When whippings were in style

Baltimore Glimpses

April 26, 1994|By GILBERT SANDLER

UNLESS the government of Singapore relents and changes its mind, 18-year-old Michael Fay will soon suffer a flogging of six strokes with a moistened rattan cane administered by a martial arts expert. Mr. Fay has confessed to vandalizing cars and spray-painting walls in Singapore (though his supporters have questioned whether the confession was coerced). Many Americans believe the punishment is excessive, cruel and unusual, and that it amounts to a form of torture. Still other Americans, outraged over crime in this country, feel that Mr. Fay is getting what he deserves.

The controversy over Mr. Fay's punishment is a reminder that Baltimore once flogged convicted criminals. In 1926, James H. Kingsmore was sentenced to five lashes with a cat-o'-nine-tails for wife-beating. The cat-o'-nine-tails, a whip made of nine knotted cords attached to a handle used for flogging, was so called because the scars it left on its victim's body resembed the scratches of a cat. The whipping was ordered by Judge Eugene O'Dunne and administered by Sheriff John F. Potee.

Sheriff Potee, it turns out, was part sheriff and part showman, and he chose the main corridor of the City Jail to carry out the sentence. He handed out hundreds of cards of admission to the flogging, which became a public spectacle.

As camera flashbulbs popped the prisoner, handcuffed and stripped to the waist, was led into the noisy, crowded corridor. At one point he turned to a guard and complained, "I don't mind taking my medicine, but I don't think you should make a circus out of it."

But circus it was, and the press had a field day. The next day a grisly picture of Kingsmore, tied spread-eageled with the cat-o'-nine-tails lying beside his bare back, appeared in The Sun. Judge O'Dunne was furious at what he described as "the vulgarity of such journalism."

In 1931 Judge O'Dunne ordered wife-beater Charles Lamley to the whipping post, but this time issued a warning to the press: "The orderly processes of the court are being daily subjected to the undesirable publicity of a low order of pictorial display in certain publications. They are offensive to the administration of justice."

With that, he forbade the newspapers to take pictures.

In 1938, Clyde Miller was given 20 lashes by Judge Abner J. Saylor. By this time the press had forgotten its previous restraint and went completely tabloid. "Miller sags at kness, stays conscious as 6-foot sheriff wields whip," screamed the headlines.

The Jail Board, livid with anger, passed a regulation stipulating the future press coverage of whippings be limited to two reporters from each local newspaper. "No cameras will be allowed," it ruled.

The last flogging in Baltimore occurred on March 21, 1939, when Judge Emory Niles ordered Sheriff Joseph Deegan to give Louis Woolschlager five lashes for wife-beating.

The press coverage at Woolschlager's whipping ran only four inches and was buried in the back pages of the newspaper. There were no pictures.

Flogging, or "whipping," as it was called in the legislation abolishing it, finally came to an end in Baltimore in 1953. It was termed "not now necessary."

In Glimpses' humble view it shouldn't ever have been "necessary," and it certainly isn't now.

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