Posthumous Pardons: Don’t Help the Dead. Are They Right To Do?

While Trump fretted because he was not thanked by Jack Johnson for his pardon it nevertheless made me smile when I heard that he had pardoned Johnson  who was an interesting guy.  His conviction was pretty much based upon the idea he violated the conventions of the day being a black man he consorted with and married white women. After his conviction he fled to France but returned and did his time at Leavenworth for about a year when he was 42-years-old.

His pardon is meaningless. Fair minded people reading about him will recognize his crime was his color and not hold it against him; others, will despite the pardon.  Jack’s third wife is quoted as saying: “I loved him because of his courage. He faced the world unafraid. There wasn’t anybody or anything he feared.”

Being that type of guy I’m sure it made one whit of difference to Johnson whether he was pardoned or not. Johnson lived his life as he wanted, suffered the barbs and stings of racism, and the pardon changed nothing. It was done by a man who some believe thinks Frederick Douglass is still alive.

A posthumous pardon has no effect on the subject of the pardon. It may make others somewhat happy or may make it appear to remedy old wrongs in cases that are long forgotten. The problem is that for every one that is done there are thousands of others that are not done. It results in a great unfairness where it demeans all those others wrongfully convicted. It deems them not worthy of one.  Not worthy because they have no celebrity  to advocate for them.

Did you ever hear of “The Day of the Rope.”   It was June 21, 1877. Ten Irish miners were hanged. In all twenty Irish miners would be hanged having been convicted in one trial of murders which occurred during a strike. It was one of the top three mass executions in the United States History.

One that exceeded it was on December 16, 1862, during the Civil War when 38 Sioux were hanged, shown in sketch above, even though originally 303 were sentenced to be hanged. It is said President Lincoln reduced that number reviewing each file. One other mass execution involved blacks. Those groups, blacks, Indians, and Irish were the groups that were in disfavor during 19th Century America.

I mention the Irish miners because they were supposedly members of the Molly Maguires a group that may have existed only in the imagination of  the media and the prosecutors. Their trial was before a jury of Protestants, no Catholics like the miners were allowed on the jury, and the prosecutor in their case was the owner of the mines they had struck.

The president of  the union Jack Kehoe was pardoned in 1979 by Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp. Why he didn’t pardon the 19 others is a mystery. Kehoe’s pardon served no purpose other than perhaps get the governor some Irish votes. Surely Jack, dead over 100 years, didn’t benefit from it.

I’m sure all remember how the guy in the tank in 1977 pardoned Nicola Sacco and Bartolomew Vanzetti fifty years after their execution. They were anarchists. History has suggested at least one was clearly involved in the murder; the other one may have been.  I guess this confirmed Dukakis’s liberal credentials and perhaps was done thinking of a future attempt for the  presidency but neither of the subjects who were exonerated felt any gratitude for it.

Speaking of anarchists, out in Chicago there was the Haymarket riot where seven police officers were killed and another sixty wounded when a bomb was tossed into a group of them marching in to break up a meeting of anarchists. Eight admitted anarchists were put on trial even though no one knew who threw the bomb. One committed suicide in prison, four were hanged, and three sentenced to prison. In 1893, Governor John P. Altgeld of Illinois pardoned the three who were in prison after setting forth a lengthy review of the trial showing the improprieties. He did not pardon those who had been hanged even though he believe the trial was a great miscarriage of justice. He apparently thought, like I think, that posthumous pardons make no sense.

How then explain that in 1975, President Gerald Ford granted a posthumous amnesty pardon to Confederate General Robert E. Lee restoring full citizenship rights that had been removed as a result of his military leadership of the Southern secession. I don’t suppose that had anything to do with trying to curry favor with the South.

Or, Bill Clinton’s 1999 pardoning of In 1999, Lt. Henry O. Flipper, the first African-American cadet to graduate from West Point who was dishonorably discharged from the army for mishandling $2,400 while a paymaster in 1881 other than his desire to curry favor with the black voters

Or, George Bush’s posthumous pardoning in 2008 of Charles Winter who was convicted of smuggling 3 B-17 bombers to Israel in 1948 in violation of the Neutrality Act of 1939 other than pleasing the Israeli lobby.

The thing is it doesn’t help the dead guy or gal. It doesn’t really change the facts that the person was convicted. It does please some people and point out that in the past there were injustices. The unfairness of it all is that there is no way to remedy all the injustices. Does recognizing some make the others less so? Shouldn’t we keep in mind that “the evil that men  do lives after them, the good is of interred with their bones, so let it be . . . . ” 

4 thoughts on “Posthumous Pardons: Don’t Help the Dead. Are They Right To Do?

  1. My father did not lie, but did get into a lot of trouble because he told the truth. If he made a derisive comment about someone that had kicked the bucket, my mother would tell him that he should not say anything bad about the dead. My father once replied, “If an a-hole dies all you have is a dead a-hole.”

    A pardon to a long dead person (or a short dead person) that everyone knows was treated unfairly is tepid at best, in my opinion. Patronizing comes to mind.

    Speaking about the man in the tank, if I may ramble a bit. I recall watching him speak on TV while campaigning and then said something like, “….and for my Spanish speaking friends….” and broke into Spanish. I thought; Is he now talking to the thousands of Spanish speaking voters that were watching the broadcast and not understanding a word? How many people were watching and waiting patiently for a few words that they could understand? Oh, Michael. Please.

    And not that I like Kim and his dictatorship or human rights record, but I will bring up a sitting president that knew about and ignored a horrible genocide that was happening in Rwanda. Or a sitting president that gladly sent hundreds of millions of dollars to a few monsters in El Salvador that got at least 100,000 innocent people murdered. Lets spread that blame around here, too.

    Instead of pardoning people that croaked, maybe we should convict a few dead people of horrendous crimes they committed. As Webley Webster would say, “Be fair!”

    1. The idea of posthumous convictions for committing horrendous crimes has an attraction. It could be limited to major politicians who promote the worst crime of all – leading the nation into or provoking wars that do not concern the the vital interests of the American people who should have been allowed to live peacefully behind the great, impenetrable. defense barriers, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. First three in the dock: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, criminals with over a million unnecessary American deaths and casualties between them.

  2. Adding to the Bizzaro effect–Refusing to pardon a dead guy whose conviction was overturned. Maybe Trump wants to get Giulani to bring the case before the Supremes after new evidence has been disinterred.

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