Capital Punishment


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    Christians have burnt each other, quite persuaded
    That the apostles would have done as they did
    George Gordon, Lord Byron, Don Juan


    The Papal States
    The Anglican Church

    Capital punishment was accepted as part of God's great design, and no attempt was made to ban it by any right-thinking Christian. In the Middle Ages capital punishment was inflicted for religious offences. Examples included robbing a church, sacrilege, eating meat during Lent, cremating the dead, and omitting to be baptised*. Petty vandalism against Church property also attracted the death penalty. Churchmen advocated not only the death penalty but also a range of accompanying horrors. Criminals were hanged in chains. Sometimes bodies were gibbeted, i.e. they were coated in tar to preserve them, then hung high up on a post, often in sight of their family home, where the birds and the weather would destroy them only after months or years. Some victims were hanged, drawn, and quartered, after which their heart would be held up to the crowd, and their severed head would be stuck on a spike and left in some prominent place for everyone to see. Here is a typical sentence :

    You shall be drawn upon a hurdle through the open streets to the place of execution, there to be hanged and cut down while yet alive, and your body shall be opened, and your heart and bowels plucked out, and your privy members cut off, and thrown into the fire before your eyes; then your head to be struck off, and your body divided into four quarters, to be disposed of at the King's pleasure.... *


    On God's behalf, English churchmen confirmed in the early nineteenth century that it was perfectly acceptable to tear out the heart and bowels of condemned but still living men. Some clergymen advocated hanging whether the accused was guilty or not. One argument was that capital punishment was a deterrent for the criminally inclined, so the guilt or innocence of the individual on trial was irrelevant*. Another was that all sins are equally damnable in the eyes of God, so the extreme penalty was appropriate for all*.

    The heads of the Gunpowder Plotters, hanged, drawn and quartered in 1606..
    After quartering, the heads of those found guilty of treason were stuck on spikes and dispayed in busy public places, usually untill they rotted away and fell apart. Denying criminals a Christian burial was a common element of punishments for impious crimes under Christian laws.

    Support for capital punishment provided a rare example of ecumenical concord. As one modern cleric who made a study of the topic, put it:

    Orthodoxy, Reformed as well as Catholic, identified itself closely with the secular power, supported the sword of the secular arm, and benefited from it. God and the gallows together kept society secure, anarchy at bay, and heresy suppressed*.

    St Thomas Aquinas had justified the death penalty, and the Roman Church followed him. The death penalty was not merely permitted by God: for certain crimes it was required by God. Other authorities surpassed him in their zeal. Martin Luther criticised the practice of the executioner asking forgiveness of his victim, since the executioner, like the magistrate, was an instrument of God*. According to this view, the Christian officials responsible for inflicting the death penalty had no more say in the matter than the axe or rope or stake. The Church of England enshrined its acceptance of the state's right to kill in Article 37 of the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church. The full flourishing of the code regarding capital punishment in western Europe coincided with the Protestant ascendancy. The ultimate penalty was imposed in England for such offences as destroying certain bridges, impersonating a Chelsea pensioner, associating with gypsies, stealing letters, and obstructing revenue officers.

    In the American colonies, Christians passed capital laws based on biblical injunctions.

    from the The General Laws and Liberties of the Massachusets Colony, 1641, Revised and Reprinted, Cambridge, Massachusetts [Samuel Green, 1672, Law Library, Rare Book Collection, US Library of Congress] - image copy below


    IF any man after legal conviction shall HAVE OR WORSHIP any other God, but the LORD GOD: he shall be put to death. Exod. 22. 20. Deut. 13. 6. & 10. Deut. 17. 2. 6.

    2. If any man or woman be a WITCH, that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they shall be put to death. Exod. 22. 18. Levit. 20. 27. Deut. 18. 10. 11.

    3. If any person within this Jurisdiction whether Christian or Pagan shall wittingly and willingly presume to BLASPHEME the holy Name of God, Father, Son or Holy-Ghost, with direct, expresse, presumptuous, or high-handed blasphemy, either by wilfull or obstinate denying the true God, or his Creation, or Government of the world: or shall curse God in like manner, or reproach the holy Religion of God as if it were but a politick device to keep ignorant men in awe; or shal utter any other kinde of Blasphemy of the like nature & degree they shall be put to death. Levit. 24, 15. 16.

