The Right to Petition, ca. January 25, 1912

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The Right to Petition.

A month ago twenty-five citizens of Chicago sent a petition to the Governor of the State, requesting that the four murderers of Fred Guelzow condemned to be hanged on December 22, be given a reprieve until the life history of the younger men could be placed before his Excellency to the end that he might consider commuting the sentence of the minor, Tommy Schultz, aged nineteen, to life imprisonment. The Governor who sat in Springfield in consultation with the Board of Pardon also heard the request of the spiritual advisers of the condemned men, that more time be given them for preparation for the solemn end.

The Governor granted a reprieve of sixty days to the four condemned men who are therefore still under sentence of death to be executed Friday, February, 16. <1912>

The many newspaper comments upon this petition exhibit such confusion in regard to the actual facts and the intent of the petition itself that a public statement is deemed expedient by certain of the petitioners who are on principle opposed to capital punishment and who felt constrained to ask that more time be taken to consider, before the annals of Illinois should forever record such irreparable action. They felt that full consideration should be given to the <following> circumstances:

First, that not since 1887 have four people been hanged at one time in Illinois, and the very fact of numbers increases the brutalizing effect of capital punishment upon a community;

Second, that in many states it is not customary to hang a minor whatever his offense; that in this case the minor has been working steadily since he was fourteen years old, and had never been arrested before, nor been in anyways associated with criminals. [page 2]

Third, that the execution would have taken place sixty days after the commission of the crime, which is in itself so unusual, that it inevitably creates the impression of undue haste.

Certainly had the petitioners been convinced that the prompt hanging of these four men would have prevented other such foul murders as that perpetrated upon a defenseless, honest [gardener], none of them would have dreamed of suggesting a reprieve. It is obviously better that four men should perish than that such crimes should be permitted to continue.

But unfortunately the prevention of crime is not so simple a matter as merely following the rule of a life for a life, and the leading criminologists of the world are agreeing that capital punishment does not prevent crime, that it is slowly being discontinued throughout the civilized world, not only because it is constantly more repugnant to the moral sensibilities of mankind, but because it has proved futile as a [deterrent] to crime.

It is becoming increasingly clear in all the civilized countries of the globe, that the only successful treatment of crime is the inevitable apprehension of the criminal and the invariable administration of a reasonable punishment; that the administration of justice to be efficient must be sure and unerring so that arrest may follow a crime almost automatically. To instance the fact that three hundred Chicago murderers during the past year have entirely escaped punishment as a reason for the swift unreprieved hanging of four men is a reversal of this rule, and almost a substitution of sensationalism for [deterrent] methods. To permit a vicious gang to conclude that they have many chances to escape even although they know that if they are [page 3] caught they will be hanged, is scarcely calculated to deter crime of violence. Our neighboring states, Michigan in 1846, and Wisconsin in 1852, have wholly abolished capital punishment, without such experience in increased criminality as is feared by those who urge the hanging of these men is the only the [deterrent] of similar crimes; they urge this in spite of the fact that the condemned men come from the same neighborhood from which the notorious "car-barn" bandits came, who were so recently executed.

The signers of the petition were also moved by the fact that (the four men,) although born in Chicago, <(the community from)>had been reared in the heart of a foreign colony, many members of <the foreign [illegible] community from> which <the men came> believed that the unusual celerity of punishment had been due to the fact that the [defendants] in the trial had no money even to transcribe the evidence without which no appeal could be taken. Whether it be right or wrong, capital cases have almost without exception been taken to a superior court for review and thus at least a delay has been secured.

Certainly the most ardent advocate of capital punishment would agree that it is better that a hanging should be postponed for sixty days than that bitterness and suspicion of the administration of law in America should remain in the mind of a large foreign colony. Certainly before the execution of a sentence which was admittedly hastier than was customary time might be allowed for further scrutiny and explanation.

Although two of the four men had been born in Chicago, none of them had ever attended a public school, nor had they been subjected to Americanizing influences; they lived in the most crowded quarter in the city, containing the largest percentage of rear tenements, where the poverty is great and there are no opportunities for normal [page 4] recreation.

The right to petition is not only inherent in a democracy, it is as old as government itself. Last summer thousands of American citizens protested against the hanging of an Italian women in Canada, not because she had not committed murder, but because they considered the hanging of a woman to have a brutalizing effect upon society. Their petition was respectfully received and the sentence commuted to life imprisonment. In the same spirit twenty-five citizens of Chicago signed a rational statement of their conviction and sent to the Governor of the State a petition against the execution of a Polish boy who is still a minor under the law. They appeal to their fellow citizens to judge them with fairness and with respect for differing convictions.

It is sheer confusion of mind to consider swift justice sure justice; they are not necessarily the same thing, and when the administration of justice becomes intermittent it must proceed with careful dignity when it is most severe.