Note:  Do not rely on this information. It is very old.

Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment is the infliction of death upon offenders by the country or community to which such offenders belong. In olden times the power of life and death was considered to be the natural right of any authority as regarded enemies, or strangers, or offenders. But with the advance of civilisation the right became greatly limited, and is at the present day widely disputed. The ground taken up both by the upholders and the opponents of the system is in many points somewhat illogical. There are those who hold that it is only permissible to kill murderers, and that this right is in that case permissible only by force of a prescript of the Mosaic law. Others hold that society has always the right to get rid of hurtful members, and that by the most expeditious method. It is better, say they, that a murderer or hardened criminal should be finally disposed of than that the community should be burdened with supporting them and guarding them from further mischief. This view is at least logical, and it seems more in accordance with common sense, and more merciful to kill a criminal than to keep him in a lifelong monotonous captivity, where his good qualities, if he has any, are quite useless, and simply add to the public burden. The opponents of the system may be divided into two classes: first, those who hold that society has only the right to punish with a view to a criminal's amendment by remedying the defects of a bad education or surroundings, an amendment which his death makes impossible; and secondly, those who look upon life as so sacred a thing that no one has a right to inflict death upon a human being, and that the society which executes a murderer is only one degree less culpable than the murderer himself. This view is natural in the case of those who look upon death as annihilation, though strangely enough they do not extend the right of living to what they call the lower creation. Few dispute the right of a man to put to death any animal that is in his possession. There is a further class of hysterical people who raise a shriek at any execution more from a tender self-pity, and a desire to spare their own feelings, than from any deeper motive. It is to this class that the words of the French satirist apply, who, when asked to disapprove of the sacrifice of human life for murder, said, "Let the murderers first carry out the principle." Much of our till lately savage code was doubtless owing to our conservative way of following the custom of our ancestors, but it must be noted that the 18th century saw many of the most sanguinary provisions added to the statute book. It remained for this century to abolish most of them, and practically only murder is now punished by death, though nominally other crimes also are so punishable - that is, so far as civilians are concerned. Soldiers and sailors, especially in time of war, may incur the death penalty under the provisions of the Articles of War (q.v.), and it is evident that in such cases, where men's most savage passions are let loose, there must be no half-discipline, and no paltering with offences.

In some countries capital punishment has been entirely abolished, and in some - Belgium for example - it has been practically abolished by the refusal of the head of the State to sign a death-warrant. The United States settle the question severally for themselves. In one it was abolished to be afterwards revived.

As to the method of execution countries differ. In most civilised lands the object is to inflict death as painlessly and quickly as possible, the latest idea being the American one of death by electricity. But though men are killed easily enough accidentally by electricity, science seems hardly yet able to kill them by it deliberately without bungling. Many disgraceful scenes have been avoided in this country by the adoption of private instead of public executions, though many hold that much of the deterrent effect is lost in consequence. But others doubt whether public executions ever had much deterrent effect, thinking that he who murders rarely gives a thought to the probable consequences to himself, since he is under the influence of some strong passion or other abnormal state of mind. It is yet a moot point whether the retention or abolition of capital punishment has any real influence one way or the other upon the amount of crime, unless, indeed, its abolition may eventually lead to an habitual abhorrence of killing, which will end by extending itself to would-be murderers themselves.