Cruel and Unusual

from by Houston Hughes



At the beginning of the twentieth century,
Amidst multiple botched hangings
and calls to end the death penalty,
Thomas Edison and the westinghouse electric company
Attempted to prove electrocutions safe and humane
by killing animals with it.
The largest casualty
was an elephant named Topsy;
sentenced to fry in front of a live audience,
in the center of a shining new amusement park.
1500 people paid a quarter each
to watch her topple like an old grey skyscraper,
watch her flinch and shiver,
throw her trunk in the air in surrender
and then disappear behind a rising curtain of smoke,

Soon, the method was tested on humans.
Even though the first few ran into some issues-
spines exploding like roman candles,
boiling eyeball fluid causing pupils to vesuvius -
we fixed it quickly enough for George Stiney,
the smallest person ever electrocuted, At 14,
his frame too short to reach the electrodes,
so we strapped him on a stack of bibles,
threw the switch in righteous justice,
but when the adult-sized mask,
meant to keep proper distance between guilt and innocence
slipped away,
it revealed his sobbing, terrified,
final face to…..
no audience at all.

The gallows
were always a stage;
consider the rigging
and the trap doors,
The way we lined the cast up for curtain call,
and then made them dance the marionette jitterbug,
The oxygen deprivation shake.
the guillotine
similarly theatrical,
included vendors, printed programs,
and folks camping out for seating
close enough to see the eyes keep blinking
while severed necks drooled juice like rotten fruit.
Those drawn and quartered
would have their still warm corpses
hacked into fourths,
and dragged behind horses,
paraded through crowded, shouting streets.
And In roman arenas
lions trained to rip christ
right out of your throat
left the circus maximus
packed to capacity
with law abiding
tax paying citizens; see

for most of human history,
if your crime was worth the price of admission,
we made certain the tax funded justice
was a spectacle worth witnessing,
the assumption being
death only serves as an effective lesson
If the whole class is present and paying attention...

and then came Topsy.

Not thirteen days after her spark had left her,
the grotesque specter of Edison's electric elephant
haunted boardwalks across the country -
A nickel and a crank of the kinetoscope
would let you peep show her death dance to your hearts content -

the problem was,
those early issues with electrocution
never actually went away,
and the same current that fell the elephant
ran the cameras now ensuring
anything sufficiently shocking
could also be viewed in perpetuity,
used as fuel for the anti-death penalty movement.

But those in favor
swore we could find a new way that wasn’t so cruel and unusual -
it was just a matter of proper execution.

The solution:
turn it into a magic trick!
Lock them in a box for long enough
that no one’s still watching by the time they disappear -
the secret, as always,
an audience willing to be deceived.

You don’t want to see
that the pricetag is ten times higher
than a life spent in prison;
that 1 in 25 after they’ve died
is proven innocent;
that statistically
it no longer works as a crime deterrent:

because the real trick
is that if you don’t see the bodies,
you don’t have to feel empathy
for people like
Emmit Foster,
who gasps and convulses
when he should be asleep;
thirty minutes later they realize
the straps on the gurney
had been too tight
so their chemical concoction couldn’t kill him quite right.

Robin Parks
turns out to be allergic to the very medicine
meant to make death quick and painless;
the state races to make their drugs
kill him before the reaction does.

Clayton Lockett,
after his IV dislodges,
jolts awake,
attempts to scream
but paralyzed lungs keep him from breathing,
so he writhes in agony,
awake and aware every minute till the end.

This is the entertainment you’re paying for,
you're the one Inserting the quarter and cranking the handle.
So even if what you see turns your stomach,
you’ve still gotta keep your eyes open!
Don’t you wanna get your moneys worth?
Or is this balancing act we call justice only beautiful to you
when you can do it blindfolded,
when you don’t have to address the elephant in the room,
when we don’t have to be a country
struggling with the alchemy
of spinning murder into mercy?

Either watch every one,
or end the death penalty,
because the only reason to put on such a grand show in secret
Is knowing that if the audience could see it
they’d pull the plug.


from Growing Up, Not Old, released June 30, 2016
Words by Houston Hughes

Music by Randall Shreve:



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Houston Hughes Fayetteville, Arkansas

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