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FIGURE 13. The front cover of The Execution of John M’Kean, for the Murder of His Wife (1807). (Courtesy of the Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries.) The Hanging of John M’Kean 215 sad branch drooping awkwardly from the middle of its trunk, and it appears to be lashed to the boulder upon which the devil plays—the image portrays how the devil and his cronies violate the natural order of things, disfiguring even nature. The top half of the image thus offers a didactic political lesson—literally a visual corollary to Annan’s worry about the coming “reign of chaos”—about the ghoulish warping of nature depicted in the bottom half of the image. Finally, by portraying the hanged in outline only, with no facial or other personalizing details, the image gestures not toward M’Kean himself but to any and all sinners in danger of sharing his fate. The image thus demonstrates the collapsing of the political and the theological into a damning indictment of sin.3 It comes as no surprise then, when the “To the Reader” note on the back of the title page situates M’Kean’s execution as yet another pedagogical moment from which the masses will hopefully learn a godly lesson: Ye votaries of Vice! You who are spending your time, your substance, and your health, take warning by the untimely fate of John M’Kean!! The sin of Drunkenness and Debauchery may, ere you are aware, lead you as afar as it has done him—Pause for a moment, and reflect the consequences of sinning against God and your own consciences. This passage relies on what I have called slippery slope logic, for it creates a “precedent slope” upon which sinning gathers steam, falling inevitably from drunkenness and debauchery to the gallows. This threatening argument is then followed by the confession that “this unhappy man denied having murdered his wife—but acknowledged having frequently beat her unmercifully. He died as he had lived, a hardened sinner.” And there’s the rub: just as M’Kean lived a wretched life of drunken violence, undeterred by the threat that the fate of men like Abraham Johnstone might someday befall him, so we can safely assume that the “hardened sinners” at M’Kean’s execution were not deterred by his hanging. In fact, considering the many cases I have recounted in this book, it appears that reflecting on “the consequences of sinning” is among the least likely responses to executions.4 Rather than prompting temporal thoughts about the logic of deterrence , both the cover image and text of the pamphlet suggest that M’Kean’s execution was meant to be understood not so much as an exercise in judicial logic or political pedagogy as part of a transhistorical struggle between 216 Conclusion good and evil, between the righteous work of God’s children and the hellish schemes of the devil’s henchmen. However, by 1807 the separation of church and state had been formalized, which means that sanctioning the state’s law as doing the work of God’s law was increasingly problematic. Perhaps this explains the rhetorical confusions of M’Kean’s pamphlet, where punishments for sinning are justified as fulfilling the secular function of deterrence. Moreover, if preventing pain and degradation was a genuine concern, then M’Kean’s neighbors would have intervened before he murdered his wife. Yet they waited until she was dead before acting and then justified their too-late-to-make-a-difference response in traditional theological terms, thus proving that their concern was not so much with stopping current crime or deterring future crimes as with making a sacrificial gesture toward a potentially Angry God. Having backslid for years, having been compromised by their proximity to M’Kean’s violence, having proven themselves slack over and over again, snapping M’Kean’s neck thus served the propitiatory function of reasserting the community’s commitment to God and authority. Regina Schwartz defines the biblical act of propitiation as “an offering to ward off divine wrath, to encourage the deity’s favor, to invoke his blessings”; likewise, Garry Wills describes one function of the death penalty as seeking “purification by destruction,” literally as cleaning one’s dirty hands by obliterating another’s. In both cases, propitiation amounts to a form of substitution wherein “an offering” is made, where one victim is traded for the sins of others...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781609172077
Related ISBN
9780870138690
MARC Record
OCLC
793947626
Pages
336
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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