Hanging Concentrates the Mind

Capital punishment does not inspire roaring humor in healthy minds, so wit on the subject tends to be sardonic.  Two of the most famous examples, of course, are: “In this country it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others,”  and “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

The first, “pour encourager les autres,”  is in “Candide” where Voltaire alludes to the death by firing squad of Admiral John Byng in 1757 for having let Mincorca fall to the French.  The second was Samuel Johnson’s response to the hanging of an Anglican clergyman and royal chaplain William Dodd for a loan scam.  Byng’s death was the last instance of shooting an officer for incompetence, while Dodd’s was the last hanging at Tyburn for forgery. Dodd’s unsuccessful appeal for clemency was ghostwritten by Dr. Johnson.

It is not my concern here to take a position on capital punishment which the Catechism (# 2266) acknowledges is not an intrinsic evil and is rightly part of the state’s authority. This is nuanced by the same Catechism’s proposition that its use  today would be “rare, if not practically non-existent. (#2267)”  As a highly unusual insertion of a prudential opinion in a catechetical formula, this would seem to be more mercurial in application than the doctrine of the legitimacy of the death penalty.  What is oddly lacking, however, is reference to capital punishment as medicinal as well as punitive. Tradition has understood that the spiritual aspect of the death penalty is to “concentrate the mind” so that the victim dies in a state of grace.  Simply put, the less I believe heartily in eternal life, the more disheartened I shall be about entering “a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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That finale to “A Tale of Two Cities” appeared thirteen years after “Pictures from Italy” in which Dickens described an execution he watched in Rome during the pontificate of Gregory XVI with its chaotic judicial system: “It was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle, meaning nothing but butchery,” But Dickens noted the presence of monks accompanied by trumpets  holding a crucifix draped in black before the twenty-six year old highwayman who had killed a Bavarian countess making a pilgrimage to Rome.   The execution was delayed until murderer’s wife was brought to him and he at last received absolution.  Back in London three years after writing that account, he witnessed in  Southwark the hanging of Fredrick and Marie Manning, the last husband and wife jointly to be executed in England. His reaction was similar to that in Rome save that he thought the crowd of 30,000 more unruly and there was no mention of a religious tone.

In Rome in 1817, Pius VII reigning, Lord Byron saw three robbers beheaded in the Piazza del Popolo, and he  also noted the priests attending those about to die, with banners and prayers in procession. The swift fall of the guillotine was preferable to the “vulgar and ungentlemanly” gallows in England.  Although Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin had promoted the use of the “Guillotine,” first called the “Louisson,” for its relative painlessness, a precursor was in use in Edinburgh in the mid sixteenth century. Regarded as a humane improvement, it was common in many European countries and was used in the Papal States for 369 executions from 1814 to 1870. Giovanni Battista Bugatti was the official papal executioner from 1796 to 1865, having used an axe before the French introduced the guillotine during their occupation of Rome. Under papal rule, there were three normal sites for executions: the Piazza di Ponte Angelo, Piazzo del Popolo, and Via del Cerchi.  Shooting was a common form of punishment in the brief Austrian receivership of Rome under the Hapsburg Queen Maria Carolina.  Thus we have the firing squad scene in the last act of  “Tosca.”  While the harshest punishment, hanging and drawing and quartering, is often thought of as peculiar to England, it was more common in the Papal States. The last to be killed that way in England were some Jacobite officers in 1745. The sentence was imposed  on several Chartist rioters in 1839 but they were given the option of transportation to Australia, which they accepted.  When the pope regained possession of the Papal States in 1814, hanging, drawing and quartering was imposed eleven times until it ended in 1817.  For particularly heinous crimes, crushing the head with a mallet, the “mazzatello” continued until 1870.

