CALIFORNIA AND CHESSMAN
by Richard W. Amero
There is no chapel on the day
On which they hang a man:
The Chaplain's heart is far too sick,
Or his face is far too wan,
Or there is that written in his eyes
Which none should look upon.
From The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde.
Now that Caryl Chessman is dead the public will breathe a sigh of welcome relief for he had become a sore trial to all.
The little man who cried so eagerly for his death will feel the biggest drop in spirits for in spite of his whipped-up vehemence,
he needed Chessman the way a religious bigot needs someone of a different faith or a white racist needs someone with a
dark-colored skin, in order to magnify his moth-eaten soul. The victim has had his immolation and his body has been offered as
a sacrifice, a butt, and a blood-cleansing symbol so that the community may be absolved from sin. In its own special, macabre
and morbid way, Chessman's death has accomplished the classic catharsis of Greek tragedy, and all of us who waited so
impatiently at its edges have had our momentary brush with eternity.
The man of ideas may not feel the spiritual vacuum of Chessman's enemies who will shortly be clamoring for the death of
the next sex fiend, arsonist, or what have you. But the man of ideas, since he is human and since he knows the awful complexity
of the situation surrounding the death of an erring member of society, cannot content himself with blithe optimism. It is to him
that Ralph Waldo Emerson's hope for progress and advancement is addressed and it is to him that the thought of perfected
laws and cleaner justice appeals.
"Is there a necessity that the works of man should be sordid? Perhaps not. Out of this fair Idea in the mind
springs the effort at the Perfect. It is the interior testimony to a fairer possibility of life and manners which agitates society
everyday with the hope of some new amendment."
Emerson, Lecture on the Times, December 2, 1841.
It is for the sensitive and far-reaching gaze of the man of ideas that Voltaire, the great foe of
hypocrites, wrote his terrifying words:
"Twenty years are required to bring man from the state of a plant in which he exists in the womb of his mother,
and from the state of an animal which is his condition in infancy, to a state in which the maturity of reason begins to make itself
felt. Thirty years are necessary in which to discover a little of his structure. An eternity would be required to know anything of
his soul. But one moment suffices in which to kill him."
Voltaire, Dictionary, article, "Man."
Victor Hugo, the great French novelist and a man wise in the ways of charity, spoke glowingly of a time when men will
abandon their fear of the criminal and when modern methods of rehabilitation will prevail:
"We shall look upon crime as a disease. Evil will be treated in charity instead of anger. The change will be
simple and sublime. The cross shall displace the scaffold. Reason is on our side, feeling is on our side, and experience is on our
Victor Hugo, quoted by Arthur Koestler in Reflections on Hanging, p. 163.
Victor Hugo's idealism may be misplaced today. It is not displaced, however, for though man en masse may be capable of
the aggressiveness of Germans or the violent actions of Iraqis of recent times, they are also capable of saner actions, given
more stable social conditions, a higher level of education, and enlightened leadership, as the examples of Norway, Sweden,
Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Italy and West Germany testify, all countries in which capital
punishment is in abeyance or has been abolished.
For the man who cannot accept the way things are done because that is the way they always
have been done, the search for better methods and more comprehensive goals is a guiding force. It may be naive to think that
the wisest have the victory, yet it is no mouthful of ashes to realize they come closer to penetrating the real state of affairs than
do their more easily conditioned opposites. These others cannot learn and cannot be expected to learn for they value
subservience to convention above challenge, official explanations about personal investigations, conformity to law above a
knowledge of the law's imperfections, and their narrow-minded minds above human magnanimity. To such small-minded beings
to whom charity is an obligation impersonalized into the Community Chest, Saint Paul's definition might well be gibberish. They
can as easily have an emotional experience as the next man, but to expect them to gain an insight into the destructive forces that
motivate them is like expecting Neanderthal man to understand the Pythagorean theorem.
To those who are perceptive, the death of Chessman stands inviolate in its immense finality.
