Murder by Law

By Hugh O. Pentecost

[Delivered on August 11, 1889 to the Unity Congregation at

Newark, Brooklyn, and Manhattan.
Published in
Twentieth Century August 15, 1889.-- Ed.]

An African-American prisoner is prepared for execution in "Old Sparky,"

Sing-Sing Prison's infamous electric chair.
Photograph taken circa 1900 by William M. Van der Weyde.

From the Library of Congress photo collection.

Five men are to be murdered in New York City on the 23rd of this month.1 They are to be deliberately murdered in the most horrible manner. We all know that this crime is about to be committed, and yet we can do nothing to prevent it. There is only one being in the world who can prevent this sin against the universe. That person is the governor of the state, and the only possible way to induce him to exercise his pardoning power would be to convince him that if he saved these men’s lives he would get five more votes at the next election than he would otherwise have.2 No consideration of humanity would move him. He would be moved by a political reason alone. This is not because the governor is who he is, but because the governor of a state is necessarily a politician, and when a man becomes a politician there is but one object in his life, and that is to “get there.” To accomplish that object he would see friend, foe and principle die the death with equal equanimity.

Five men are to be legally murdered in the Tombs on the 23rd of this month, and thus another blood stain will be put on the escutcheon of the state.3 Nor will it be the last, for we are yet so uncivilized that it will be impossible to stop this loathsome killing for a long time to come. We have been so thoroughly educated to get things by fraud and force that we are a cruel race. Thousands upon thousands of people would pay a large price of admission to see these men choked to death if they were allowed to, just as we have recently seen men not only pay a large admission fee, but travel hundreds of miles and endure many hardships for the privilege of seeing two men pound each other. The privilege was derived largely from the sight of blood and the sound of the thud made by the fist of one fighter as it struck the face or body of the other. If one of them had been pummelled to a jelly and killed outright, the joy of the spectators would have known no bounds.

Five men are to be murdered by the state on the 23rd of this month. What for? Because they have been legally judged guilty of murder and we are so barbarous as to argue that the only thing to do with a murderer is to murder him. We seem to think that if a murder has been done the only thing to make all things right again is to commit another murder. For you must not make the mistake of supposing that when the State kills a man it is not murder. It is just as much a murder as those committed by Jack the Ripper. It is the worst possible kind of murder, because it is done with deliberation. It is done in cold blood. It is done for revenge. It is done in such a way as to foster the impression that even so foul a crime can be committed in a manner as makes it right. It is done so that the jurymen and judge and hangman may think of themselves as other than murderers, which they undoubtedly are when they bring a man to the scaffold.

How did this notion arise, that one murder can be made right by another? It certainly cannot be entertained by rational beings. When a law is broken it can never be mended. There is no such thing as atonement for a broken law. When natural law is violated the consequences are eternal. The idea that the death of Jesus Christ could atone for the sin of the world is thoroughly absurd. There is no such thing as atonement. The consequences of sin –- the violation of law –- must be suffered forever. There is no escape from them. The death or punishment of the sinner does nothing at all toward wiping out his offence. We talk about vindicating the majesty of the law. There is no such thing that can be done by us. Natural law will vindicate its own majesty if you let it alone, but it will not pretend that the break in it can ever be mended. It will follow the offender like a bloodhound, and it will make him suffer, to the last atom, the consequences of his wrongdoing. But there will be no fiction about making things right that have once been wrong.

Legal murder is justified generally upon the grounds that if we hang murderers it tends to protect society from the crime of murder. But it does nothing of the kind. Most murders are done in moments of passion which render the murderer practically insane, for the time being. Such murders are not prevented by the fear of the gallows. Neither are those that are deliberately planned, because a deliberate murderer generally thinks he can conceal his crime. Experience has shown that capital punishment does not deter from crime. When it was visited upon offenders for a score of offences it had no effect upon making people virtuous and law-abiding.

The plain truth is that capital punishment is one of the ancient barbarisms, the commonly accepted reason for which has been entirely exploded. The existence of such a custom in a country which professes in its religious institutions to worship, or even have a decent respect for the memory of, Jesus Christ, is so shameful that it is almost impossible to understand how it could have been maintained for as long as it has. Jesus believed in no revenge at all. So far as this world was concerned he seems to have been all gentleness and forgiveness. But his reputed followers are these blood-thirsty people who believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and a life for a life. Go throughout the church and you will find almost all the laity and ministers believers in capital punishment. I have often offended the majority of a Christian congregation by crying out against the infamy in the pulpit. Is there not always a priest or minister on the scaffold with the wretch who is about to be hanged? And did you ever know one of these professed followers of Jesus to lift up his voice against the iniquity, as he stood upon the gallows? No, and you never will while the church is hand-in-glove with the State, as she is now.

This picture of a priest and a hangman standing side by side upon a scaffold, accomplishing a murder in the approved legal manner, is as good evidence as I want of the part that conventional religion plays in the social drama of the day. The State is there in the person of the hangman and the priest is there in his well-known faculty of helper of the State, by making the victim of cruelty and revenge believe that it is all right, because it is according to the will of God.

