Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota

By John D. Bessler | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
The “Midnight Assassination Law”

The United States witnessed a resurgence of anti–death penalty activity and reform in the 1880s as politicians came to see executions as unseemly spectacles, even when privately done. More American states chose to outlaw public executions, a few states passed laws mandating nighttime executions to discourage execution-day crowds, and civic leaders, having watched the spectacle of hangings for many years, sought out what they saw as less gruesome ways to kill people. Much of this legislative activity, though not all, was centered in the Northeast and the Midwest, and it often involved attempts to sanitize the news surrounding executions. One of the states that saw legislative activity was Minnesota, and another was New York, where a legislative commission was formed to inquire into “the most humane and practical method known to modern science” of putting people to death. The commission issued its report in 1888, finding that death by electricity could be done in a “strictly private” manner and would be more humane than the gallows.1

Although New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts all outlawed public executions in 1835, the New York legislative commission believed much more needed to be done to stop the brutalizing effect of executions. Commission members worried especially about the demoralizing tendencies of executions and saw detailed press reports of them as merely stimulating others to commit crimes. The result of the commission’s work was the passage by New York’s legislature of the Electrical

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