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Whipping Post No Longer An Acceptable Form of Criminal Punishment

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The remains of a whipping post in Sussex County   //  PHOTO BY RON MACARTHURDelaware was the last state to get rid of the whipping post. For that matter, it was the last place in the free world to keep lashing on its books as criminal punishment. It is not exactly something to be proud of, but there it is.

Poisoning someone could bring 60 lashes. Trafficking in stolen mules could mean 20 lashes, as compared to wife beating, which could get as few as five. Who could have guessed that animal rights would have pre-dated the prevention of domestic violence?

The whipping post, an oak column standing in a prison yard, was called “Red Hannah,” and the whipping was done with a cat-o’-nine-tails of nine leather thongs.

The last time anyone was sentenced to be whipped was 50 years ago in 1963, although that one was never carried out. Lashes had been laid on since the Colonial days, but not since 1952, and times had changed.

Bert Carvel, the Democratic governor, commuted the sentence as fast as he could to keep the case from getting into the court system and turning Delaware into a laughingstock.

“My thinking is this thing shouldn’t go to the Supreme Court and embarrass the state,” Carvel said, in a quote from the Wilmington Morning News of Feb. 22, 1964.

Nobody gives the whipping post a thought anymore. It is one of the changes that state government has brought about in the last half-century, changes as sweeping as the way people can get married and as commonplace as the way they rake up the leaves.

Whipping was the most macabre.

 

It was a cruel and dark thing. A man who was whipped in the 1940s for stealing a car talked about it during a newspaper interview in the 1960s. “It made me feel like an animal,” he said. “It doesn’t rehabilitate anyone. It degrades him. It makes him worse.”

The state pretty much knew it. A photo of a whipping in 1935 found its way into a Philadelphia newspaper and became an embarrassment. The legislators went right to work and made it a crime to take a camera to a whipping.

Lashing actually stayed on the books until 1972, when a determined state senator pushed through a massive revision of the criminal code and got rid of it. People may have heard of the legislator who did it. Fellow named Mike Castle.

There is plenty of other stuff that has caused the state to echo the raven and say, “Nevermore.”

Some of it was around for a long time, some of it barely at all. Both happened because of the new law on gay marriage. Not only did it let gay people wed, which had never been recognized by the state before, but it also brought civil unions to a quick close. They were here for a short year and a half before they were on their way out.

 

So What Else is Old?

Smoke gets in the ayes. On a November night 11 years ago, ashtrays disappeared from restaurant tables and bar counters. Delaware had enacted an indoor smoking ban. Nobody was more surprised about it than the legislators who voted “aye” and made it the law.

The smoking ban was controversial. Ruth Ann Minner, the Democratic governor, was for it, and so were people who saw it in terms of health, environment and workplace conditions, but it was opposed not just by the tobacco industry, but also by the casino and restaurant interests who feared they could lose their clientele, as well as by people who flat out thought the government had no right to tell them where they could smoke.

It was a painful vote for the legislators. They had constituents with strong sentiments on both sides, so they turned to an old favorite. They figured they could play keep-away with the bill.

The idea was for the Senate to pass a bill in a form that would be unacceptable to the House of Representatives, and vice versa, and bat it back and forth between the two chambers without ever agreeing on a version that would go to the governor for her signature. It was a classic way to duck responsibility and point fingers.

 

It started out predictably. The Senate sent a watered-down bill to the House, and the House sent a more stringent one back, but then the Senate decided the House was trying to make it look bad. It adopted the House version! The bill went to the governor! She signed it into law!

“Surprise, surprise,” says Wayne Smith, who was the House Republican majority leader at the time. “It was a political gambit that basically failed, and I am as glad as anyone to walk into public buildings and restaurants and not come out reeking of smoke.”

 

Wretched Refuse

The fall used to be a time when the air was filled with the pungency of burning leaves after people raked them up from their yards. Then there came the realization the practice was not exactly environmentally sound, so people adjusted and put out their leaves, along with their lawn clippings and other gardening debris, as trash.

About five years ago, though, the state got the bright idea that the landfills would be better off without it. Instead, collection stations were set up as do-it-yourself dumping grounds for people to haul in whatever they had cleaned up from their yards.

A neighborhood menace was born. Vast acreage became heaps of decaying greenery, stinky and insect-ridden, and depending on the weather, dirty, dusty or muddy. Not to mention it probably looked like Disney World to rats.

Let the whipping post be a museum piece. Let gay marriage and smoke-free bars become another part of life. But this wretched refuse?

As Smith, the onetime House majority leader, says, “What a lousy law that does nothing.”   

» Click here for more from the November issue. 

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