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  • “I put my fingers around my throat and squeezed it, to know how it feels”: Antigallows Sentimentalism and E. D. E. N. Southworth’s The Hidden Hand
  • Paul Christian Jones

Although it has gone unacknowledged in literary studies, it is quite likely that E. D. E. N. Southworth wrote more about the death penalty than any other American novelist in the nineteenth century. In many of her best-selling works, Southworth offers her readers plots that illustrate the injustice, immorality, and inefficacy of capital punishment and that argue for its abolition through their sentimental depictions of characters—both guilty and innocent— facing the gallows. In this essay, I explore the role that Southworth’s fiction played in this reform effort in order to make two central observations. First, I argue that Southworth’s fiction demonstrates how the common sentimental arguments used by the movement against capital punishment could be incorporated into such popular narratives. For example, Southworth repeatedly depicts characters moving from apathy about or even support of the death penalty to active opposition to it because of a sympathetic experience with a condemned figure, dramatizing many of the arguments made by antigallows reformers and attempting to effect a similar change in her audience. Second, I assert that recognizing Southworth’s serious interest in this subject will provide scholars new insight into her most famous work, The Hidden Hand, which I read here as her most sophisticated foray into the debate over the death penalty, one in which she imagines not just citizens being transformed by sentimentalism, but rather the justice system itself, the State, becoming a sentimentalized subject—a subject, moreover, that, because of its strong emotional identification with the condemned, rejects capital punishment as immoral and unjust.

The movement against the death penalty in nineteenth-century America [End Page 41] reached its height in the 1840s, as Southworth was beginning her literary career. Though public opposition to capital punishment existed as early as the eighteenth century, organized opposition to executions (part of the era’s broader reform efforts) did not arise until the 1830s. A national society for the abolition of the death penalty and local societies in each state aggressively pursued change in capital punishment laws by lobbying legislatures, circulating petitions, and publishing pamphlets and books. Antigallows writers and editors, such as John L. O’Sullivan, Charles Spear, and Robert Rantoul, became nationally known for their strident opposition to capital punishment. These reformers were able, in the decade or so of the movement’s heyday, to achieve substantial progress, reducing the number of crimes that were considered capital, ending public executions in most states, and abolishing the death penalty in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Rhode Island.

Arguments against the gallows assumed a number of forms, but generally follow one of two forms: logical challenges to the efficacy of the death penalty and sympathetic appeals on behalf of the condemned. Most arguments fall into the first group. Reformers argued that capital punishment was ineffective: It did not deter crime; it provoked additional crime (due to the effect of public executions on observers); and it was responsible for the deaths of innocent people. The arguments that departed from this approach asked citizens to think, instead, about the souls of condemned men and women—to consider whether reforming criminals rather than murdering them should be the object of society and its laws. For example, O’Sullivan, emphasizing “the future state of the soul,” noted that

the future happiness or misery of the human spirit depends upon the character it sustains when it leaves the present state of being, which . . . ought to prevent our so punishing the crime of murder, as to produce or risk such irretrievably awful results, since souls are of equal value in the sight of God, and at his disposal only. . . . By what authority do we limit the space ordained by the Almighty, to exemplify the triumphs of divine grace?


Similarly, Spear valued the humanity of “the criminal [who], though debased, yet is a man and a brother; and, as such, deserves human sympathy” (1). He laments that, in the practice of the death penalty, “reformation of the offender is entirely overlooked”; he proposes that “society, instead...


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