Skip to main content

Capital Punishment is a Mockery of Justice: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on October 7, 1858


Rochester Union and Advertiser, 8 October 1858 and Frederick Douglass' Paper, 15 October 1858.
Few meetings better illustrate the breadth of Douglass’s reform views and the courage of his convictions than the anti—capital punishment rally he chaired on 7 October 1858 at Rochester’s City Hall. Over thirty area reformers had called the meeting to protest the impending execution of Ira Stout, a convicted murderer scheduled to be hanged on 22 October. On the morning of 7 October handbills appeared urging supporters of capital punishment to attend the rally “without fail.” By 8:00 P.M. “a promiscuous crowd” of perhaps seventeen hundred persons had jammed the hall. After Douglass, in the absence of the selected chairman, agreed to preside, Susan B. Anthony, one of the chief organizers, called the meeting to order amid a barrage of hisses and insults. A chorus of racial taunts similarly greeted Douglass, who, according to the Rochester Democrat and American, appeared undismayed and “stood his ground” with “smiling equanimity.” Although Lucy N. Colman recorded that “much of [Douglass’s] speech, so happily did he use his rich and powerful voice, was distinctly heard above the terrible noise of the mob,” the New York Daily Tribune’s reporter found that “it was only at intervals . . . that I could catch one ofhis glowing sentences complete.” and the Rochester Union and Advertiser apologized for its coverage by claiming that "it is a fair report, as far as it goes, and it goes as far as a reporter could be expected to get, in


such a scene of rowdyism and riot." Those favoring the death penalty also jeered the Reverend J. H. Tuttle and Aaron M. Powell before Douglass finally allowed Henry Hunter, their spokesman, to take the floor. Hunter concluded his remarks by offering a resolution in support of Stout’s execution, but when Douglass began to read opposing resolutions, another disturbance broke out. Douglass “persisted, and finally got through with the reading . . . in defiance of all attempts to smother them. " William C. Bloss and Frederick Starr attempted to defend free speech before the meeting adjourned around 10:00 P.M. The Union and Advertiser, which approved of neither the meeting nor the mob, commented that “Frederick Douglass & Co., were in their favorite element last night—they like nothing better than to be opposed in just such a spirit." Douglass objected to that charge and published “THE SUBSTANCE OF THE REMARKS” he had delivered at the rally in his newspaper of 15 October. Rochester Union and Advertiser, 6 October 1858; Rochester Democrat and American, 8, 9 October 1858; New York Daily Tribune, 11 October 1858; Lucy N. Colman to Garrison, 9 October 1858, in Lib. 22 October 1858; lda Husted Harper, The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony, 2 vols. (Indianapolis, 1899), 1: 165.
[Mr. Douglass] said he was not there by any pre—arrangement, but came in to hear what was said. He had supposed the people of the city of Rochester were sufficiently advanced in wisdom. in refinement and good manners to recognise the right of any class of persons to assemble peaceably and express their opinions upon any question which concerned them and the public. (Hisses and groans.) To this no good citizen could object, and if any had come here to-night to disgrace themselves—if they had come with the demon superstition working within them, let them put it aside—the sooner they got rid of it the better.
