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As is clear from the text, the below appears to be an introduction Hugo wrote for his work, "The Last Days of a Condemned". It appears separate under the heading Essays on Humanity in a collection published by Walter J. Black, Inc. 1928.
This is what I have desired to effect. If futurity should award me the glory of having succeeded,-- which I dare not hope, -- I desire no other crown.
I proclaim and repeat it, then, in the name of all accused persons, innocent or guilty, before all courts, juries, or judges. And in order that my pleadings should be as universal as my cause, I have been careful, while writing "The Last Days of a Condemned," to omit any thing of a special, individual, contingent, relative, or modifiable nature, as also any episode, anecdote, known event, or real name,--keeping to the limit (if "limit" it may be termed!) of pleading the cause of any condemned prisoner whatever, executed at any time, for any offence; happy if, with no other aid than my thoughts, I have mined sufficiently into my subject to make a heart bleed, under the as triplex of a magistrate! happy if I could render merciful those who consider themselves just! happy if I penetrate sufficiently deep within the Judge to reach the man.
When this book first appeared, some people thought it was worth while to dispute the authorship. Some asserted that it was taken from an English work, and others that it was borrowed from an American author. What a singular mania there is for seeking the origin of matters at a great distance,--trying to trace from the source of the Nile the streamlet which flows through our village! In this work there is no English, American, or Chinese assistance. I formed the idea of "The Last Days of a Condemned" where you might form it, --where perhaps you all may have formed it (for who is there that has not reflected and had reveries of "the last day of a condemned"? --there, on the public walk, the place of execution!
It was there, while passing casually during an execution, that this forcible idea occurred to me; and since then, after those funereal Thursdays of the Court of Cassation, which send forth through Paris the intelligence of an approaching execution, the hoarse voices of the assembling spectators, as they hurried past my windows, filled my mind with the prolonged misery of the person about to suffer, which I pictured to myself, from hour to hour, according to what I conceived was its actual progress. It was a torture which commenced at daybreak, and lasted, like that of the miserable being who was tortured at the same moment, untilf four o'clock. Then only, whence once the ponens caput expiravit was announced by the heavy toll of the clock, I breathed again freely, and regained comparative peace of mind.
One day at length--I think it was after the execution of Ulbach--I commenced writing this work; and since then I have felt relieved. When one of those public crimes called legal executions is committed, my conscience now acquits me of participation therein. This, however, is not sufficient; it is well to be freed from self-accusation, but it would be better still to endeavour to save human life. I do not know any aim more elevated, more holy, than that of seeking the abolition of capital punishment; with sincere devotion I join the wishes and efforts of those philanthropic men of all nations who have laboured, of late years, to throw down the patibulary tree,--the only tree which revolution fails to uproot! It is with pleasure that I take my turn to give my feeble stroke, after the all-powerful blow which, seventy years ago, Beccaria gave to the ancient gibbet, which had been standing during so many centuries of Christianity.
"The Hanged Man"
I have just said that the scaffold is the only edifice which revolutions do not demolish. It is rare indeed that revolutions are temperate in spilling blood; and although they are sent to prune, to lop, to reform society, the punishment of death is a branch which they have never removed! I own, however, if any revolution ever appeared capable and worthy of abolishing capital punishment, it was the Revolution of July, 1830. It seemed, indeed, as if it belonged to the merciful popular rising of modern times to erase the barbarous enactments of Louis the Eleventh, of Richelieu, and of Robespierre, and to inscribe at the head of the code, "the inviolability of human life!" 1830 was worthy of breaking the axe of 1793.
At one time we really hoped for it. In August, 1830, there seemed so much generosity afloat, such a spirit of gentleness and civilization in the multitude, that we almost fancied the punishment of death was abolished, by a tacit and unanimous consent, with the rest of the evils which had oppressed us. For some weeks confiding and credulous, we had faith in the inviolability of life, for the future, as in the inviolability of liberty.
In effect, two months had scarcely passed, when an attempt was made to resolve into a legal reality the sublime Utopia of Caesar Bonesana. Unfortunately, this attempt was awkward, imperfect, almost hypocritical, and made in a different spirit from the general interest.
It was in the month of October, 1830, as may be remembered, that the question of capital punishment was brought before the Chamber of Deputies, and discussed with much talent, energy, and apparent feeling. During two days there was a continued succession of impressive eloquence on this momentous subject; and what was this subject--to abolish the punishment of death? Yes and No! Here is the truth.