It must be admitted that the sentiment of any people is changing upon the subject of capital punishment. We are becoming more polite and recherché , you know, year by year, and there is growing up what we call a public sentiment against hanging. Not because it is wicked, but because it is vulgar. A scaffold is a crude looking thing, with its bare boards and dangling rope. And then too, the criminals themselves are so careless in their conduct. They turn black in the face and their tongues hang out. To be sure, their faces are covered up, but they are not pleasant to look at after the job is over.

You may remember that not many years ago a Negro that was hanged in the Tombs, in New York, indecorously got his hands and feet loose, and began to climb up a board wall, back of the scaffold. It was not a pretty sight. And when he lifted himself up by the rope and began to yell, it was not a pleasant sound. Of course there was no help for him. He was in the hands of a Christian hangman and he had to slowly strangle. But he made a scene that was very impolite and inconsiderate on his part. And only a few days ago when a man was being hanged, the rope cut into his neck and left him dangling there with his head only half on, and blood spattering about as from a chicken with its head half off.

Now all this is, of course, very unpleasant for the legal murderers, and the Christian spectators, and for the priestly representative of Jesus to look at, and it is somewhat trying to their nerves. It is really too trying that murderers will not consent to go out of life at a rope’s end in a gentlemanly manner, and I think they mean to as a rule, but circumstances over which they have no control prevent them.

Well, all this vulgar conduct on the part of the men, whom the priest and hangman cooperate to send into eternity has produced a kind of revulsion against hanging. Not against the killing, mind you, but against that particular manner of killing. And so we have invented a method of doing the horrible business in this state that is thought to be more in keeping with the inventive genius of this wonderful age, and that, it is hoped, will do away with some of the indecorums of the frightful occasion upon which human beings are murdered in the name of justice and religion. We are going to do the dastardly deed hereafter by electricity and in the privacy of a dungeon cell.4 We are getting ashamed of ourselves, you see. When we wish to do our public business in secret you may sure there is some devilry going on which it is best that people should not know about, whether it is a secret murder or a secret session of the Senate. When people are doing right they need not be afraid of the newspapers or anybody else. Anything that will tend to demoralize the people by publicity is the wrong thing to do, and it does not become right by doing it in secret.

This electrical killing apparatus has been the occasion of the legislature making two tacit confessions. One is that there is a growing prejudice against hanging, and the other is that the whole business of killing people is something we must henceforth do in the dark, in order to be allowed to do it much longer at all. And for so much we should be thankful.

But what is this new device? Let us look at it for a moment and try to decide if we are going to like it any better than the old gallows tree. The sinner is to be placed in a chair, to which he is to be securely strapped, to prevent him indulging in any sickening contortions. He will have a portion or all of his head shaved and scientific bandages and sponges and chemicals will be applied there and elsewhere on his body – his feet, I believe. This cannot be done by a common Jack Ketch.5 It will have to be done by a scientific man, who will afterward go about in society eating and drinking with his fellowmen and flirting with young girls, I suppose, at a summer watering places. His wife will perhaps kiss the hand that arranged the apparatus for killing his fellow man. Those same hands will toss his baby in the air. This lizard-blooded scientific promoter of legal murder will be let loose in the community to associate with decent people. Perhaps the minister who helps him to prepare the sinner for this horrible death will administer to him the sacrament the next Sunday in church, and they will repeat the sacred litany together, in which is the prayer: “From sudden death, good Lord, deliver us,” a prayer which they make no attempt to help the good Lord answer in the case of the sinner who they have prepared for the awful taking-off in the privacy of a dungeon. One would suppose it would be impossible to find a scientific man who would do such detestable work. But one is at hand, it seems. Find out his name and remember it without loathing and disgust if you can.

Well, when the sinner is adjusted in his chair –- a reclining chair, in cruel mockery of luxurious comfort –- the scientific murderer begins to experiment on the victim with the Wheatstone bridge,6 to see how much of a dose of electricity it will take to kill him. A pleasant performance, this. It won’t hurt the man, says the scientific killer. He will not feel it. It means, it will not give him any physical pain. But what about the mental torture that the man will go through while he is being adjusted in his chair, and while all this scientific feeling him to find out what his resistance is will be going on?

Now, when all is ready, the poor nerve-strained wretch is left in solitude just long enough to complete one of the most fiendish bits of torture ever devised by man. Then the button is touched which shoots him full of an electric stream –- a stream of highly concentrated fire –- if he is not horribly burned without being killed, or horribly racked with pain in the process of dying he will, with one instant of anguish, go out of life.7

Talk not to me of the cruelties of the middle ages, nor of the barbarities of the wild men of the woods, nor of the horrors of lynch law. This surpasses them all for cold, calculating inhumanity! It is all the more brutal because we are supposed to be a civilized, a Christian people. Heaven save the mark!

Now why do we retain this vicious and disgraceful practice of taking revenge in kind upon our murderers? One reason is that most of us believe that sin and crime can be prevented by punishment, or, at least that wrongdoing should be punished. You see, most people believe in a future hell. That means that they believe in a God who will punish people in the other world for the religious sins committed here, and with a punishment that is wholly arbitrary -- that has no natural relation to the crime. It is popularly believed that whosoever believeth not in certain doctrines will be burned eternally in fire and brimstone. And yet anyone can see that a brimstone fire is not the natural consequence of unbelief in anything.

