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The Penalty of Death

The Penalty of Death
by H.L. Mencken


At last, a writer who fully understands that all society wants from the justice system is “a healthy letting off of steam” (Mencken). In his satirical essay The Penalty of Death, H.L. Mencken, through use of humor, exaggeration, and mocking euphemisms and anecdotes, satires America’s use of capital punishment. His essay attacks in particular the purpose of the death penalty and the public’s light treatment of “hanging a man (or frying or gassing him)” (Mencken). Mencken’s informal essay is persuasive in the sense that it is satire and uses irony to support his thesis.

Should The Penalty of Death be taken literally, the thesis would explicitly be: “What I contend is that one of the prime objects of all judicial punishments is to afford the same grateful relief (a) to the immediate victims of the criminal punished, and (b) to the general body of moral and timorous men” (Mencken). As a satire however, Mencken ridicules this statement as he supports it, and therefore his thesis is implicit, expressing his criticism of the American treatment of the death penalty. Mencken speaks satirically in the essay as an upstanding citizen patriotically supporting his country’s justice system while, also patriotically, offering helpful suggestions to improve it. The syntax is kept simple and many colloquialisms and clichés are used to give the speaker a personal, conversational voice. Mencken writes mainly for the pro-death penalty audience, as this “patriotic” perspective is exaggerated to the point where it mocks these advocates. This tone is achieved through exaggeration, such as the first “argument against capital punishment” that is discussed, saying “that hanging a man…is degrading to those who have to do it and revolting to those who have to witness it” (Mencken). Mencken does not mention the obvious arguments against the death penalty, such as a person’s right to life, instead exaggerating the American priority on a person’s own comfort. Also contributing to the sarcastic, mocking tone is euphemism, such as the repeated use of “katharsis” as a blatant replacement for “revenge”.

The essay is structured at first in a problem-solution form. Mencken wastes no time refuting the two “arguments against capital punishment” that open the essay, and offers his satirical thesis about “grateful relief” as a solution to the problem of the death penalty’s apparent uselessness. The “grateful relief” solution is, of course, ironic; it implies that that absurd goal is the only real reason that American uses the death penalty. Through example, he supports his argument of katharsis until arriving at the issue of a prisoner’s lengthy stay on death row. Here, Mencken’s true intentions start to emerge as he begins sympathize with the condemned criminals. He describes how it is unjust that “a murderer, under the traditional American system, is tortured for what, to him, must seem a whole series of eternities” (Mencken). Now that the criminal is being viewed as human again, the Mencken’s moral argument of whether the death penalty is right becomes apparent. This ends the essay with the message that all people should be treated ethically, which is effective after the completion of four or five paragraphs that claim the death penalty is not ethical. The essay’s abrupt end, without any sort of conclusion, may be jarring to the reader but also ensures that the reader is actively thinking about Mencken’s final message when the essay is put down.

In these final paragraphs, Mencken uses strong imagery such as being “tortured…a whole series of eternities” as an appeal to pathos and ethos, stimulating the reader’s emotions and sense of ethics. While this appeal to pathos closes the essay on a serious note, the rest of the satire appeals mostly to ethos and logos. Logos is present everywhere, particularly in Mencken’s refute of an executioner’s misery and his introduction of katharsis as a reason for the penalty, which he, in sarcasm and irony, supports heavily. As the essay is a satire, ethos is called on in nearly every point Mencken makes, as he suggests “you’re not anything like the people I’m mocking, are you?”

The Penalty of Death is very effective in its delivery of Mencken’s opinions. Mencken’s sense of humor makes it clear from the beginning what he intends to discuss and how he will do it, and his detailed support of his satirical thesis “katharsis” makes his message enjoyable as well as informative. His satirical voice is believable as pro-death penalty American, but his meaning is clearly driven home when the essay, like the life of a doomed prisoner, is ended before its natural close. As Mencken suggests, maybe the judicial system needs a new “healthy letting off of steam”.

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