Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

"Sentenced to the Punishment of Death": Pre-Furman Capital Crimes and Executions in Shelby County, Tennessee

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

"Sentenced to the Punishment of Death": Pre-Furman Capital Crimes and Executions in Shelby County, Tennessee

Article excerpt

"Whenever any person is sentenced to the punishment of death, the court shall direct that he be put to death by electrocution, and that the body be subjected to shock by a sufficient current of electricity until he is dead."1


This Article describes the use of the death penalty in Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee,2 from 1916 until the county's last preFurman3 execution in 1949. The Article begins with an overview of

capital punishment in Tennessee, including capital offenses, the characteristics of persons executed, and efforts to abolish the death penalty in Tennessee. The Article reports and discusses findings from an examination of archival data on capital crimes in Shelby County,4 and describes Shelby County executions, giving a number of case studies. The Article explores these cases within the context of race and gender relations and the criminal justice system of the time.

Several recent studies have examined the history of the death penalty in various states,5 but few have looked at executions by

county.6 Scholarship on capital punishment can gain from studies using the county as the political and geographical unit of analysis.7 This is especially true in a state such as Tennessee, which has several distinct cultural and geographical regions that differ significantly from each other.8

The geography of capital punishment is important to an understanding of its social functions.9 The use of capital punishment in America has always varied by region. The South10 made greater use of executions than other regions of the country historically,11 and

continues to do so under present laws.12 Tennessee is exceptional as the only former Confederate state ever to legislatively abolish the death penalty for murder.13 Tennessee was the first southern state to cease executions in the early 1960's14 and the last to resume executions under current laws.15 Within Tennessee, Shelby County historically was the source of the most convictions leading to

executions,16 and currently more people are on death row from Shelby County than from any other county of the state.17

The geographical distribution of executions in America is not accidental. The death penalty fits with the culture of the South in ways it does not, and has not for many decades, in other regions of the country. Within the South, the local culture of counties is reflected in their differing use of the capital sanction. Not surprisingly, the issue at the heart of the South's use of capital punishment was and continues to be race.18 Shelby County's executions were carried out

in the context of the social concerns of the times. This Article explores these concerns and their impact on sentencing in capital cases.


A. Capital Offenses

Tennessee became the sixteenth state of the union on June 1, 1796. The new state's law derived from the law of North Carolina, of which Tennessee originally was a part.19 Tennessee's early laws were harsh, with provisions for execution on the second offense for the crimes of horse stealing, theft of goods to the value of ten dollars, forgery, perjury, and the burning of houses or barns.20

Like other slave states, Tennessee had separate statutes for crimes committed by whites and those committed by slaves, and, often by free blacks.21 A law passed in 1819 provided that "[m]urder,

arson, burglary, rape, and robbery, shall when committed by a slave or slaves be deemed capital offences, and be punished with death."22 Slaves also were liable to a discretionary death sentence for "conspiracy to rebel."23 Two statutes specified race of victim, as well as race and/or condition of offender. An act of 1833 provided that "if any negro or mulatto, whether bond or free, shall make an assault upon a white woman, with intent to commit a rape, and use violence to her person, such negro or mulatto, for such offence, shall suffer death by hanging. …

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