Charles Dickens

But the very same advocates of the punishment of Death who contend, in the teeth of all facts and figures, that it does prevent crime, contend in the same breath against its abolition because it does not! "There are so many bad murders," say they, "and they follow in such quick succession, that the Punishment must not be repealed." Why, is not this a reason, among others, for repealing it? Does it not go to show that it is ineffective as an example; that it fails to prevent crime; and that it is wholly inefficient to stay that imitation, or contagion, call it what you please, which brings one murder on the heels of another?

One forgery came crowding on another's heels in the same way, when the same punishment attached to that crime. Since it has been removed, forgeries have diminished in a most remarkable degree. Yet within five and thirty years, Lord Eldon, with tearful solemnity, imagined in the House of Lords as a possibility for their Lordships to shudder at, that the time might come when some visionary and morbid person might even propose the abolition of the punishment of Death for forgery. And when it was proposed, Lords Lyndhurst, Wynford, Tenterden, and Eldon--all Law Lords--opposed it.

The same Lord Tenterden manfully said, on another occasion and another question, that he was glad the subject of the amendment of the laws had been taken up by Mr. Peel, "who had not been bred to the law; for those who were, were rendered dull, by habit, to many of its defects!" I would respectfully submit, in extension of this text, that a criminal judge is an excellent witness against the Punishment of Death, but a bad witness in its favour; and I will reserve this point for a few remarks in the next, concluding, Letter.


The last English Judge, I believe, who gave expression to a public and judicial opinion in favour of the punishment of Death, is Mr. Justice Coleridge, who, in charging the Grand Jury at Hertford last year, took occasion to lament the presence of serious crimes in the calendar, and to say that he feared that they were referable to the comparative infrequency of Capital Punishment.

It is not incompatible with the utmost deference and respect for an authority so eminent, to say that, in this, Mr. Justice Coleridge was not supported by facts, but quite the reverse. He went out of his way to found a general assumption on certain very limited and partial grounds, and even on those grounds was wrong. For among the few crimes which he instanced, murder stood prominently forth. Now persons found guilty of murder are more certainly and unsparingly hanged at this time, as the Parliamentary Returns demonstrate, than such criminals ever were. So how can the decline of public executions affect that class of crimes? As to persons committing murder, and yet not found guilty of it by juries, they escape solely because there are many public executions--not because there are none or few.

But when I submit that a criminal judge is an excellent witness against Capital Punishment, but a bad witness in its favour, I do so on more broad and general grounds than apply to this error in fact and deduction (so I presume to consider it) on the part of the distinguished judge in question. And they are grounds which do not apply offensively to judges, as a class; than whom there are no authorities in England so deserving of general respect and confidence, or so possessed of it; but which apply alike to all men in their several degrees and pursuits.

It is certain that men contract a general liking for those things which they have studied at great cost of time and intellect, and their proficiency in which has led to their becoming distinguished and successful. It is certain that out of this feeling arises, not only that passive blindness to their defects of which the example given by my Lord Tenterden was quoted in the last letter, but an active disposition to advocate and defend them. If it were otherwise; if it were not for this spirit of interest and partisanship; no single pursuit could have that attraction for its votaries which most pursuits in course of time establish.