Out of the Hurly-Burly - CHAPTER XIII.

CHAPTER XIII.
AN EVIL DAY—FLOGGING-TIME IN NEW CASTLE—HOW THE PUNISHMENT IS INFLICTED—A FEW REMARKS UPON THE GENERAL MERITS OF THE SYSTEM—A SINGULAR JUDGE—HOW GEORGE WASHINGTON BUSBY WAS SENTENCED—EMOTIONS OF THE PRISONER—A CRUEL INFLICTION, AND A CODE THAT OUGHT TO BE REFORMED.

 

HIS is St. Pillory's Day. It is the day upon which humane and liberal Delawarians hang their heads for shame at the insult offered to civilization by the law of their State. That law this morning placed half a dozen miserable creatures in the stocks, and then flogged them upon their naked flesh with a cat-o'-nine-tails. It was no slight thing to stand there wearing that wooden collar in this bitter November weather, with the north-east wind blowing in fierce gusts from the broad expanse of the river; and one poor wretch who endured that suffering was so benumbed with cold that he could hardly climb down the ladder to ground. And when be had descended, they lashed his back until it was covered with purple stripes. He had stolen some provisions, and he looked as if he needed them, for he seemed hungry and forlorn and utterly desperate with misery. It would have been a kindlier act of Christian charity if society, instead of mutilating his body, had fed it and clothed it properly, and placed him in some reformatory institution where his soul could have been taken care of. But that is not the method that prevails here.

The gates of the prison yard were wide open when the punishment was inflicted upon these offenders, and among the spectators were at least two or three score children gathered to look upon the barbarous spectacle. Nothing could induce me to permit mine to witness it. The influence of such a scene is wholly brutalizing.

The child that has seen that sacrifice has lost some of the sweetness and tenderness of its better nature.

The whipping-post and pillory is a sturdy bit of timber a foot square. Eight or nine feet from the ground it pierces a small platform, and five feet above this there is a cross-piece which contains in each of its two arms a hole for the neck and two holes for the wrists of the man who is to be pilloried. The upper half of the arm lifts to admit the victim, and then closes upon him, sometimes very tightly. It is fastened down with a wedge-shaped key, shot into the centre-post. Beneath the platform hangs a pair of handcuffs in which the wrists of those who are to be flogged are placed. The whole machine looks like a gigantic cross. It is black with age, covered with patches of green mold and moss, and shrunken and split until the grain of the wood protrudes in ridges.

There was a time in the past when it stood, an instrument of cruel torture, upon the public street. It was planted in the green just at the end of the old market house, and there the criminals were lashed by the sheriff. Any of the old men who have spent their lives in this place can tell how, when they were boys, it was the custom for the urchins and the loafers of the town to pelt any poor rogue who was pilloried with whatever missiles happened to be at hand; and often the creatures thus abused were taken down from the stocks and tied up to the post, there to have their flesh lacerated with the leather thongs. They used to flog women, too. They flogged women in the open street, with their garments torn away from their bodies above the waist, and the gaping crowd gathered about and witnessed without shame that dreadful spectacle.

But that was more than half a century ago. Who shall say that we do not advance in civilization? Who can assert that these people have not acquired a higher sense of decency, when public opinion has compelled the removal of this abominable relic of barbarism to the jail-yard, and the performance of the penalty in another place than before the doors of the temple where a God of mercy is worshiped? I hope that the day is not far distant when the whipping-post and the infernal system that sustains it will go down together, and when the people of this State will learn that their first duty to a criminal is to strive to make him a better man.

They say here, in apologizing for the institution, that the punishment is not severe, because the sheriff never makes savage use of the lash. But it is a terrible infliction, no matter how lightly the blows are struck, for it is imposed in the presence of a multitude, and the sufferer feels that he is for ever to be known among men as a thief. The thongs do not always fall gently; the force of the lash depends upon the will of the sheriff, who may kill a man with the number of blows which in another case give no pain. I say that any law which places such discretionary power in the hands of an executive officer who may be bribed or frightened, or who may have some personal injury to avenge, defeats the true end of justice. The court should fix the penalty absolutely. They say here, also, that no man is ever flogged a second time. That is untrue. The same men do return again and again. Some do not; but where do they go; Why, to other communities, where they perpetrate other crimes, and become a burden upon other people. We have no right to breed criminals and then to drive them into cities and towns that have already enough of their own. We are under a sacred obligation to place them in prisons supported by the money of the State, and there to attempt to teach them arts by which they may earn their bread if they will. In such a place a convict can be reached by those philanthropists who realise what society owes to its criminal classes. But as he is treated now, it is impossible that he should ever lift himself or be lifted to a purer and better life.

