Jeremy Bentham

The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham: The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, Vol. 7: January 1802 to December 1808

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Editor’s Note1773From Brownlow Forde

8 January 1803


My opinion on the efficacy of executions can be but of little service to one who has, perhaps, studied such matters for a considerable length of time, for the purpose of endeavouring at a reformation in them; whereas I have only viewed them as they occurred in the course of my professional attendance, without expecting that my opinion was ever likely to be enquired into, much less followed. From every thing I have witnessed on these melancholy occasions, I am decidedly clear that executions, managed as they are at present, answer no end whatsoever, either for punishment or example. By executions the intention of punishment is defeated; which is, 1st, to make restoration or recompence to the injured party; 2d, to warn others; or 3d, to amend the morals of the criminal. If I am plundered, 1st, the death of the plunderer may gratify my resentment, but it cannot restore my property; for the law gives the property found upon the criminal, not to him who has lost it, but to the king. Whenever I can find that the numbers in the Newgate Kalendar2 are decreased regularly, till at length the Court at the Old Bailey is no longer of use— then, and not till then, I shall acknowledge, 2d, the pg 183utility of executions for intimidating would-be rogues. With respect to the 3d point, (amendment of morals,) the rope puts a stop to every thing of that sort at once. But you may wish to learn the effect which sentence of death has on the convict, in punishing his misdeeds, or causing him to set about the necessary work of repentance. From the moment he quits the court, every engine is set to work, both by him and his friends, to obtain a respite. During these exertions, vain and futile are all attempts of the Ordinary, etc. to prevail on him to reflect on his awful situation, with respect to both worlds. The flattering hopes within his own breast are puffed up by his friends into a certainty of saving his life; and till the very moment in which the unexpected warrant for execution arrives, death is the furthest thing from his thoughts. What is to be done now? Are a few days sufficient to make his peace with God? Oh no! All is now hurry, confusion, and despair. Is this a time to instruct him in religion? Alas, he does not perhaps know the meaning of the word; nor does he conceive any benefit whatsoever to arise from the use of the name of a God, or a Saviour, except that of tiling up his common conversation by explanatory blasphemy. To divert him now from any serious thoughts, he is daily visited by his supposed friends, relations, or colleagues; who (some with good motives and some with bad) are urging him to die like a man; and in order to assist him in keeping up his spirits, each visitor brings a little something for a parting glass, which frequently terminates in the intoxication of the unfortunate sufferer, and precludes even the shadow of repentance or contrition. Here you will be likely to attach blame to the prison-keepers for suffering liquors to be brought in; but what can they do? Women, who are chiefly the conveyers of them, conceal them in such ways as would be termed the grossest insult to search for. Besides, common humanity says, 'As he has only a few days to live, why add torture to torture, by keeping from him the consolation of his relatives?' etc. The result of all this (I speak generally) is stupidity at the hours of morning- devotion, enthusiasm, rhodomontade, and fruitless threats of revenge against his prosecutor, in the evening. At length the long dreaded morning arrives; he knows he must quit this world, and he may as well do so with a good grace as not. 'What would his old associates say if they were to behold him die soft? (as their phrase is.) His memory would be despised, and had in abomination.'—He mounts the drop, resolute to appearance, howsoever he may be within—bows to the spectators—shakes hands with the Ordinary, and such others as may be with him travelling the same journey; and (according to the expression in the dying speech, which at this pg 184moment is publishing in all parts of London) is launched into eternity.'—This man is not punished, nor are his compeers intimidated.— It is like the acting of a tragedy: a momentary tear of pity may be shed; but the next ribaldry obliterates the whole of the foregoing catastrophe.

For argument's sake, we will suppose the convict a true penitent, and resigned to his fate, with a full trust in, or even a modest hope of salvation. The spectators are ignorant of what is passing in his mind, but they see his resignation in his countenance: consequently they are not intimidated by his example. We will suppose again, that some real contrition may arise in the breasts of some few who are under sentence; and they may have deceived me as well as themselves, Let a respite come to these people who had given such good hopes of reformation, and what is the consequence? I do not, at this moment, recollect one who did not almost immediately forget all his good resolutions. Nay, I will take upon me to say, that some of the most wicked prisoners who are now in Newgate have been under sentence of death. One instance let me mention, of a man who was in that predicament, and who gave every hope of reformation. It was an arduous matter to get him respited; but it was done. He was removed from the cells, and his punishment mitigated to transportation. Meeting me a few days afterwards, he said, 'Here are the books you so kindly lent me; and having nofurther use for them, I return them with many thanks.'—But I ask, 'Why execute at all?' Who shall say that the most hardened villain may not repent? Youth, health, ignorance, bad companions, etc. may lead a man to perpetrate the greatest crimes. The time, however, may come, when he looks back with horror on his past transgressions, and repents in dust and ashes. Execute him, and think of his hope of salvation? Why not leave him to God and his own conscience? Time, confinement, mortification, etc. may restore him, and cause 'joy in heaven:' — regular labour,—the sweets arising from industry,—the want of bad companions, etc. all combine to recover the lost sheep, and 'the last state of that man is better than the first.' Who is he now that can take upon himself to determine, that it would have been better to put that man out of the world? I say it is arrogating an authority which nofrail mortal has a right to do. Some persons (who think they abound with the milk of human kindness) will say, 'I would punish no criminals with death, except they had committed murder, but that blood requires blood.'—'Whoso sheddeth man's blood,' etc. (Gen. ix. 6.) This, however, was not used by the Almighty on a particular case; but as a desultory threatening. In the case of Abel's murder, (Gen. iv. 10.) instead of Cain being instantly pg 185punished with death, God says, 'The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.' What infliction then is passed upon him? God says, (verse 12.) 'When thou tillest the ground, it shall not yield unto thee her strength. A fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.' This seems more like sentence of transportation than sentence of death. The result of that first murder is this, that God himself sets a mark upon Cain, lest any one should attempt to kill him. (ver. 15.) This then is no sanction for our executions. We well know, that previous to the French revolution, all robbers as well as murderers were punished with death, being previously broken upon the wheel. The consequence of which was, that very few robberies were committed, without being attended with murder. Whereas the mildness and uncertainty of our punishments are the reasons why so very few murders are perpetrated amongst us.—In short, when the criminal is dead, both the crime and the punishment are soon forgotten: let him live and labour, and the public may benefit by his example: whilst he himself is making some atonement for his crimes by his industry, and humbly endeavouring to make his peace with God. I have often reflected, and as often wondered, with what small degree of devotion, or right frame of mind, certain persons have joined in the second prayer of our church service, 'Almighty God, who desirest not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness and live.' Strange it is, that our religion is so mild and our laws so sanguinary! Instead of sparing the life of a criminal, in order that he may turn from his wickedness and try to live for ever, our criminal code nips him in the first bud of his sin, cutting off all hope of reformation, and destroying the possibility of atonement to the injured party.—I hear some one say, 'What is to be done then with criminals? Would you execute none?'—None!—Square the punishment to the several degrees of transgression, and plead the mild laws of God in your favour.

B. Forde.

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
1773. 1 Basil Montagu, An Inquiry into the Aspersions upon the late Ordinary of Newgate, with some Observations upon Newgate and upon the Punishment of Death, 1815, Appendix B, pp. 7–12. The letter is headed: 'A Letter written by Dr. Forde, the Ordinary of Newgate'; and a footnote to the heading reads: 'Written in the year 1803, in answer to an application made by Mr. Bentham.' The original letter was evidently enclosed in letter 1772.
Editor’s Note
2 Several volumes or series were published under this title at different times, giving accounts of the lives, trials, and executions of notable criminals.
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