THE RESPITE OF JOHN . LEE.
IXTIA do not exactly understand why Sir William Earcourt respited the murderer Lee; but we are sure he was right in doing it." That seems a sentence indicating a rather confused state of mind; but it was the state of mind of most Englishmen when they heard of the brutal blundering at Exeter on Monday, and most Englishmen were, on the whole, in the right. There never was a murderer who deserved death . better than John Lee, and very seldom a murderer whom it was more necessary to hang. Whether he meant to cut Miss Keyse's throat or not—which, unless he confesses, must always remain doubtful—he certainly intended to burn that innocent old lady alive for the crime of having befriended him, and did not care if he burnt one or two other women with her, though even in his own bad mind they stood acquitted of all offence. He was at the moment of the murder the domestic trusted with the safety of the house, he had given no warning of any sort, and if ever a servant committed the old offence of "petty treason," which has now disappeared from the list of crimes, he did. It seems at first-sight absurd, or even shameful, that while so many die for crimes far less brutal and base than his, Lee should be let-off because the men employed to construct a. scaffold bungled their work, and left the trap-door so stiff, that a little extra dampness in the atmosphere made it impossible to let it down. The criminal had not been tortured in any way, for though the rope had been thrice fixed round his neck, it had not been pulled; and there was no obvious reason why, whoa the edges of the trap-door had been sawn, a fourth attempt should not have been made, and made successfully. Still, it could not be made just then, the Sheriff, and perhaps the executioners, being overcome with horror ; and the Home Secretary was in the right, when consulted, in signing a respite, which practically commutes the sentence to penal servitude for life. The commutation is hard upon the warders at Dartmoor or Portland, for Lee is just the man to kill one of them for a real or fancied affront; but that is a professional risk, and Sit' William Harcourt had larger interests to think of. If capital punishment is right—and how men can admit the right of society to kill an innocent conscript who is only invading us, and deny its right to kill an assassin who is murdering us, passes our comprehension—it is wrong to "demoralise the guillotine," that is, to create pity for the criminal by adding needless horror to his death ; and that this would have been the result of hanging Lee after the executioners had broken-down is past question. Few of us know why it should be so, but we all of us feel that it is so. The old idea that Providence had intervened on behalf of a criminal, which induced men to insist that a resuscitated criminal should be pardoned, has probably lost its force—though the intervention must in some inexplicable way be true too—but there is a horror ma:Iodic excited by a spectacle such as was presented at Exeter, which it is not well to offend. The instinct of a community is rarely wrong, especially when it pleads for mercy to a criminal. it specially hates.; and the instinct of the community, including many very unsentimental men, was in favour of sparing Lea So he is spared; and we have only to hope that, as there must be some use for all living men, the use found for him may be a compensation to society.
Sir William Harcourt will not, however, escape censure, if he does not avail himself of the horror excited by the ghastly incident to insist upon making better arrangements for the execution of the cruel murderers whom alone of all criminals we now put to death. Their execution is essential to the safety of society as well as of prison-warders, who, if the penalty of death were abolished, would be murdered every week ; and the power of executing them will not last long, if the arrangements are to be bungled, as they now often are. We have bad four or five scandals in three years; and, indeed, the arrangements are bad from the first. There is no such person as the public executioner, and no certainty whatever that the man selected by the Sheriffs of Middlesex—and paid, when wanted, by every other Sheriff—is either competent, or skilful, or even commonly sober. The last man is said never to have been quite fit, and made a disgraceful trade with the morbidly-curious in relics of the criminals he put to death. The official employed, if automatic machinery cannot be devised, ought to be carefully selected by the Home Office, properly paid by salary and not by fees, and dismissed without fail whenever he displays either brutality or incompetence. Hateful as the office must be, a competent man can be found ; nor do we see why he should be a European, and therefore compelled to reside for life among a people who view his office with such incurable and. undying disgust. The tranquil, conscienceless, teetotal Chinaman, the nearest approach among men to a machine, is the fitting maa for the office, and would. be. lust when his term was over in that huge cloa.ca of humanity. Farther, the executioner should: be compelled to use for every execution an apparatus guaranteed
by scientific mechanicians and surgeons to be the most trustworthy and speedy apparatus obtainable for the purpose. There is no need whatever for relying upon local carpenters, or the blundering and perhaps unwilling artificers who are tempted by money to build temporary scaffolds. The actual gallows—a mere frame and narrow platform of steel—can be made, and should be made, portable, and capable of being fixed to supports upon the spot; and the method of fixing the ropes can be made invariable, so that the risk of confusion, or error, or the infliction of pain, whether mental or bodily, should be as nearly impossible as natural human incompetence will admit. That we should be compelled to hang at all is bad enough ; but that society should permit its instrument to bungle, or blunder, or inflict needless suffering, or act in any way except as a machine for the due carrying out of a justifiable sentence, is monstrous ; and it is the clear duty of the Home Office to prevent such occerrences.
We see that several of our contemporaries, while admitting the unhappy necessity of retaining capital punishment, are strongly disposed to think that hanging is a bad method of inflicting it ; and we have reason to believe that a wish for the substitution of a different method of execution is rapidly gaining ground. We do not care to go at length into a most repellent subject, which we only touch when it becomes matter of public duty to prevent the community from injuring itself in a fit of temporary self-distrust ; but the broad reasons against selecting another method of slaying are very strong. One of the best is that any change would seem to the criminal class an improvement, and to the innocent classes a horror. It is well that the mode of death should be discreditable, and a custom as old as our history has made decapitation rather honourable than otherwise. It is the penalty reserved for treason ; and so bad have human governments been, that although treason may be one of the worst of crimes, no one would be greatly ashamed to admit that his grandfather had been beheaded on Tower Hill. That objection does not extend to the guillotine ; but that instrument—though the swiftest, most certain, and probably least painful in use among mankind—is barred by a prejudice—derived, we believe, from its use by the Terrorists—which is now insuperable. The bullet is not quite certain to kill painlessly, especially if directed by a human hand, which, however, would not be necessary, and hap, moreover, associations with honourable strife which it is not wise or healthy to disturb. The Spanish method—the garotte— seems brutal, even if it is not, and is not quite instantaneous ; the Turkish method depends too much on the executioner, and to all the scientific methods there exists the same objection,--that, being more painless, more rapid, and more certain than the methods of Nature, they would enormously diminish the deterrent effect of capital punishment. They are the methods of the suicide, not of the executioner, a remark which especially applies to the one—Dr. Richardson's method of putting away dogs—which has caught for the moment the ear of the unreflecting public. Hanging is not, it is believed, a cruel death, while it has associations of disgrace and terror inseparably attached to it which will always make it as deterrent as any method of punishment not involving torture can be made. It must, we fear, be retained ; but it is the imperative duty of the Home Office to see that, if retained, the penalty is inflicted in such a manner as to make uncertainty, bungling, or unnecessary pain almost, if not quite, impossible. It is a disgrace to civilisation that a criminal should be tortured, and almost as great a disgrace that he should be respited, in spite of Judge, Jury, and the Law, by the incompetence of the executioner's accidental assistants.