Sherlock Holmes And The Impossible Execution

Occasionally in my time as friend and chronicler to the great Sherlock Holmes we attended the courtroom proceedings that inevitably followed upon our successful apprehension of some villain who had been blighting our society. In one such case the crimes were of so vile a nature that I have left, and intend to leave, the case unrecorded. It was with great satisfaction that we saw the verdict of guilty returned and the dreaded black cap brought out to the judge. Naturally the sentence was death but it seemed that the judge wished to heap a little extra punishment upon the miscreant who had, before he turned to crime, been a professor of logic at a well known University.

The judge put on the cap and said,
“The nature of your crimes leaves no choice in British law other than a death sentence. I hereby sentence you to hang by the neck until you are dead. Further I decree that this will take place next week at noon on a day of which you shall have no foreknowledge so that you will be forced to dwell upon what you have done as you sit in your barren prison cell. You may take the prisoner down.”
As they led him from the dock I could not help noticing that the man was smiling, grinning in fact. It was a reaction completely at odds with the sentence. I remarked on it to Holmes. He too was smiling but it was an altogether thinner and grimmer expression.
“He is grinning, “ said Holmes, "because he believes himself to be safe from execution, and I smile because I know that he will be proven wrong.”
When we were safely returned to Baker Street and Holmes was ensconced in his favourite armchair smoking a pipe of a particularly noxious tobacco, I found myself pacing in front of the open window, trying both to obtain a little fresh air and to puzzle out the meaning of his words.
 “Holmes, “ I asked at length, “Does Moriarty feel safe because of...”
Holmes waved a careless hand towards me.
 “No Watson, it is entirely unrelated to the Murder Act of 1834.”
I was startled.
 “How the deuce did you know my thinking was along those lines?”
 “Really Watson, by now you should know my methods.”
When I failed to respond, he sighed – as I knew he would – and explained.
 “Since the courtroom you have been remarkably quiet. Clearly you were trying to work out both the prisoner's reasoning and my own. For a moment you paused in your pacing and glanced at the shelf where my legal journals reside. I saw the very slight nod of your head and then you looked sharply at the calendar that stands on my desk. As the Murder Act of 1834 lays out that a minimum of three Sundays must elapse before a sentence of death is carried out then you are right in supposing that the terms imposed by the judge do not allow sufficient time. That however is NOT the reason that he feels safe. I doubt that he has the technical grasp of the law to realise that. Besides, the circumstances of his crime are such that I feel a hasty execution will, somehow, be contrived.”
Holmes anticipated me again.
 “Nor is the fact that that we do not execute on Sundays connected.”
 “Benefit of Clergy?” I asked desperately.
 “The privilege that clergymen may not be executed was abolished way back in 1827. And, in case your mind were to take such a bizarre flight of fancy, nor do I believe that the man was about to give birth, a reason for a stay of execution that, for obvious reasons, can only be granted to women.”
 “Dash it Holmes, what is it then.”

Holmes blew out a long thin stream of smoke.
 “As we have said, he cannot, by law, be executed on Sunday and so he is reasoning thus. 'The last day when they can execute me is Saturday and the judge specified noon. But he also said that I should have no foreknowledge of the day and if I am still alive at midnight on Friday, then I will have a full twelve hours foreknowledge of it so they cannot execute me on Saturday and still meet the terms of the order. Saturday is not possible. If neither Saturday nor Sunday is possible then the last day for my death will be Friday but if I reach midnight on Thursday, then by the same reasoning I shall have twelve hours foreknowledge and cannot therefore be executed. And I can work back through the whole week. It is not possible to execute my at all and meet the conditions imposed by the judge. He has messed it up completely and I am surely safe.”

I considered Holmes words carefully but could see no flaw in the logic he had laid out.
 “Dash it!” I cried, “He must be right. The judge has made a mass of things with his ridiculous caveat to the sentence.”
 “Not at all,” said Holmes, but refused to be drawn further.


There was a brief coda to the affair when, on Wednesday we heard a knock at the front door followed shortly by the unmistakeably heavy tread of a policeman's boots on the stairs.
 “Come in Lestrade, come in in.” called Holmes.

The inspector, bowler in hand, came into our rooms.
 “I've just called to let you know that Moriarty was executed at noon today.”
Holmes smiled, but it was the same grim expression that I had witnessed in the courtroom.
 “And so as foul a fiend as ever walked the streets of London, has come to his fate. How was his manner at the end?”
 “Well, Mister Holmes” said the inspector. “That's a peculier thing. Since the sentence he has sat in his cell quite happy and apparently unconcerned. As if he had a great secret, known only to him, but when the constables arrived to escort him to the gallows his manner changed completely. He cried, 'No!. You idiots. You cannot take me. It's logically impossible. I cannot be executed today or any other day. It's impossible.'”
 “I tell you Mr Holmes, he struggled like a madman all the way out to the gallows, screaming strange things about it not being possible and how it was illogical and something to do with foreknowledge and midnight. Most disturbing, it was, to see the change in him. But then, and this is the oddest thing of all, in his ranting he shouted something and then seemed, for the first time, to actually hear his own words and for a moment he fell still and silent. Then he started to laugh and he was still laughing as the hood was placed on his head and the sentence carried out.”
 “What was it that stopped his mania?” I asked.
Holmes, for his part, seemed not in the least bit surprised by the inspectors tale.
 “I have spoken to the attending constables,” said Lestrade. “And it seems that  his words were 'You can't do this. It's impossible, I wasn't expecting it...', at  which he fell silent before murmuring, 'Oh what a fool.' and beginning to laugh.”

I considered for a moment, remembering Holmes earlier explanation. The villain had reasoned just as Holmes predicted. I turned to Holmes and told him so. Holmes inclined his head in a parody of modesty.
 “He was sure he could not be executed because of his reasoning so when they came for him it was a shock and he, of course, had no foreknowledge so the terms were met. But Holmes, how did his reasoning fail? It seemed certain to me.”
 “That,” said Holmes, “I shall leave to you to discover. I cannot tell you everything. Some things you should reason for yourself.”
The details of the changes to the law in 1834 are as I laid them out, although for narrative convenience I have described them all as “The Murder Act”, they were in fact not a single act and the the benefit of clergy and laws relating to pregnant women were much older. A minimum of three Sundays was supposed to elapse between sentence and execution, clergy had many dispensations and could not, under normal circumstances, be executed and pregnant women could plead for a stay of execution. The three Sundays rule was, according to most sources, often ignored if the condemned waived his or her right to it. A judge tells a condemned prisoner that he will be hanged at noon on one weekday in the following week but that the execution will be a surprise to the prisoner. He will not know the day of the hanging until the executioner knocks on his cell door at noon that day. Having reflected on his sentence, the prisoner draws the conclusion that he will escape from the hanging. His reasoning is in several parts. He begins by concluding that the "surprise hanging" can't be on Friday, as if he hasn't been hanged by Thursday, there is only one day left - and so it won't be a surprise if he's hanged on Friday. Since the judge's sentence stipulated that the hanging would be a surprise to him, he concludes it cannot occur on Friday. He then reasons that the surprise hanging cannot be on Thursday either, because Friday has already been eliminated and if he hasn't been hanged by Wednesday night, the hanging must occur on Thursday, making a Thursday hanging not a surprise either. By similar reasoning he concludes that the hanging can also not occur on Wednesday, Tuesday or Monday. Joyfully he retires to his cell confident that the hanging will not occur at all. The next week, the executioner knocks on the prisoner's door at noon on Wednesday — which, despite all the above, was an utter surprise to him. Everything the judge said came true. See Unexpected Hanging Paradox

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