“It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working – bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming – all toiling away in solemn foolery… His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – reasoned even about puddles… and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.”

–George Orwell, A hanging

(August 1931).

 

The barbarity and “unspeakable wrongness” of capital punishment — of “cutting a life short when it is in full tide” — has rarely been brought out as powerfully and as movingly as in George Orwell’s 2000-word essay, “A Hanging.” Published in 1931 in Adelphi, a British literary magazine, this journalistic gem describes the execution of a criminal in Burma — where Eric Arthur Blair, which was Orwell’s real name, served in the British Imperial Police between 1922 and 1927. The clinical tone of the narration of the forced march to the gallows serves as a perfect foil to the moral revulsion and horror.