And this popular religious belief affects us in all out social relations. Instead of recognizing the natural law of punishment, and having a sublime trust that no wrongdoer can possibly escape the natural consequence of his deeds, we think that we must help the Almighty do his proper work, by instituting all sorts of absurd and arbitrary punishments. What relation has a dark closet to stealing jam? Or going to bed supperless to disobedience? Or castigation with a leather strap to lying? And yet these and similar punishments are inflicted in most of our households upon our children by parents who imitate the foolishness of their imaginary God. What relation has the jail to stealing, or hanging and electroding to murder? None whatever. But as long as we believe in a God who invents arbitrary punishments for sins for which men are only partly to blame, we will devise unnatural and vengeful methods of torture and death upon men for crimes to which they are driven by their environment.

I suppose that any rational mind would conclude that the thing to do with a bad man is to try and make him a good man. If a man is too dangerous to be allowed to go free, he should be confined, but not for purposes of punishment. Only for purposes of reformation and salvation. This, however, never will be done as long as we believe in a God who takes vengeance upon sinners. We are not likely to be better than our God.

I suppose that any rational mind would conclude that God has sense enough to make laws that will enforce themselves without requiring juries and judges and policemen to help him administer them. But we will never learn to trust natural law until we cease to believe in a God who neither obeys nor trusts his own laws. Whenever you see a legislature or a judge or a policeman, I wish you would stop and think what they mean. They mean that we have a God who made a lot of laws which are so defective that the universe would go to smash if it were not for these honorables and big-wigs and blue-coat-and-brass-buttons, with all their authority and clubs. The whole machinery of what we call justice will look as absurd to you as it really is, if you will but grasp the idea I am suggesting to you.

But you may be sure there is method in all this madness. We have not gotten into this illogical snarl without a reason. Long ago men began to made social laws which violate natural laws. As all this machinery of justice is now necessary to attempt to stave off the legitimate result of our violation of natural laws, we have monopolized natural opportunities and instituted a whole system of fraud and violence. The natural consequence is that poverty is abroad in the world, and poverty is a nest in which thieves and murderers are hatched, and the prison and policemen and gallows are the contrivances of legal murderers to protect themselves from illegal thieves and murderers. They are poor contrivances because no human invention can protect you when you throw the universe out of harmony, as you do when you put one millionaire in the midst of a thousand tramps.

Don’t you see what the prison and the gallows mean? They are instruments for the intimidation of the poor if they dare to try and get back some of the wealth that is daily juggled out of their hands. Did not the gallows do a great work for the pious rich people when it put an end to that disturber in Palestine, a long time ago? He is God now, worshipped by the very class that killed him then. But he was a low social agitator when they hung him. What would they have done if there had been no death penalty in vogue? Did not the gallows do a great work for the slave-owners thirty years ago, when old John Brown paid his penalty to the oppressed? He is one of our national heroes now. But he was a despised criminal then. Was not the gallows a useful thing for the traders in human flesh thirty years ago? Did not the gallows do a fine piece of work in Chicago? 8 Ah, you say, these men were indeed deserving of death. Yes, and so was Jesus and John Brown considered by the men who hung them. But the next generation changed the verdict.

It is easy to see why capital punishment was retained so long after it has become so shocking to the common consciousness that it has to be practiced in secret to preserve it. But you may be sure that when organized society is guilty of no wrong to the poor and stands in fear of no vengeance from the oppressed, the occupation of the hangman and his companions, the electrician and the priest, will be gone.

1 Patrick Peckenham, James Nolan, Ferdinand Carolin, and John Lewis were hanged on schedule, but the fifth man, Charles Giblin, was spared the noose when the governor commuted his sentence to imprisonment for life. Giblin was pardoned in 1895 when he was near death with tuberculosis.
2 David Bennett Hill (1843-1910) was Governor of New York State from 1885 to 1891. He later became a US senator.
3 Tombs Prison in lower Manhattan was built in 1839 and torn down in 1974.
4 On January 1, 1889, the world's first Electrical Execution Law went into effect in New York State.
5 John (Jack) Ketch was the public executioner in England under King Charles II, noted for his clumsiness in beheading prisoners. Ketch died in 1686.
6 A Wheatstone bridge is an instrument for measuring an unknown electrical resistance.
7 On August 6, 1890 (one year after this sermon was delivered), William Kemmler was executed in the electric chair at Auburn Prison near Buffalo, becoming the first person ever to be executed by electrocution. The first application of current was botched and Kemmler died only after the current was applied a second time. The prisoner convulsed as the electrodes seared his head and arms, filling the room with the smell of burning flesh. Some witnesses fainted or fled from the room.
8 On November 11, 1887 four anarchists were executed by hanging at Chicago, charged with killing policemen with a bomb at the Haymarket in May 1886. A worldwide belief in their innocence brought on a major increase in the anarchist movement.