I don’t write about it much here because, frankly, I don’t get to spend much time at it, but one of my avocations is as bookseller. My wife and I own a used bookstore called Whitlock Farm Booksellers in Bethany. We have a great staff of bookworms who keep the inventory flowing and the lights on.
But last night, I got an email from one the store employees. We acquired a new book she thought I would like to know about. I asked her to bring it over, and it now sits on my desk. I do not know whether I can bear to sell it, although, the economy being what it is, I know I must.
The book is written by what just might be the nation’s prolific serial killer. It is a taunting sort of work, a work by a man well acquainted with death who hopes never to kill again. His name is Robert G. Elliott. He wrote the book with Albert R. Beatty.
Elliott killed 387 people in six states. I picture of he man opposite the title page shows a man of many regrets, a pipe griped in a jaw set against despair. His eyes are focused downward and to the right. He cannot look at the camera, or, rather, his gaze cannot reach beyond himself. He has heard far too many death rattles, I suspect. Is that the sound of his own voice, or is it the Devil calling? Elliot died three days after competing the book, an ancient man at 65.
"You who read this and are voters of these six states, [the states in which he did his killing] have done that. You have done it through laws you have passed, through due process of the courts. Judges and juries, people who represented you, have done it. I have carried out your orders."
Elliott, you see, was an executioner. "The happiest day I’ll ever experience will be the day that capital punishment is wiped from the statute books, leaving me a man without a job." He died on October 10, 1939. The title of the book is Agent of Death: The Memoirs of an Executioner. (collectors take note: 1st ed., DJ, chipping along upper edges, bindings tight, otherwise good/very good condition,)
The book was written to express Elliott’s opposition to capital punishment, a mission in which he failed. Seventy-plus years later we still kill people and call it justice.
"There are several reasons why the ancient law of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ should be wiped from the statute books," Elliott wrote. "First, man should not be permitted to destroy the one thing which cannot be restored – life. Furthermore, I believe that capital punishment serves no useful purpose, and is a form of revenge.
"A wrong, no matter how serious, is not righted by ending a life."
The arguments against capital punishment remain the same. But the killing goes on, at least in many parts of the United States. Here in Connecticut, the machinery of death churns away in several cases as I write this. It stands to gear up in the case of State v. Komisarjevsky, one of the defendants in the infamous Cheshire home invasion case. Once again, the people will be asked to kill.
I saw the prosecutor in the Komisarjevsky case, Michael Dearington, the other day, the blood of Steven Hayes, a co-defendant, still fresh upon him. Mike is an old friend. Our children played sports together. But when I saw him I was not able to find the customary joy accompanying stumbling upon a friend. A vast divide separated us. Since I saw him last, Mike decided to become a killer. He selected his victim, planned the assault, and then slowly, methodically, deliberately set his mind to the grim task of killing. It is the work of shame, yet he looked pleased, smug even, this brand new killer.
I was about to shake the hands of this friend but something in me recoiled. I could not find friendly words or a light greeting. I found nothing where there used to be warmth. He has crossed a line not out of passion, but out of a sense that some how killing is just. I don’t care to join him on the other side of the line he has crossed.
Neither, apparently, would Robert Elliott, a man often called upon to do the dirty work of justice. I am tempted to send this book to Dearington, but I won’t. It is too valuable a pearl to waste.