A Year On

On August 31st, 1889, a year had passed since the murder of Mary Nichols, in Buck’s Row, Whitechapel, albeit the newspapers were still dedicating print to the antics of “Jack the Ripper.”

However, another debate was raging in some sections of the media – should the death penalty be abolished.

This had been very much in the media spotlight since 14th August, 1889, when Florence Maybrick had been sentenced to death, having been found guilty at Liverpool Assizes of the murder of her husband, James Maybrick.

Another clipping from the Illustrated Police News/
The Maybrick Murder


A spate of child cruelty cases had also come before the courts, and some people were advocating that the perpetrators of these crimes should also face the death penalty.

It was against the background of these cases that James Payn penned the following article, which appeared in The Illustrated London News, on Saturday, 31st August, 1889:-


“It is no wonder that after all this stirring up of the Maybrick case we should get to the sediment; what lay at the bottom of the movement, we are now frankly informed, was an objection to the death penalty under any circumstances, but especially when a lady was in the case.

It is suggested that there should be a Salic law as respects the gallows, as in France in connection with the throne.


I am not at all in favour of hanging ladies, but I think that a Madame Brinvilliers or a Mrs. Brownrigg should be improved off the face of the earth by some means or another.

I don’t understand “the sanctity of life” of women who make poisoning their trade, or whipping orphan girls to death their pleasure.


The total abolitionists, who make any pretence of being practical in this matter, point with triumph to Switzerland, as the home of the free, as regards homicides.

But it was only a few of its cantons that tried the experiment, and some of them have acknowledged their mistake, and reverted to the old system.

It was found that gentlemen who struck at nothing (except throats) chose those localities for their crimes, and the inhabitants objected to it.

This proved the sagacity of that philosopher of our own land who proposed that the death penalty should be abolished in cases where the murdered persons were themselves abolitionists, but not otherwise, “just to see how it worked.”


The fact is that the sentimentalists of the gallows have no sense of proportion.

They have a much greater horror of putting miscreants to death than of the cruelties inflicted by them on women and children, which make the grave a refuge.

If the Whitechapel murderer should be caught, it is possible that they would abstain from petitioning that his valuable life should be spared (one is curious to see whether they would “stop somewhere,” as Charles Lamb declared Honesty must do in the case of somebody else’s sucking-pig); but they appear comparatively unmoved by such atrocities as have recently been revealed by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.


Mr. Benjamin Waugh, its secretary, gives us a list of convictions, sufficient, one would think, to convince most people of the devilish malignity that actuates our child torturers.

“The file used for the shoulder blades and spine,” and the hot pokers deliberately applied to the pit of the little back, are instruments which even the Inquisition would hardly have used to children.

The motives in the British parent’s case are the love of cruelty, or at the best because the poor creatures pester and cry so when they are being starved.


An English Judge has boldly and truly written that there are crimes far worse than murder, and deserving of, at least, equal punishment; and, when one hears our milk-and-water sentimentalists talk of those who commit them being “brutalised by the lash,” it makes one feel almost as sick as the recital of the cruelties themselves.

It is said that hanging is the worst use to which you can put a man; but wretches such as we are talking about are not men, nor (one hopes) anything like them.

It has recently been discovered that sus per coll is a good prescription for ataxia, but it is a certain remedy for an even more incurable disease – the love of Cruelty to the Defenceless.


I may add that it is also strongly recommended for those who indulge in the popular pastime of attempting to wreck trains.

The attempt is made about once a week, but, because the catastrophes are averted, nobody seems to take much notice.

Yet suppose even one should not be averted! Heavens!”