Four "gentlemen,"--four persons well known in society,--had attempted in the higher range of politics one of those daring strokes which Bacon calls crimes, and which Machiavel calls enterprises. Well! crime or enterprise,--the law, brutal for all, would punish it by death; and the four unfortunates were prisoners, legal captives guarded by three hundred tri-coloured cockades at Vincennes. What was now to be done? You understand the impossibility of sending to the place of execution, in a common cart, ignobly bound with coarse ropes, seated back to back with that functionary who must not be named,--four men of our own rank,--four "gentlemen!"
If there were even a mahogany Guillotine!
Well, to settle the matter, they need only abolish the punishment of death and thereupon the Chamber set to work!
Only yesterday they had treated this abolition as Utopian,--as a theory, a dream, poetic folly. This was not the first time that an endeavour had been made to draw their attention to the cart, the coarse ropes, and the fatal machine. How strange it is that these hideous details acquired such sudden force in their minds!
Alas! It was not on account of the general good that they sought to abolish capital punishment, but for their own sakes,--as Deputies, who might become Ministers. And thus an alloy of egotism alters and destroys the fairest social combinations. It is the dark vein of statuary marble, which, crossing everywhere, comes forth at each moment unexpectedly under the chisel!
It is surely unnecessary for me to declare that I was not among those who desired the death of the Ministers. When once they were imprisoned, the indignant anger I had felt at their attempt changed with me, as with everyone else, into profound pity. I reflected on the prejudices of education of some among them; on the ill-developed head of their chief (fanatic and obstinate relapse of the conspiracies of 1804), whitened before its time, in the damp cells of state prisons; on the fatal necessity of their common position; on the impossibility of their replacing a drag on that rapid slope down which monarchy rushed blindly on the 8th of August, 1829; on the influence of personal intercourse with Royalty over them, which I had hitherto under-rated; and finally I reflected, above all, on the dignity which one among them spread, like a purple mantle, over their misfortunes! I was among those who sincerely wished their lives saved, and would have readily lent my aid to that effect.
If a scaffold had been raised for them in Paris, I feel quite certain (and if it be an illusion, I would preserve it) that there would have been an insurrection to pull it down; and I should have been one of the rioters.
Here I must add that, in each social crisis, of all scaffolds, the political one is the most abominable, the most fatal, the most mischievous, the most necessary to extirpate.
In revolutionary times, beware of the first execution. It excites the sanguinary passions of the mob.
I therefore agreed thoroughly with those who wished to spare the four Ministeres, both as a matter of feeling and of political reasoning. But I should have liked better that the Chamber had chosen another occasion for proposing the abolition of capital punishment. If they had suggested this desirable change not with reference to those four Ministers, fallen from a Palace to a Prison, but in the instance of the first highwayman,--in the case of one of those wretches to whom you neither give word nor look, and from whom you shrink as they pass; miserable beings, who, during their ragged infancy, ran barefoot in the mud of the crossings; shivering in winter near the quays, or seeking to warm themselves outside the ventilator from the kitchens of the hotels where you dine; scratching out, here and there, a crust of bread from the heaps of filth, and wiping it before eating; scraping in the gutter all day, with a rusty nail, in the hopes of finding a farthing; having no other amusement than the gratuitous sight of the King's fete, and the public executions,--that other gratuitous sight,--poor devils! whom hunger forces on theft, and theft to tall the rest; children disinherited by their stepmother, the world; who are adopted by the House of Correction in their twelfth year,--by the Galleys at eighteen,--and by the Guillotine at forty! unfortunate beings whom, by means of a school and a workshop, you might have rendered good, moral, useful; and with whom you now know not what to do,--flinging them away like a useless burthen, sometimes into the red ant-heaps of Toulon, sometimes into the silent cemetary of Clamart; cutting off life after taking away liberty.
If it had been in the instance of one of these outcasts that you had proposed to abolish the punishment of death, oh, then your councils would have indeed been noble, great, holy, majestic! It has ever belonged to those who are truly great and truly powerful, to protect the lowly and weak. How grand would be a Council of Bramins advocating the cause of the Paria! And with us the cause of the Paria is the cause of the people. In abolishing the penalty of death for sake of the people, and without waiting until you were personally interested in the question, you would have done more than a political work,--you would have conferred a social benefit.