Apart from the solemnity of death, there are the lessons which the living can extract from the sacrifice which Chessman and all
executed criminals have made to human meanness.
To acquiesce in the imposition of the death penalty because it is called "justice" is to give
"justice" a magical value which it has only in the minds of people who are entranced by the
invocation of words. Even during those eras when Christian churches exerted a canonical
authority over secular society, they have never considered that human justice is absolute.
The notion of absolute justice is a secular invention. When examined critically, it gives way,
for laws and justice, as they function in the world, are provisional. Totalitarian societies pretend that this is not so. They give to
their laws and to their administration of "justice" an absolute value which must be accepted unquestioningly. Statesmen, who
have wanted to give their acts a pseudo-divine character, have espoused this cold-blooded type of justice throughout history.
To equate justice with the death penalty is an attempt to make the punishments of men
absolute when from the standpoints of theology, ethics and semantics they cannot be so. For the death penalty is a final answer
to human misdeeds which are caused, in some degree, by
circumstances over which the individual has an incomplete control.
No man is absolutely responsible or irresponsible. Societal efforts should be directed toward
making people more responsible by instilling in them a sense of right and wrong. Children may leave their celestial home "trailing
clouds of glory," as William Wordsworth has said; but it is parents, schools, churches and welfare agencies who create
responsible and law-abiding people.
There is something wrong with society when children, instead of being exposed to adult
cultural and moral standards, are exposed to movies and television programs that promote
brutality and violence. A society in which sexual obsessiveness and dishonesty are the general rules is not the land of Utopia.
People are enraged that an offender fails to feel a sense of guilt, instead of asking why he should. The criminal's standards are
often those of his judges in their less sanctimonious moments. In fact, the line between criminal and judge is so tenuous that in
contemporary American society the poor and the African and Mexican-American pay the supreme penalty more often than the
white and the well- to-do.
While a man lives, he can atone for the evils he has done. Whether done out of a misguided
sense of moral equivalence or out of an attempt to usurp prerogatives that belong to the Deity, the exaction of the death penalty
is the supreme injustice. It overlooks society's responsibility for the deeds of its children and denies the criminal an opportunity
for moral improvement.
Nobel-prize winning novelist Albert Camus has stated:
"None among us in particular is entitled to despair of a single man, unless it be after his death, which transforms
his life into destiny and admits of a final judgment. But to pronounce this final judgment before death, to decree the closing of
accounts when the creditor is still alive, is the privilege of no man. On these grounds, at least, he who judges absolutely
condemns himself absolutely."
Albert Camus, Reflections on the Guillotine, p. 41.
The execution of Chessman exposes the flagrant condition of California justice before the
scandalized eyes of the humane world. Lawmakers who converted a system of justice into a
means to evoke mass hatred put voter approval ahead of sanity. Frustrated by the delays of the justice and exacerbated by
yellow journalism, people were eager to execute their victim. Their delayed longing for violence expressed itself in letters to
editors and in hangings in effigy of Chessman and of Governor Edmund G. Brown, who had granted Chessman a temporary
reprieve. In their primitiveness, these expressions showed the unsated blood thirst of people that could be quenched only by
the total obliteration of the object of their wrath.
Hold any man up to the people as an object of execration, and the majority will demand torture and death. With all the
talk of justice in Chessman's case, leaders of public opinion catered to the thirst of a mob that reveled in the letting of
somebody else's blood.
Chessman's execution focused attention on the problem of criminal punishment; but the
problem is not unique to anyone case, city, state or nation. Unfortunately, however, the drama surrounding Chessman's game
of cat and mouse with the State of California made it easier for people to react to his individual crimes than to the broader issue
of the function of law in protecting life and property.
If the purpose of law is to prevent crime, then it obviously fails. No amount of retaliatory law can stop people from doing
what they must do as a result of desperate needs or of blind
compulsion. The majesty of the law is not served by doling out pain for minor offenses or the death sentence for major. In
serious crimes, whose determination depends to some extent on subjective moral and legalistic interpretations, the alternative is
not death nor pardon. The alternative is the sane treatment of the guilty and their confinement to prisons or mental institutions
for their own protection and the protection of others.
