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October 31, 2006

A Halloween treat for the sentencing ghoul

Gallows This morning's Washington Post has this intriging article discussing a piece of sentencing history that is about to be available for early holiday shoppers:

It could be the perfect Halloween treat — or trick — for that person who already has everything else: a gallows.  About to be auctioned is the gallows that was built to hang anarchist labor organizers convicted in the Haymarket Affair in the late 19th century.  It continued to be used for decades to hang some of Chicago's most infamous criminals....

There were at least 40 hangings on the gallows, done in the hallway between cellblocks at the jail so other prisoners could watch.  Famous executions included those of Patrick Prendergast, a journalist hanged in 1894 for assassinating Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, and Johann Otto Hoch, a serial killer who used aliases to marry and then murder at least 50 women....

James Acker, professor and co-founder of the National Death Penalty Archive at the State University of New York at Albany, said most Americans do not know that hanging is still legal in Washington state and New Hampshire, as an alternative to lethal injection, and was only recently outlawed in Delaware. It is still a major form of execution in other parts of the world, including the Middle East and Japan. "Most people associate it with the Wild West," he said. "It resonates with the 19th century and cowboys, and there's also the very negative association with extrajudicial lynchings in the South."

Acker said he hopes whoever ends up buying the gallows displays it appropriately. "This could be a legitimate mechanism for preserving a bit of this country's history with the death penalty, so future generations will be able to look back on these practices and make whatever judgments they will," he said. "But there's also the risk something like this could be cheapened, vulgarized or marketed for whatever entertainment value it might have."

Jane T. Bohman, executive director of the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said she hopes the gallows auction gets people thinking about the death penalty in general. "It's interesting that this comes at the same time there is considerable controversy over lethal injection," she said. "The gallows are kind of a jolt from the past, when executions were public. Now we have this idea that they're supposed to be painless, which is also kind of contradictory since they're supposed to have a deterrent effect."

October 31, 2006 at 06:52 AM | Permalink

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