Peter Wimsey vs. Oklahoma Executions

A hanging at Tyburn "Tree"

A hanging at Tyburn “Tree”

So the state of Oklahoma, after having spectacularly botched Clayton Lockett’s execution nine months ago (you can read the grisly details here), successfully executed Charles Warner last night for murdering and sexually assaulting an 11-month-year-old girl in 1997. There is no doubt that Warner was a monster but I want to focus on what the death penalty risks doing to the rest of us. If we in America are going to continue killing people, we at least can take guidance from Lord Peter Wimsey on how to hold on to our humanity as we do so.

The book I have in mind is Busman’s Honeymoon, the last of Dorothy Sayers’ novels about her famous detective. Wimsey is on his honeymoon with Harriet Vane, only to discover a corpse in the basement of the farmhouse that he has bought for her.

The murderer turns out to be a particularly vile man and at the end of the book he is hanged. We learn at that point that Wimsey suffers deeply for every man that he sends to the gallows. In the past he has suffered alone, but now he has a wife to turn to. The two find a deep purpose to their union as Harriet comforts him through the hanging hour.

What strikes me about Busman’s Honeymoon is the contrast between Wimsey’s response and that of many Americans, who have become hardened and indifferent to executions. I remember how shocked I was when I heard about George W. Bush’s smirk when asked about not granting clemency to Karla Faye Tucker, but I have since come to expect such reactions. Here’s Tucker Carlson’s account of his interview with Bush:

In the weeks before the execution, Bush says, “A number of protesters came to Austin to demand clemency for Karla Faye Tucker.” “Did you meet with any of them?” I ask. Bush whips around and stares at me. “No, I didn’t meet with any of them”, he snaps, as though I’ve just asked the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed. “I didn’t meet with Larry King either when he came down for it [the interview]. I watched his interview with Tucker, though. He asked her real difficult questions like, ‘What would you say to Governor Bush?'” “What was her answer?” I wonder. “‘Please,'” Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, “‘don’t kill me.'” I must look shocked — ridiculing the pleas of a condemned prisoner who has since been executed seems odd and cruel — because he immediately stops smirking.

I single out Bush but there are tens of thousands—maybe more—who similarly shrug off, mock, or even celebrate our executions. Whenever they do so, they violate something precious within.

Peter Wimsey, by contrast, does all he can to maintain integrity. He makes sure that the murderer has a first rate defense lawyer, and he goes to see him to persuade him to make amends for some of the harm he has done. He also asks for his forgiveness. Ultimately, his efforts are in vain as the man responds by “baring his teeth at death like a trapped rat.”

Though the murderer forfeits the chance to reconnect with his own humanity, however, Wimsey never does. Here is his discordant rambling three hours before the 8 a.m. execution as Harriet holds him:

Three hours more….They give them something to make them sleep….It’s a merciful death compared with most natural ones….It’s only the waiting and knowing beforehand….And the ugliness….Old Johnson was right; the procession to Tyburn was kinder….”The hangman with his gardener’s gloves comes through the padded door.”

The connection between a Samuel Johnson observation and an image from Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol is confusing, but Sayers is making a sophisticated point. Our executions can be seen as more inhuman than they were in the days when they were a public spectacle at Tyburn. Here’s Johnson’s make executions private:

[T]hey object that the old method drew together too many spectators. Sir, executions are intended to draw spectators; If they do not draw spectators, they don’t answer their purpose. The old method was most satisfactory to all parties; the public were gratified by a procession and the criminal was supported by it.

And here are three stanzas from Wilde’s poem. The “he” is the one who metaphorically “kills the thing he loves” and so escapes hanging, as opposed to the man described in the poem, who “has got to swing” because he killed literally:

He does not wake at dawn to see  
Dread figures throng his room,
The shivering Chaplain robed in white,  
The Sheriff stern with gloom,
And the Governor all in shiny black,  
With the yellow face of Doom.

He does not rise in piteous haste  
To put on convict-clothes,
While some coarse-mouthed Doctor gloats, and notes  
Each new and nerve-twitched pose,
Fingering a watch whose little ticks  
Are like horrible hammer-blows.

He does not know that sickening thirst  
That sands one’s throat, before
The hangman with his gardener’s gloves  
Slips through the padded door,
And binds one with three leathern thongs,  
That the throat may thirst no more.

We hide our executions under a façade of humanity and science—although this façade was ripped away in Oklahoma’s “bloody mess” nine months ago when Lockett’s veins exploded and he writhed for at least 30 minutes before dying of a heart attack. Last night Oklahoma tried to restore the façade..

Back to Wimsey as the hanging hour approaches:

“[T]hey hate executions, you know. It upsets the other prisoners. They bang on the doors and make nuisances of themselves. Everybody’s nervous….Caged like beasts, separately….That’s the hell of it…we’re all in separate cells….I can’t get out, said the starling….If one could only get out for one moment, or go to sleep, or stop thinking….Oh, damn that cursed clock!…Harriet, for God’s sake, hold on to me…get me out of this…break down the door…”
“Hush, dearest. I’m here. We’ll see it out together.”
Through the eastern side of the casement, the sky grew pale, with the forerunners of the dawn.
“Don’t let me go.”

The light grew stronger as they waited.
Quite suddenly, he said, “Oh, damn!” and began to cry—in an awkward, unpracticed way at first, and then more easily. So she held him, crouched at her knees, against her breast, huddling his head in her arms that he might not hear eight o’clock strike.

Busman’s Honeymoon counters the horror of death with a powerful testimony to love where we experience our humanity to the fullest. Sayers ends the book with a stanza from John Donne’s magnificent “Eclogue for the Marriage of the Earl of Somerset.” It is her farewell (other than one short story) to her famous detective and the woman who is worthy of him. I quote it in this post on the death penalty because it reminds us how high we can soar and what we sacrifice when we lose sight of our inner divinity. The story of Tullia, daughter of Cicero, is that the funeral lamps were supposedly still burning when the tomb was opened 15 centuries later:

Now, as in Tullia’s tomb, one lamp burnt clear, 
       Unchanged for fifteen hundred year, 
       May these love-lamps we here enshrine, 
In warmth, light, lasting, equal the divine. 
Fire ever doth aspire, 
And makes all like itself, turns all to fire, 
But ends in ashes ; which these cannot do, 
For none of these is fuel, but fire too. 
This is joy’s bonfire, then, where love’s strong arts 
Make of so noble individual parts 
One fire of four inflaming eyes, and of two loving hearts.

Here’s praying that we never lose touch with this inner fire.

This entry was posted in Donne (John), Johnson (Samuel), Sayers (Dorothy), Wilde (Oscar) and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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