Friday, July 20, 2007

Why did Canada abolish public hanging?

Between the years of 1850 and 1870, public executions ended in countries such as the German states, the Netherlands, Austria, and Spain, as well as England and Canada.

The end of public hangings in Canada under Act 32-33 Victoria chapter 29 brought relief to the general public but I was surprised to find that this was not because they disagreed with the death penalty (though some did), but largely because of the crowds that came to watch the executions.

(above: The public hangings of Samuel Lount and Peter Mathews, King and Toronto Streets, Toronto, 1838 [from: James Edmund Jones, Pioneer Crimes and Punishment, Toronto: George N. Morang, 1924])

People argued that public hangings should end for many reasons, and the 'hanging crowd' was a significant reason. People complained about rowdy crowds that showed up to watch hangings. When public hangings ended in England, the Times of London reported:

We shall not in the future have to read how, the night before the execution, thousands of the worst characters in England, abandoned women and brutal men, met beneath the gallows to pass the night in drinking in buffoonery, in ruffianly swagger and obscene jest.

Many polite Victorians felt that ending public hangings would advance civilization and they themselves felt uncomfortable watching hangings; at the same time they found the rowdy crowds' fascination with death, obscene language and gestures, and disrespect for authority embarrassing.
Many also felt that death wasn't solemn enough: the carnival-like atmosphere among the crowds that watched the executions prevented people from being dettered to commit crimes. It was also argued that by watching hangings, people were familiar with death and would no longer value human life or feel compassion towards others.

What I was most surprised to find that was by ending public hangings, the perpetuation of the death penalty was actually ensured. If people did not have to deal with the crowd, they would no longer have a reason to protest hangings. By making the hangings private, the death penalty could continue.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Legislating the End to Public Hanging...A Clarification

A clarification on the legislation abolishing public hanging in Canada... I initially made the same error that John Melady makes in Double Trapped and attributed the move of hangings behind prison walls to Order-in-Council 1021. Upon a careful reading of the Order-In-Council, which, after I came to understand the nature of Orders-In-Council more clearly, was in accordance with an act of Parliament, "Act 32-33 Victoria c. 29," I realized that the Order-In-Council was only supplementing the legislation by creating additional rules and regulations related to hanging, including:
  • Executions were to be carried out within the walls oft he prison in which the offender was confined at the time of execution
  • Executions should take place at 8 am
  • Hanging should continue to be the mode of execution
  • A black flag was to be raised after an execution and remain up for one hour
  • The prison bell (or the bell of a neighbouring church) was to ring for 15 minutes before and 15 minutes after an execution

After receiving a copy of "Act 32-33 Victoria c. 29" from the Library of Parliament it's clear that Section 109 of the Act, which went into effect 1 January 1870, is actually the legislation ending public hanging, declaring:

"Judgment of death to be executed on any prisoner after the coming into force of this Act, shall be carried into effect within the walls of the prison in which the offender is confined at the time of execution."