    4. If any person shall commit any wilfull MURTHER, which is Man slaughter, committed upon premeditate malice, hatred, or crueltie not in a mans necessary and just defence, nor by meer casualty against his will, he shall be put to death. Exod. 21. 12. 13. Numb. 35. 31.

    5. If any person slayeth another suddenly in his ANGER, or CRUELTY of passion, he shall be put to death. Levit. 24. 17. Numb. 35. 20. 21.

    6. If any person shall slay another through guile, either by POYSONING, or other such develish practice, he shall be put to death. Exod. 21. 14.

    7. If any man or woman shall LYE WITH ANY BEAST, or bruit creature, by carnall copulation; they shall surely be put to death: and the beast shall be slain, & buried, and not eaten. Lev. 20, 15. 16.

    8. If any man LYETH WITH MAN-KINDE as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed abomination, they both shal surely be put to death: unles the one partie were forced (or be under fourteen years of age in which case he shall be seveerly punished) Levit. 20. 13.

    9. If any person commit ADULTERIE with a married, or espoused wife; the Adulterer & Adulteresse shal surely be put to death. Lev. 20. 19. & 18. 20. Deu. 22. 23. 27.

    10. If any man STEALETH A MAN, or Man-kinde, he shall surely be put to death. Exodus 21. 16.

    11. If any man rise up by FALSE-WITNES wittingly, and of purpose to take away any mans life: he shal be put to death. Deut. 19. 16. 18. 16.

    12. If any man shall CONSPIRE, and attempt any Invasion, Insurrection, or publick Rebellion against our Common-Wealth: or shall indeavour to surprize any Town, or Townes, Fort, or Forts therin; or shall treacherously, & persidiously attempt the Alteration and Subversion of our frame of Politie, or Government fundamentally he shall be put to death. Numb. 16. 2 Sam. 3. 2 Sam. 18. 2 Sam. 20.

    13. If any child, or children, above sixteen years old, and of sufficient understanding, shall CURSE, or SMITE their natural FATHER, or MOTHER; he or they shall be put to death: unles it can be sufficiently testified that the Parents have been very unchristianly negligent in the eduction of such children; or so provoked them by extream, and cruel correction; that they have been forced therunto to preserve themselves from death or maiming. Exod. 21. 17. Lev. 20. 9. Exod. 21. 15.

    14. If a man have a stubborn or REBELLIOUS SON, of sufficient years & uderstanding (viz) sixteen years of age, which will not obey the voice of his Father, or the voice of his Mother, and that when they have chastened him will not harken unto them: then shal his Father & Mother being his natural parets, lay hold on him, & bring him to the Magistrates assembled in Court & testifie unto them that their Son is stubborn & rebellious & will not obey their voice and chastisement, but lives in sundry notorious crimes, such a son shal be put to death. Deut. 21. 20. 21.

    15. If any man shal RAVISH any maid or single woman, comitting carnal copulation with her by force, against her own will; that is above the age of ten years he shal be punished either with death, or with some other greivous punishmet according to circumstances as the Judges, or General court shal determin.

    The details are interesting - for example Articles 13 and 14 both allow the execution of children, but 13 applies to daughters while 14 does not. The Christians who framed these laws clearly had no concept of the Old Testament having been abregated by the New, but they did add mitigating factors (as in 14). Note that 15 has no biblical reference, presumably because the biblical penalty was a small fine, and considered wholly inadequate by 17th century Christians.

    The Roman Church carried out countless thousands of executions and continued to sanction its own secret executions well into the nineteenth century. Other denominations also approved of capital punishment. Methodist ministers took children to watch public executions, such scenes being considered "improving". Wesley himself had been keen on gibbeting and had wanted to extend the practice to suicides. Calvinists concurred. A leading nineteenth century minister styled the "Champion of the Sacred Cause of Hanging", was critical of the exercise of mercy in capital cases. As he pointed out, God himself had tried mercy with Cain, and everyone knew how badly that had turned out.*

    "Execution of Breaking on the Rack", illustration by William Blake in John Gabriel Stedman's The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796). John Gabriel Stedman relates that: "The third negro, whose name was Neptune, was no slave, but his own master, and a carpenter by trade; he was young and handsome, but having killed the overseer of the estate Altona, in the Para Creek, in consequence of some dispute, he justly forfeited his life.... he was sentenced to be broken alive upon the rack, without the benefit of the coup de grace or mercy-stroke. Informed of the dreadful sentence, he composedly laid himself down on his back on a strong cross, on which, with arms and legs expanded, he was fastened by ropes: the executioner, also a black man, having now with a hatchet chopped off his left hand, next took up a heavy iron bar, with which, by repeated blows, he broke his bones to shivers, till the marrow, blood, and splinters flew about the field; but the prisoner never uttered a groan nor a sigh. ... He then begged that his head might be chopped off; but to no purpose. At last, seeing no end to his misery, he declared, “that though he had deserved death, he had “not expected to die so many deaths: however, (said he) you christians have missed your aim at last ..." He lived on for some three hours.




