The Death Penalty: An American History

The Death Penalty: An American History

The Death Penalty: An American History

The Death Penalty: An American History


The death penalty arouses our passions as does few other issues. Some view taking another person's life as just and reasonable punishment while others see it as an inhumane and barbaric act. But the intensity of feeling that capital punishment provokes often obscures its long and varied history in this country.

Now, for the first time, we have a comprehensive history of the death penalty in the United States. Law professor Stuart Banner tells the story of how, over four centuries, dramatic changes have taken place in the ways capital punishment has been administered and experienced. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the penalty was standard for a laundry list of crimes--from adultery to murder, from arson to stealing horses. Hangings were public events, staged before audiences numbering in the thousands, attended by women and men, young and old, black and white alike. Early on, the gruesome spectacle had explicitly religious purposes--an event replete with sermons, confessions, and last minute penitence--to promote the salvation of both the condemned and the crowd. Through the nineteenth century, the execution became desacralized, increasingly secular and private, in response to changing mores. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, ironically, as it has become a quiet, sanitary, technological procedure, the death penalty is as divisive as ever.

By recreating what it was like to be the condemned, the executioner, and the spectator, Banner moves beyond the debates, to give us an unprecedented understanding of capital punishment's many meanings. As nearly four thousand inmates are now on death row, and almost one hundred are currently being executed each year, the furious debate is unlikely to diminish. The Death Penalty is invaluable in understanding the American way of the ultimate punishment.


Stephen Clark was hanged in Salem, Massachusetts, in the spring of 1821. No one had been hurt when Clark had set fire to a barn late one night the previous summer, but the fire had spread to some of the neighboring wooden houses, and arson of a dwelling during the night was a capital crime. Ever since his conviction in February, petitions had been presented to the governor seeking to have Clark's sentence commuted to imprisonment. Clark was easy to sympathize with. He was only sixteen years old, pale and thin, with no criminal record, from a respectable family. But clemency had been denied. “Those who have been so anxious to have him spared, would allow mercy to wink justice out of sight,” one local newspaper insisted; “they do not take into their estimation the vast amount of anxiety, of distress and misery that has followed his crime.”

The execution began around noon, when Clark was taken from jail to the gallows in a carriage, escorted by a military guard, along with the sheriff and his deputies, mounted and armed. The jailer rode with Clark, as did a few ministers, who raced the clock to ensure that Clark attained penitence, and thus the possibility of an infinite afterlife, before it was too late. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of spectators walked alongside the procession. They caught no glimpse of Clark until the carriage arrived at the gallows.

As the crowd watched quietly, Clark emerged and climbed the steps up to the scaffold. The ministers and the sheriff followed. Clark wobbled and nearly fainted from fear; he had to lean on one of the ministers while the sheriff read his death warrant to the crowd. When the time came for Clark to address the spectators, he was too shy to speak. Instead, at his request, the Reverend Mr. Cornelius read a few sentences Clark had com-

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