When discussing the allocation of indivisible objects, I point to randomization as a method. To emphasize it is not merely a theoretical nicety, but is used to allocate objects that are of high value I give the example of suicide lotteries. I first came across them in Marcus Clarke’s `For The Term of His Natural Life’. It counts as the first Australian novel. Its hero, an Englishman, Rufus Dawes is transported to Australia for a crime he did not commit. In the course of his tribulations, Dawes is shipped to a penal settlement on Norfolk Island, 800 miles east of Australia; even a prison needs a further prison. Robert Hughes, in his heart rending and eloquent account of the founding of Australia, called the `Fatal Shore’, describes Norfolk island in these words:
`….a place of breathtaking barbarity……. On Norfolk Island an Irishman named William Riley received 100 lashes for ”Singing a Song” (no doubt a rebel one) and 50 for asking a warder for a chew of tobacco. Deranged by cruelty and misery, some men would opt for a lifetime at the bottom of the carceral heap by blinding themselves; thus, they reasoned, they would be left alone.’
It is in this portion of his book, that Hughes recalls an eyewitness account of a suicide lottery of the type mentioned in Clarke’s novel. Here is Clarke’s succinct description of it:
The scheme of escape hit upon by the convict intellect was simply this. Three men being together, lots were drawn to determine whom should be murdered. The drawer of the longest straw was the “lucky” man. He was killed. The drawer of the next longest straw was the murderer. He was hanged. The unlucky one was the witness. He had, of course, an excellent chance of being hung also, but his doom was not so certain, and he therefore looked upon himself as unfortunate.
Clarke and Hughes deviate slightly upon the precise incentives that would drive participation in the scheme. As many of the convicts on Norfolk island were Irish, the scheme was concocted as a way to to circumvent the Catholic prohibition on suicide. Hughes suggests that, after the murder, witness and culprit would be shipped back to the mainland for trial. Conditions there were better, so for both there was brief respite and a greater opportunity for escape.
Its an arresting story, that one is loath to give up. But, one is compelled to ask, is it true? If yes, was it common? Tim Causer of King’s College London went back to look at the records and says the answers are `maybe’ and `no’. Here is his summing up:
`Capital offences committed with apparent suicidal intent are an important part of Norfolk Island’s history, but they need to be understood more fully. It should be recognised just how rare they were, that ‘suicide lotteries’ are embellishments upon actual cases of state-assisted suicide and repeating the myth only reinforces the sensationalised interpretation of Norfolk Island’s history.’
You can find the full account here.