    The garrote was the preferred device used for capital punishment in Catholic Spain for hundreds of years. Originally the convict would be beaten to death with a club (a garrote in Spanish). This later developed into a method of strangulation. The victim was tied to a wooden stake, with a loop of rope placed around his neck. A stick was placed in the loop and twisted by an executioner, causing the rope to tighten until it strangled the victim to death. In time the method was refined so that the victim sat on a stool attached to a stake, to which the victim was bound, and the executioner tightened a metal band around the victim's neck with a crank.

    The design of a basic garrote

    Detail of Le garrot, by Velasquez, c 1810
    Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille.

    Around 1810 the earliest known metal garrote appeared in Spain. In 1828, this garrote was declared the sole method for executing civilians.


    Garrot vil, by Ramón Casas, painted in 1894, Museu Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid
    Garrotting was generally carried out in public, and attended by Christian ceremony.
    Note the number of Catholic officials in black costumes within the cordon at this garrotting in Barcelona

    In May 1897, the last public garroting in Spain was performed in Barcelona. After that, all executions were performed inside prisons.

    A mass garrotting.
    Christian priests were an integral part of the ceremony surrounding capital punishment, including garrotting.

    Garrotting a woman

    At the prompting of the Catholic Church, the right-wing Spanish legislature enacted laws against Freemasons. Under these laws, 80 Freemasons were garroted to death in Málaga, and many more in other towns. With the help of Catholic priests like Father Jean Tusquets and Franco's own chaplain, some 80,000 men were executed as Freemasons, (even though there had probably been around 5,000 Freemasons in Spain at the time).

    Priests were always available to validate the proceedings in the name of God


    Two men were garrotted in Spain in 1974, a year before the death of Franco. The garrote was abolished in 1978, soon after the Catholic Church lost its influence over Spanish government.

    Le Progres Illustre, 21 February, 1802, reporting the execution of anarchists at Xeres


    Where the USA took over Spanish colonies, they kept the Spanish of capital punishment, at least for a while. American military authorities in Puerto Rico used the garrote to execute at least five convicted murderers in 1900. American authorities also kept the garrote in the Philippines after the colony was captured in 1898. The garrote was abolished in 1902 (Act No. 451, passed September 2, 1902).

    A version of the garrote incorporated a metal spike fixed into the stake and directed at the skull or spinal cord. The spiked version, called the Catalan garrote, was used as late as 1940.

    An execution by garrotting in 1901

    This Catalan Garrote is designed not only garrote the victim, but also drive a spike into the back of the victim's head as the garrote is tightened


    The Papal States

    Since God not only approved capital punishment, but required Christian rulers to apply it to their subjects. It followed that as sovereign of the Papal States, the Pope was required to execute wrongdoers. A succession of hundreds of popes therefore evolved methods of capital punishment, none of them noticeably more humane than those of other Christian monarchs.

    In extreme cases, those condemned would be hanged, drawn and quartered. For others popes developed a particularly gruesome method of method of public execution. Churchmen were reluctant to shed blood, which explains why monks were forbidden to carry out surgery, why bishops used maces when fighting in medieval wars, why witches and heretics were burned alive, and perhaps why popes favoured the Mazzatello as a method of execution.

    A Mazzatello is a large, long-handled mallet, used to smash in the victim's skull. The victim would be led to a scaffold in a public square of Rome, accompanied by a priest. already installed on the scaffold was a coffin and a masked executioner, dressed in black. The executioner would swing the mallet to gain momentum, and bring it down on the head of the victim. The fist blow was rarely fatal. (A variation of this method appears in Alexandre Dumas' novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, as la mazzolata, when a prisoner sentenced to execution is bludgeoned on the side of his head with a mace.)

