The Spiritualist Case Against Capital Punishment

On #AnnotatedTuesdays, we will share a quoted passage from some public domain source that has informed the Ascension Epoch universe, followed by commentary on how we used it.

Reading the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is one of the small joys of my life, and it seems a great many people feel the same way, given how prominent an influence he remains on literature and popular culture. Everyone knows and loves Sherlock Holmes, of course, but while they’re an exceptional example of his wit and skill as a storyteller, some of his best stories exist outside the Baker Street Canon. It’s unfortunate that these don’t get the same attention.

Consider the Professor Challenger series. George Edward Challenger and company are probably Conan Doyle’s best known and beloved characters outside of Holmes and Watson, but, aside from The Lost World, the famous story of a time-lost South American plateau filled with dinosaurs, they are not so well known today. I happen to love them and we’ve made them an integral part of the Ascension Epoch universe; indeed, the Challenger Foundation led by the Promethean is named in old GEC’s honor. They’re not just fun stories, but they’re teeming with ideas about subjects as diverse as history, politics, metaphysics, and criminal justice.

In particular, I was struck by a number of passages with a libertarian (or so it would be called today) resonance. For example, near the beginning of The Lost World, Malone is dragged into a discussion about the hazards of fractional-reserve currency. In The Land of Mist, there is a lengthy section dealing with the corruption of the law, the injustice of consensual crimes (in this case, spirit readings), and the dangers posed to liberty by entrapment and policing-for-profit schemes. In both of those novels, there are passages condemning various aspects of imperialism and the brutal treatment of natives. And so, we come to today’s excerpt, a passage from The Land of Mist with an implicit spiritualistic argument against the death penalty:

“Some of these earthbound or earth-interested creatures are neutral, like these simulacra or shells that I speak of. Others are essentially good like these monks of Glastonbury, who have manifested so wonderfully of late years and are recorded by Bligh Bond. They are held to earth by a pious memory. Some are mischievous children like the poltergeists. And some —only a few, I hope —are deadly beyond words, strong, malevolent creatures too heavy with matter to rise above our earth plane —so heavy with matter that their vibrations may be low enough to affect the human retina and to become visible. If they have been cruel, cunning brutes in life, they are cruel and cunning still with more power to hurt. It is evil monsters of this kind who are let loose by our system of capital punishment, for they die with unused vitality which may be expended upon revenge.” –Arthur Conan Doyle, The Land of Mist

I found this terribly interesting, if not a particularly novel idea. The notion that people who suffered violent deaths or that died full of grief or wrath linger around as troublesome shades is pretty common to folklore and fiction, but I had never seen the problem placed in quite this context. Here we have a situation where killing a malefactor–even through a systematic and judicial process–may not relieve humanity of the threat posed by him, and may actually increase it, depending on what sort of power the vicious soul may accumulate. Wrapped up with this troubling possibility is an implicit argument against capital punishment that does not suppose the innocence of the condemned, but rather the opposite. Even if the man is guilty, we will regret it!

I admit that this is not a very persuasive argument if one does not already subscribe to the spiritualist ideas put forward in the book, but we must allow for the possibility of truth within the context of the book, and, to some extent at least, within the secondary world of the Ascension Epoch as well. What if all that the electric chair, the gallows, or the firing squad provide is a release on the constraints and malice of an evil soul? And wouldn’t the same problem confront someone who kills an attacker in an act of self-defense? How does a would-be victim and society deal with this abiding, invisible peril?

These questions will be particularly important in forthcoming Ascension Epoch stories, particularly in the Challenger Confidential series. As the Copper Knight ascends the Western Throne and establishes a new branch of the Imperial Dynasty of America, he will be forced to contend with the legions of restless dead that died fighting for control of the Americas and, in so doing, made themselves slaves to the power of the King in Yellow. If he is able to master them, the Copper Emperor will have a terrible army at his command.

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