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Posts Tagged ‘capital punishment’

Broken on the Wheel

March 13, 2015 | by

A gruesome legal case turned Voltaire into a crusader for the innocent.

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The death of John Calas, depicted in an English chapbook.

This article was reported and written by Ken Armstrong for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal-justice system.

On the night of October 13, 1761, cries rang from the shop of Jean Calas, a cloth merchant who lived and worked in the commercial heart of Toulouse, in the South of France. The eldest of Calas’s six children, Marc-Antoine, a moody, handsome man who was fond of billiards and gambling, had just been found dead. The family said he had been murdered—perhaps stuck with a sword by someone who slipped into the darkened boutique from the cobblestone street.

A crowd gathered outside the front door as investigators were summoned. A doctor and two surgeons, called to examine the body, found only a “livid mark on the neck.” They signed a report refuting the family’s account of some intruder with a blade, concluding that Marc-Antoine, twenty-nine, had been “hanged whilst alive, by himself or by others.”

Those last five words, “by himself or by others,” began an enduring mystery and a true cause célèbre, one that might have been the “crime of the century” for the 1700s had the cliché been in use back then. Voltaire, the philosopher, dramatist and propagandist—“the greatest amuser of his age” and the greatest polemicist—became obsessed with the case, and for years worked to eradicate what he considered to be a stain on his country, church, and courts.

Finally, a panel of forty judges sat in Paris to hear the case against Calas once again. The verdict they issued, 250 years ago this week, “echoed and re-echoed” in Europe and beyond. Voltaire, by appealing directly to the people, helped established the power of public opinion as a tool to fight injustice. To some legal scholars, the infamous case also marked the first stirrings of the global movement to end capital punishment. Read More »

James Berry, Celebrity Executioner

August 14, 2014 | by

frontis

James Berry

From “Hanging: From a Business Point of View,” a chapter in James Berry’s My Experiences as an Executioner (1892). Berry was a renowned hangman in England from 1884 to 1891; he refined the “long drop” method pioneered by William Marwood, and once famously failed to execute John Babbacombe Lee, “The Man They Couldn’t Hang,” when the scaffold’s trap door repeatedly stuck.

I am not ashamed of my calling, because I consider that if it is right for men to be executed (which I believe it is, in murder cases) it is right that the office of executioner should be held respectable. Therefore, I look at hanging from a business point of view.

When I first took up the work … I made application on a regular printed form, which gave the terms and left no opening for mistake or misunderstanding … I still use this circular when a sheriff from whom I have had no previous commission writes for terms. The travelling expenses are understood to include second-class railway fare from Bradford to the place of execution and back, and cab fare from railway station to gaol. If I am not lodged in the gaol, hotel expenses are also allowed. Read More »

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