"Certainly a Man May Quibble for His Life": Public Execution and Capital Punishment in Massachusetts

By Rizzo, Brian J. | Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

"Certainly a Man May Quibble for His Life": Public Execution and Capital Punishment in Massachusetts


Rizzo, Brian J., Historical Journal of Massachusetts


Abstract: Thefollowing article offers an overview of Massachusetts' unique experience with the death penalty from the colonial period to the present. Despite its present ban, the Bay State executed criminals for capital crimes for much of its history. Initially reflecting the Puritan desire to enforce social order and religious conformity, Massachusetts authorities used the death penalty well into the twentieth century with considerable public support. As Dr. Rizzo shows, however, the state has also been the site of a vigorous, internal debate over the morality and efficacy of the death penalty, ultimately producing some of its most articulate critics. Examining the state's experience with capital punishment in light of national trends, this review provides readers with a unique perspective on Massachusetts place in the larger debate. Dr. Brian J. Rizzo teaches criminal justice at Westfield State University.

"Massachusetts once killed twenty witches in one year. The advance of reason has made us thoroughly ashamed of this spectacle and it is one of the historic facts about which we do not boast."'

- John Quincy Adams, 1 846

"We in the General Court . . . have an opportunity to correct an historical injustice which has besmirched the reputation and standing of Massachusetts in the eyes of the entire world."2

- Alexander Cella, 1959

According to Edwin Powers, "the legal history of capital punishment in Massachusetts is both dramatic and highly controversial."3 The Salem witch trials of 1692-1693 that resulted in the executions of 20 members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony certainly provided drama. The single case that provided the most controversy involved two defendants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were convicted of first-degree murder in 1921 and executed six years later.

Both cases blighted the Massachusetts justice system at the time. In the former case, the Massachusetts Bay Colony ultimately released more than 200 people accused of witchcraft. It admitted that the trials were a mistake and compensated the families of those convicted.4 The Sacco and Vanzetti case resulted in a 1959 hearing before the Joint Judiciary Committee of the Massachusetts legislature that convened to address a resolution to the governor to grant both men a posthumous pardon.

Those who believe in their innocence allege that anti-immigrant and anti-communist fervor contributed to the indictments and convictions and the case continues to be a topic of debate.5 On August 23, 1977, the fiftieth anniversary of their execution, Governor Michael S. Dukakis proclaimed "that any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed from the names of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti and from the names of their families and descendents."6 Those who believe that justice requires a full pardon for both men continue to fight to clear their names. [Editor's note: For reviews of recent books on the Sacco and Vanzetti case, see pages 178-180 in this issue.]

ARGUMENTS AND TRENDS

Whether it has centered around Salem witches, Italian immigrants, blacks, or any other dispossessed group, the capital punishment debate has historically focused attention on the constitutional issues of "cruel and unusual punishment," "due process of law," and "equal protection." The result has been a robust and sometimes highly contentious contest of ideas.

Amnesty International sums up the argument for both sides of the death penalty debate. The retentionist argument for the continued use of the death penalty is based on three general points: death is the only fitting and adequate punishment for some crimes, the death penalty is a deterrent, and the death penalty protects society. The main arguments for the abolition of the death penalty include the notion that it is irreversible, that its deterrent effect is inconclusive, and that execution is cruel and unusual punishment.7

Nationally, four trends in the use of capital punishment have been identified: a dramatic reduction in the number and types of crimes punishable by death, the attempt to reduce the cruelty of executions by replacing one execution technology with another (seemingly more humane) technology, the attempt by policy-makers to ensure that death sentences are imposed fairly and rationally, and the transition of executions from a public spectacle to a private event. …

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