America’s national debate over abolishing slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War is well-known. Not as well remembered is a different group of “abolitionists” — for death penalty foes, too, took this name,* and mounted a vigorous challenge against capital punishment, too.
In the main, they did not attain their ultimate objective, although Michigan in 1847 did become the world’s first Anglo polity to abolish executions.** But their contemporary-sounding arguments against the morality and efficacy of capital punishment did help drive important reforms, especially in the Northeast: narrowing the scope of the death penalty towards murder alone, and removing the spectacle of public hangings to the privacy of prison walls. Anti-death penalty scholar Hugo Bedau terms this the “first abolitionist era.”
Alexis de Tocqueville’s American travels began in 1831 with a brief from the French government to investigate the prison system; in the classic Democracy in America that ensued, Tocqueville characterized Americans as “extremely open to compassion.”
In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States. Whilst the English seem disposed carefully to retain the bloody traces of the dark ages in their penal legislation, the Americans have almost expunged capital punishment from their codes. North America is, I think, the only one country upon earth in which the life of no one citizen has been taken for a political offence in the course of the last fifty years.
In Massachusetts, executions nearly ground to a halt … but they never quite got banned de jure. A committee headed by the very liberal legislator Robert Rantoul, who had cut his teeth as a young barrister defending an accused murderer in a death penalty trial, produced for Gov. Edward Everett a strong recommendation to take the death penalty off the books. The votes in the legislature never quite got there, but Gov. Everett would have signed it:
A grave question has been started, wheter it would be safe to abolish altogether the punishment of Death. An increasing tenderness for human life is one of the most decided characteristics of the civilization of the day, and should in every proper way be cherished. Whether it can, with safety to the community, be carried so far, as t permit the punishment of death to be entirely dispensed with, is a question not yet decided by philanthropists and legislators. It may deserve your consideration, whether this interestion question cannot be brought to the test of the sure teacher, — experience. An experiment, instituted and pursued for a sufficient length of time, might settle it on the side of mercy. Such a decision would be matter of cordial congratulation. Should a contrary result ensue, it would probably reconcile the public mind to the continued infliction of capital punishment, as a necessary evil.
Rantoul (and Edwards) had to settle for an 1839 law removing burglary and highway robbery from the ranks of potential capital crimes.
In practice, Massachusetts had not hanged anyone for mere theft in a number of years and by the late 1830s and throughout the 1840s scarcely hanged anyone at all.†
That tenderness of human life would meet what proved a decisive test with
Washington Goode‘s execution on May 25, 1849 for the murder of a fellow sailor over a romantic rivalry.
While philanthropists and legislators debated the merits of the rope in those years, Goode grew up at sea. There was a woman he called on when he made port in Boston, one Mary Ann Williams — married to someone else but kept by no man, Washington Goode included.
In 1848, Goode discovered in his lover’s boudoir a handkerchief given her by another seaman and soon enough started stewing over it. According to the circumstantial case that Goode’s jury ultimately accepted, he went out the next night, packing a wicked sheath knife and openly boasting to drinking buddies of his imminent revenge upon that Thomas Harding.
Later that night, the two rivals (plus Williams) all managed to run into each other in the same joint. Goode and Harding crossed words, then left that place one after another. Half an hour later, Harding had a sheath knife between his ribs. Nobody had actually seen it happened, but the identity of the murderer appeared self-evident.
However plausible the argument for Goode’s guilt and execution in the narrow case at hand, it could not help but be complicated by the execution-free years that had preceded him. Was this the most atrocious crime in Massachusetts of the 1840s? In 1845, a burgher named Albert Terrill had cut the throat of a prostitute on Beacon Hill, and set fire to her room; he had been spared execution.‡
Boston’s death penalty abolitionists mounted a furious clemency campaign, and again the arguments strike a familiar tone for present-day readers: the fallibility of the justice system (Goode maintained his innocence all the way to the gallows); the prospect that, were Goode indeed guilty, alcohol and passion had clouded his mind; and the manifest disproportionality between the extreme penalty that just so happened to be handed down to a poor black workingman when more atrocious crimes by better-connected Bostonians had lately merited far more lenient treatment. Thousands subscribed to petition, like this one, demanding mercy. Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson fought to save Goode from the gallows.
But the Commonwealth was not moved.
Despairing, Goode slashed his veins during the night preceding the hanging in a vain bid for suicide. He would be hanged that day — after a physician stanched the bleeding and patched him so that Goode could die properly — seated in a chair. The fall broke his neck, and purpled some prose into the bargain.
The scene is past. A more fearful tragedy has never been enacted in our city. A more disgraceful scene never occured in any country. A stain has been made upon Massachusetts that ages can never wash away.
Ostensibly “private”, the jailyard hanging was readily visible from surrounding windows and rooftops in the neighborhood. Some shops in the vicinity even shut up their doors in protest, and hung up placards to make sure those arriving for a rented overlooking window knew it.
But the first abolitionist era was even now giving way to the rising section tension about to tear the country apart. Even people who cared deeply about the death penalty usually cared moreso about slavery … and the stain of Washington Goode’s hanging would be blotted out by the far bloodier years to come.
* The anti-death penalty and anti-slavery causes had a good deal of overlapping personnel, too: slavery abolitionists like Wendell Phillips, Lydia Child, and William Lloyd Garrison were prominent supporters of the Massachusetts Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. (See The Death Penalty: An American History.)
** Wisconsin and Rhode Island both followed Michigan’s lead. None of those three states has conducted an execution since the mid-19th century, although Rhode Island did put never-used death penalty statutes back on its books for most of the 20th century.
† According to the Espy file‘s survey of historical U.S. executions.
‡ Terrill was acquitted by his jury in two separate death penalty trials — one for the murder, one for the arson. The verdicts were commonly believed to be acts of nullification by juries unwilling to sully their consciences with a death sentence. (Terrill’s barristers resorted to the embarrassing somnabulism defense.) “We infer that no person will hereafter be convicted of murder in the courts of Massachusetts,” the Boston Courier editorialized. “There is prevalent in society such a feeling of horror [about capital punishment] … jurors will not hesitate to acquit.” But after Terrill, backlash against the verdicts inverted the horror — since it now appeared that the tender scruples of jurymen proposed to hand villains carte blanche.
On this day..
- 1537: John and Margaret Bulmer, Bigod's rebels - 2020
- 1798: The Carnew executions - 2019
- 1425: Murdoch Stewart, Duke of Albany - 2018
- 1940: Julien Vervaecke, Tour de France cyclist - 2017
- 1726: James Stephens and Patrick Barnel, broadsided - 2016
- 1987: Pawel Tuchlin, the Scorpion - 2015
- 1721: Joseph Hanno, "miserable African" - 2013
- 1872: Communards Serizier, Boin and Boudin - 2012
- 1911: Laura and Lawrence Nelson lynched - 2011
- 1946: Marcel Petiot, Vichy serial killer - 2010
- 1948: Witold Pilecki, Auschwitz infiltrator - 2009
- 1979: John Spenkelink, the harbinger - 2008