Gruesome practices of the past

History: Public executions were supposed to be solemn rituals striking terror in the hearts of criminals, not boisterous celebrations.

April 22, 2001|By Paul Finkelman

Until the mid-19th century public executions were common in England and the United States. They were ritualistic exercises designed to impress upon the population -- and especially on would-be criminals -- the power of the law.

The ritual usually began with a slow procession from the jail to the gallows, often a few miles away. In England it was common for the procession, with the condemned man, to stop at a church for prayer.

In this country prayers and sermons were offered on the gallows. In Colonial America, the condemned man (and it was almost always a man) was expected to confess, repent, ask forgiveness, and offer a brief lecture to the audience on the wages of sin. In England, a proper Christian burial was often contingent on confession and repentance.

Sometimes the gallows statements affected the crowd in unexpected ways. Just before he was hanged for witchcraft in Salem, Mass., in 1692, the Rev. George Burroughs forcefully, and without error, rendered the Lord's Prayer. Because it was widely believed that a witch could not correctly recite this prayer, a riot nearly occurred as the crowd surged forward to stop the execution. But the Rev. Cotton Mather saved the day for the hangman by riding in front of the crowd and stopping its progress. Burroughs was then hanged.

But it was the pious prayers that Rebecca Nurse uttered on the gallows that helped bring an end to the witch hysteria in Salem. Nurse, an aged women wrongly convicted of witchcraft, prayed for those who had condemned her. Nurse's sincerity touched the crowd.

Before the hangman's noose, hangings were particularly gruesome -- the condemned person strangled and it could take up to an hour for death to occur. The hangman's noose -- a mid-19th century innovation -- resulted in speedier death by snapping the neck of the condemned.

More gruesome were public beheadings and burnings, not uncommon in England, but rarer on this side of the Atlantic.

One blood-chilling display of the state's power occurred in South Carolina in 1739 after a slave uprising known as the Stono Rebellion. Authorities hanged about 40 slaves, whose severed heads were placed on mile markers in the colony. Their skulls remained on the posts for several years after the executions.

While public executions were supposed to be solemn affairs meant to strike terror in the hearts of potential criminals, they were really boisterous celebrations that attracted huge crowds. A crowd estimated in the thousands watched the execution of a man in New York City in 1819.

Ironically, it was not uncommon for onlookers to get killed at executions. Often they were caught in the crush of unruly mobs. And sometimes the mobs became a law unto themselves.

For example, in 1741, New York authorities tried to stay the execution of two slaves accused of arson after they confessed and implicated others in a conspiracy to set fire to the city. But, the crowd would have none of it, and the sheriff thought it safer to proceed with the execution -- by burning them at the stake -- than risk a riot by the disappointed burghers who so desperately wanted to be entertained by a funeral pyre with live victims.

In 1859, Virginia authorities were concerned that public violence would accompany the hanging of John Brown following his ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry. Authorities feared that Brown's supporters would try to rescue him or that jubilant Virginians might riot after Brown, a symbol of the abolition movement, was put to death. So the hanging took place in the open, with many hundreds of onlookers, but all were soldiers, reporters, or official witnesses.

Nevertheless, the hanging backfired on Virginia, as Brown's stoic march to the gallows, and his simple written statement that he hoped to end slavery without much bloodshed, helped make him into a Christ-like martyr throughout the North.

In the old West, public hangings were a popular form of entertainment. People traveled many miles by horse and buggy to see the condemned dance at the end of a rope.

By the mid-19th century, some supporters of capital punishment began to question the rationale for public executions. They were concerned that public executions were merely rowdy celebrations -- not solemn acts of justice.

Meanwhile, some death penalty opponents thought capital punishment would end if public executions were stopped and the carnival atmosphere taken away. But it was technological change -- the use of the electric chair -- that did much to push executions behind prison walls. The first execution using the electric chair occurred in 1890 in New York. Thirty-four years later, Nevada became the first state to use the gas chamber, an innovation that sprang from the use of poison gas during World War I.

At 7 a.m. on May 16 Timothy J. McVeigh, 32, is scheduled to die by lethal injection, which is the most common form of execution in the United States.

The last federal prisoner to be executed was Victor Feguer in 1963. Feguer was hanged at the Iowa State Penitentiary after being convicted of kidnapping and murder. The Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that the death penalty was unfairly applied, with widely varying standards among the different states. Executions ceased until 1988 when the high court restored the death penalty after state and federal procedures were revised.

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