Jane Addams to the Editor of the Chicago Tribune, December 4, 1920


The plea for mercy to the young criminal who now awaits execution was not based, as the Tribune editorial of last Saturday indicates, on the ground of sentimentality but on a reasoned argument which has been largely formulated by the distinguished lawyers and statesmen who have from the time of Sir William Blackstone to the present day been engaged in the slow work of abolishing capital offenses. Space need not now be taken to review their arguments, but the attention of men and women in this country should be called to the [beneficent] provision now in the English law (Children’s Act, 1908), which provides for the commutation of the death sentence for minors. It is significant that on the very day when Governor Lowden was listening to the plea for the reduction of the death sentence of the young Italian, there arrived in Chicago the English weeklies of the date November 12, 1920, with an account of the reduction of sentence of an English minor according to the provisions of this law.

The London Times (Weekly Edition 12 November 1920), under the heading “Welsh Cottage Crime” recounts the trial of an English girl for the murder of her aunt under very brutal circumstances. The Times says that the jury found the prisoner guilty but with a recommendation to mercy because of the environment in which she had been brought up and because of her age. The Manchester Guardian (Weekly Edition 12 November 1920) adds that the recommendation to mercy and the substitution of imprisonment for execution is in accord with the provisions of the so-called Children’s Act, 1908, which prevented the execution of capital sentences on children and young persons. [page 2]

Contrast this account with that of a similar case reported in the London Times more than one hundred years ago, on January 18, 1801. The Times of that day tells how a boy named Andrew [Branning], a luckless urchin aged only thirteen ↑who↓ [having] broken into a house ↑and stolen↓ with some companions and succeeding in stealing a ↑a↓ spoon, was executed in accordance with the law of that day which carried with it the death penalty for stealing. A few years later in 1817 the biographer of Elizabeth Fry records her visit to Newgate prison where she went to comfort a young girl, [Elizabeth Frickler] and found there “also six men waiting to be hanged and seven young children.” Mrs. Fry was very vigorously attacked for being a sentimentalist and it was said by no less a person than Lord Chancellor Eldon that if hanging was abolished for theft, the property of Englishmen would be left wholly without protection.

It was exactly one hundred years after Sir Samuel Romilly introduced in 1808 his first bill to abolish capital punishments in England that the Children’s Act of 1908 prohibited capital punishment for minors. But in the meantime capital offenses which, when Blackstone wrote his “Commentaries on the Laws of England” numbered 160, and which during Romilly’s life had been increased to 220, had been reduced to two, murder and treason.

Reading the long history of the attempt to abolish the cruel punishment of the law by Blackstone, Bentham, and the great lawyers, Sir Samuel Romilly and Sir James Mackintosh, it is difficult to understand upon what historic precedent The Tribune [page 3] bases its dogmatic statement that executions make life safe.

The true solution was of course found by that great and practical statesman Sir Robert Peel, who boldly reformed the criminal law on the one hand abolishing scores of capital offenses but substituted on the other hand an efficient police system. The creation of that fine body of unarmed men, the metropolitan police, whose origin goes back to Peel’s Act 1829 has been and is the effective method of preventing crimes which has been substituted so largely in England for execution.

There are many better ways of making life safe in Chicago than that proposed in the editorial of December 4th.