At the trail of Leopold and Loeb in 1924, attorney Clarence Darrow asked judge John R.
"Will it (the death penalty) make men better or worse? I would like to put that to the intelligence of man, at least
such intelligence as they have. I would like to appeal to the feelings of human beings so far as they have feelings - would it
make the human heart softer or would it make hearts harder? How many men would be colder and crueler for it? How many
men would enjoy the details, and you cannot enjoy suffering without being affected for better or for worse; those who enjoyed
it would be affected for the worse."
No one can say with certitude that the death penalty by suppressing pity does not conduce to violence.
It is to Governor Brown's credit that at the moment when forces were joined he did not flinch. The decision to reprieve
Chessman just prior to his eighth encounter with death was the right thing to do. For Chessman had become a symbol for all
the unintelligent men who have died and who will die because society can think of nothing else to do with them.
That Brown recognized Chessman's generalized significance is open to doubt. But, as an
opponent of capital punishment, he shared Chessman's view that capital punishment was wrong. At the expense of his future
political career, he held to his principles. Neither Brown's nor Chessman's lawyers can be blamed because their actions fell
short of the goal. The obstacles they met were not those of legality, but of embittered public feeling.
Severe punishments appeal to people because they provide outlets for the criminal impulses
they purport to allay. Arthur Koestler concluded his study of capital punishment in England with the statement:
"There is a poisoned spray coming from Old Bailey which corrupts and depraves; it can only be stopped by
abolishing its cause, the death penalty itself."
Arthur Koestler, Reflections on Hanging, p. 169.
George Bernard Shaw, who favored the death penalty for those who are "unfit to live," was, nevertheless, appalled by the
sadism exhibited by its supporters:
"Our best consciences are still far more humane than our criminal and military codes; and the gap between them
can be closed only by giving our best consciences command of the situation. Otherwise we shall have what occurred in China:
an exquisite civilization in the
cultured classes whilst criminals were being sliced into a thousand pieces for the entertainment of a mob."
George Bernard Shaw, Everybody's Political What's What, Ch. 32, p. 291.
Though Governor Brown's political foes may criticize his action because of the adverse public response it triggered, the
excesses of the response itself, the intensity of the anger and the inadequacy of its reasons, have opened up fissures in the walls
of the anti- abolitionists who beneath all persiflage want to return evil with evil, horror with horror, and hate with hate. The
animosity thus displayed cannot fail to trigger an opposite effect. Inevitably reason will reassert itself. The issue of capital
punishment may forever be weighed in the scales of justice, but the motives of the people for and against can no longer be
subject to doubt.
Since politicians are not a high-minded species, it comes as no surprise that they followed
Brown's reprieve with a "Roman holiday." Forces of hatred are not forces that a vote-getter is going to overlook. Not when
capitalizing on these forces is going to mean the difference between victory and defeat. Republican assemblymen Jack Schrade
from El Cajon and Bruce V. Reagan from Pasadena promptly announced that they were ready to impeach a governor who is
soft on sex fiends.
Following the Governor's announcement of a suit to abolish capital punishment, the United
Press International Survey polled the Legislature. According to the Survey, the Assembly was nearly two to one and the
Senate four to one against the Governor. Even Senate Democratic Majority Leader Hugh Burns claimed that the Governor's
action had "let the people down."
Republican Assemblyman and House Minority Leader Joseph C. Shell from Los Angeles
carried the vilification of Governor Brown to its limit when at the State Convention of the
California Republican Assembly he recited a ribald poem attacking the Governor's morals. Shell provoked the Governor to
respond, "vulgarity by anyone, I think, is completely out of line and out of order," the only instant during the fracas when
Governor Brown lost his composure.