Instead of this, you have not yet even completed a political act, while seeking to abolish it not for the abolition's sake, but to save four unfortunate Ministers detected in political deliinquency. What has happened? As you were not sincere, the people were distrustful; when they suspected the cause of your change, they became angry at the question altogether, and, strange to say, they declared in favour of that condign punishment, the weight of which presses entirely on themselves.
immediately after the famous discussion in the Chamber, orders were given to respite, indefinitely, all executions. This was apparently a great step gained; the opponents of punishment by death were rendered happy; but the illusion was of short duration. The lives of the Ministers were spared, and the fortress of Ham was selected as a medium, between death and liberty. These different arrangements once completed, all fear was banished from the minds of the ruling statesmen; and along with fear humanity was also banished. There was no farther question of abolishing capital punishment; and when they no longer wished to prove to the contrary, Utopia became again Utopia!
There were yet in the prisons some unfortunate condemned wretches, who, having been allowed during five or six months to walk about the prison-yards and breathe the fresh air, felt tranquil for the future, sure of life, mistaking their reprieve for pardon.
There had indeed been a reprieve for six months for these hapless captives, whose sufferings were thus gratuitously aggravated, by making them cling to life: then, without reason, without necessity, without well knowing why, the respites were all revoked, and all these human beings were launched into eternity.
Let me add, that never were executions accompanied by more atrocious circumstances than since that revocation of the reprieve of July. Never have the "anecdotes" been more revolting, or more effectual to prove the execration of capital punishment. I will cite here two or three examples of the horrors which have attended recent executions. I must shock the nerves of the wives of king's counsel. A wife is sometimes a conscience!
In the South, towards the close of last September, the following circumstances occurred: I think it was at Pamiers. The officers went to a man in prison, whom they found quietly playing at cards, and gave him notice that he was to die in two hours. The wretched creature was horror-struck; for during the six months he had been forgotten, he had no longer thought about death; he was confessed, bound, his hair cut off, he was placed in the fatal cart, and taken to the place of execution. The Executioner took him from the Priest; laid him down and bound him on the Guillotine, and then let loose the axe. The heavy triangle of iron slowly detached itself, falling by jerks down the sides, until, horrible to relate, it wounded the man, without killing him! The poor creature uttered a frightful cry. The disconcerted Executioner hauled up the axe, and let it slide down again. A second time, the neck of the malefactor was wounded, without being severed. Again he shrieked, the crowd joining him. The Executioner raised the axe a third time, but not better effect attended the third stroke. Let me abridge these fearful details. Five times the axe was raised and lef fall, and after the fifth stroke, the condemned was still shrieking for mercy. The indignant populace commenced throwing missiles at the Executioner, who hid himself beneath the Guillotine, and crept away behind the gendarmes' horses: but I have not yet finished. The hapless culprit, seeing he was left alone on the scaffold, raised himself on the plank, and there standing, frightful, streaming with blood, he demanded with feeble cries that someone would unbind him! The populace, full of pity, were on the point of forcing the gendarmes to help the hapless wretch, who had five times undergone his sentence. At this moment the servant of the Executioner, a youth under twenty, mounted on the scaffold, told the sufferer to turn round, that he might unbind him: then taking advantage of the posture of the dying man, who had yielded himself without any mistrust, sprang on him, and slowly cut through the neck with a knife! All this happened; all this was seen.
According to law, a judge was obliged to be present at this execution; by a sign he could have stopped all. Why was he leaning back in his carriage then, this man, while they massacred another man? What was he doing, this punisher of assassins, while they thus assassinated, in open day, his fellow-creature? And the Judge was not tried for this; nor the Executioner was not tried for it; and no tribunal inquired into this monstrous violation of all law on one of God's creatures.
In the seventeenth century, that epoch of barbarity in the criminal code, under Richelieu, under Christophe Fouquet, Monsieur de Chalais was put to death at Nantes by an awkward soldier, who, instead of a sword-stroke, gave him thirty-four strokes of a cooper's adze. But at last it was considered execrable by the parliament of Paris, there was an inquest and a trial; and, although Richelieu and Fouquet did not suffer, the soldier was punished,--an injustice doubtless, but in which there was some show of justice.
In the modern instance, nothing was done. The fact it took place after July, in times of civilization and march of intellect, a year after the celebrated lamentation of the Chamber on the penalty of death. The circumstance attracted no attention; the Paris papers published it as an anecdote, and no one cared about it. It was only known that the Guillotine had been put out of order by a dismissed servant of the Executioner, who, to revenge himself, had taken this method of action.
Another instance. At Dijon, only three months ago, they brought to the scaffold a woman (a woman!). This time again the axe of the Guillotine failed of its effect, and the head was not quite detached. Then the Executioner's servants pulled the feet of the woman; and, amidst the yells of the populace, thus finished the law!
