What is the history of the use of the death penalty during the late nineteenth century (1800s) and the twentieth century in America?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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  • 19th Century

In the mid 1800s, public hangings were customary; by 1849 there were fifteen states that had these. Often they became scenes of rowdy and sadistic behavior as many of the men became intoxicated, pushing and fighting, yelling at the person being hanged. In 1835 Maine enacted a moratorium on the death penalty, ruling that a prisoner must be incarcerated for a year before any death penalty could be imposed. In 1852 Rhode Island eliminated the death penalty, and after 1845 the first national society for the abolition of capital punishment was founded; the next year Michigan became the first state to abolish capital punishment. 

Procedures for the death penalty were changed after Thomas Edison demonstrated that animals could be killed quickly with electrocution. In New York the first electrocution was performed in 1890; however, it took two tries for the electricity to pass into the felon William Kemmler. Worse than this, Kemmler did not immediately die; instead he burned to death in horrifying pain. While electrocution still became the method of execution, during the period of 1895-1917 nine states in the U.S. abolished the death penalty.

  • 20th Century

Lethal gas was introduced as a death penalty felt to me more humane than electricity, hanging, firing squad. In 1924 in Nevada, Gee Jon, a member of a Chinese gang, was gassed to death. While rare, there was a hanging in 1936 in Kentucky as Rainey Bethea was hanged for rape. This hanging became a debacle, called a macabre "carnival in Owensboro"; in fact, many scholars on the death penalty feel it provided the impetus for the eventual ban on hangings. Yet, there was a hanging as late as 1996.

In 1945, Private Eddie Solvick, who was already a convicted felon and had deserted more than once was charged with desertion to avoid hazardous duty and tried by court martial on 11 November 1944, and was executed by firing squad. Later, in 1947, Willie Francis, a Louisana youth was electrocuted at 18 for having killed a pharmacist for whom he worked, but only on the second attempt as the first time the electricity did not kill him.

In 1951, the Rosenbergs were tried for espionage against America by turning over to the KGB of Russia technical information from the atom research centre in Los Alamos and were electrocuted in 1953. Afterwards, a revival of the movement to abolish capital punishment prevailed from 1952 to 1972. Michael Reggio writes,

Delaware restored the death penalty in 1961. Michigan abolished capital punishment for treason in 1963. Voters in 1964 abolished the death penalty in Oregon. In 1965 Iowa, New York, West Virginia, and Vermont ended the death penalty. New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 1969. 

In 1972, in a Supreme Court case, Furman v. Georgia, the death penalty was ruled unconstitutional as administered with the 14 Amendment cited. In another case in, Roper v. Simmons, it was ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional for offenders under 18, a decision leading to the invalidation of death penalty statutes in many states; so 35 states revised their statutes, making them constitutionally acceptable. Hundreds of sentences were then commuted to life imprisonment.

In 1976, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of the death penalty, and in 1977 Gary Gilmore died by firing squad. in 1982 Texas performed the first lethal injection. In 1986 the death penalty was made illegal for insane people, and in 1988 execution of minors under 16 became illegal.

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