Fallen angels in Delaware never rise again. Law clips their wings and stamps upon them with its heel, and society shakes off the dust of its feet upon them and curses them in their degradation. The gates of mercy are shut upon them hopelessly and for ever, and they walk abroad with the story of their shame blazoned upon them, as the women who wore the Scarlet Letter in the old Puritan times in New England, that all the world may read it. They know that their punishment has been fierce and terrible and out of all proportion to their offence, and they curse their oppressors and hate them with a bitter, unrelenting hatred. They know they will not be allowed to reform, and that the law which should have led them to a better future has cut them off from fellowship with their race, robbed them of their humanity and made pariahs and outcasts of them. They are turned to stone, and they come out of their prisons confirmed, hopeless criminals.

A certain judge who administered Delaware justice here once upon a time (we will say it was a thousand years ago) was a very peculiar man in certain of his methods. I do not know whether he was merely fond of listening to the music of his own voice, as too many less reverend and awful men are, or whether he really loved to torture the prisoners in the dock, when he sentenced them, by keeping them in suspense respecting his intentions, and by exciting hopes which he finally crushed. But he had a way of assuming a mild and benevolent aspect as he addressed a convicted man which was very reassuring to the unhappy wight, and then he usually proceeded to deliver a few remarks which were so ingeniously arranged, which expressed such tender and affectionate sympathy, which were so highly charged with benevolence, so expressive, as it were, of a passionate yearning for the welfare of the victim, that the latter at last would be convinced that the judge was about to give him an exceedingly light sentence. Just as he had gotten himself into a frame of mind suitable to the unexpected brightness of his prospects, the judge's custom was to bring his observations suddenly to an end, and to hurl at the head of the convict, still with that philanthropic expression upon his countenance, the most frightful penalty permitted by the law.

On a certain day, while a certain historian was in court, he was engaged in exercising a youth named Busby in this fashion. Busby, it appears, was accused of stealing seventy-five cents' worth of old iron from somebody, and the jury had found him guilty.

Busby was ordered to stand up, and the judge, permitting a peculiarly bland smile to play upon his features, gazed tenderly at the prisoner, while he placed a small pinch of tobacco in his mouth; and then, drawing a long breath, he began:

"George Washington Busby, you have been found guilty by a jury of your fellow-countrymen of an offence against society and against the peace and dignity of the commonwealth of Delaware, and I have now to impose upon you the penalties provided by the law. I am very, very sorry to see you here, George, and it grieves my heart to be compelled to fulfill the obligation devolving upon me as a judicial officer. Pause, I entreat you, at this, the very outset of your career, and reflect upon what you are casting from you. You are a young man; you are, as it were, in the very morning of your life; a bright and happy home is yours, and around you are the kind parents and friends who have made you the child of their prayers, who have guided your footsteps from infancy, who have loved and cherished you and made for you mighty sacrifices.

You have a mother"—and here the judge's voice faltered and he wiped away a tear—"a mother at whose knee you were taught to lisp your earliest devotions, and who has watched over you and ministered to you with that tender and fervent love that only a mother can feel. You have a father who looked upon you with a heart swelling with pride, and who gave to you the heritage of his honest name. Up to the time when, yielding to the insidious wiles of the tempter, you committed this crime, your character had been irreproachable, and it seemed as if the brightest promises of your childhood were to have rich and beneficent fulfillment. For you the vista of the future appeared serene and beautiful; a pure and noble manhood seemed to await you, and all the blessings which may be gained by an unspotted reputation, by persistent energy and by earnest devotion to the right were to be yours."

