The Death Penalty
It is the 29th day of October, 1901.
Here and there a faint streak of sunlight begins to creep down the
walls which loom up on every side, and across the courts. Without,
the humdrum rattle and roar of awakening life betokens the advent
of another day. Within, the silence is maddening. Far up the corridor
appears a strange and solemn procession. As it passes window after
window the faces pressed against the cold bars look unusually drawn
and white. Not a word, not a sound passes their lips as the little
band wends its way to the chamber of official murder. The central
figure, straight and firm, eagerly steps forward, stumbles slightly
on the mat before the chair and then sinks down into its ghastly
apparatus. Swiftly and silently the straps are adjusted, while the
 victim in a low, unbroken
tone speaks his last. At a sign from the warden the switch is turned,
and like a flash that human form straightens and stiffens until
the leather bands which hold it break the awful silence with their
sickening creak. Once, twice, thrice, his body stiffens and relaxes.
As it is released and laid upon the table, the awe-stricken spectators
hasten one by one from the room.
O, nation, where is thy virtue? Where
is thy God? True, a noble man was sacrificed—shot down at the hand
of an assassin. And his was a martyr’s death. A nation, a world
bowed with terrible heartache over his grave. Men, women and children
rose in wrath against the murder. Their frenzy was fearful to behold.
The cowardly assassin must be punished.
Yet now that both have passed beyond
this world into the presence of their Maker, we ask whether or not
our purpose has been achieved. Have we deterred? Have we reformed?
Have we warned?
We have not prevented murder. The
death penalty has slain its thousands and tens of thousands, but
still its awful work goes on and its power is defied. The seventy-two
thousand executions during the reign of Henry VIII. did not put
a check to crime. It even provoked new outrages. The recent execution
of Zephon at Philadelphia, did not prevent four other murders near
the scene within two days. The hanging of Barrett at Worcester for
rape and murder, did not prevent another murder close at hand within
ten days. It has been in operation for five thousand years and has
done its best. When, O when, will the term of trial end?
We have not reformed the assassin.
The thought of death is not the most terrible. The sick die calmly.
Thousands have gone down on the battle-field. Suicides are common.
Robinson, of New Jersey, standing on the scaffold called for a band
and 20,000 spectators, declaring that he had suffered too much poverty
and misery in this life to care very much about leaving it. Czolgosz
entered the chamber of death the coolest man of that company. He
died with a curse upon his lips, and with the assertion that he
was not sorry for his crime. Far from reforming, we launched him
into an eternity whence repentance comes too late. We took from
him all chance of a better life, of reform, and self-realization.
“Thou shalt not kill,” saith Jehovah. Here is an obligation to guard
the sanctity of life most scrupulously. Christianity makes the taking
of human life doubtful and fearful. For life is the immediate gift
of God to man—which neither he can resign nor can it be taken from
him, except by the will of Him who gave it.
On the other hand, official killings
have done irrevocable wrong. In their attempts to punish the murderer,
they have themselves been slayers of innocent blood. Lafayette said:
“I shall ask for  the abolition
of the penalty of death until I have the infallibility of human
judgment demonstrated.” O’Connell says: “I myself defended three
brothers of the name Cremming [sic], within the last ten years.
They were indicted for murder. I sat at my window as they passed
by after sentence of death had been pronounced. Their mother was
there, and she, armed with the strength of affection, broke through
the guard. I saw her clasp her eldest son, who was but twenty-two
years of age; I saw her hang on the neck of her second, who was
not twenty; I saw her faint when she clung to the neck of her youngest
boy, who was but eighteen. And I ask, what recompense could be made
for such agony? They were executed—and—they were innocent.”
Let law and religion be supreme. Let
the weak be helped, the violent restrained, not destroyed. Let the
guilty be punished. They should be punished. Let them know that
they will be punished, surely and justly. Let the murderer, the
violator of God’s holy law, and the destroyer of man’s sacred life,
know that he will suffer—not by his own blood, but by exile and
lonely solitude, where repentance and bitter remorse are certain.
Let each one of us say with Mr. Bender, who was there on that awful
morning, “I want never to see another.”