The fate of the proposal to abolish capital punishment was a foregone conclusion. On March 10, the Senate Judiciary
Committee held a one-day hearing to decide whether to pass the matter to the Legislature. Opinions of those aligned against
abolition did not change as the result of testimony from such foes of capital punishment as Clinton Duffy, former warden of San
Quentin, Michael Reardon, former police chief of San Francisco, Douglas Rigg, warden of the Stillwater, Minnesota
penitentiary, Joe Ball, former state bar president, Lt. V. F. Petermann, Michigan parole board investigator, Dean Robert
Kingsley, law school dean of the University of Southern California, Bishop Gerald Kennedy of the Methodist Diocese of
Southern California, Rabbi Irving A. Hausman and Bishop G. R. Millard of the Episcopal Diocese of California. The
Committee voted eight to seven to keep the bill for abolition from the floor of the Senate.
State Senators must justify their actions to their consciences. Appearing in defense of capital punishment, District Attorney
Roy A. Gustafson of Ventura County argued that punishment is the basis of California criminal law, not deterrence, reformation
or rehabilitation. District Attorney William O. Weissich of Marin County, who also favored the death penalty, countered
Gustafson's allegation by asserting that he would not advocate the death penalty unless he thought it deterred killing.
For a district attorney to advocate repeal of the death penalty would be like a Roman Catholic bishop advocating birth
control. Still supporters cannot dodge the fact that Gustafson's all-or-nothing statement draws the issue at a point where it
shades into dogma. The purpose of capital punishment is not prevention since, as Gustafson admitted, it is insufficient. Instead
the purpose is the carrying out of an invincible law. Man's aspiration to divinity is seldom so explicit.
If the eight legislators had any real thoughts in mind when they heard this testimony, they may have reduced them to
Gustafson's rote conclusions or to those of a committeeman who reported that thirteen robber suspects arrested in Los
Angeles said they used toy guns or simulated weapons to avoid killing anyone and the risk of the gas chamber.
There is a strange illogic in building a case for capital punishment on the statements of thirteen apprehended robbers as
opposed to the studies of homicide rates in abolitionist and
non-abolitionist countries by Professor Thorsten Sellin and by the 1948-53 Royal Commission on Capital Punishment which
reached contrary conclusions and to the fact that many criminals are neither apprehended nor convicted.
Probably some of the eight who voted against abolition managed to combine Gustafson's view with those of the
anonymous committeeman, a case of "Yes, it is" and "No, it is not." It was fortuitous that the majority view of the committee
coincided with public clamor. Acting as representatives of the vociferous majority and warned by the attacks on Governor
Brown, committeemen did nothing to endanger themselves.
If by their inaction, committeemen meant to endorse the proposition that punishment and
solely punishment is all that wrongdoers deserve, they have aggravated a dangerous situation. In spite of dogma, good and evil
are not taught by rewards and punishments alone, but by an inward commitment from the minds and hearts of men.
As legislators are aware, they do not exist in a vacuum. If not always capable of extended
thought, their constituents may be depended on for instantaneous explosions. The vitriolic
response to the Chessman reprieve was overwhelming. If only, Governor Brown said wanly,
people could be as intense about problems of education, highways and smog.
The California Poll and Research Company revealed that a majority sampled favored retaining the death penalty and
doing away with Chessman. Results of a television news survey in California and a "What America Thinks" poll conducted
nationwide substantiated the California Poll and Research Company's findings. Letters published in California newspapers
showed how determined people were to exchange evil for evil.
Some writers of letters to editors did not know what Chessman did to warrant the death
penalty. Others showed the writers did not know why criminals act the way they do? Because they loathed sexual crimes,
writers attacked Chessman, Governor Brown, and proposals to do away with the death penalty. Some writers exhibited a
sadistic delight in inflicting violence as great as any that they attributed to Chessman.
People who are unaware of the characteristics of the criminal mind are not helped by their
tendency to oversimplify the problem. The answer does not lie in catchall phrases. The average man's aggressiveness is
satisfied by watching wrestling matches. His sexual vagaries are confined to sex magazines and dirty jokes. His love for
violence is directed against socially accepted enemies like Russians and "sex fiends." There he can hate as much as he pleases
since understanding is discouraged.
