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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 56

Murders and the Penalty of Death

Murders and the Penalty of Death.

Early in the year, the Right Hon. John Bright, M.P., wrote to the Secretary of the Howard Association, suggesting the collection, by him, of a fresh series of the statistical and other experiences of various Foreign Countries as to the punishment of Murder, whether by the Capital Penalty, or by other means.

A systematic application was accordingly made to the chief authorities of the principal nations and to the Foreign Correspondents of the Association for the needed particulars. Many comprehensive replies were kindly sent, and a large amount of statistical and other information was thus collected. Portions of this have already been published, at intervals, in various news-papers, by the Association. Other portions are available for further use and reference.

The hearty thanks of the Committee are due to many persons of eminent position who have aided this work of collection, and especially to the following:—Their Excellencies the British Ambassadors at St. Petersburg (Sir Edward Thornton), at Madrid (Sir R. B. D. Morier), at Lisbon (Sir C. L. Wyke) and at Bucharest (William A. White, Esq.); to William Donaldson, Esq., H.M. Prison Secretary for Scotland; Thomas W. Grimshaw, Esq., H.M. Registrar-General for Ireland; M. Yvernes, of the Ministry of Justice, Paris; Dr. Wahlberg, State Councillor, of Vienna; M. de Olivekrona, Judge at Stockhulm; M. Luigi Lucchini, of Bologna; M. Berden, Ministry page 18 of Justice, Brussels; M. P. B. Eeichenweld, Ministry of Justice, Christiania; M. Heinrich Fohring, Judge, Hamburg; M. George Belinfante, the Hague; M. P. Stuckenberg, of Copenhagen; M. Ringier, Chancellor of the State, at Berne; Mr. C. D. Randall, Michigan, U.S.A.; Hon. A. O. Bourne, Governor of Rhod Island; Mr. Charles F. Coffin, Indiana; Mr. C. Loring Brace, New York; Mr. Alfred H. Love and Mr.. Tosiah W. Leeds, Pennsylvania; Professor Wayland, Connecticut; Mr. E. B. Pond, Michigan; with others.

The general lesson to be derived from these statistics is that there is more difficulty in bringing home conviction and punishment to murderers than to any other class of criminals; that this difficulty exists in almost every country; but that it is best obviated by the greater certainty of conviction which is found to accompany a severe secondary punishment (imprisonment), as distinguished from the capital penalty, which involves the danger of occasionally sacrificing innocent persons to judicial mistakes.

During the year this Association has prepared and widely circulated a paper containing a collection of some of the most recent instances of mistaken conviction, as tending to illustrate the real danger and therefore the obstructive difficulty attendant 011 the fatal penalty in particular. The immediate occasion of this paper was the sentence to death of a man in Durham, who was, through prompt and vigorous local exertions, soon proved to have been innocent and who received his release and pardon in consequence.

Mr. Bright also recently suggested to this Association the circulation of an interesting little pamphlet by Mr. Henry Dunckley ("Verax"), of Manchester, on Capital Punishment. This hint has been complied with.

Many other papers and pamphlets on this and other topics have been circulated by the Association. (It is however to be noted that the members of this Association are not unanimous in their views upon this particular subject, which is regarded by some of them as an open question.)

The statistics received show also that the mere abolition of the capital penalty may be very mischievous unless accompanied by an effectual substitute of prolonged imprisonment. Thus in Roumania a great increase of murders appears to have followed the disuse of the extreme penalty with the neglect of other penalties also. But successful results have ensued in Holland, Portugal, Belgium, Wisconsin, Michigan, &c., where more uniformity and certainty of repression have been adopted. Switzerland has not adopted any uniform system either of executions or of their substitute. She permits a vast amount of national drunkenness and vice which naturally result in many murders and other crimes. Effectual laws to suppress the excessive intemperance in that country would be the best means of diminishing its murders.

Far more effectual than any form of penalty is the prevention of the causes and temptations to crime. An interesting example occurs in the statistics lately received from the French Government, by this Association. The district of Corsica has long been noted for its bitter and fatal feuds and revengeful murders. About the period 1850, these had risen to such a pitch that during the five years ending at that date, there were committed in Corsica, out of a population of only a quarter of a million, 431 murders and assassinations. This terrible state of violence led to the enactment of a temporary law prohibiting the carrying of weapons for five years. In the following quinquennial period the number of murders and assassinations fell to 146; which was at least a very great improvement upon the previous condition. Meanwhile the penalty of death for murder had remained unaltered throughout.

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Similarly, in the Southern portion of the United States, although capital punishment is often enforced, the number of murders is appalling. Why? Because of the general carrying of pistols, and the consequent temptation to use them. One of the most useful works which American philanthropists can do (whatever may be their opinions as to capital punishment), would be the "home mission work "of promoting laws in the Southern States against the carrying of pistols. This would prevent thousands of murders.

The Committee are taking measures to draw the attention of their American friends to this subject.