13 October 2017

The Strangest Argument Ever Made Against Capital Punishment

Queensland was the first part of the old British Empire to abolish capital punishment. This happened in 1922, with the simple addition of this one sentence to the Criminal Code: ‘The sentence of punishment by death shall no longer be pronounced or recorded, and the punishment of death shall no longer be inflicted’.

The road to abolition was not so simple, however, and this was the second time that a Queensland Labor government (we also had the world's first Labor government, by the way) had tried to pass the bill. The first attempt was in 1916, and parliamentary debate featured a range of arguments in favour of and against the idea, including what has to be one of the most left-field cases ever made against capital punishment.

Dr William Frederick Taylor, Queensland MLA (John Oxley Library)
Dr William Frederick Taylor. (John Oxley Library)

Speaking against abolition, the Opposition Queensland Liberal Party contended that the issue was unimportant as there were more pressing concerns at hand, such as World War I. Their main line of argument was that capital punishment was a deterrent to crime, and that the absence of the death penalty would result in the rise of ‘lynch law’. The Old Testament sentiment of ‘an eye for an eye’ was raised on numerous occasions.

The arguments in favour of the bill included the religious (a prisoner would be deprived of the full opportunity for repentance); medical (murderers sometimes had ‘mental disease’); practical (hanging failed to act as a deterrent); judicial (even though mistakes had been made in the past, the sentence was irrevocable); and moral (the punishment does not fit the case nor effect the reformation of the offender). It was left to Dr William Taylor to bring an entirely new perspective to the debate.

As the official parliamentary records show, Taylor argued from a spiritualist viewpoint, asserting the existence of telepathy and astral planes, and that the death of a criminal only serves to release his consciousness into the astral plane, which would cause more harm than good:
By killing the body you free the mind of the individual, and his consciousness is much more capable of influencing others than it was before. That is the great argument against the death penalty… by killing the body, you liberate the criminal, who will do more mischief than he could possibly do if you keep him in his body, it is a mistake to kill him... 
If you kill the body with its five senses, the vehicle for the ego, or consciousness, to manifest through on the physical plane, you do a very stupid action, for the evil-disposed man can from the astral plane influence more easily the minds of dwellers on the physical plane than he could do while in his physical body.
Having introduced an angle that nobody saw coming, Taylor then flipped his argument around, saying that although he preferred imprisonment for murder, even inside a prison cell the prisoner may still be able use telepathic powers to influence others into committing crime:
We all know that such a thing as telepathy exists, and if you can concentrate your thought sufficiently you can transmit that thought to some other individual who will receive that thought and act on it... If you shut him up in a cell he is powerless to do any evil, unless he has a sufficient mental power to concentrate very strongly, and even then there is not much possibility of his doing any evil.
To be fair, Taylor was in many ways a great man, having a brilliant medical career and being an early advocate of such causes as female suffrage. Like many others he turned to Spiritualism during the carnage of World War 1 (in which he lost a son). However, this was probably one of the strangest arguments ever presented on the floor of the Queensland parliament.

After a short debate the bill was defeated, but the Labor government made a second and successful attempt to pass the abolition bill in 1922. William Taylor entered the astral plane in 1927, and has probably been influencing the minds of unsuspecting Queenslanders ever since.

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