Unlike the reasonably well-adjusted member of society, the psychopath possesses neither a
stable mind nor a stable upbringing. Consequently, the law-abiding citizen can understand
egregious offenders only through a knowledge that he lacks in experience. This lack of
background experience explains why there is such a gulf between the opinions of those who deal with criminals and those who
want to avoid them. People who have jobs and are relatively well off are not compelled by necessity to engage in crimes. To
these fortunate people, the methods that nurtured them seem to be all that is necessary. Professionals know that deprived
people living in miserable surroundings can never mature into socially adaptable people. David Bazelon, Circuit Judge of the
U.S. Court of Appeals, stated:
"For many people it takes certain minimum advantages to ‘learn how to be good.' With those who have clearly
failed to learn, it may be that part of the burden of social responsibility shifts from them to us, calling for something better than
"Adventures of the Mind," Saturday Evening Post, January 23, 1960, p. 56.
Governor Brown's statement that capital punishment stimulates crime is not a paradox, but a statement of fact. To
conventional citizens, a lack of inclination and the thought of capital
punishment may be enough to prevent them from looting, maiming and raping. If the threat of punishment is necessary for
law-abiding citizens to be law-abiding citizens, it is hypocrisy for them not to say so. Their talk about warning criminals is
wasted for the person they are most afraid of is the ordinary citizen like themselves. They put the execution of criminals to their
own advantage by using it as an example for their neighbors. Measured against such deceit, the criminal seems a tower of
honesty. There can be no doubt about what he is!
To the criminal mind the fears of punishment and death that control the minds of law-abiding citizens do not apply. The
mind of the criminal is more complicated, its methods of
rationalization more devious, and its quests for fulfillment more frightening. Sometimes criminal acts seem senseless to the
well-adjusted person. Yet often the results of the acts -- burglary, rape, murder -- are not the reason why they were
performed. Instead the wrongdoer was driven by a need to express hostility and to invite punishment. To such a twisted being,
the punishment he receives from the state, or sometimes at his own hands, justifies the acts he has committed.
In refusing to submit to a world of threats and sermons, the criminal exercises a foolhardy
form of bravery. In the face of warnings and of probable punishments, he values his rebellion as other men value their souls. His
desire not to give in to a world he hates, spurs the criminal on. No gas chamber, electric chair, rope, or lethal injection will
prevent him from playing the game to its bitter end.
The carrying out of the death sentence looms as the culmination of the demented courage
criminals have exhibited in their own lives. To punish such masochistic individuals is to give them what they seek and have
received from parents, law enforcement officials, and reform schools. They neither know nor can grasp an alternative. Those
who believe that the execution of criminals functions as a warning to potential offenders of what lies in store for them should
ponder whether warped and defiant criminals may already know where they are heading. Maybe the thought of their
deliverance is the grandest punishment of all. Thus, the senselessness of criminals is matched by the senselessness of a society
that has never reached them.
Killing people to prevent crime is a weak deterrent. It does not take into account the
motivations and conditions that produce crime. At its worst -- that is when society chooses to remember rather than forget the
murder of the guilty -- it becomes a spectacle of public
derangement. When people get the taste of blood, they go berserk; this all the way from
cockfights, to war movies, to admiration of gangsters, to contemplating the genocide of societal enemies.
This is what is meant when the execution of criminals is referred to as "the grim ritual of
death." This is what it is: a ritual and a sport enjoined by custom and accepted by people who are too apathetic to challenge the
institution and who enjoy suffering and death for their own sake. Society has still to understand the participation of Germans in
the extermination of six million Jews. The answer is not far afield: "We are all murderers!"
So long as human laws are based on primitive urges, so long as people enjoy the killing of
others, then everyone shares in the guilt of the uncondemned, the guilt of those who hide their bloodlust in self-justification.
