Capital Punishment for the Crime of Homicide in Chicago: 1870-1930

Article excerpt


In the criminal justice system, the ultimate and final act in any homicide case is the application of the death penalty. Of course, not all homicides result in a death sentence, and not all homicide offenders are sentenced to death. As a consequence, the question of which offenses and which offenders merit a death sentence has always been central to the concern over whether capital punishment should be used at all. On the one hand, as times change and the criminal justice system changes with them, we would expect corresponding changes in the application of the death penalty. On the other hand, if capital punishment is rooted as fundamentally in the racial and economic inequities of society as some have argued, then even over a century we might see far more similarities than differences in how many offenders are sentenced to death, who they are, and for what kinds of homicides.

Included in the file on Chicago homicides from 1870 to 1930 are a small number of cases in which the offender was sentenced to capital punishment and was executed. Certainly, the questions of the morality or the efficacy of capital punishment, as well as concerns over the fairness of its application, were as relevant and alive then as they are now. An analysis of these death penalty cases could enable us to consider whether some of the patterns we see in capital punishment over the last half of the twentieth century held true in Chicago over a century ago. We can consider what kinds of homicides and what kinds of offenders were more likely to draw a death sentence, and examine whether those patterns changed over time. We can also examine how the application of capital punishment changed in Chicago over those fifty years, and can compare the patterns in death sentences in Chicago to the patterns we see in modern America. This is interesting in its own right, a look at a piece of history in a major American city at the turn of the last century, but it may also bring more data to bear on the fundamental moral and practical questions which have shaped the death penalty debate for decades.

Of course no data can resolve the basic philosophical question of capital punishment. Our goals are more modest. First, we will provide a general descriptive analysis of homicides that resulted in the death penalty in Chicago from 1870 to 1930; second, we will consider whether inequities in race and economic status were reflected in those decisions during that time; and third, we will look at changes in those cases, or in the use of capital punishment, over the fifty years of the Chicago data.


Debates on capital punishment tend to revolve around philosophical questions as to the morality of the death penalty, or pragmatic questions as to the efficacy or effectiveness of the death penalty. In Furman v. Georgia, Justice Brennan wrote that "although pragmatic arguments ... have been frequently advanced.... At bottom, the battle has been waged on moral grounds." (1) On one extreme, there are those who argue that it is neither right nor moral for anyone to take another's life, and that "anyone" includes the state. For these opponents, the death penalty in any form or under any condition is wrong. On the other extreme are those who adopt a rigid "eye for an eye" belief, in which anyone who kills another person without legal justification should die. From that perspective, it makes no difference whether capital punishment "functions" to deter crime or not, it is simply something that must morally be done. (2)

In between those extremes, however, and much more characteristic of the concerns of a majority of citizens and more representative of their position if the polls are accurate, is the argument which holds that it may be legitimate, and even moral, for the state to take a life under certain circumstances if taking that life could be shown to save the lives of others. …