In a year of great tragedy, loss and unprecedented social and political upheaval, I feel it incumbent on me to restore some Christmas cheer. The only trouble is, I’m not a very cheery man so, courtesy of the amazing Richard Dawson, this is a beautiful, elegiac cry on loss. It’s no Tijuana Brass Spanish Flea, but it is a deeply moving track whose lyrics feel particularly apt for a year in which the grim reaper has been so prolific.
man has been struck down by hands unseen.
Now, let’s get back to business – and it’s more bad news I’m afraid. I have had this blog lurking in me for a long time but have debated putting it out, but now is as good a time as ever. In a year in which the entire Western, liberal ‘progressive’ social and political order has seemingly crumbling in a matter of months, I want to suggest that there is perhaps another ‘pillar’ of our society that is perhaps not as strong as we once believed – the ban on capital punishment.
I know what you are all thinking. “Don’t be ridiculous”, “this would never happen” etc etc. But, this has been a year of things that could ‘never happen’ and there’s method to my madness. More importantly, I want to use the example of a North East execution as proof of why it should never happen. Think of this as a forewarned is forearmed sort of blog.
Now, here’s my thinking. The recent political upheavals of Brexit and Trump are widely reported as great ‘shocks’ to the political system. The undercurrent of this tone of surprise being “how could we have seen this coming.” Arguably though, the discontent with the political system was plain to see. Much like the commonly held assessment of Jimmy Saville’s ability to get away with terrible crimes, he wasn’t covering anything up but hiding in plain sight – people just chose not to see/hear.
Now, lets consider the view held by a majority of the public regarding capital punishment. Despite its removal from the statute over 50 years ago, polling of public opinion consistently shows a majority in favour of its reintroduction.¹ Promisingly this has just recently, in the last few years, started to drop with 18-39 year olds tending to be in a majority for opposing its reintroduction. However, much like brexit, we have an issue where if put to a referendum, we may well be deeply shocked by the result. It is perhaps for this very reason that any votes on its removal/retention have tended to be whip free, votes of conscience.
In one such debate on its potential abolition, in 1956, the then Home Secretary argued for its retention for the crime of Murder so as to mark societies “peculiar abhorrence” of the crime. In his speech he mentioned MPs responsibilities to their constituents as much as their conscience.
This, as I have said, is a matter of conscience, and for that reason the Government thought it right that there should be a free vote. But I beg hon. Members, when they consult their consciences, to remember that they are not here as private individuals; they have an inescapable responsibility as well to the public. The House and the Governments it sustains are responsible for the safety, order and well-being of the country, and in remembering our responsibility for the murderer we must not forget our responsibility for the law-abiding citizen….The first function of capital punishment is to give emphatic expression to society’s peculiar abhorrence of murder. It is because murder is the crime of crimes and taking life is to be sharply distinguished from taking property that there is reserved for it the supreme and unique penalty of death. This is not the law of an eye for an eye: it is the reservation of the gravest punishment for the gravest crime. It is important that murder should be regarded with peculiar horror—that horror is in itself a powerful psychological barrier against killing.
This particular desire to punish Murder above all others was a centuries old notion, indeed the Murder Act of 1752 (so often mentioned in this blog) was expressly brought about to add an additional punishment for the crime of murder to set it apart. I would like to suggest today that another crime raises the public ire to a far greater level than murder and that is paedophilia. Each society has its crime that sits above all others as having a ‘peculiar abhorrence’ and I believe this is ours. In fact, one needs only look at the literature of the political fringes to see that paedophiles and ‘what to do with them’ is a subject that has great traction with a lot of people. Indeed, The Sun newspaper effectively works as fulltime PR for vigilante paedophile hunting groups such as Dark Justice. The comments below these articles are frequently calling for the return of the rope.
When the Government launched it’s e-petitions website to ‘hear the voice of the people’ that voice, in its earliest stages, quite angrily called for the restoration of Capital Punishment. Multiple petitions were formed gaining tens of thousands of signatures and at one point in 2011 the BBC reported that it was the demand that ‘topped the list’ on the epetitions site. In several cases the reintroduction was called for child murderers and paedophiles.
Now, what can we do with this information? Well, if recent times are anything to go by, people best start preparing their arguments for why it shouldn’t be reintroduced as the emotive cry of revenge, as Capital Punishment so often is, is a very powerful one to many people. Here’s what I have to say on it from three years of studying it.