Though the practice of legalized murder continues, it does not prevent the crimes it pretends to avert -- the crime of those who
refuse to accept the fact that any person's death morally and spiritually diminishes everybody.
Caryl Chessman asked repeatedly in his autobiography, "Why Chessman?" Until this question is answered society will
lack solutions to the problems of criminal mentality. Letters to editors that ran three to one against Chessman reflect more than
anything an unwillingness of the writers to concede that Chessman has any rights at all. There were letters from mothers who
anguished over his victims and letters from U.S. Marines who had ideas about the proper way of handling Chessman that they
were taught on the battlefield. In spite of the intensity of the contempt for Chessman from people, some of whom had no notion
of his history and a vague notion of his crimes, the question "Why Chessman?", or to put it more generally, "Why Chessmans?"
is still unanswered.
Chessman's youth fitted into a conventional crime-forming pattern. In his words:
"The story demonstrates that those who as adults violently menace society do not spring full grown from Hell.
They are a result of a complex called environment. They were young once and something happened to them.
"They gave and give society ample warning of what to expect. The danger signs are always
Caryl Chessman, Cell 2455, p. 311.
Anyone who is interested in Chessman's life should read his books. Though not literary
masterpieces nor the products of criminal genius, they describe the birth and growth of
delinquency. Chessman can teach his enemies truths that are more appalling than their notions of sex maniacs. These truths are
the unpretty stories of how the Chessmans got to be what they are.
Another man who can tell about the problems of delinquency with a compassion exceeding
Chessman's, is Father C. Kilmer Myers, Episcopal vicar in charge of the Lower East Side Mission in New York City. Father
Myers is in the forefront of a group of people from all faiths who advocate a remedial approach to juvenile and adult crime. He
has said repeatedly that youthful needs are not met because "it is easier to punish."
Speaker after speaker at the 1960 White House Conference on Children and Youth seconded Father Myer's views when
they deplored adult "moral sickness." "We have no time," Professor Abraham Herchel of the Jewish Theological Seminary of
America, said at this conference, "to help the needy, to sustain the sick, to offer companionship to the lonely, no time to offer
guidance to our children."
One of the causes of juvenile delinquency and its adult blossoming into criminal activities is the indifference of society to
the needs of those who suffer from human rejection. Too often people who could help refuse to accept responsibility for
others, or they satisfy themselves with nostrums, such as "Spare the rod and spoil the child," or "It's the parents who should be
whipped." This is pertinent today when legislatures throughout the world are considering more satisfactory solutions to crime
than the blotting out of its perpetrators.
Fair-minded people cannot help but be appalled by the cry for blood evoked by the Chessman case. As Governor Brown
stated, some of this lust for revenge came from the psychology of hatred which the Nazis exploited among their own people.
Not all the cry was, however, blind fury. Many mothers wanted Chessman dead to punish him and to warn others. Though
their answer of "Death to the offender" is understandable, it does not cure the psychosis that produces crime. Like everyone
else, the mothers share in the responsibility of finding ways to prevent criminal acts.
Slogans read in editorials and in letters to editors like "As you sow, so shall you reap" and "An eye for an eye, a tooth for
a tooth" are too convenient a means of dismissing personal
responsibility. The compassionate message found in Father Myer's Lower East Side Mission is not to be found in
misapplications of ancient shibboleths.
How then can we say, as have so many, that Chessman, or any man who has been consistently expelled, punished,
rebuked and, at last, expunged from human fellowship is not worthy to be classified as a human, but is instead "The slime of the
Is not the death of a man at the hands of society the end result and final expression of society's lack of understanding?
When a man who has never been touched by social kindness takes his last condemned walk alone, is he basically to blame for
his deeds, or, in some sense, is not everyone a sharer in his crimes?
NOTE: Having been found guilty of kidnapping with "bodily harm," and after eight stays of execution, Caryl Chessman
was executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison, California, on May 2, 1960.