    The papal Mazzatello does not survive, but would have looked something like this.
    This mazzatello was used by Catholic Ustaška guards to crush the skulls of non-Catholic prisoners (including Serbs, Jews and Roma) at Jasenovac in Croatia, accounting for some of the tens of thousands killed there between 1941 and 1945.

    According to one author, the mazzatello constituted "one of the most brutal methods of execution ever devised, requiring minimal skill on the part of the executioner"*. Another cites mazzatello as an example of an execution method devised by the Papal States that "competed with and in some instances surpassed those of other regimes for cruelty".*

    The mazzatello was used within the Papal States from the late 18th century up until 1870, when the French army seized the papal states and stopped the practice of hammering people to death in public.

    Throughout most of Christian history bishops exercised temporal as well as spiritual authority. One corrolory of this was that they acted as secular as well as spiritual judges. In line with Church teachings they routinely imposed the death sentence. As secular judges they routinely imposed sentences of torture and death. As spiritual judges they were not permitted to spill blood, so they handed over heretics, blasphemers and other religious disenters to the secular autyhorities for execution. These secular authorities (sometimes themselves wering a secular had) were responsible for executing sentence.

    There are countless examples of prince-bishops exercising this dual power, but the best example is probably the Bishop of Rome, soveriegn ruler of the Papal States (now reduced to the Vatican state). The Bishops of Rome perfectly illustrate Catholic teaching and practice with respect to capital punishment.

    Capital punishment was not only permitted, it was required by Church teaching. It was also popular. It was claimed that in 1585, under Pope Sixtus V there were more severed heads on the Castel Sant'Angelo bridge than melons in the markets.


    The traditional method of execution before 1816, were beheading and hanging. In special cases convicts were bludgeoned to death with a huge mallet, then had their throats cut.. The executioner would swing his mazzatello through the air and bring it crashing down on the prisoner's head. This replicated how cattle were killed: a blow on the head followed by having the throat cut. Whatever the means of death, the body might then be quartered for public display.

    Beheading was the standeard penalty for less serious crimes such as larceny, robbery, and assault. though it was on occasion applied for treason (Prospero Ciolli, 22 September 1832) and for lèse majesté (Leonida Montanari and Angiolo Targhini, 23 November 1825), and for stealing church property. On 21 July, 1840, Luigi Scopigno from Rieti was beheaded at the Ponte Sant'Angelo, for the sacrilegious theft of a container containing sacred hosts.

    Hanging was also a penalty for theft and robbery, and also for causing criminal damage and for forgery. Tommaso Rotiliesi, was hanged at the Ponte Sant'Angelo, on 9 June, 1806 for slightly wounding a French officer. Hanging and Quartering seems to have been the standard punishment for murder, though it could also be applied for robbery.

    Bludgeoning seems to have been reserved for particularly brutal murders, including patricide, murdering churchmen, and multiple murders. Convicts who were bludgeoned, and had their throats cut, were frequently quartered as well.

    Sometimes it is not clear what means were employed. 22 year old Giovani Battista Rossi convicted of larceny, was sentenced to an exemplary death on 3 August 1844. In 1855 at least eight men were senteced to the "ultimate torment". On 23 March, 1822, Francesco, son of Niccola Ferri, was executed by shooting. In other cases, additional features might be added to standard punishments. For the crime of stealing two cibori, Giovani Batta Genovesi was hanged and quartered on 27 February, 1800, then had his corpse burnt at the Ponte Sant'Angelo. His head was then taken to the Arch of the Holy Spirit. Similar punishments were applied to men who killed a priest in the same year.

    These punishments were imposed by the Pope in his role as temporal sovereign. There was another set of crimes that were religious in nature. A few notable examples are:

    • Arnold of Brescia (c. 1090 – June 1155), was an Italian canon regular from Lombardy. He called on the Church to renounce property ownership. Arnold was hanged by the papacy, then was burned posthumously by papal guards and his ashes thrown into the River Tiber.
    • Gerard Segarelli, founder of the Apostolic Brethren (July 18, 1300). In 1300 he was interrogated by the Grand Inquisitor of Parma. He was found guilty of relapsing into errors formerly abjured, and burnt at the stake.
    • Fra Dolcino, Italian preacher of the Dulcinian movement, burnt at the stake in 1307 for heresy.
    • Matteuccia de Francesco (died 1428) was an Italian nun, and alleged witch, known as the "Witch of Ripabianca" after the village where she lived. She was put on trial in Rome in 1428, accused of being a prostitute, having committed desecration with other women and of the selling of love potions since 1426. She confessed to having sold medicine and of having flown to a tree in the shape of a fly on the back of a demon, having smeared herself with an ointment made of the blood of newborn children. She was judged guilty of sorcery and sentenced to be burned at the stake.
    • Matteuccia de Francesco, Italian nun and alleged "Witch of Ripabianca" (1428)
    • Girolamo Savonarola (along with Fra Domenico da Pescia and Fra Silvestro), Dominican priest and leader of Florence (May 23, 1498)
    • Cardinal Carlo Carafa and Giovanni Carafa, Duke of Paliano, nephews of Paul IV, sentenced to strangulation in prison and beheading, respectively, by Pius IV, as his first public act (March 5, 1561)
    • Pomponio Algerio, civil law student at the University of Padua (1566)
    • Pietro Carnesecchi, Italian humanist (October 1, 1567)
    • Aonio Paleario, Italian Protestant (July 3, 1570)
    • Menocchio, Friulian miller, mayor, and philosopher (1599)
    • Giordano Bruno, Italian priest, philosopher, cosmologist, (February 17, 1600)
    • Ferrante Pallavicino, Italian satirist (March 5, 1644)

    The Church's Role

    The Church was prominent throughout and coordinated all aspects of what was a quasi sacred act, rather like an auto da fe. As one modern Catholic commentator says "it was a sacred act, rich with ritual and theological meaning hallowed by centuries of tradition. It was, in fact, a liturgy." *

    The ritual began with the announcement of an execution. Official notices were posted on church doors. On the morning of the execution, the pope said a prayer for the condemned. A priest would visit the Pope's executioner to hear his confession and celebrate Mass. The execution was solemnized by a religious Order, the monks of the Arciconfraternita della Misericordia, or Brotherhood of Mercy. These monks celebrated various rituals surrounding the execution and burial. The monks stayed with the condemned in their last 12 hours. Members of the brotherhood wrote prayer books and catechisms for the condemned, emphasising the requirements for a mors bon Christiana -- "a good Christian death." The monks led the condemned in a sacred procession. Altar boys went first, ringing bells. Monks followed chanting litanies in a cloud of incense, carrying a crucifix. The monks would hold the crucifix toward the condemned, so that it would be the last thing he saw.

    This "gallows pietism." can be seen as a form of expiation, or atonement. The scaffold was an occasion of grace, almost sacramental. Devotional literature compared the redemptive value of the blood spilled to Christ's sacrifice on the cross.

    Execution took place as papal palaces: the Castel Sant'Angelo bridge, the Piazza del Popolo, and Via dei Cerchi near the Piazza della Bocca della Verità. Papal dragoons provides security. To celebrate executions the Church put on public festivals. Crowds would lay bets on all aspects of the procedings. As for Christian public executions everywhere, whole families came to enjoy the spectacle. As the blade descended, fathers slapped their children's heads when the blade came down, causing the same frisson they remembered when their their own fathers had slapped theirs.

    The End of Capital Punishment by the Pope

    In 1764 Cesare Beccaria, anti-death penalty tract "On Crimes and Punishments" was published, changing secular attidutes to capital punishment. In 1786 the Grand Duchy of Tuscany became the first sovereign state to ban the death penalty. The Catholic Church remained aloof from this development, adhering to its traditional line.

    The pope lost political control of Rome to Napoleon in 1798 and did not get it back until the Congress of Vienna in 1815. From 1816 on the guillotine was used scores of times by papal warrant. The guillotine remained busy up to the end of the pope-king's rule. Its final use came on July 9, 1870, shortly before Italian revolutionaries captured Rome. Agatino Bellomo, became the last person executed by the Papal States, two months before Rome was captured by Italian army and the papal states ceased to exist. Capital punishment in Vatican City was legal from 1929 to 1969, though no known executions took place.


    The Anglican Church

    The Anglican Church had supported capital punishment since its foundation, continuing its historical inheritance from the Catholic and ultimately the Orthodox Church. No Anglican movement for abolition was so much as considered for many centuries. Christian Evangelicals like the nineteenth century politician Anthony Ashley-Cooper (later seventh Earl of Shaftesbury) advocated the traditional view that God not only permitted capital punishment but also demanded it*. Judges pointed out to those found guilty of certain crimes that God required them to die.

