General Articles

A Long Vigil, A New Light

June 1 1948
General Articles

A Long Vigil, A New Light

June 1 1948

A Long Vigil, A New Light

WE HAVE just had a strange and significant week in London. Monday morning produced midsummer weather for the unveiling of the late President Roosevelt’s statue in Grosvenor Square, and as usual the British proved that when it comes to pageantry there is no one to touch them.

Of course the park in Grosvenor Square made a perfect setting for the event, for it was in this square that the American fighting forces were directed in the battle against Germany and over it the Stars and Stripes of the American Embassy still fly.

The great event in London was something between a requiem and a garden party. No one wore mourning, not even Mrs. Roosevelt, although M.P.’s and peers were arrayed in morning coats and silk hats which gave a sombre and even funereal effect. On the other hand Queen Mary was in light blue, Queen Elizabeth in still lighter blue and Princess Elizabeth in pink.

The bands by the statue played martial music, mixed with southern melodies; two detachments of American and British marines stood at attention until they must have felt like figures of stone. Every now and then a band at the far end played “God Save the King” as the Royal Family arrived in sections and of course the London crowd in the streets cheered everybody.

The public-address system was so perfect that the voice of the speakers, without being distorted to the slightest degree, could be heard clearly and strongly by the whole concourse. No one seemed to be directing anything, yet it moved like clockwork — the singing of the choir of St. Paul’s, the addresses by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the King, Mrs. Roosevelt and that great Canadian-American Ambassador Lew Douglas.

In fact Canada played a big part, for the head of the Pilgrims, who organized the day, is 78-year-old Viscount (Hamar) Greenwood, who lived his youth in Whitby, Ont.; and the organizing Secretary is Sir Campbell Stuart, who lived his first 25 years in Montreal. Lord Greenwood carried himself like a sturdy oak as he escorted King George and Queen Elizabeth.

At last came the moment when the King led Mrs. Roosevelt to the steps of the statue and with one pull at the rope the huge British flag that covered it fell to the ground. With the fortitude of a Roman matron Mrs. Roosevelt looked at the statue for the first time, her face calm and composed.

The King advanced, laid a wreath at the foot of the pedestal, stepped back and saluted, looking slim and young for his years. With a roll of drums the bands blared into the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” What tremendous, defiant, inspired words !

I have seen Him in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps;

Thfey have budded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;

I can read his righteous sentence by the dim and flashing lamps;

His Day is marching on.

You may say that it is not great poetry, that the author forces his rhyming, that he has sacrificed meaning for vigor. I shall not argue the point. Genius conforms to no laws, and there is genius in this hammer-stroke expression of a people’s spirit.

“Glory, glory, hallelujah,” sang the trumpets in Grosvenor Square. The crowds on the rooftops, like the crowds on the streets, stood as motionless as the dead President on the statue . . .

He hath sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;

He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat;

Oh! Be swift my soul to answer Him; be jubilant my feet!

Our God is marching on.

Shakespeare himself would have rejoiced in that phrase: “Be jubilant my feet!”

There had been much controversy about Sir W’illiam Dick’s statue of Franklin Roosevelt. Many people thought he should be shown, as we all thought of him, sitting in his chair as an invalid, but dominating the destinies of men on their feet. Instead, the statue shows the President standing, but leaning on a stick, while his famous cape is over his shoulders. Sir William was right. Here we see a man, still an invalid, but rising in triumph over

his physical weakness. So the great event came to an end. The incredible Marines still stood at attention as if their officer could not remember the command: “Stand at ease.” There were more renderings of the national anthem as the Royal Family departed in groups, more cheering by the London crowds . . . the top hats began to bob their way out of the square and Franklin Roosevelt commenced his long, long vigil.

Continued on page 46

A Long Vigil, a New Light

Continued from page 12

End of the Hangman

If I shall always remember that morning in Grosvenor Square I shall also not soon forget the historic and passionate scene in the House of Commons three days later, when the backbenchers triumphed over the combined leaders of the Government and the Opposition and did away with capital punishment.

The occasion was the new clause to the Criminal Reform Bill demanding that capital punishment should be done away with for a trial period of five years. This was moved by a Socialist M.P. named Sydney Silverman and was seconded by Christopher Hollis, a Tory M.P., who is a publisher in private life. ’There was so much j advance support for the measure that ¡ the Government decided to leave it to a free vote of the House.

