MR. JUSTICE BUTT ON THE ALLEVIATION OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT.
THE very solemn sentence of death which Mr. Justice Butt passed on the Liverpool prisoners, Mrs. Flanagan and Mrs. Higgins, whom he justly enough addressed in terms hardly applicable to more than a very few select specimens of the moral dregs of society, contained these words : —" The relations the murdered man bore to you" [namely, husband of one and brother-in-law of the other], "to say nothing of others whose deaths it has been suggested that yen have caused, makes the murder so horrible, and it has bean carried out so cruelly, so relentlessly, and from motives so sordid, that it makes one shudder to think of the depths to which our common humanity is capable of sinking. Wicked, cruel, and base as you are, I do notforget you are still human. One thing you have in common with us all, and that is the hope of a future existence,— of an hereafter. It is the only hope left to you now. I trust that hope will be some alleviation of your sufferings during the very short time that you have to live." That attempt to cast a ray of light on the thick darkness of the situation was creditable to Mr. Justice Butt's humanity of feeling, but we confess to the greatest possible difficulty in sharing his trust that the pain of expecting a sudden and violent death could be in the least degree " alleviated " by the hope which he suggested. If the prisoners felt no remorse for their cruel and sordid crimes, they would probably shrink, nevertheless, from the prospect of carrying into another world the brand of murderesses with which they had just been stamped, feeling that it was indelibly impressed upon them, and that nothing could wipe it out; for probably no class of persons are more sensitive to the abhorrence and dread of fellow-creatures than those who do not and cannot abhor themselves for the acts which excite that abhorrence. If,—which is much less likely— they felt remorse for those acts, especially if that remorse was more than remorse, and involved anything like the humili- ation. and self-loathing which would mark the beginnings of penitence, the prospect of a long awakening to the true meaning of what they had done and what they had been, must have been far too terrible to have in it much of the "allevia- tion" of hope. An alleviation is that which makes suffering lighter. The prospect of ever growing into a faller and fuller sense of what it meant to sell the lives of those nearest to them for a few pounds, at the cost of a long course of disguised cruelty and deliberate treachery, could hardly make their sufferings lighter, even though they should have gained a glimpse of the meaning of that infinite love and purity which could alone steel them to endure the- steady conviction of their own loathsomeness. Put the moral condition of the wretched con- victs at the best, and still, though they would have the grace given them to endure what they may have to endure, if they are to rise into anything better, the prospect of that puri- fication must be something very different indeed, one would say, from an " alleviation " of suffering ; it must be a pros- pect of keener and keener suffering, of a steadily increasing sense of the clingingness of the guilt they are to put off, as well as of a steadily increasing sense of yearning for the new life they are to put on. Surely this,—the only really hope- ful view of the case,—could hardly involve what we usually mean by an " alleviation " of the shame and terror and infamy of a criminal's death. It would be a prospect of pain in which that shame and terror and infamy might easily be merged, till they would seem nothing in the comparison. But that would not be because the prospect beyond was one of softened pain, but because it was, in the first instance at least, one of far greater pain, of increasing horror at the clingingness of a garment of guilt which could never be got rid of except through a prior growth of that horror, stimulated and inspired though it must be by a vision of love which alone could give the real strength to meet, and as it were welcome, that horror. Take what view you will of the future life, Mr. Justice Butt can hardly conceive one in which, for such persons as he was condemning to death, the hope of it could be in the true sense an alleviation. If there be no kind- ling of a better life in them, the prospect of conveying into the other world a load of shame and degradation from which it would be impossible to separate themselves even in imagination, must be a prospect of a leaden weight at the very best. If there be a kind- ling of better life in them, the predominant feeling must be like the gradual awakening of all the nerves to vivid anguish, which, though it be a sign of life, and in the truest sense of hope, could have nothing of the feeling of " alleviation " about it, but rather must involve a new conception of the meaning of guilt, and of its clinging personal character. For our own parts, we should have said that the only " alleviation " of capital punishment at all likely to present itself to such criminals as Mrs. Higgins and Mrs. Flanagan would be the hope— if they could entertain it—that death would be the end of all. Ta expect immortality without repentance would be like the prospect of lying, consciously and for ever, in a leaden coffin, with the pressure never relaxed; to look for immortality with repentance would be to awaken suddenly to the knowledge of a clingingly fiery garment, from which, indeed, deliverance in the end was certain, and in the pain of which there would be a mingling of the strength of grace with the agony, but still a prospect altogether too awful in its aspects to be thought of for a moment as the " alleviation " of a death of shame.
In the story of those remarkable criminal trials which Lady Duff Gordon translated nearly forty years ago, from the German of Anselm Ritter von Feuerbacb, there is an account of a poisoner, Anna Maria Zwanziger, who ap- pears to have outdone even these poor Liverpool poisoners in the number and the absolute wilfulness of her poisonings. It is said that she regarded the arsenic with which she com- mitted most of her murders "with eyes beaming with rapture." This woman, moreover, spoke of her murders,—which she confessed,—as "slight errors," boasted of her piety as "only too great" and as the origin of all her misfortunes, and entreated the Judge to permit her, if it were possible, to appear to him after her death, in order to give him ocular demonstration of the immortality of the soul. To such a one as this, appar- ently, the prospect of a future life was an " alleviation " of her shameful death, in spite of her "wicked, cruel, and base " nature. But then it was an " alleviation " only because, as is evident enough from the narrative, she was so wicked, cruel, and base, that she could not even feel the sense of shame at what she had done, and did not cower under the abhorrence of her fellow-creatures. She had not even that remnant of conscience which makes guilty men shrink from the eyes of their fellow- men, and probably she looked upon the future life as a new career for her cruel and insatiable cunning. But this is hardly the End of "alleviation " to which the excellent Judge who con- demned Mrs. Higgins and Mrs. Flanagan to death can have referred, and we cannot help feeling some regret that he should have used, however inadvertently and humanely, a phrase which tends to throw into the shade that most essential of all our ex- pectations for the future life,—the expectation that it will at least reveal to us the true horror of the evil we have committed here, be it for the ultimate cure, or be it only, as some believe, for the ultimate retribution of that eviL We deprecate heartily this and other misleading phrases in which the optimism of amiability seems to extenuate the sharp realities of the spiritual world. It is natural that those who believe that life. ends with the death of the body, should make comparatively light of the worst of all human phenomena, deadly guilt. But for those who contem- plate a resurrection, to speak of the hope of it as essentially an "alleviation" for the sufferings of guilt, seems to us a darkening of counsel ; for whatever else spiritual life may be, it must be a revelation of the true significance of good and evil here.