At Paris, we have come back to the time of secret executions; since July they no longer dare to decapitate in the town, for they are afraid. Here is what they do. They took lately from the Bicêtre prison a man, under sentence of death, named Desandrieux, I think; they put him into a sort of panier on two wheels, closed on every side, bolted and padlocked; then with a gendarme in front, and another at back, without noise or crowd, they proceeded to the deserted barrier of St. James. It was eight in the morning when they arrived, wth but little light. There was a newly erected Guillotine, and for spectators, some dozens of little boys, grouped on the heaps of stones around the unexpected machine. Quickly they withdrew the man from the basket; and without giving him time to breathe, they furtively, secretly, shamefully deprived him of life! And that is called a public and solemn act of high justice! Infamous derision! How then do the lawgivers understand the word civilization? To what point have we attained? Justice reduced to stratagems and frauds! The law reduced to expedient! Monstrous! A man condemned to death, it would seem, was greatly to be feared, since they put an end to him in this traitorous fashion!
Let us be just, however; the execution was not quite secret. In the morning people hawked and sold, as usual, the sentence of death through the streets. It appears there are people who live by such sales. The crime of a hapless fellow-creature, its punishment, his torture, his agony, forms their stock in trade--a paper that they sell for a penny. Can one conceive anything more hideous than this coin, verdesgrised in blood?
Here are enough facts; here are too many. Is not all this horrible? What can be alleged in favour of punishment by death?
I put this question seriously. I ask it that it may be answered; I ask it of Legislators, and not of literary gossips. I know there are people who take "the execellence of punishment by death" for a text of paradoxes, like any other theme; there are others who only advocate capital punishment because they hate so-and-so who attack it. It is for them almost a literary question, a question of persons, and proper names; these are the envious, who do not find more fault with good lawyers than with good artists. The Joseph Grippas are no more wanting to the Filangieri than the Torregiani to the Michel Angelos, and the Scuderies to the Corneilles.
It is not to these that I address myself, but to men of law, properly so caled,--to logicians, to reasoners; to those who love the penalty of death for its beauty, its goodness, its grace!
Let them give their reasons.
Those who judge and condemn say that "punishment by death is necessary--first, because it is requisite to remove from the social community a member which has already injured it, and might injure it again."
If this be all, perpetual imprisonment would suffice. What is the use of inflicting death? You argue that a prisoner may escape from jail,--keep watch more strictly! If you do not believe in the solidity of iron bars, how do you venture to have menageries? Let there be no executioner where the jailer can be sufficient.
They continue, "But society must avenge itself; society must punish."
Neither one nor the other; vengeance is an individual act, and punishment belongs to God. Society is between the two; punishment is above its power, retaliation beneath it. Society should not punish, to avenge itself; it should correct, to ameliorate others!
Their third and last reason remains, the theory of example. "We must make examples. By the sight of the fate inflicted on criminals, we must shock those who might otherwise be tempted to imitate them!"
Well, in the first place, I deny the power of the example. I deny that the sight of executions produces the desired effect. Far from edifying the common people, it demoralizes and ruins their feeling, injuring every virtue; proofs of this abound and would encumber my argument if I chose to site them. I will allude to only one fact, amongst a thousand, because of its recent occurrence. It happened only ten days back from the present moment when I am writing; namely, on the 5th of March, the last day of the Carnival. At St. Pol, immediately after the execution of an incendiary named Louis Camus, a group of Masqueraders came and danced round the still reeking scaffold!
Make, then, your fine examples! Shrove Tuesday will turn them into jest.
If, notwithstanding all experience, you still hold on to the theory of example, then give us back the Sixteenth Century; be in reality formidable. Restore to us a variety of suffering; restore us Farinacci; restore us the sworn torturer; restore us the gibbet, the wheel, the block, the rack, the thumb-screw, the live-burial vault, the burning cauldron; restore us in the streets of Paris, as the most open shop among the rest, the hideous stall of the Executioner, constantly full of human flesh; give us back Montfaucon, its cave of bones, its beams, its crooks, its chains, its rows of skeletons; give us back, in its permanence and power, that gigantic outhouse of the Paris Executioner! This indeed would be wholesale example; this would be a system of execution in some proportion,--which, while it is horrible, is also terrible!
But do you seriously suppose you are making an example, when you take the life of a poor wretch, in the most deserted part of the exterior Boulevards, at eight o'clock in the morning?
