Skip to contents
Senators Week

Stop Referring To The “Caning” Of Charles Sumner!

Getty Images

This week, Defector has chosen to curate a collection of writing inspired by two entities that have had an indelible effect on North America: the upper house of the United States Congress and Eugene Melnyk’s pro hockey team. This is Senators Week.

I first read Boy: Tales of Childhood, Roald Dahl’s great autobiographical account of his childhood, when I was in third or fourth grade. The book’s descriptions of corporal punishment in 1920s and ’30s public schools are incredibly vivid, at once horrifying and bleakly hilarious, and stuck with me. One story in particular, when the 8-year-old Dahl and his school friends are subjected to caning across their butts with “a long yellow cane which curved around the top like a walking stick” by their school headmaster as punishment for putting a dead mouse in one of the candy jars at a local shop, is unforgettable:

My own turn came last. My mind was swimming and my eyes had gone all blurry as I went forward to bend over. I can remember wishing my mother would suddenly come bursting into the room shouting, “Stop! How dare you do that to my son!” But she didn’t. All I heard was Mrs Pratchett’s dreadful high-pitched voice behind me screeching, “This one’s the cheekiest of the bloomin’ lot, ‘Eadmaster! Make sure you let ‘im ‘ave it good and strong!”

Mr Coombes did just that. As the first stroke landed and the pistol-crack sounded, I was thrown forward so violently that if my fingers hadn’t been touching the carpet, I think I would have fallen flat on my face. As it was, I was able to catch myself on the palms of my hands and keep my balance. At first I heard only the crack and felt absolutely nothing at all, but a fraction of a second later the burning sting that flooded across my buttocks was so terrific that all I could do was gasp. I gave a great gushing gasp that emptied my lungs of every breath of air that was in them.

It felt, I promise you, as though someone had laid a red-hot poker against my flesh and was pressing down on it hard.

The second stroke was worse and this was probably because Mr Coombes was well practiced and had a splendid aim. He was able, so it seemed, to land the second one almost across the narrow line where the first one had struck. It is bad enough when the cane lands on fresh skin, but when it comes down on bruised and wounded flesh, the agony is unbelievable.

The third one seemed even worse than the second. Whether or not the wily Mr Coombes had chalked the cane beforehand and had thus made an aiming mark on my grey flannel shorts after the first stroke, I do not know. I am inclined to doubt it because he must have known that this was a practice much frowned upon by Headmasters in general in those days. It was not only regarded as unsporting, it was also an admission that you were not an expert at the job.

By the time the fourth stroke was delivered, my entire backside seemed to be going up in flames.

This is disturbing, violent stuff! A school administrator who did this to an 8-year-old (or a 10- or 12- or 16-year-old!) in 2021 would almost certainly go to prison. Even in 1924, when Dahl’s mother sees his purple-striped butt later that night as she’s supervising his bath, she flips out, marches across town to tell off the Headmaster, and resolves to send young Roald to school in a whole different country the following school year. At the same time, it is also a sort of formal, discrete, contained thing: a caning. The term, the gerund caning rightly sets some limits around it: It’s an awful act of violence, but one prescribed and defined by a (deranged, justly abandoned) social contract. It wasn’t just some unhinged attack by the Headmaster upon an unsuspecting kid seated at his desk.

So let’s say you’re reading through a history textbook-type account of the hostilities and antagonisms between pro- and anti-slavery factions in the United States prior to the Civil War. And amid all the stuff about, like, Nat Turner’s slave revolt, and the Pottawatomie massacre, and the raid on Harper’s Ferry and so forth—scary, deadly stuff!—there’s mention that in 1856 abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner was subjected to “caning” by pro-slavery Representative Preston Brooks. This is usually how it’s described; the event is generally referred to as “the caning of Charles Sumner.” What do you picture? Personally, as a young teen first learning about all this stuff, I pictured something certainly ludicrous and outrageous by modern standards of interaction between national elected officials, but still sort of old-timey and Roald Dahlish and formal: “I shall Cane you, sir, thrice across the Buttocks and forthwith, as juft Reparation for befmirching my Honour!” I picture Brooks, if not bending a compliant Sumner over his knee, then at the very least leaning down and swatting the latter on the ass or the back of the legs. Right? Some weird old Code dutifully if violently applied, with the recipient of the caning left chastened or perhaps humiliated.

That’s not what happened! What happened was, Sumner gave a fiery anti-slavery speech in the Senate, during which he directed some choice burns toward pro-slavery Sen. Andrew Butler of South Carolina; a couple of days later, Brooks, an ally of Butler’s, hung out in the Senate chamber until it was nearly empty, then abruptly attacked Sumner where the latter was seated at his desk, beating him nearly to death with a heavy cane made of gutta-percha, a hard polymer out of which people used to build furniture. The first blow, to Sumner’s skull as the abolitionist moved to stand, was hard enough to temporarily blind him; by the time he regained his feet a few moments later, his eyes were filled with the blood gushing out of his own head. Brooks beat him so violently the damn cane broke, then continued beating him with the gold-tipped head of the cane. When other senators attempted to come to the aid of the semi-conscious guy being beaten to death in front of them, a fellow pro-slavery representative held them at bay … by brandishing a gun! What stopped the attack isn’t that it achieved fulfillment of some demented social contract and Brooks grimly withdrew; it’s that two other guys eventually pulled Brooks off Sumner while Sumner happened to still be alive. By then, the latter was out cold, the floor of the Senate was drenched in blood, and the cane was splintered into pieces. Brooks had been so frenzied he’d even hit himself in the face, during one of his backswings.

That is not a damn “caning”! That’s just a frickin’ psycho trying to kill a guy, and happening to use a cane as the murder weapon! Calling this a “caning” is like writing about a great white shark biting somebody’s arm off and saying the person was subjected to “mouthing.” You can say Brooks attacked Sumner with a cane or tried to kill him with a cane, that’s fine, but it’s not a damn “caning.” I blame the persistence of “caning” as the word for this event on the fact that the American Civil War is pretty much the only conflict in world history whose story overwhelmingly has been told from the perspective of the shitbag slavers who lost it. This has been a pet peeve of mine since like 1999; it took Senators Week for me to air it out for the whole world. I feel lighter already.