons by obstinately refusing to make their property fit for man to inhabit, will profess to be horrified at the thought that the Law has this morning taken away the lives of three murderers. Such a sentiment is essentially false. The mere violent termination of life occurs every hour, with far more horrible accompaniments than the gallows and the hangman — it is not on that account that these Executions deserve our earnest attention.

The necessity for hanging these criminals has been admitted on all hands. The repeated occurrence of brutal outrages, often resulting in death, has convinced almost every one that it is absolutely necessary that the worst offenders should experience the full rigour of the law. It is a gratifying sign of the unanimity which prevails concerning the Executions that no steps have been taken to rescue the murderers from their fate, even by the sworn opponents of capital punishment. Even Mr; Tallack, the last hope of the convicted murderer, had put in no appearance, and that circumstance is amply sufficient to prove the universal acquiescence of the public in the fate of the three convicts. The prevailing feeling in the North inclines more to severity than to leniency— to the rigorous infliction of the sternest penalties of the law than to entertain the promptings of maudlin sentimentality. But there is a great danger that, having hanged these men, Society may consider that it has done its duly, whereas in truth it has but commenced the task that lies before it.

Some amiable enthusiasts are weak enough to argue that because all murder is not suppressed by a few executions, that therefore Executions are useless. As well might they argue that because all the weeds in a garden did not disappear after hoeing, hoeing was a waste of labour. Weeds and murderers must be disposed of, but so long as the ground is full of the seeds from which they spring, mere hoeing or hanging will necessarily fail. Although the public is unanimous about the hanging, it is anything but unanimous about the best method for preventing the need for such an operation in the future. Something ought to bo done; but what it should be is another matter. The matter is scarcely bad enough to justify the high-handed method of dealing with the rowdies that might have been adopted in Ireland or in India. If things were to get worse instead of better,— although a few days have passed without a murder, we have no assurance that the New Year will bring any improvement— it is quite possible that peaceable law-abiding citizens may be roused to demand that extraordinary measures should be taken to deal with this extraordinary crime. Yet it is difficult to say what could be done even in the last emergency. A suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act is unnecessary, and the proclamation of martial law would be a farce. The Indian Government stamped out Thuggism and Dacoity in the whole provinces, but operations signally successful against organised bands of bandits and thieves would be absurd, when resorted to in order to exorcise the rowdy spirit of this country. The only direction in which we can see any hope of improvements is in the increased severity of the magistrates, the increased vigilance of the police. The Willington Magistrates have lately set an excellent example in determining to commit every prisoner convicted for violent assaults without the option of a fine. This is a step in the right direction. Murders, such as these which have recently disgraced the North, differ very little from scores of assaults, the perpetrators of which have escaped with a slight fine. The rowdy thinks nothing of using his bludgeon, his poker and his hobnailed boots against anyone who provokes him to anger; in a dozen cases he fortunately misses any vital part; in the thirteenth he has the misfortune to kill his victim. His guilt, viewed from a moral standpoint, was as great in those cases when by good fortune his violence only wounded and bruised as in the case when it resulted fatally, but the law fines him for the first and hangs him for the last. The first step to suppress the murderous habits of the Durham roughs is, we believe, for the magistrates to visit every assault with the utmost severity of the law; to treat kicking with hobnailed boots as being as much an attempt to murder as stabbing or shooting; and in every case in which it can be done, to inflict corporal punishment upon the offenders. It is all very to talk sentimentalities, and to preach about the virtues of rose water as a preventive of murder, but it should not be forgotten that it is language like this which paves the road to the gallows. Rigorous punishment inflexibly meted out to all those guilty of violent assaults, would do more to put down murder in Durham than a score of hangings. The murderer does not usually intend to kill his victim. He simply intends to hurt him, and if all those were severely flogged who carry these desires into practice, few would be found to be so unfortunate as to commit a murder.

The police force has on the whole done its duty admirably. It might, however, be strengthened in the worst localities; and should the rough respond to the increased vigilance of the policeman by attempting to kill him, we could, as a last resort, arm the force with revolvers and cutlasses in addition to their truncheons. This however, we hope and believe, will be unnecessary. It is the magistrates more than the police that must be looked to for stamping out the murderous epidemic which is raging in the North.

One very important point upon which there is much need that we insist, with more than ordinary emphasis, is the duty which is incumbent upon the Bench of looking closely after the sale of drink. Drink inflames the passions which result in murder, and increased facilities for drinking too, often result in the manifestation of increased propensity to manslaughter. If the magistrates would but reduce the number of places for the sale of drink, keep a tight hand upon the publicans, and inflict invariably the maximum penalties for offences against the Licensing Act, they would materially diminish the number of outrages in the county. We would like to see the experiment tried, if it were possible, of closing the public-houses altogether in Spennymoor, although we doubt whether even that desperate remedy would make that benighted village an abode fit for civilised men. If one public house was closed for every murder or manslaughter committed in the district, publicans would look sharper after serving dangerous rowdies with drink, and would be especially cautious in preventing offences against public order. These, however, are violent remedies, which, although needed by the violent outburst of homicidal feeling, cannot be applied without an Act of Parliament, for which it is as vain to hope as for the Permissive Bill. It is possible, however, to close public houses earlier, to look after them more smartly, and to punish more severely both drunkards and those who make them drunk; and these things we hope will characterise the proceedings of our magistrates in the New Year. To-day’s executions ought to suffice to arouse the authorities to a sense of the position and initiate an earnest crusade against rowdyism from which murders spring; but we fear that even this dread and ghastly spectacle will need to be several times repeated before it is thoroughly taken to heart in the county of Durham.