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“By the 1950s, totalitarian states emerged as the barbaric dystopias against
which Canada’s progressiveness could be measured. Thus, a lawyer representing
the Canadian Welfare Council appeared before the 1954 committee
and quoted at length from an article by Rabbi Feinberg, a passionate
opponent of the death penalty. “‘Our civilisation is challenged by communism,”’
Feinberg had declared. “’In contrast to the amorality of the Soviet
state … the western democracies claim that they are identified with ethics
and religion… .”’ It was not enough for states to operate rationally; in
fact, fascist states had shown what the apotheosis of modem efficiency
could produce. The rabbi feared that Canada would pursue a similarly regressive
course if it retained capital punishment: “’Once the Canadian
people begin to regard the state as an impersonal, inhuman, monolith apart
from themselves, the state ceases to be a servant and becomes the masterand
we are psychologically on the road to totalitarianism.’ ”

While only a few 1954 committee members advanced religious arguments
or made contemporary political observations, most critics of corporal
punishment and the death penalty connected retentionism with retrogressive
thinking. During an exchange with a doctor who had witnessed
executions, for instance, an MP asked whether he considered hanging a
“merciful death” or “an archaic way of execution.” The doctor replied that
he found it archaic. “And perhaps actually inhuman?” the MP pressed.
“Actually, yes,” was his reply. Such exchanges, in which old-fashioned
styles of punishment were discursively linked with less civilized approaches
to criminal justice, came up repeatedly in the Joint Committee’s deliberations.
Of course, imprisonment was “archaic” compared to modern therapeutic
ideals of healing and reform. But the death penalty, and hanging in
particular, had acquired a uniquely antiquated image by mid-century, when
many U.S. states had switched to lethal gas and electrocution. As one opponent
to hanging boasted, “We as a dominion have progressed too far in
the forefront of world leadership to retain this method from the dark ages.”
Thus, if Canada wanted to claim membership among the world’s most civilized
nations, then it had to confront the fact that retaining the death penalty by hanging appeared to leave the country with one foot in the past and
the other in the camp of dictatorships.

Lest it seem thoroughly out of touch with modem penal methods, the
Joint Committee spent much time evaluating the relative humaneness of
new techniques of death. By the 1950s, lethal gas and the electric chair had
been in use for decades and lethal injection, a technique that the 1937 committee
did not consider, had recently made its appearance. While specific
tales of bungled hangings were not the prime focus of the committee’s
inquiries, as they had been in 1937, witnesses in the 1950s spoke more
philosophically about hanging as a penalty whose time had passed. Furthermore,
like stone cutting or other trades overshadowed by the rise of
modern machinery, hanging seemed to have become a lost art by mid-century.
According to Toronto’s sheriff: “Shortly we may… find ourselves
in the position of having a considerable number of condemned prisoners
on our hands with no one trained to carry out the orders of the court.” If
amateurs stepped in, he feared that prisoners would be “tortured as they
probably were in the dark ages. .. .” Anecdotal evidence from various
wardens, indicating that some of the condemned dangled for as long as forty
minutes before dying, suggested that the incumbent “Mr. Ellis” was no
master at the craft himself. In contrast, witnesses mentioned that in England
hanging was still conducted as a trade in which newcomers had to train
as apprentices. As the Final Report noted, skilled hangmen could conduct
executions “with less anguish to the condemned person” than either gas
or electrocution entailed; unfortunately, evidence of bungled executions had
“indicated that hangings in Canada were not conducted with the same degree
of precision as in the United Kingdom.” The rope, a penal tradition
so passionately defended by Gallagher before the 1937 Death Committee, had become outmoded in Canada by the 1950s. Even the death penalty’s
supporters concluded: “hanging [is] regarded generally as being an obsolete,
if not a barbaric method of execution.”

 

If Canada was to retain the death penalty (and the Joint Committee eventually
affirmed its necessity), then it required a more up-to-date, humane
method. Technology promised to link modernity to civility. The prize went
to the electric chair on several grounds, the chief of which was its scientific
advantages. Lethal gas was actually the more modem method but its
humanitarian appeal, so great in the 1920s and 1930s, had faded in the aftermath
of the Second World War. Aside from its tainted association with
Nazi mass executions, gas had two significant drawbacks. First, chamber
leaks had exposed prison staff to dangerous fumes; second, evidence had
mounted that condemned persons typically struggled to hold their breath and
thereby suffered a long and agonizing death. The electric chair was hardly
foolproof either. Although this execution method had been used since the
1890s, accidents still happened: flesh was burned, hair was set ablaze, blood
gushed out of orifices. Perhaps surprisingly, such “repulsive” results did not
outweigh its potential in the Joint Committee’s mind to deliver death in a
humane manner. Members were impressed that two independent medical
experts, one of whom was a neurologist, determined that electrocution was
“the most satisfactory method.” In keeping with the psychiatric profession’s
enthusiasm for electro-convulsive therapy in the 1950s, expert medical
witnesses assured the committee that “a series of shocks of alternating low
and high voltages” could deliver death without distress to the condemned
or, just as important, to prison staff. As the Final Report concluded, “it is
the only method of execution where it could be established that unconsciousness
was produced instantaneously and that death was painless.” True, the
administration of massive shocks had produced some egregious results, but
the committee was optimistic because “experts maintained that properly
conducted electrocutions would not result in any burning or mutilation of
the body.” Electrocution thus offered everything a civilized country sought
in an execution method: it lessened the margin for human error; the executioner
performed his duty from a distance; and the condemned was launched
into oblivion in a matter of seconds, painlessly and tidily. Even Thorsten
Sellin endorsed electrocution as a highly efficient method.  

This idealized image of machine-like efficiency, so appealing in an era
when streamlining dominated architecture and consumer product design,
exerted a powerful hold over a committee in search of a perfectly calibrated
execution technique. Simple efficiency was clearly insufficient for Canadians
eager to find the most civilized way possible to put criminals to
death, however. Death could be countenanced as a deterrent, but only if it
minimized suffering on the part of the condemned and those assigned to
carry out executions. To proceed otherwise would leave Canada on all fours
with the most barbaric retentionist countries.”    

– Carolyn Strange, “The Undercurrents of Penal Culture: Punishment of the Body in Mid-Twentieth-Century Canada.” Law and History Review, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Summer, 2001), pp. 375-378.

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