Do not you see then, that your public executions are done in private? That fear is with the execution, and not among the multitude? One is sometimes tempted to believe, that the advocates for capital punishment have not thorougly considered in what it consists. But place in the scales, against any crime whatever, this exorbitant right, which society arrogates to itself, of taking away that which it did not bestow: that most irreparable of evils!
The alternatives are these: First, the man you destroy is without family, relations, or friends, in the world. In this case, he has received neither education nor instruction; no care has been bestowed either on his mind or heart; then, by what right would you kil this miserable orphan? You punish him because his infancy trailed on the ground, without stem, or support; you make him pay the penalty of the isolated position in which you left him! you make a crime of his misfortune! No one taught hiim to know what he was doing; this man lived in ignorance: the fault was in his destiny, not himself. You destroy on who is innocent.
Or, secondly,--the man has a family; and then do you think the fatal stroke wounds him alone?--that his father, his mother, or his children will not suffer by it? In killing him, you vitally injure all his family: and thus again you punish the innocent!
Blind and ill-directed penalty; which, on whatever side it turns, strikes the innocent!
Imprison for life this culprit who has a family: in his cell he can still work for those who belong to him. But how can he help them from the depth of the tomb? And can you reflect without shuddering, on what will become of those young children, from whom you take away their father, their support? Do you not feel that they must fall into a career of vice?
In the Colonies, when a slave is condemned to public execution, there are a thousand francs of indemnity paid to the proprietor of the man! What, you compensate a master, and you do not indemnify a family! In this country, do you not take the man from those who possess him? Is he not, by a much more sacred tie than master and slave, the property of his father, the wealth of his wife, the fortune of his children?
I have already proved your law guilty of assassination; I have now convicted it of robbery!
And then another consideration. Do you consider the soul of this man? Do you know what state it is, that you dismiss it so hastily?
This may be called "sentimental reasoning," by some disdainful logicians, who draw their arguments only from their minds. I often prefer the reasonings of the heart; and certainly the two should always go together. Reason is on our side, feeling is on our side, and experience is on our side. In those States where punishment by death is abolished, the mass of capital crime has yearly a progressive decrease. Let this fact have its weight.
I do not advocate, however, a sudden and complete abolition of the penatly of death, such as was so heedlessly attempted in the Chamber of Deputies. On the contrary, I desire every precaution, every experiment, every suggestion of prudence: besides, in addition to this gradual change, I would have the whole penal code examined, and reformed; and time is a great ingredient requisite to make such a work complete. But indepently of a partial abolition of death in cases of forgery, incendiarism, minor thefts, et cetera, I would wish that, from the present time, in all the greater offences, the Judge should be obliged to propose the following question to the Jury: "Has the accused acted from Passion or Interest?" And in case the Jury decide "the accused acted from Passion," then there should be no sentence of death.
Let not the opposite party deceive themselves; this question of the penalty of death gains ground every day. Before long, the world will unanimously solve it on the side of mercy. During the past century, punishments have become gradually milder: the rack has disappeared, the wheel has disappeared; and now the Guillotine is shaken. This mistaken punishment will leave France; and may it go to some barbarous people,--not to Turkey, which is becoming civilized, not to the savages, for they will not have it; but let it descend some steps of the ladder of civiization, and take refuge in Spain, or Russia!
In the early ages, the social edifice rested on three columns, Superstition, Tyranny, Cruelty. A long time ago a voice exclaimed, "Superstition has departed!" Lately another voice has cried, "Tyranny has departed!" It is now full time that a third voice shall be raised to say, "The Executioner has departed!"
Thus the barbarous usages of the olden times fall one by one; thus Providence completes modern regeneration.
To those who regret Superstition, we say, "GOD remains for us!" To those who regret Tyranny, we say, "OUR COUNTRY remains!" But to those who could regret the Executioner we can say nothing.
Let it not be supposed that social order will depart with the scaffold; the social building will not fall from wanting this hideous keystone. Civilization is nothing but a series of transformations. For what then do I ask your aid? The civilization of penal laws. The gentle laws of CHRIST will penetrate at last into the Code, and shine through its enactments. We shall look on crime as a disease, and its physicians shall displace the judges, its hospitals displace the Galleys. Liberty and health shall be alike. We shall pour balm and oil where we formerly applied iron and fire; evil will be treated in charity, instead of in anger. This change will be simple and sublime.
THE CROSS SHALL DISPLACE THE GIBBET.