Friday, November 03, 2006

Item of the Day: Whimsical Method of Punishing Libellers in Russia.

Full Title: The Universal magazine of knowledge and pleasure: containing news, letters, poetry, musick, biography, history, geography, voyages, criticism, translations, philosophy, mathematicks, husbandry, gardening, cookery, chemistry, mechanics, trade, navigation, architecture, and other arts and sciences, which may render it instructive and entertaining to gentry, merchants, farmers and tradesmen: to which occasionally will be added an impartial account of books in several languages and of the state of learning in Europe also of the stage, new operas, plays and oratorios. Vol. LXI. Published monthly according to an act of Parliament. London: John Hinton.

[Extracted from The Universal Magazine for September 1777.]

Whimsical Method of Punishing LIBELLERS in Russia.
Recommended to the Consideration of the British Legislature.
Everybody knows that the government in Russia is arbitrary, and consequently ever watchful over the few daring subjects who presume to make any advances towards that liberty, to which, as natives of the earth, all men seem so duly intitled. The punishment inflicted upon such unconstitutional delinquents is, however, not so severe as one might expect: but, in my opinion, much more exemplary than is to be found in a country celebrated for the equity of its decisions, and the salutary purpose of its laws. –While I resided at Moscow, there was a gentleman who thought fit to publish a quarto volume in vindication of the liberties of the subject, grosly reflecting upon the unlimited power of the Czar Peter, and exposing the iniquity of the whole legislature (if it may be so called) of that empire. The offender was immediately seized by virtue of a warrant signed by one of the principal officers of state; he was tried in a summary way, his book determined to be a libel, and he himself, as the author, condemned to “eat his own words.” This sentence was literally carried into execution on the following day. A scaffold was erected in the most populous part of town; the imperial provost was the executioner, and all magistrates attended at the ceremony. The book was severed from the binding, the margins were cut off, and every leaf was rolled up, as near as I can recollect, in the form of a lottery ticker, when it is taken out of the wheel at Guildhall by the blue-coat boy. The author of the libel was then served with them separately by the provost, who put them into his mouth, to the no small diversion of the spectators. The gentleman had received a complete mouthful before he began to chew; but he was obliged, upon pain of the severest bastinado, to swallow as many leaves as the Czar’s serjeant surgeon and physician thought it possible for him to do without immediate hazard to his life. As soon as they were pleased to determine that it would be dangerous to proceed, the remainder of the sentence was suspended for that time, and resumed again the next day, at the same place and hour, and strictly conformable to the same ceremony. I remember it was three days before this execution was over; but I attended it constantly, and was convinced that the author had actually swallowed every leaf of the book. Thus, I think, he may be very justly to have eaten his own words. Some part of this punishment seemed to give the culprit little or no concern; but I could not help observing, that now and then he suffered great torture: which, from an accurate attention, I discovered to arise from particular leaves on which the strongest points of his arguments were printed.

On recollecting this mode of execution, I confess I wished it to be adopted by the law of England: for setting aside the ridicule which it naturally brings upon the offender, it contains a spirit of equity that renders it in a particular manner worthy of consideration of the British legislature.

An Old Traveller.

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