19th Century Capital Punishment
Today’s post is written by Ashby Crowder, a processing archivist who works primarily with civilian records.
During a stack inventory project, I came across a small series of records related to the practice of capital punishment in the United States in the late nineteenth century. The series is entitled “Governors’ Replies to a Circular on Capital Punishment.”
In early 1896, the Imperial German Ambassador assigned to Washington inquired to the Secretary of State about the methods employed to execute prisoners in the United States. This inquiry might have been precipitated by a survey of punishments for various offenses that the Secretary of State had directed his diplomatic officers in all posts to perform earlier in the decade. Upon receiving the German Ambassador’s request, the Secretary wrote the governors of the 45 states that then comprised the Union to seek the information the German ambassador requested. The replies he received from officials in all states are included in this series.
The letter from Alabama governor William C. Oates—the first one included in the alphabetically arranged series—is typical:
Most states, like Alabama, prescribed hanging by the neck as the only method of executing prisoners. At least this method of capital punishment adhered to the practice’s etymological origins: capital, in this instance, derives from the Latin capitalis, meaning “of or regarding the head.” Five states—New York, Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Utah—diverged from the trend. Utah gave the condemned a choice. “Punishment of death must be inflicted by hanging the defendant by the neck until he is dead, or by being shot, at his election,” reads the letter bearing the signature of Utah Governor Heber M. Wells. The governor adds that “so far as I remember, the criminal has chosen to be shot.”
The governors of Maine, Michigan, and Wisconsin replied that their states had abolished the death penalty. Michigan Governor John T. Rich notes that while the law banning the death penalty was a controversial issue in his state, he “do[es] not believe that the sentiment is strong enough in the State today to enact any law for capital punishment.”
New York was the most technologically advanced in its method of executing the condemned. In 1889, the state adopted the recommendations of a state panel ominously named the Electrical Death Commission, which recommended that New York adopt a new technique for carrying out death sentences. Levi P. Morton, governor of the state that introduced the electric chair as a supposedly more humane method of killing the condemned, replies that New York employed “the scientific process called ‘electrocution’.”
Electrocution would itself become the dominant method of executing prisoners in the United States by the mid twentieth century, only to be replaced by lethal injection for the very reason for which it had ostensibly been adopted.