Firstly, as a deterrent it simply doesn’t work. I have lost count of the myriad execution reports I have read in which people stood at the foot of the gallows were robbed, whilst watching a man being hung for thieving. Crime at the gallows was commonplace. This ‘great moral lesson’ was clearly not being learnt by the very people it was intended for. This is nowhere truer than in the story I will finish the blog with.
Secondly, there is always a margin for error. If ever one needed a more brutal example of this then watch the BBC Drama Rillington Place that I plugged only last week. To those saying, yes but we wouldn’t make those mistakes anymore can I point you to Lawrence McKinney who this year was released from prison in America after serving 30 years in jail for a crime he has now been exonerated for.
Thirdly, Despite being remembered as the era of the ‘bloody code’ (owing to so many crimes being punishable by death) recent studies have shown that the mid c18th-early c19th could just as well have been known as the era where it was incredibly difficult to be hanged. Juries were hugely reluctant to convict criminals of a crime punishable by death and in the vast majority found ways to lessen the sentence. So, even if this draconian practice was reintroduced, there is no guarantee it would be used effectively.
Fourthly, if the intention is to show the criminal as a monster who none should emulate, it so often backfires. The intended message of public executions were frequently undermined by the final words, behaviour and general ‘humanity’ of the person being executed. One can’t simply view the crime in isolation and reject the person, however much we may try. To abhor the murderer, whilst wilfully murdering them is gross hypocrisy.
Fifthly, as a society, the punishments we endorse are a reflection of ourselves. If, at the top of our legal system is a punishment that evidently rejects the notion of the capacity for forgiveness or redemption then what does that say about us.
Now, i’ll end with my this final point and believe it or not it’s Christmassy. I wrote about this case in full last year but just a quick recap here. In 1875 a group of four miners left a pub in Dinnington after a days shooting. On the walk home they were met by a man petitioning for the reprieve of Richard Charlton – due to be hanged at Morpeth. The men signed the petition and carried on their way home, shortly after an argument ensued after a snowball was thrown by one of the group, things very quickly escalated and George Hunter shot William Wood. Wood later died. So George Hunter, mere moments after signing a petition for the reprieve of a man about to be hung, shot and killed his friend. If ever there was proof that the fearful consequence of murder had little or no effect on behaviour it is here.
To finish the story, I have a song about the case. Not mine I should add, but by a man named Tom Patterson who very kindly got in touch to ask for my help on some of the details. I love it when people get in touch about the blog and this is the first time its been about a song. So, here you are, a song to send you on your way for Christmas. The case of George Hunter, the Snowball Murderer.
It fell one December the early shift done, four miners met up in the lane
Grey skies above fought a watery sun as they left to go shooting again
Across the bleak marshland soon far out of sight, to the edge of the forest they went
Taking their prey in the fast fading light, til every last minute was spent.
They trudged their way homeward as the night air turned still and the first flakes of snow drifted down
Their thoughts turned from hunting to drinking their fill, by the fireside with friends gathered round
The Gate Inn shone out in the distance ahead, soon they were there at the bar
Telling tales, laughing at all that was said, toasting success to the Carr.
When closing time beckoned a blizzard had called and the path now lay deep under snow
Willie Wood squatted to make a snowball and joked as he started to throw
“Stop heaving and clotting or I’ll fire no doubt”, George Hunter’s voice echoed around
But Willie continued, a gunshot rang out and his blood stained the white winter ground.
All Dinnington mourned the sad loss of young Wood, George Hunter was taken away
At the local assizes the wretched man stood, convicted of murder that day.
When spring came to Morpeth he was held in the tower, waiting to take his last breath
As the prison bell sounded to signal the hour, William Marwood dropped him to his death.
LYRICS BY TOM PATTERSON
DISTRACTION 1: CONFERENCES, CONNECTIONS AND THE BROAD CHARE
There is a point in every academic conference, usually about 8 slides into the 9th Powerpoint presentation of the day, where you begin to question why you came, why you are still studying and just why?!! However, they do sometimes lead to very fruitful meetings and I found myself this week really enjoying a catch up with two lovely people I meet at the British Crime Historians Conference. We are preparing a panel on the last public execution in Newcastle, George Vass 1863, and we discussed the details over an amazing lunch at the fantastic Broad Chare, on Newcastle’s Quayside. If only all academic meetings were this good!
DISTRACTION 2: I turned 32 this week (a nondescript age if ever there was one) and celebrated at the fabulous Cookhouse in Newcastle. Certain songs have a new profundity with age and I found myself listening to Bones by Radiohead whilst driving this week and it really hit home, particularly Thom Yorke’s pained cry of “I used to fly like Peter Pan.” Enjoy.
I used to fly like Peter Pan – Radiohead, Bones.