Orwell on Capital Punishment

[“As I Please” was a regular column in Tribune from December 1943 to February 1945 and again from November 1946 to April 1947.  The first article article is the first part of Orwell’s 3 November 1944 “As I Please” column, while the second is the second part of Orwell’s 15 November 1946 “As I Please” column.  The present titles were not Orwell’s, but were rather applied to the articles by Alexander S. Peak.]


Capital Punishment—Necessary Yet Horrific

George Orwell

Tribune, 3 November 1944

PENGUIN BOOKS have now started publishing books in French, very nicely got up, at half-a-crown each.  Among those to appear shortly is the latest instalment of André Gide’s Journal, which covers a year of the German occupation.  As I glanced through an old favourite, Anatole France’s Les Dieux Ont Soif (it is a novel about the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution), the thought occurred to me: what a remarkable anthology one could make of pieces of writing describing executions!  There must be hundreds of them scattered through literature, and—for a reason I think I can guess—they must be far better written on average than battle pieces.

Among the examples I remember at the moment are Thackeray’s description of the hanging of Courvoisier, the crucifixion of the gladiators in Salammbô, the final scene of A Tale of Two Cities, a piece from a letter or diary of Byron’s, describing a guillotining, and the beheading of two Scottish noblemen after the 1745 rebellion, described by, I think, Horace Walpole.  There is a very fine chapter describing a guillotining in Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale, and a horrible one in one of Zola’s novels (the one about the Sacré Coeur).  Then there is Jack London’s short story, ‘The Chinago’, Plato’s account of the death of Socrates—but one could extend the list indefinitely.  There must also be a great number of specimens in verse, for instance the old hanging ballads, to which Kipling’s ‘Danny Beever’ probably owes something.

The thing that I think very striking is that no one, or no one I can remember, ever writes of an execution with approval.  The dominant note is always horror.  Society, apparently, cannot get along without capital punishment—for there are some people whom it is simply not safe to leave alive—and yet there is no one, when the pinch comes, who feels it right to kill another human being in cold blood.  I watched a man hanged once.  There was no question that everybody concerned knew this to be a dreadful, unnatural action.  I believe it is always the same—the whole jail, warders and prisoners alike, is upset when there is an execution.  It is probably the fact that capital punishment is accepted as necessary, and yet instinctively felt to be wrong, that gives so many descriptions of executions their tragic atmosphere.  They are mostly written by people who have actually watched an execution and feel it to be a terrible and only partly comprehensible experience which they want to record; whereas battle literature is largely written by people who have never heard a gun go off and think of a battle as a sort of football match in which nobody gets hurt.

Perhaps it was a bit previous to say that no one writes of an execution with approval, when one thinks of the way our news-papers have been smacking their chops over the bumping-off of wretched quislings in France and elsewhere.  I recall, in one paper, a whole series of photos showing the execution of Caruso, the ex-chief of the Rome police.  You saw the huge, fat body being straddled across a chair with his back to the firing squad, then the cloud of smoke issuing from the rifle barrels and the body slumping sideways.  The editor who saw fit to publish this thought it a pleasant titbit, I suppose, but then he had not had to watch the actual deed.  I think I can imagine the feelings of the man who took the photographs, and of the firing squad.

Cruel Forms of Capital Punishment Must Be Eschewed

George Orwell

Tribune, 15 November 1946

THERE is one question which at first sight looks both petty and disgusting but which I should like to see answered.  It is this:  In the innumerable hangings of war criminals which have taken place all over Europe during the past few years, which method has been followed—the old method of strangulation, or the modern, comparatively humane method which is supposed to break the victim’s neck at one snap?

A hundred years ago or more, people were hanged by simply hauling them up and letting them kick and struggle until they died, which might take a quarter of an hour or so.  Later the drop was introduced, theoretically making death instantaneous, though it does not always work very well.

In recent years, however, there seems to have been a tendency to revert to strangulation.  I did not see the news film of the hanging of the German war criminals at Kharkov, but the descriptions in the British press appeared to show that the older method was used.  So also with various executions in the Balkan countries.

The newspaper accounts of the Nuremberg hangings were ambiguous.  There was talk of a drop, but there was also talk of the condemned men taking ten or twenty minutes to die.  Perhaps, by a typically Anglo-Saxon piece of compromise, it was decided to use a drop but to make it too short to be effective.

It is not a good symptom that hanging should still be the accepted form of capital punishment in this country.  Hanging is a barbarous, inefficient way of killing anybody, and at least one fact about it—quite widely known, I believe—is so obscene as to be almost unprintable.

Still, until recently we did feel rather uneasy on the subject, and we did have our hangings in private.  Indeed, before the war, public execution was a thing of the past in nearly every civilized country.  Now it seems to be returning, at least for political crimes, and though we ourselves have not actually reintroduced it as yet, we participate at second hand by watching the news films.

It is queer to look back and think that only a dozen years ago the abolition of the death penalty was one of those things that every enlightened person advocated as a matter of course, like divorce reform or the independence of India.  Now, on the other hand, it is a mark of enlightenment not merely to approve of executions but to raise an outcry because there are not more of them.

Therefore it seems to me of some importance to know whether strangulation is now coming to be the normal practice.  For if people are being taught to gloat not only over death but over a peculiarly horrible form of torture, it marks another turn on the downward spiral that we have been following ever since 1933.

Copyright © The Estate of Eric Blair