    Churchmen claimed that the deterrent effect of capital punishment was enhanced by due solemnity, mystery and awe. The Church therefore buttressed the ceremony of execution, and surrounded it by ritual. In England a chaplain was on hand in court to intone Amen to the judge's sentence of death. A prison chaplain might hold a service before the execution with a coffin displayed in the presence of the congregation and the condemned prisoner. After English executions were confined to prisons in 1868, a black flag was hoisted over the prison on execution days; a bell would toll; and the chaplain would intone the burial service as he accompanied the condemned prisoner to the gallows*. The Church was involved throughout, into the twentieth century, validating the procedure on behalf of God. It was generally accepted that the main business of prison clergymen was to break the spirits of capital convicts so that they would offer no physical resistance to the hangman*. Sometimes the chaplain himself gave the signal to carry out the execution.

    Time and time again bishops and archbishops opposed the abolition of capital punishment. In 1810 the Archbishop of Canterbury and six other bishops helped defeat a bill that would have abolished the death penalty for stealing five shillings from a shop. Capital punishment was so much part and parcel of the Christian faith that bishops would go to almost any lengths to keep it. When secularists advocated the abolition of the death penalty, the bishops rushed to its support. When it looked like public revulsion at public executions might force Parliament to abolish capital punishment in the mid-nineteenth century, zealous Christians pressed for hanging to be carried out inside prisons. The idea was that, once removed from the public gaze, executions could continue without fuss or popular revulsion. This plan was advocated for example by Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford*. So it was that in 1868 public executions ceased in England and private ones began. As the bishop had hoped, pressure for abolition subsided.

    Well into the twentieth century most English bishops were in favour of capital punishment and used their votes in the House of Lords to oppose abolition. For example the bench of bishops helped defeat the Criminal Justice Bill of 1948 during its passage through the House of Lords. In the 1950s it looked again as though Parliament might abolish the death penalty. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, was alarmed that this attempt might succeed. He therefore adopted a similar technique to that adopted by Bishop "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce in the previous century. This time public sentiment was opposed to the death penalty, even behind closed prison doors. In order to retain capital punishment the Archbishop advocated classifying degrees of murder. In this way he hoped to retain the death penalty for at least some crimes. The Christian line was that it was better to hang some offenders rather than none at all. Fisher was not keen to have his traditionalist views opposed: "Anyone who says that it is unchristian to hang puts himself out of court" he wrote* Other Churches held similar views. When abolition of the death penalty was again being considered in Britain in the 1960s, Cardinal Godfrey appeared on television to advocate the traditional Roman Catholic line. As he said, the state had not merely the right, but the duty to exact the death penalty whenever, in its own judgement, the life of the community was threatened by a particular sort of crime*.

    The first stirrings of opposition to the death penalty in Britain, in the early nineteenth century, came principally from those who rejected the prevailing Christian consensus. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham, reputedly an atheist, and the poet Shelley, an avowed atheist, both opposed capital punishment, supported by Quakers*. They were opposed by all right-thinking organised Churches*. As we have seen, in the House of Lords the bishops consistently supported capital punishment. The loudest parliamentary voices raised in the Lords against the death penalty in the nineteenth century belonged to men like the godless Lord Byron, as outside the Lords they belonged to atheists like Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891), Annie Besant (1847-1933) and George Holyoake (1817-1906). Holyoake wondered why the Archbishop of York could find time to condemn sensationalist novels but not to utter a word against public execution*.

    Execution of Doctor Crippen, in Le Petit Journal illustré, 4th December 1910.
    From the French Revolution onwards the French considered hanging barbaric and made much of the attendent religious ceremony and the role of the anglican priest in Britain.

    The Churches could have demolished the moral case for capital punishment, but instead they bolstered it:

    In a Christian country, such as England was, a death penalty devoid of religious sanction could not have survived. It was an issue over which the church could have exercised a moral hegemony and failed to do so. It shadowed public opinion rather than led it. It left the moral high ground to Quakers, lapsed Jews, maverick Christians of all denominations, and men and women of none*.

    In the second half of the twentieth century the bishops finally adopted the secularist view. Prison chaplains in Britain got round to considering the morality of the death penalty just as Parliament abolished it in 1969.

    Le Petit Journal illustré (21 janvier 1923) - Une femme expie son crime
    "A woman expiates her crime". As usual, right up to abolition of hanging, Anglican clergymen played a prominant role in the macabre ceremonial that attended British executions.

