When you see “Execution” as the heading for an article in the 1912 Young Woman’s Journal, the article will be a dignified exposition by a genteel lady about the efficient planning and carrying out of an ennobling program for the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association.
When you see “Execution” in the heading for an article in the 1885 Juvenile Instructor, the article will be a dignified exposition of an uplifting principle for the tender minds and hearts of the Sunday School children for whom the magazine was published.
MODES OF EXECUTION.
Capital punishment in criminal jurisprudence means the punishment of death. It is called capital punishment from the Latin word, caput, meaning “head.” The head, being the most vital, is usually that part of the body which is acted upon. This extreme penalty, notwithstanding the practice of the world from the remotest times down to the present day, has frequently been frowned down by philosophers and philanthropists, who have gone so far as to deny the right to so punish, of any earthly power. The weight of authority, however, appears in favor of capital punishment. Reference can also be confidently made to the old Testament, which is the foundation of all law, as sufficiently exhibiting the mind of the Great Lawgiver in retard to this matter:
“Whosoever sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”
I will here state that in former times the committing of murder was by no means the only crime for which the perpetrator received death at the hands of the law, but capital punishment was meted out to those who committed the most trivial offenses. During the reign of George III. we read in the history of England that the following were among some of the numerous offenses which involved a sentence of death: “Stealing in a dwelling-house to the amount of 40 shillings; stealing privately, in a shop, goods to the value of 5shillings; counterfeiting the stamps that were used for the sale of perfumery; and doing the same with the stamps used for the certificates for hair powder.”
The inhumanity of such a state of the criminal code gave way, towards the end of the reign of this king, to a course of legislation which has reduced the application of death as a punishment within its present humane limits. Practically, indeed, it is only in the case of treason and murder that the capital sentence is ever pronounced in any of the civilized nations to-day; and even then it is not always carried out, as certain circumstances connected with the committing of the crime, extreme youth, etc., often spares the life of the convict at least.
It may be necessary to state that in other nations the administration of the criminal law has perhaps been, on the whole, as severe as in England during the same period.
Imposing the death penalty as the ordinary punishment for all felonies was not the only inhuman feature of former criminal jurisprudence. The manner of executing capital punishment was so brutal and unfeeling that it causes one to shudder at the thought of the extreme tortures imposed upon the poor unfortunates.
I will here give a few of the modes of inflicting the punishment of death: From the end of the first until the middle of the eighteenth century, drowning was one of the many modes, then in vogue, of capital punishment; but it was generally inflicted upon women and the meaner and more infamous offenders among men, the greater and more distinguished criminals being hung. The drowning was performed in various ways according to the nature of the offense. A faithless wife was smothered in mud. Other offenders were drowned in pits, well, etc. The doom of the parricide (one who murders a parent or ancestor) was to be put into a sack and cast into the sea. In Saxony, as late as 1734, a woman convicted of child-murder was sewn up in a sack, along with a cat, a dog and a snake and thus drowned.
Breaking on the wheel was a very barbarous method of inflicting the punishment of death, formerly in use in France and Germany, when the criminal was placed on a carriage wheel, with his arms and legs extended along the spokes, and the wheel being turned around the executioner fractured his limbs by successive blows with an iron bar, which were repeated until death ensued. This custom was abolished in France at the Revolution, giving way for a more humane manner of inflicting death, which was performed by a machine called the guillotine. it is composed of two upright posts, grooved on the inside and connected on the top by a cross beam. In these grooves a sharp iron blade, placed obliquely, descends by its own weight upon the neck of the victim, who is bound to a board laid below. The speed and certainty with which this machine does its work gives it a great superiority over the ax or sword, to say nothing of the merciless form of execution upon the wheel and other cruel modes in former use.
Many other modes of capital punishment might be referred to, together with the painful and cruel tortures applied to those who refused to plead when arraigned before a tribunal, and for extorting evidence from witnesses, etc., but the subject is too unpleasant for further consideration. Enough has been quoted to show what hard-hearted and merciless natures were possessed by those who made and executed laws in the early history of the nations.
Our cut illustrates the manner in which a semi-barbarous and heathen people of to-day administers the death penalty to the culprit. The scene, exhibiting, as it does, the presence of the king, his subordinate officers and many of his subjects, manifests their inexorable natures. Their custom, however, is not nearly so brutal and inhuman as that which existed among nations who considered themselves more enlightened and civilized.
Since the dawn of freedom and liberty the life of man is considered before the law as his most sacred heritage, and the death penalty is not meted out to him, with few exceptions, save when he takes the life of his innocent fellow-being, thus carrying out the intent of the divine law quoted in the beginning of this article.
Formerly the object of the punishment was to seek revenge upon the offender and compel him to atone for his wrongs by the slow and cruel tortures inflicted upon him. – W.J.L.
I have not yet identified the author, “W.J.L.”
This post could conceivably inspire comments not only about the suitability of such a topic and illustration in a magazine for children and youth, but to the pros and cons of the death penalty itself, in the past and the present, in the U.S. and elsewhere. If so, please keep your opinions and any strong terms they provoke focused on that issue, and not directed toward other commenters who may express other views. Thanks.