THE penal laws of the British empire are, by foreign writers, charged with being too sanguinary in the cases of lesser offences. They hold that the punishment of death ought to be inflicted only for crimes of the highest magnitude; and philanthropists of our own nation have accorded with their opinion. Such persons as have had no opportunity of inquiring into the subject will hardly credit the assertion that there are above one hundred and sixty offences punishable by death, or, as it is denominated, without benefit of clergy. The multiplicity of punishments, it is argued, in many instances defeat their own ends; for the object is alone the prevention of crime.
One of these writers says, "The injured, through compassion, will often forbear to prosecute: juries, through compassion, will sometimes forget their oaths, and acquit the guilty, or mitigate the nature of their offence; and judges, through compassion, will rescue one half of the convicts, and recommend them to royal mercy;" yet, from the great population of the British islands, and the extensive commerce carried on by its subjects, it is absolutely necessary that every means of protection of persons and property should be adopted. The finger of God pointed at Cain the first murderer, and because, at the creation of the world, it contained but one family, he did not doom the guilty man to death; but we are taught that a mark was set upon him, as a terror to others in the like case offending. When mortals increased, laws were enacted to punish the murderer with death; and, when empires were formed, they extended to treason against the state: the introduction of commerce caused them to be inflicted on forgers and thus, as luxury increased the catalogue of crimes, they have progressively reached the number already mentioned.
The Roman empire never flourished so much as during the era of the Portian law, which abrogated the punishment of death; and it fell soon after the revival of the utmost severity of its penal laws. But Rome was not a commercial nation, or it never could, under such an abrogation, have so long remained the mistress of Europe. In the present state of society it has become indispensably necessary that offences which in their nature are highly injurious to the community, and where no precept will avail, should be punished with the forfeiture of life: but those dreadful examples should be exhibited as seldom as possible; for while, on the one hand, such punishment often proves inadequate to its intended effect, by not being carried into execution; so, on the other, by being often repeated, the minds of the multitude are rendered callous to the dreadful example.
Mr. Colquhoun observes, "Can it be thought a correct system of jurisprudence, which inflicts the penalty of death for breaking down the mound of a fish-pond, whereby the fish may escape; or cutting down a fruit-tree in a garden or orchard; or stealing a handkerchief or any trifle from a person's pocket, above the value of twelve-pence; while the number of other crimes, of much greater enormity, are only punished with transportation and imprisonment; and while the punishment of murder itself is, and can be, only death, with circumstances of additional ignominy?"
The punishment awaiting this most dreadful of all crimes, from the earliest ages of civilized nations, has been the same as that inflicted by the laws of the British empire, varying alone in the mode of putting the sentence into execution. We find the murderer punished by death in the ancient laws of the Jews, the Romans, and the Athenians; in nations of heathens and idolaters. The Persians, who worship the sun as their deity, press murderers to death between two stones. Throughout the Chinese empire, and the vast dominions of the east, they are beheaded; a death in England esteemed the least dishonourable; but here considered the most ignominious. Mahometans impale them alive, where they long writhe in agony before death comes to their relief. In Roman Catholic countries the murderer expiated his crime upon the rack. Several writers on crimes and punishments deny the right of man to, take away life, given to us by God alone; but a crime like murder, however sanguinary they may find our laws in regard to lesser offences, unquestionably calls loudly for death. "Whosoever sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed," saith Holy Writ; but with the life of the murderer the crime should be fully expiated. The English law on this head goes still further -- the effects of the murderer revert to the state, thus, as it were, carrying punishment beyond the grave, and involving in its consequences the utter ruin of many a virtuous widow and innocent children. Yet may we be thankful for laws, the dread of which affords us such ample security for our lives and property. Our Saxon ancestors afforded themselves no such protection. In Britain, one of the last nations of Europe emerging from a state of barbarity, this crime was suffered to be expiated by private revenge, or by such pecuniary composition as the friends of the murdered were base enough to accept. Hence resulted the most pernicious consequences, rather adding blood to blood, than serving as an example to evil-doers. The dreadful passion of revenge, knowing no bounds, oft fell upon the innocent, while the guilty escaped with impunity. On the other hand, the security of a compromise was, in those days of brutal ferocity, but a weak barrier against the passion, hatred, or caprice, of the rich and powerful. We have much reason to revere those laws, which make no discrimination of rank, wealth, or power; and, however corrupt our parliaments may be, our judges remain upright, and, in every case of doubt, ever inclining to mercy. Of this we have a striking instance in the execution of Laurence Earl Ferrers, a peer of the realm, descended from the royal blood of the Plantagenets, and who had been convicted of the crime of murder. Interest, rank, and wealth, could not save him from death, ignominious as the execution of the meanest criminal; even his suit to King George the Second, to receive his death from the axe instead of the halter, was refused. That upright monarch answered by observing, that, though ennobled, he should die according to the strict letter of the law; and he was consequently hanged at Tyburn. The powerful but unsuccessful interest exerted for the lives of Doctor Dodd, the Perreaus, Ryland, Fauntleroy, and many others, cuts off all hopes of mercy in this world on conviction of the commission of heinous crimes.
The end of punishment is no other than to prevent the criminal from doing further injury to society, and to deter others from committing the like offence. Such punishments, therefore, and such modes of inflicting them, ought to be chosen, as will make the strongest and most lasting impression on the minds of others, with the least torment to the body of the criminal.
The more immediately, after the conviction of a crime, a punishment is inflicted, the greater will be the lesson to mankind. It will also be more just, because it spares the criminal the superfluous torments of uncertainty. The time alone necessary to make his peace with God should be granted; and respites, unless they eventually prove the royal mind entirely inclined to mercy, are little better than torment to the malefactor. "An immediate punishment," says another commentator, is, in this respect, more useful, because the smaller the interval of time between the punishment and the crime, the stronger and more lasting will be the association of the two ideas of CRIME and PUNISHMENT so that they may be considered, one as the cause and the other as the unavoidable and necessary effect. It is demonstrated that an association of ideas is the cement which unites the fabric of the human intellect, without which pleasure and pain would be simple and ineffectual sensations. Men who have no general ideas, or universal principles, act in consequence of the most immediate and familiar associations; but the more remote and complex only present themselves to the minds of those who are passionately attached to a single object or to those of a greater understanding, who have acquired a habit of rapidly comparing together a number of objects and of forming a conclusion; and the result, that is, the action, in consequence, by these means becomes less dangerous and uncertain.
It is, then, of the greatest importance that punishment should succeed the crime as immediately as possible, if we intend that in the rude minds of the multitude the picture of the crime shall instantly awaken the attendant idea of punishment, delaying which serves only to separate these two ideas; and thus affects the minds of the spectators rather as a terrible sight than the necessary consequences of a crime. The horror should contribute to heighten the idea of the punishment.
Next to the necessary example of punishment to offenders is the record of such examples, in order that such as are unhappily moved with the sordid passion of acquiring wealth by violence, or stimulated by the heinous sin of revenge to shed the blood of a fellow-creature, may have before them a picture of the torment of mind and bodily sufferings of such offenders. In this light the following Criminal Chronology must prove highly acceptable to all ranks and conditions of men; for we shall find, in the course of these volumes, that even the sacred character, the noble, and the wealthy, are not free from those passions, which are in them more unworthy, because education ought to have taught them better, than in the lowest individual.