Paul Jones uncovers how antebellum authors pushed for capital punishment reform
June 1, 2011
Scenes like these—and the social commentary behind them—were common in 19th century literature, says Ohio University scholar Paul Jones. Hawthorne was one of many American novelists, poets, and essayists whose writing reflected the public’s growing anxiety about the death penalty during this era. Jones details the issue in the forthcoming book Against the Gallows: Antebellum American Writers and the Movement to Abolish Capital Punishment (University of Iowa Press).
Paul Jones. Photo credit: Kevin Riddell
“Someone had written about every other reform movement of the pre-Civil War era—slavery, women’s rights, and even the anti-alcohol movement—and how literature had played a role,” but no one had penned an exhaustive review of the anti-capital punishment campaign, explains Jones, an associate professor of English.
Though public execution at the gallows was common practice at the time, some American politicians, religious leaders, and newspaper editors objected to what they viewed as a brutal relic of the European monarchies that had no place in their new republic. By the mid-1830s, anti-gallows activists had scored some key victories: New England and mid-Atlantic states began to end public executions (though hangings continued behind prison doors).
A few years later, the reformers started a campaign to abolish capital punishment across the United States. They moved beyond newspaper editorials, public pamphlets, and Sunday sermons and reached out to poets, novelists, and essayists. Writers ranging from the legendary Walt Whitman to the best-selling E.D.E.N. Southworth (the most widely read American novelist of the 19th century) took up the cause in their literature.
Anti-gallows activists made several arguments against the practice. Instead of deterring crime, public executions often worked the masses into a frenzy, sparking brawls, domestic violence, suicide, and even the torture of pets by impressionable children. And while some religious leaders supported capital punishment for its “eye for an eye” philosophy, others gave sermons that argued that the practice wasn’t supported by the New Testament and didn’t reflect Christian values.
“Even writers we don’t think of as religious—such as Walt Whitman—were interested in making these Christian arguments,” Jones says.
Whitman’s anti-gallows work hasn’t been written about much previously, Jones notes, because he explored the subject primarily as a fiction writer, newspaper editor, and journalist covering criminal trials. But even his much-celebrated poetry incorporated anti-capital punishment sentiments.
Whitman’s writing represents another central theme of the reformers’ cause: sympathy for criminals. Anti-death penalty advocates noted that individuals who wound up at the gallows sometimes were wrongly convicted or were “born to” a life of crime through poverty. These writers also argued that sympathy was the proper Christian response to these transgressors, and that sympathetic feeling had the power to transform the criminal, the public, and even the justice system.
Though writers of both genders focused on such sentimentalism, Jones devotes a whole chapter to the little-discussed power of best-selling women’s authors of the era. The prolific and popular Southworth wrote about capital punishment for decades, most memorably in the 1859 novel The Hidden Hand. Her stories featured sentimental depictions of criminals, both guilty and innocent, and characters who turn against the death penalty because of a formative experience with the convicted.
The Hangman, 1845.
Jones uncovered much of this archival material during a 2008 fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, which had preserved the “cheaper, more formulaic genre books” of the era that he couldn’t find at traditional libraries. “These books were very popular, and were kind of like the Harlequin romance novels of their day,” he says.
Jones notes that even the work of writers who were more ambivalent than ardent about the anti-capital punishment movement often reflected the debate. He includes Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe in this camp, even though some of Poe’s more famous works from this era, such as “The Black Cat,” feature disturbing imagery and the language of the gallows reformers.
The movement wound down by 1860, as the slavery debate and Civil War took center stage. Although the reformers didn’t eliminate capital punishment in America, they succeeded in moving executions out of the public limelight in the northern states, and three states abolished the practice entirely.
“I think that literature hitting those points over and over did have an effect,” Jones says.
While there isn’t a broad literary movement against capital punishment today, Jones points out that several influential contemporary writers such as Truman Capote (In Cold Blood), Norman Mailer (The Executioner’s Song), John Grisham (The Chamber), and Stephen King (The Green Mile) have continued to raise the issue in their work.
Katy Ryan, an associate professor of English at West Virginia University, says Jones’ book is notable for its ability to detail the anti-death penalty writings of well-known and obscure authors of the antebellum era while making a connection to these contemporary works. “It’s an elegantly composed and important book about a subject that has been neglected in literary studies,” Ryan says.
An interest in literature as activism fuels Jones’ scholarship. His previous book, Unwelcome Voices: Subversive Fiction in the Antebellum South, explored subversive writing that challenged conventional notions about slavery, democracy, and women’s rights in the pre-Civil War era.
And his latest book, Against the Gallows, doesn’t restrict its analysis to only fiction writers and poets. Jones explores the power of early journalists, news editors, and contemporary songwriters such as Johnny Cash and Steve Earle, who champion the anti-capital punishment cause.
“I think it’s gratifying that people think art can still do something,” Jones says, “even when people tell them to shut up and just sing.”
By Andrea Gibson
This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Perspectives magazine.