Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
NGC3132 ©
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,
— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
ye need to know.

E = M

Energy is eternal delight.
William Blake

Impearls: May Day

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Earthdate 2004-05-01

May Day

Today is May Day, May 1st.  People in America are often vaguely aware that other regions of the world, especially Europe and leftist-impressed parts, celebrate May Day as the occasion for a pro-labor holiday, the equivalent of the U.S.'s Labor Day held in the fall.  Few Americans, however, recall that this day actually commemorates events which occurred in the United States, in Chicago, on and after May 1, 118 years before this day.

Fifteen years ago, three years after the centenary, I posted the progenitor of this polemic on the Usenet (aka Newsgroups).  Rather than emphasizing the labor aspect of this day in history, it presents the historic May Day as an abject example of the dangers in application of the death penalty by society, with the certainty that innocents will be executed in error if capital punishment is employed to any significant degree.  I believe this subject is even more pertinent today than it was then.

While discussing how many (not whether) people have been executed in error, “let's remember,” as Studs Terkel put it in an essay on the May 1, 1986 [earthdate 1986-05-01], MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, “the one-hundredth anniversary of the Haymarket Tragedy, more often remembered as the Haymarket Riot.”  Terkel went on: 1

On May 1, 1886, here in Chicago, a strike began against McCormick Harvester.  A number of workers were severely beaten up by the police.  Three days later, thousands gathered at the plant.  As the meeting was breaking up, uneventfully, somebody threw a bomb.  To this day, nobody knows who really did it.  Several policemen and civilians were killed.

In the hysteria that followed, four of the speakers at the rally were convicted and hanged.  Seven years later, the new governor of Illinois, John Peter Altgeld, pardoned the three survivors.  In an 18,000 word report, he condemned the trial — as a frameup!  Do you know what it was all about — Haymarket?  The fight for the eight-hour day!

For additional context concerning these events, we'll consult Encyclopædia Britannica: 2

Haymarket Riot (May 4, 1886), violent confrontation between police and labour protestors in Chicago that dramatized the labour movement's struggle for recognition in the U.S.  On May 3, six persons had been killed during police intervention in a strike at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company.  The protest meeting in Haymarket Square was announced by inflammatory leaflets but remained peaceful until a police contingent attempted to disperse it.  A dynamite bomb, thrown by a person never positively identified, killed seven policemen, whose companions opened fire.  Newspapers and police stimulated public hysteria; August Spies and seven other anarchist labour leaders were convicted of murder on the grounds that they had conspired with or aided an unknown murderer, with whom their connection was not demonstrated.  Spies and three others were hanged on November 11, 1887; another committed suicide, and the surviving three were pardoned in 1893 by the Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld.

One of those “inflammatory leaflets,” as Britannica put it, was visible during Terkel's presentation.  It read:

Attention Workingmen!
M A S S – M E E T I N G
TO-NIGHT, at 7.30 o'clock,
-----------------at the----------------
HAYMARKET, Randolph St, between Desplaines and Halsted.
Good Speakers will be present to denounce the
latest atrocious act of the police, the shooting
of our fellow workmen yesterday afternoon.
The Executive Committee

Just terrible, isn't it?  Now some will no doubt reply, “Damn anarchists, throwing bombs!  They obviously deserved it!”  I'd like to refer those people to the Britannica text:  “… an unknown murderer, with whom their connection was not demonstrated.”  Does society really want to convict and execute people in the heat of a public passion?  (I'm sure that if you were a speaker at a public rally, exercising your constitutional rights of free speech and assembly, and some stupid idiot or provocateur were to throw a bomb, and you were arrested for murder — you'd certainly want a speedy trial followed by quick execution, wouldn't you!)

Now, some may protest, “We don't mean to kill suspects that fast!  Plenty of safeguards would remain in place to prevent innocent folk from being caught up in the process!”  I'd like to point out that the executions in the above case, though occurring over a century ago with fewer safeguards, didn't take place until eighteen months after the bombing.  How fast is fast enough, but still slow enough not to execute innocents?

Answer:  zero speed is safest, because it can take a long time, sometimes forever, for the facts about a frameup or mistake to come out, but the slower the better, because it's no use apologizing to a corpse.  (Though corpses do have the distinct advantage of not complaining overly much about it afterwards — their relatives are a different matter.)  Many people really seem to believe the adage, “where there's smoke, there's fire.”  In my view, a comeback on this old saw (attributed to John F. Kennedy, I believe) is almost as likely to be true in a given case:  “Where there's smoke, you'll usually find someone running a smoke-making machine!”

