Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota

By John D. Bessler | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
The Gallows Reconsidered
Executions versus Life Sentences

The death penalty was imported to the American colonies from England, where executions took place at locales like Tyburn and the Tower of London. Many English executions were of lower-class thieves or murderers, but others, like the beheading of King Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, showed that even royalty and women were not exempt from death sentences. Boleyn, who failed to bear the king a male heir, was charged with adultery and treason and executed in 1536, with Henry VIII marrying eleven days later. The death penalty, in fact, has been inflicted throughout history on women and men alike for a wide array of offenses. In the American colonies, public hangings were used to punish murder and rape, rebellion and witchcraft, and blasphemy and sodomy. Although Minnesota’s constitution is silent on the death penalty issue and no capital punishment statute currently exists in the state, what motivated lawmakers to allow executions in years past can only be ascertained through historical records. What can be said definitively of executions like those of Anne Boleyn and Ann Bilansky is that they sparked enormous public controversy. In the case of Ann Bilansky, her hanging triggered an anti–death penalty crusade in the heartland, in Minnesota— a state that authorized capital punishment from its inception.1

The abolitionist movement, globally, dates to 1763, when a young Italian jurist, Cesare Beccaria, published a short treatise called On Crimes and Punishments. Beccaria advocated penal confinement as a substitute

-93-

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