Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer and an assistant professor at the John Lay College of Criminal Justice in New York, wants to bring back flogging as a punishment for some crimes. On the other hand, an 1884 Winnipeg incident should demonstrate to proponents of the lash that a return to such a punishment is more likely to be regarded as a step backward to a more “barbarous” past.
Moskos argues in his book, In Defense of Flogging, that the present punishment system in the U.S. is an abject failure and profoundly stupid. Instead of massive imprisonment, a better deterrent for some offenses would be flogging. With an incarceration rate many times higher than other countries, it’s no wonder that some Americans are casting about for any solution to a growing problem. In the U.S., there are 2.3-million prisoners, which is more than one per cent of the nation’s adult population and seven times Canada’s rate. Even Communist China, noted for throwing people into jail for merely criticizing the government, imprisons fewer people.
“We have more prisoners than soldiers,” wrote Moskos in a June 15 article for the Washington Post. “Something has gone terribly wrong ...”
Moskos’ solution: “Bring back the lash. Give convicts the choice of flogging in lieu of incarceration.” Of course, not all convicts would be eligible for the option of the lash to lessen their sentences. Moskos said some prisoners are simply too dangerous, including “pedophiles, terrorists and the truly psychopathic.”
To make his case, Moskos uses the example of other countries, such as Singapore and Malaysia, where caning is still in use as “honest, cheap and, compared to prison, humane.” According to him, flogging has the potential to save the U.S. tens of billions of dollars.
He said prison overcrowding is due primarily to longer and mandatory sentences “combined with an idiotic war on drugs.” The present broken U.S. prison system is an example that few countries want to emulate, with the possible exception of Canada. Why Canada is considering legislating similar laws to incarcerate more people when the crime rate is dropping is one of the great mysteries of our time. Even Moskos is discouraged by the news of increased sentencing being proposed in Canada (MacLean’s).
But Moskos’ proposal is bound to be viewed with skepticism, if not downright horror. What happened in 1884 and related below best shows how the public would react if such a punishment was reinstated — at least in Canada.
On the front steps of the Manitoba Legislature, Premier John Norquay was beseeched by the angry crowd of 4,000 demonstrators to explain the attorney-general’s handling of the “sensational” case of petty thief John Cormack. The premier expressed his regret “to see the citizens of Winnipeg so much excited,” according to a November 1, 1884, report in the Manitoba Daily Free Press.
“A voice — ‘Who caused it?’
“Another voice — ‘Who caused the order to be issued to flog McCormick?’
“Mr. Norquay — ‘It was done at the request of the jailer.’
“A chorus of voices — ‘No, no. It was Miller who did it.’
“Another voice — ‘Do you sanction the action of the Attorney-General (James Miller)?’
“Mr. Norquay — ‘Gentlemen, your questions are very pointed.’
“The yell was very loud and Norquay’s voice was almost inaudible. He said he was not prepared to say at present whether Mr. Miller’s actions were justified or not ...”
Soon afterward, Miller would be asked to resign from the provincial cabinet, which newspaper commentators wrote was primarily the result of his treatment of Cormack.
On November 26, 1884, newspapers briefly mentioned that Cormack, who was sentenced to six months hard labour in the Vaughan Street Provincial Gaol in Winnipeg for larceny (he stole some jewelry from a prostitute named Fanny Hood), had escaped from his jailer accompanied by two other prisoners.
After his recapture, Cormack’s punishment for fleeing custody was 12 lashes (the other escapees were spared the same treatment), a sentence that was imposed on him, and not an option as suggested by Moskos.
Soon after the first lashing to take place in Winnipeg, residents rallied en masse to protest Cormack’s flogging. One city councillor said he had read about such punishments occurring in other countries, but never expected to hear of such an act in a “civilized country.” Henry Joseph Clarke, a former Manitoba attorney-general, expressed the opinion that tarring and feathering was too good for Miller. C.M. Copeland, of the Young Men’s Christian Association, believed Miller should get a dose of his own medicine “to teach him not to gloat over the sufferings of a poor, defenceless prisoner.”
After the flogging, Cormack showed newspapermen his back. They reported that “the marks of the ‘cat’(-o’nine-tails) are plainly visible ... the skin has a ‘striped appearance, while in a number of places scabs have formed, showing that abrasions had been made, and some blood had oozed out.”
The day after the flogging, Miller produced a letter allegedly penned by Cormack (he could neither read or write), which said he deserved his punishment. But it was later related by Cormack that he had been told such a letter (written on his behalf by a fellow convict) would help reduce his sentence and lead to the removal of the ball and chain fitted to him to prevent another escape.
When pressed, Miller said the “law-abiding citizens — would, if they thought of the matter at all, say I had done my duty, and that instead of bringing me into such unenviable notoriety, they would have done the very reverse.” Miller said he believed in flogging to protect the public, and that imposing stiff prison terms deterred crime and was a check on severe classes of crime.
Despite the public hostility to the treatment of Cormack, flogging didn’t end in Manitoba. Afterward, it was administered behind closed doors away from prying eyes. Flogging with the cat-o’nine-tails or paddle (strap) was allowed under the Criminal Code of Canada. In provincial jails, Manitoba by 1967 was the only province still using the strap, but subsequently it fell into disuse and eventually ceased altogether.
“Bring back the lash,” as suggested by Moskos? Some probably still favour its reintroduction in Manitoba (its use has been suggested by those frustrated by the proliferation of auto theft), but in today’s wired world, it would be impossible to keep lashings away from prying eyes. Floggings would emerge on YouTube, and then solicit the same indignation aroused by Cormack’s punishment. The simple answer is that “bringing back the lash” is not going to happen — either in the U.S. or Canada — since it’s a relic of a more “barbarous” past, a belief that holds as true today as it did in 1884.