Here Busby began to feel considerably better. He was assured that such a kind old man as that could not treat him with severity, and he informed the tipstaff in a whisper that he calculated now on about sixty days' imprisonment at the furthest.

The judge shifted the quid in his cheek, blew his nose, and resumed:

"How difficult it is, then, for me to determine the precise measure of your punishment! Knowing that the quality of mercy is not strained, and that as we forgive so shall we be forgiven, how painful it is for me to draw the line between undue leniency and the demands of outraged law! Considering, I say, all these things, that are so much in your favor—your youth, your happy home where the holiest influences are shed upon your path, where parental love covers you with its most gracious benediction, where your devoted mother lies stricken with anguish at the sin of her idolized son, where your aged father has his gray hairs brought down in sorrow to the grave, where you have been nurtured and admonished and taught to do right—"

"Certainly he can't intend to give me more than one month," said Busby to the tipstaff.

"Considering that this is your first offence; that your conduct hitherto has been that of an honest young man, and that the lesson you have learned from this bitter and terrible experience will sink deeply into your heart; that you have opening out to you in the possible future a life of usefulness and honor, with a prospect of redeeming this single error and winning for yourself a respected name—"

"He can't decently give me more than twenty days after that," suggested Busby.

The judge, after wiping the moisture from his eyes and borrowing a morsel of tobacco from the prosecuting attorney continued:

"In view of all these extenuating circumstances, in view of the fact, fully recognized by this court, that justice is not revengeful, but exercises its highest prerogative in leading the fallen to reformation and moral improvement in view, I say, of the fact that you are in the very spring-time of your existence, with the vista of the future opening out with alluring brightness before you and giving promise of higher and better things—in view of those sorrowing parents the child of whose prayers you are; of that mother who guided your infant steps and cared for you with the yearning tenderness of maternal love, of that venerable father who looks upon you as the staff of his old age; considering, too, that this is your first misstep from the path of duty—"

"Two weeks as sure as death!" exclaimed Mr. Busby, joyfully, to the officer beside him.

"The path of duty," continued the judge, "and that up to the moment of the commission of the deed you had been above suspicion and above reproach—in view of all this," remarked the judge, I have thought it my duty, minister of the law though I am, and bound though I am by my oath to vindicate the insulted majesty of that law—"

"If he gives me more than one week, I will never trust signs again," murmured Busby.

"I say that although I am bound to administer justice with an impartial hand, I feel it to be incumbent upon me in this particular instance, in consequence of these extenuating circumstances, to mete it out so that, while the law will be vindicated, you may be taught that it is not cruel or unkind, but rather is capable of giving the first generous impulse to reformation."

"He certainly means to let me off altogether," exclaimed Busby.

"In view, then, of these mitigating circumstances of your youth, your previous good character, your happy prospects, your afflicted parents and your own sincere repentance, the sentence of the court is: That you, George Washington Busby, the prisoner at the bar, do pay seventy-five cents restitution money and the costs of this trial, and that on Saturday next you be whipped with twenty lashes on the bare back, well laid on; that you be imprisoned for six months in the county jail, and that you wear a convict's jacket in public for one year after your release. Sheriff, remove the prisoner from the court."

Then the judge beamed a mournful but sympathetic smile upon Busby, secured the loan of another atom of tobacco, spat on the floor and called up the next case.

 

Mrs. Adeler, you laugh and say that I have indulged in gross exaggeration in reproducing the sentence. Not so. I tell you that I have known a boy of thirteen to have that condemnation, couched in almost precisely those words, hurled at him from the bench of the New Castle court-house because he stole a bit of iron said to be worth\ seventy-five Dents. And I was present among the spectators in the jail yard when the sheriff lashed the lad until he writhed with pain. It was infamous—utterly infamous. I cannot, perhaps, justly accuse the judge who imposed the sentence upon the boy of indulging in the lecture which has just been quoted. That, as I have said, may be attributed to a magistrate who lived ten centuries ago. But the sentence is genuine, and it was given recently. I do not blame the judge. He acted under the authority of statutes which were created by other hands. But the law is savagery itself, and the humane men of this State should sweep it from existence.

 


 

Previous Next