The nickname of the papal executioner Bugatti was Mastro Titta,  a slang for Master of Justice (Maestro di Giustizia.)  He wore a red cloak and showed ceremonial deference to his victims. Pope Pius IX let him retire at the age of 85 with a considerable pension. This pope, beatified by John Paul II in 2000, was unflinching in the importance with which he invested public executions as an “encouragement” to others. On June 12, 1855 a deranged hat maker and political subversive  named Anotonio De Felici chased the Cardinal Secretary of State with a large fork. Cardinal Antonelli escaped unscathed and appealed to the Pope to commute the sentence from beheading to life imprisonment on the grounds of the man’s mental imbalance but was refused. Mastro Titta had been retired four years and replaced by his apprentice Antonio Balducci when the final executions in Rome took place on November 24, 1868.  Giuseppe Monti and Gaetano Tognetti had been convicted to killing twenty-five Zouave soldiers in the Borgo. The executions ceased, not out of any policy of penal reform, but because of the loss of the Papal States.  Agatino Bellomo was the last to be executed in the Papal States, in Palestrina, on July 9, 1870.  When Blessed Pius IX was asked to grant a stay of execution for those condemned in 1868, the Pope firmly replied, “I cannot, and I do not want to.”  He certainly could have by law, which he embodied as state sovereign with ”plenitudo potestatis,”  but by enigmatically saying that he could not, he probably was declaring this a high matter of conscience in the interest of Augustinian tranquility of order as explained by such as Bellarmine, Liguori, Thomas More and Suarez.

When a papal butler was recently arrested, many were surprised that the Vatican City even had a jail. The Lateran treaty of 1929 provided for the execution of anyone attempting to assassinate  the Pope within the Vatican.  In 1969 capital punishment was quietly removed from the “fundamental law” of the Vatican, without comment and only in Latin,  and did not come to public attention until 1971.

The grandson of St. Elizabeth Anne Seton,  Archbishop Robert Seton, long-lived but less loved, wrote that during the course of a holiday in France as a boy, the ceremonious spectacle of a man being beheaded inspired him greatly to think of the dignity of life.  He was especially close to Leo XIII and St. Pius X who in 1905 reiterated the Roman Catechism of St. Pius V with reference to capital punishment:  “Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment (to do no murder) such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it. For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life.”

The medicinal reason for inflicting punishment, goes beyond preventing the criminal from repeating his crime and protecting society, to encouraging the guilty to repent and die in a state of grace. The vindictive reasoning also has this interest in mind: for by expiating the disorder caused by the crime, the moral debt of the guilty is lessened. In the early years of the nineteenth century, St. Vincent Pallotti frequently assisted the condemned to the scaffold, as St. Catherine had done in Siena. He was edified by the many holy deaths he saw, while helping the Archfraternity of San Giovanni, under the patronage of his friend the English Cardinal Acton.  Headquartered in the Church of San Giovanni Decollato (St. John the Beheaded),  their rule  was to urge the condemned to a good confession, followed by an exhortation and Holy Communion followed by the grant of a plenary indulgence.  The whole population of Rome was instructed to fast and pray for the intention of the criminal’s soul.

All other considerations of the machinery of death aside, this paramount regard for the human soul is quaint only if belief in eternal life is vague. Pope Pius XII was so eager for vindictive penalties that he lent the help of a Jesuit archivist to assist the prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials. He personally told the chief United States prosecutor, Robert Jackson:  “Not only do we approve of the trial, but we desire that the guilty be punished as quickly as possible.”  This was not in spite of, but issuing from, his understanding of the dual role of healing and vindication.  All this should not be remaindered as historical curiosities, for, as Pope Pius XII said, “the coercive power of legitimate human authority” has its roots in “the sources of revelation and traditional doctrine” and so it must not be said “that these sources only contain ideas which are conditioned by historical circumstances” for they have “a general and abiding validity.” (Acta Apostolica Sedis, 1955, pp.81-82).

Editor’s note: The image above is a painting by Richard Bridgens entitled “An Execution in Rome for Murder, 1820.”


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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