This was a humble effort to save the young man. lra Stout,1Marion lra Stout (1835—58), who claimed that he died “victimized, sacrificed, murdered,” was born in Wilkes-Barre. Pennsylvania, and “brought up in a state of unrestrained independence” in Ithaca, New York. An avid if undisciplined student of philosophy and literature, Stout as a teenager fell under the influence and supervision of his father, an expert forger. If there were “a single quality which has injured me more than all others," he wrote, “it would be adroitness with the pen." Stout collaborated in his father‘' schemes and became an intimate of criminals in New York and Canada. In 1851 the intercession of influential local residents initially resulted in the dropping of charges against him for burglarizing and burning a Pennsylvania store in the company of his father and others. He was later tried for that crime, however, and served over five years in prison, mostly in solitary confinement. Upon his release, Stout joined his mother, sisters, and brothers in Rochester. There he studied commerical law, mathematics, and literature at Eastman's Commercial College and lived, according to its president, a “correct, judicious and honorable" life until 19 December 1857, the “fatal night" on
which Charles W. Littles, Stout's brother-in-law, died. Soon after Littles's body was discovered in the Genesee River near Rochester. Stout and his sister Sarah, the deserted wife of the victim, were arrested for murder. At his trial the following April. Stout confessed to killing Littles but pleaded for mercy on the ground that the act had been unpremeditated. Unconvinced. the jury convicted Stout of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to hang. While awaiting execution. Stout recorded his final thoughts in shorthand, held interviews with sympathizers, and conducted a letter—writing campaign asking prominent citizens to petition Governor John A. King for a commutation of his sentence to life imprisonment. Douglass kept copies of the petition available at his newspaper office. King refused to intervene, however, and Stout, who attempted suicide on 13 October, was executed in Rochester on 22 October 1858. In his Last Writing, deciphered and published posthumously, Stout acknowledged that he “was the unwilling cause" of Charles Littles‘s death and had planned a cover-up of the incident. He cautioned, however, that “whatever is known [about the case], is known; but the rest shall be buried with me." Yet among the Last Writing's denunciations of his tormenters and of capital punishment, Stout accused his sister's admirer and “associate,” a Rochester man identified only as “Pimpy Snip," of being the “originator of the whole affair.” Sarah Littles, whom Stout both censured for betraying him and congratulated for “having got rid of a husband in a most unhappy manner,” was convicted of second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison. [Marion lra Stout], “The Last Writing" of Marion Ira Stout; Containing His Confessions, Revelations, and also His "So-Called" Principles of Philosophy and Religion (Rochester, 1858); New York Times, 22, 23 December 1857, 17, 18, 24 April, 7, 22, 29 May, 24, 29 June, 19, 25 October 1858; New York Daily Tribune, 22 December 1857, 11, 23 October 1858; Rochester Democrat and American, 16 October 1858; FDP, 22, 29 October 1858; Blake McKelvey, Rochester: The Flower City, 1855—1890 (Cambridge. Mass. 1949), 30—31.
confined in