In the frameup case we've been considering, it's nice that three of the men were still alive to receive the state's “apology” seven years later.  Too bad about the other four — oh yes, and the person driven to suicide.

No doubt, someone is now harrumphing, “Always safeguarding the rights of criminals.  What about the victims of today's killers!”  I'm very sympathetic to the rights and plight of the victims of crime.  My sister-in-law, in fact, a wonderful child only 14 years of age, was murdered years ago, and her killer, a robber, got off with a mere couple years in the hoosegow.  That's not right.

However, if an innocent person is executed by the state, that person is a victim, an entirely preventable victim, and we, society, are the murderer!  Nor can evidence in criminal trials ever be made perfect enough that fraud or mistakes can be ruled out in all cases.  After all, convictions in the U.S. occur to the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt — not, say, beyond a shadow of a doubt — and even if the latter were to become the criterion in capital cases, errors and frameups could still occur.  Murder by society can be prevented, of course, by not executing people.

It may seem like a poor apology to an innocent imprisoned victim when such an error is discovered many years later, but if prisoners are kept alive and not executed, one can simply extricate them from jail, dust them off, and send them on their way to live out the remainder of their lives — which is a whole lot better than the alternative; as I say, apologies are no use to a corpse.

One of the most pernicious arguments used purportedly in support of capital punishment that I've seen, however, goes something like this:  “We've got to kill them quickly, otherwise those [commie, pinko, liberal: insert one or more] judges will just let them out again to murder some more!”

This is absurd.  It's already necessary to modify the criminal justice system to institute the desired quick executions.  Why not change the system, since one has to anyway, so that murderers simply can't get out to kill again?  The reply is that the first is politically feasible, while the second is politically impossible?  Nonsense — it, the latter, is already happening.  For a number of years now there has been a clear tendency towards mandatory sentences, restrictions on parole, more conservative judges, and so forth, which have the effect of reducing and greatly delaying the return of dangerous killers to the public.

Some however (weakly) argue, “They might kill while they're in prison.”  Come on, I seriously doubt many of the people now stacked up in the nation's maximum-security death rows, for instance, get many opportunities to kill anyone.  If they do, those prisons aren't doing their jobs.  And if people do have opportunities to murder while they're awaiting execution, how does one plan on preventing the numerous people that one would put on death row from killing?  Execute all prisoners the day they're arrested?

Some, finally, may cry, “A hundred years ago?  That's ancient history!  Nothing like that could happen today!”  They're probably correct; such an event quite likely couldn't happen today — precisely because of the severe constraints, delays, and multiple levels of appeal that accompany application of the capital penalty in the present day.  But it's those very restraints that many people would now have us dramatically relax!

As to whether a hundred years is “ancient” or not — I'm pleased to have lived for more than a third of a century myself.  That time doesn't seem very long at all.  My parents are now three-quarters of their way to a century.  People now living remember those days, 103 years ago — it's not that far removed from our time.  Some would have us bring those days back!

Why don't death penalty advocates tell the truth — that what they're really seeking is just blood for blood?  If the answer is the truth would be bad politics, that's likely correct, but the pro-capital punishment rationale typically propounded in public is really quite disingenuous.

T. S. Eliot's penetrating wit is apt here: 3

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead; the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Advent of DNA evidence in the intervening years since this piece was posted dramatically reveals that I was being far too sanguine about how effective present day safeguards actually are in preventing false convictions, as this article a couple weeks back in the New York Times makes plain: 4  “Comprehensive study of 328 criminal cases over last 15 years in which convicted person was exonerated suggests there are thousands of innocent people in prison today.”

Beyond that, recent hints that executed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh may have had connections with Islamic terrorism emphasizes the point that even when guilt has been established nearly to “beyond a shadow of a doubt” in a given case, it perhaps still doesn't make sense to destroy the most important repository of information and evidence about that case — that is, the brain of the criminal, e.g. Timothy McVeigh — even though it also preserves the mind of a mass murderer.  Note that I wouldn't make his time in prison comfortable.


1 Studs Terkel essay, PBS MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, broadcast 1986-05-01.

2 “Haymarket Riot,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1974, Micropaedia, Vol. IV, p. 967.

3 T. S. Eliot, in “Little Gidding,” 1942.

4 Adam Liptak, “Study Suspects Thousands of False Convictions,” The New York Times, Issue date 2004-04-19, Late Edition – Final, Section A, p. 15, Col. 4.

UPDATE:  2004-05-05 07:00 UT:  Joel at the intriguing Asia-Pacific oriented Far Outliers blog has linked to this piece.

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