But for the grace of God…


“There but for the grace of God go I” a famous quote attributed to John Bradford (1510-1555) as a prisoner in the Tower of London upon seeing a fellow prisoner en route to his execution. This quote seems appropriate in introducing a recent acquisition to our library collection. 88 men and 2 women is the memoir of Clinton T. Duffy (1898-1982) during the 12 years (1940-1952) he served as warden at San Quentin State Prison in California. In those 12 years he presided at the executions of 90 condemned prisoners, 88 men and 2 women. Interestingly enough, Duffy opposed capital punishment and campaigned against it after leaving the job. In addition, during his tenure as warden he introduced broad reforms in the treatment of prisoners making conditions in the prison far more humane, but could not stop the executions. Commenting on this he said the following:

“I could get rid of the instruments of torture, but I couldn’t get rid of the instruments of death. San Quentin had its gallows when I was born, and it still has its gas chamber, which claims an average an average of about nine lives a year. Gallows, gas chamber, electric chair, firing squad, or whatever other ‘humane’ method of execution may be devised in the future, they all add up to the same thing. After months or years of horrible mental anguish, a person dies in a medieval torture-chamber setting often in a Roman holiday atmosphere while society, although trying to turn its head away and not look, condones it.”

This memoir is an interesting look into the life and conscience of an executioner who became acquainted with prisoners on death row, seeing them to their execution in the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison. It must take great strength of character to be able to carry out the job of the executioner viewing it as a job to be done and to go on with life as an ordinary citizen. Like Mr. Duffy, I oppose capital punishment and unlike him, I could not take on the job of executioner. Capital punishment was abolished in Canada in 1976, though the last hangings were carried out in 1962. Despite Mr. Duffy’s efforts to see capital punishment abolished in US society, it persists in the 21st century. I hope before too long this will become a thing of the past.

Posted by Geoffrey

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