In 1911, when the hangman finally drank himself to death, Ottawa had a problem.
Toronto native John Radclive had been Canada’s public executioner for years. Despite his habit of consuming quantities of alcohol that startled his hard-drinking contemporaries, starting a riot in Hull when he announced to a packed tavern that he had “come to hang a Frenchman, and hoped it would not be the last,” and “altogether expressed himself in ways that show him to be a person of coarse temperament,” he had reliably showed up at jails across Canada, built gallows where none existed and sent one convict after another into eternity, year after year.
The debate around picking Radclive’s successor underscored one part of the public attitude to the death penalty: While people, on the whole, supported the idea that murderers should be hanged, they treated the hangman himself as an object of horror and contempt.
“He is a necessity in our system, but he should be treated as if he is the hole in the floor of the gallows,” a Star editorial said of Radclive in 1900.
“Among all, the hangman is selected for opprobrium, especially by those who favour and support his function in society,” the Globe wrote ten years later.*
Starting in 1963, the death penalty fell into disuse in Canada – formal abolition followed in the 1970s.
Starting at the end of the nineteenth century, American legislators started to favour “scientific” methods of execution. States introduced the electric chair, then gas executions after the First World War, then, starting in the 1980s, lethal injection. All could be botched in their own new and horrible ways, and continue to be.
“Scientific” turned out to be veiled language meaning something else: wanting to kill someone in what appears as little like a violent death as possible. Much as Canadians distanced themselves from a punishment of violent death by scapegoating the executioner, Americans did it by trying to minimize the overt violence involved in the act itself.
Witnesses to lethal injections, when they go smoothly, often say that there was very little to see, which I guess is the goal.
When things don’t go smoothly, a paradox emerges: The effort to avoid overt violence increases the condemned’s suffering.
The modern United States, where reporters have free access to executions but executioner’s identity is shrouded, has different inhibitions from the Canada of two or three generations ago, where the hangman was a recognizable public figure but executions themselves were closed and secretive. (Reporters were excluded from Ontario hangings starting in the 1930s, since they would report on a botched execution.)
But as pharmaceutical companies refuse to supply drugs for executions and medical organizations refuse to let doctors participate in them, America’s lethal-injection executions have become almost impossibly complicated.
Lawyers for 55-year-old Joseph Rudolph Wood filed an emergency appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court while the execution was underway, demanding that it be stopped. The appeal said Wood was “gasping and snorting for more than an hour.” (emphasis added)
In May, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay to condemned Missouri inmate Russell Bucklew, ruling that “Mr Bucklew presented strong medical evidence – that the Missouri Department of Corrections failed to contest – showing the likelihood of unnecessary pain and suffering beyond what is constitutionally permissible.”
Mother Jones explains:
Bucklew … has a serious health condition, with a lethal drug whose source is being kept secret from the public. On Friday, Bucklew’s attorneys filed a motion requesting that a videographer be allowed to tape the execution in order to preserve evidence. Bucklew has tumors partially blocking his airway, and attorneys allege that there is “a very significant risk” that he will die “a torturous death” in violation of the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.
All that Missouri really needs to execute Russell Bucklew is a wall of sandbags and a handgun.
In April, Oklahoma used an untested, secret drug cocktail to execute Clayton Lockett, with horrific results. Mother Jones again:
Once the procedure got under way, it took prison staff almost an hour to find a suitable vein to insert the needle. That process was unsuccessful, so a catheter was placed in Lockett’s groin, in the femoral artery, a complex procedure that requires well-trained medical personnel who clearly weren’t working for the Oklahoma corrections department. The official timeline indicates that whoever placed the IV line probably missed the artery or punctured it, so the drugs that were supposed to bring quick death instead leaked into the soft tissue and left Lockett writhing in pain. The execution was eventually halted … Not long afterwards, Lockett died of a heart attack anyway.
(Dr. Jay Chapman, the Oklahoma medical examiner who designed the lethal injection execution in the 1970s, now favours a guillotine, calling it ‘the simplest thing I know of.’)
It’s a punishment of violent death – if you are going to carry it out (instead of making a principled decision to abandon it, which would be my choice), you need a method that is relatively merciful, and as simple as possible to inflict. That method may be much more overtly violent than lethal injection. There might be a mess. But there will also be a minimum of suffering.
That method may be much more overtly violent than lethal injection. There might be a mess. But would also, arguably, be a minimum of suffering.
If you favour the death penalty, but see shooting or decapitation as so barbaric as to be beyond discussion, you are long overdue to rethink your position.
Perhaps in seeking a solution, the U.S. public will discover the need for changes in this last resort of criminal law.