yonder Jail, from dangling on the gallows—to save Rochester from being disgraced—to save a human being from being slain in cool blood. (Hisses and cries for Hunter.)2Henry Hunter.
If the meeting will come to order all shall have ample opportunity to speak. This meeting was called by those opposed to the gallows and by whom? (A voice—“Wimin”—laughter.)3Among the women who signed the call for the meeting were Susan B. Anthony, Lucy N. Colman, Amy Post, Deborah and Mary Bunke. and Douglass's daughter Rosetta (Rosa). Rochester Union and Advertiser, 6 October 1858. By the friends of virtue and order—the opponents of capital punishment. (Order, order, Hunter, Hunter.)
If any man here has a spirit of bitterness, let him get rid of it. Murder is not the cure for murder—lying and stealing will not cure lying and stealing. The old doctrine was: “An eye for an eye—a tooth for a tooth”4Exod., 21 :24.—but that was the doctrine of a by—gone age and generation. and not ofthis one of light, intelligence and reason.
It was said that Ira Stout was guilty—many believed it to be so. (Hunter—don’t you know it to be so?) The jury thought so, the community say so, and I am not here to impugn any man’s motives—but I will simply say thejury and even the community may be mistaken. But we are not here


to consider that question, or to debate that point: (sit down, hisses, Hunter—put in a white man—great confusion for several minutes.) A white man! There are some white men—(order, order)—the freedom of speech! The freedom of speech must be protected!
Who is afraid that lra Stout (white-wash him) can do mischief to life and property while confined in chains in yonder lonely cell! He is just as secure as if he were dead.Here the Rochester Union and Advertiser reads: “It had been said that he should be made an example of to warn others. Can any body want more vengeance on him than a life in that prison? He is already as much a warning and example as if he were dangling from a gallows. He is or may [be] a murderer (somebody moved that Mr. Hunter take the chair, put the question, and it was responded to by a loud ayes and cheers, but Mr. H. did not move.) You ask for his execution as an example—that example and warning will be just as good if he is confined in State Prison for life."
(But he ought to be made an example of, to warn and restrain others. He is already an example, In yon gloomy cell, deprived of liberty, separated from the activities of the world, with the trembling hope only of life-long imprisonment before him, he is already an example and a warning, a terrible warning, a more striking and telling warning than if he were dangling on the gallows. or being slaughtered by the axe. A man, so says DIMOND, in England was executed for uttering forged notes, and his body given to his comrades. What was the effect of the example upon them? Why, with the corpse before them, they were themselves seized in the act of uttering forged bank notes.
And the whole history of executions in England and in this country, plainly teaches this lesson that the gallows blunts all the better feelings of human nature, and stimulates all the bad. The hanging day is the high day for gamblers, thieves, robbers and murderers, and they do not hesitate to improve the opportunity even while the convict is dangling on the gallows in the agonies of death!
But he would still be within the reach of the pardoning power. I admit it. I admit that this power is liable to great abuse. But in the name of all things sacred—in Heaven and earth—must we hang a man for no better reason than that if we let him live he may be pardoned and restored to society? Is there no other way of preventing the pardoning power? Are we reduced to the necessity of killing a man to place him beyond the reach of mercy? What a confession in this of the impotency of the people. If the pardoning power is upon the whole dangerous and mischievous, the power is with the people. Let them change it; but for mercy’s sake, let not the fear that mercy may be shown be an apology for hanging. But I rose not to


detain the meeting, but simply to hear my feeble testimony in behalf of mercy. It is an awful and tremendous responsibility, to take the life of a human being willfully and deliberately. And if IRA STOUT, now living and breathing, and tremblingly hoping for the commutation of his punishment, dies on the 22d of October by the hand of the executioner, the responsibility falls heavily upon the whole community; and for one, I say now, as at the beginning, I would clear my skirts of the blood of IRA STOUT.5From Frederick Douglass' Paper, 15 October 1858.
We should consider this subject calmly and with reason, and above all we must insist upon free speech on this as on all other questions of public concern. Free speech is the glory and pride of American citizens. (Cheers.) He quoted Daniel Webster in his eloquent defence of free speech as a legacy to his children, amid much applause.6Douglass refers to a passage in a speech delivered by Daniel Webster in the House of Representatives on 14 January 1814. The Writings and Speeches of Daniel Webster, 18 vols., National ed. (Boston. 1903), 14 : 25. Mr. D[ouglass] said this was language worthy of an American Statesman. In France, in Germany, in other despotic countries, there is no such thing as free speech, but here in the State of New York under the Star Spangled Banner, free speech is our boast. The Constitution says free speech shall not be abridged—that all shall have a right to peaceably assemble and express their opinions7A reference to the First Amendment to the Constitution.—what good citizen in the face of that document will stand up and call himself an American while he tramples this right and this privilege under foot! (Cries for Hunter and for Tuttle8The Reverend J. H. Tuttle. and for “sit down”) Mr. Douglass sat down amid hisses and cheers."9The New York Daily Tribune reported: “Mr. D. having said all that he wished, or thought proper to say, appealed to the audience to know if they were in favor of free discussion. A deafening ‘Aye' was the response, mingled, as might be expected, with hoarse and malignant negatives.“ New York Daily Tribune, 11 October 1858.
[Remarks by Rev. J. H. Tuttle, Aaron M. Powell, and Henry Hunter.]
Here there was a dispute between Hunter and Douglass as to the reading of the resolutions of the meeting before taking the vote on either, and we are not entirely certain what was done first. All the resolutions were voted on and pronounced carried amidst much confusion and uproar. The Douglass resolutions are as follows:
Resolved, That life is the great primary and most previous and comprehensive of all human rights—that whether it be coupled with virtue, honor,