But on the day before the debate ¡ the Government became alarmed. ’The | Home Secretary, who is responsible for the maintenance of law and order, had come to the conclusion that it would be i too dangerous to abolish capital punishment at this period of increasing i crime. So the Labor party leaders met, urged their supporters to come to heel and then decreed that ministers in the j Government must not vote for the abolition. They could abstain, but not I support the clause.

The Tory Party also went into a huddle. Like the Socialists, they could not now take away from their members the right to vote according to conscience. Nevertheless two prohanging i front benchers, Sir David Maxwell ! Fyfe (former Tory Solicitor-General) and Sir John Anderson (former Tory Home Secretary), were put up as speakers to indicate the party line.

So when the battle began the House was crowded and excited, and in the galleries were prison governors waiting to see what new problems would be set them by the strange men and women in the cockpit below.

Enter a Ghost

Back and forth went the arguments as to whether hanging was a stronger deterrent than life imprisonment. Then i a dramatic and unpredictable thinghapI pened. Quite by accident a woman’s ! ghost appeared.

Sir John Anderson, who used to be ; the permanent Civil Service Head of j the Home Office, was contending with telling effect that no innocent person was ever hanged in modern times.

“What about Mrs. Thompson?” asked Mr. Silverman. “Was there no question about her?”

Sir John flushed angrily. “Absolutely none!” he cried. “There is no room for doubt at all in the part she played in that affair.”

Our minds went back 20 years when a suburban middle-aged Cleopatra, Mrs. Thompson, was coming home from the theatre with her husband when they were confronted with her young seaman lover who had a knife in his hand. She tried to stop him but the seaman plunged the knife into the husband’s heart.

They were jointly tried for murder. Unfortunately for the woman, her lover had kept all the letters she had written to him when he was at sea. They were lurid, sentimental, wicked letters in which she told how she was trying to murder her husband by putting ground glass in his porridge. Her husband was a sickly man, but as j he was never the worse for the ground glass it was obvious that she was merely dramatizing herself.

However, public opinion was so outraged by the woman who had caused the tragedy of two men that she was sentenced to death along with her lover. He tried to take all the blame but the appeal court was adamant. Right up to i the end she expected a reprieve, but when they told her that she had to hang some dreadful physical degeneration came over her.

i So when Sir John Anderson had i assured the House of Mrs. Thompson’s guilt he was followed by Mrs. Ayrton Gould on the Socialist benches.

“Mrs. Thompson’s execution,” she said, “was so horrible that, after it, the hangman committed suicide, one of the wardresses went mad, and the chaplain had a nervous breakdown . . . We cannot get the right type of prison officers into the service if they have to be present at a ghastly and barbaric thing like the hanging of Mrs. Thompson.”

As I was editor of the Sunday Express at that time I also told the House that two warders had come from the prison to our office that night, so horrified by what they had witnessed that they wanted us to make sure that a woman would never be hanged again in Britain.

Glamourizing Murder?

“Mrs. Thompson was not hanged for murder,” I said to the House, “but for adultery which had resulted in the death of two men.” Then as 1 was on my feet I argued that the death sentence defeated its own purpose by glamourizing murderers until they were the aristocrats of the criminal world. Do away with capital punishment so that when they kill they do so without fear of death and they will be regarded even by criminals as the lowest and most contemptible creatures on God’s earth.

When the division came about seven of us walked from the Conservative benches into the “Aye Lobby” where we found ourselves in strange company . . . two Communists, all the Liberals, most of the Independents and a great crowd of Socialist backbenchers. As we moved slowly toward the desks where our votes were counted, the din of excited conversation was deafening.

Then back to the Chamber to await the result. Suddenly a rumor swept from bench to bench. “The rebels have won!” Wild cheering broke out, men jumped on the benches and waved order papers, some wept. The Prime Minister and Chuter Ede on the Government Front Bench looked darkly into the eyes of Mr. Churchill and Sir John Anderson opposite. The private members had won the day against the executive.

I hope we did right. I hope that time will prove that this was a forward step in the march of civilization. There is so much cruelty in the world, so little reverence for the human body as the temple of the spirit, that in our own faltering way we may have lit a candle to guide others on the way.

In a crowded House we only had a majority of 23. I wonder if it was Mrs. 'Thompson’s ghost that won the day. ★