    The same pattern was followed in North America. Quaker laws proposed for Pennsylvania had been vetoed by London in the seventeenth century as they were far more lenient than the capital laws of the mother country*. The complete abolition of the death penalty was first proposed in a paper read at the house of Benjamin Franklin. This paper likened public execution to "a human sacrifice in religion"*. In the years to come the battle was largely between on the one hand freethinkers, and on the other Calvinists and other traditional Churches. In Continental Europe the abolitionist cause was espoused by independent writers like Goethe and Victor Hugo but opposed by the Churches. As in Britain and America all abolitionists were condemned as infidels.

    Last public execution in the USA. Rainey Bethea was be publicly executed
    on 14 August, 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky.
    Mistakes in performing the hanging and the attendant media circus contributed to
    public pressure for end of public executions in the United States.




    The only Christian sect consistently to have opposed the death penalty was the Quakers. Like non-Christians who led the reform movement, they regarded it as immoral. This is all rather an embarrassment now in liberal countries. Liberal churchmen would have preferred it if the Church had opposed the death penalty. In fact most Anglicans and Protestants have opposed the death penalty since the 1960s, and in 1999 they were joined for the first time by the Pope. Attachment to capital punishment is now unfashionable, so most Churches around the developed world tend to play down their traditional views. Many clergymen do their best to make out that their Church has always supported the biblical injunction Thou shalt not kill, a principle that in truth was adopted only after Western society had been thoroughly secularised. Only in places like the Bible belt in the USA do traditional Christian views still predominate. Capital punishment continues to be inflicted in such places, despite secular opposition.


    More social issues:

    from the The General Laws and Liberties of the Massachusetts Colony, 1641, Revised and Reprinted, Cambridge, Massachusetts
    [Samuel Green, 1672, Law Library, Rare Book Collection, US Library of Congress]





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    §. Capital penalties were inflicted for all of these offences under Charlemagne. Margaret Deanesly, A History of the Medieval Church, p 62.

    §. The formulae varied slightly, for a few variations see Scott, A History of Torture, pp 214-6.

    §. Harry Potter, Hanging in Judgement, pp 86 and 210.

    §. For a number of cases of clergymen supporting capital punishment in unlikely cases see Harry Potter, Hanging in Judgement, pp 14-15.

    §. Harry Potter, Hanging in Judgement, p 2.

    §. Pieter Spierenburg, The Spectacle of Suffering, Oxford University Press (1984), p 33.

    §. The champion of the Sacred Cause of Hanging was the Rev. George Barrell Cleaver of New York. See Louise Masur, Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776-1865, Oxford University Press (New York, 1989), p 147 {HiJ p 58}.

    §. Geoffrey Abbott, What a Way to Go, (Macmillan, 2007). ISBN 0-312-36656-6.

    §. James J Megivern, The Death Penalty. (Paulist Press, 1997).. ISBN 0-8091-0487-3.

    §. Cooper is quoted by Edwin Hodder, Life and Work of the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, vol. 1 (1886), p 281.

    §. After 1901 the bell was rung in England only after the execution. The rule requiring a black flag to be flown was revoked in 1902. Chaplains were instructed not to use the burial service at executions in 1927.

    §. Harry Potter, Hanging in Judgement, p 18 citing Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Facts relating to the Punishment of Death in the Metropolis (London, 1832), p 167.

    §. Parliamentary Debates (Lords), 3rd series, vol. cxxxiii (15 th May 1854), cols. 311.

    §. Letter from Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury to Bishop Cuthbert of Coventry, 5 th July 1956, Lambeth Palace archives {HiJ p 241}.

    §. The Daily Telegraph, 25 th October 1961, reviewing the BBC programme The Death Penalty of the previous day.

    §. Amongst leading Quaker abolitionists were William Allen, Peter Bedford, John Bright, Charles Gilpin, Joseph John Gurney, Elizabeth Fry, Samuel Hoare, Alfred Hutchinson Dymond and John Barry. Thomas Buxton was an evangelical with Quaker sympathies.

    §. Harry Potter, Hanging in Judgement, pp 62 and 224.

    §. George J. Holyoake, "Public Lessons of the Hangmen", The Morning Star 16 th November 1864.

    §. Harry Potter, Hanging in Judgement, p 205.

    §. Harry Potter, Hanging in Judgement, p 32.

    §. Louis Masur, Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture 1776-1865, Oxford University Press (New York, 1989), p 64.

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