or happiness, or with sin, disgrace and misery, the continued possession of it is rightfully a matter of volition; that it is neither deliberately nor voluntarily assumed, nor to be deliberately or voluntarily destroyed, either by individuals separately or combined in what is called Government; that it is a right derived solely and directly from God—the source of all goodness and the centre ofall authority—and is most manifestly designed by Him, to be held, esteemed, and reverenced among men as the most sacred, solemn and inviolable of all his gifts to man.
Resolved, That the love of man as manifested in his actions to his fellows, whether in his public or private relations, has ever been the surest test of the presence of God in the soul; that the degree in which the sacredness of human life has been exemplified in all eyes ofthe world, has been the truest index of the measure of human progress; that in proportion as the tide of barbarism has receded a higher regard has been manifested for the God-given right to life, its inviolability has been strengthened in proportion to the development of the intellect and moral sentiments, and that conscience, reason and revelation unite their testimony against the continuance of a custom, barbarous in its origin, antichristian in its continuance, vindicative in its character, and demoralizing in its tendencies.
Resolved, That any settled custom, precept, example or law, the observance of which necessarily tends to cheapen human life, or in any measure serves to diminish and weaken man’s respect for it, is a custom, precept, example and law utterly inconsistent with the law ofetemal goodness written on the constitution of man by his Maker, and is diametrically opposed to the safety, welfare and happiness of mankind; and that however ancient and honorable such laws and customs may be in the eyes of prejudice, superstition and bigotry, they ought to be discountenanced, abolished, and supplanted by a higher civilization and a holier and more merciful Christianity.
Resolved, That in the opinion of this meeting, when a criminal is firmly secured in the iron grasp of the government, and on that account can no longer endanger the peace and safety of society; that when he is wasted and emaciated by heavy chains and horrid thoughts, and long confinement in a gloomy cell—when, as it is often the case, he is completely transformed, both in temper and spirit—the execution of the death penalty on such an one is an act of cold blooded and barbarous enormity, and is as cowardly as it is cruel, and that instead of repressing and preventing the horrid crime of murder, it really serves, by shocking and blunting the finer and better feelings of human nature, to undermine respect for human life,


and leads directly to the perpetration of the crime which it would extinguish.
Resolved, That the time to advance opinions and principles is when those opinions and principles are upon trial, and threatened with outrage; and that while we have respectfully remained silent till the ends ofjustice have been served in fixing the guilt of the criminal. we now come in the sacred office of humanity and benevolence, to appeal for mercy at the hands of his Excellency, Governor King,10John Alsop King (1788—1867), the son of prominent New York politician Rufus King, was born in New York City and educated at Harrow School in England and at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. Although admitted to the New York bar, King devoted most of his time to agriculture and politics after participating in the War of 1812. Between 1819 and 1825 he served in both houses of the state legislature. In 1825 he joined his father, U.S. minister to the Court of St. James's, as secretary of the legation in London. Returning to the United States, King eventually affiliated with the Whig party and, after several terms in the New York Assembly, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (1849—51), where he fought unsuccessfully against the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Staunchly anti- slavery, King was instrumental in the formation of his state's Republican party and served as governor from 1857 to 1859. In 1861 he was a New York delegate to the Washington Peace Conference. New York Tribune, 8 July 1867; Robert Sobel and John Raimo, eds., Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States 1789-1978,, 4 vols. (Westport, Conn., 1978), 3: 1088; BDAC, 1166; DAB, 10 : 394—95. on behalf of young lra Stout, and to ask that his punishment shall be commuted from being capitally executed to imprisonment for life.
Resolved, That punishment as such, is a form of revenge, wreaking upon the criminal the pain he has inflicted on another. wrong in principle and pernicious in practice; arises out of the lowest propensities of human nature, and is opposed to the highest civilization; that it has no sanction in the spirit and teachings of Christ, which everywhere abound in loving kindness and forgiveness.
Resolved, That rather than visit the crime upon the head of the criminal, thus descending to his level. we ought to place him in a position to develop his higher nature; and instead of descending to a spirit of revenge, and degrading ourselves on the one hand, and the criminal on the other, we should urge a thorough reform in our criminal laws—basing them on the truly Christian principle of love and good will towards man, and to reject forever the cold blooded and barbarous principle of retaliation.
Resolved, That a copy of the foregoing resolutions, and the proceedings of this meeting, be transmitted to his Excellency, Governor King, as an expression of the sense of this meeting, and that the same be subscribed by the Chairman and Secretary11Susan B. Anthony. thereof.


Douglass, Frederick, 1818-1895


October 7, 1858


Yale University Press 1985



Publication Status