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5 Things You Should Know About the History of the Death Penalty

Debates about the death penalty are as old as the nation itself.

Photo Credit: Antonio Abrignani/


On March 15, 2013 Maryland became the sixth state in the U.S. to either abolish the death penalty or to impose a moratorium upon its use, joining Illinois (2001), New York (2007), New Jersey (2007), New Mexico (2009), and Connecticut (2012). Bills to abolish the death penalty have either been introduced or will be introduced this year in a number of states, including Alabama, California, Florida, Colorado, and others.

The tide is clearly turning against state-sanctioned killing in the name of the law. What many Americans do not know is that debates about the death penalty are as old as the nation itself. What follows are five facts that every American should know about capital punishment and its history in the U.S.

1. The history of capital punishment is the history of slavery's attempts to destroy free speech.

It was widely understood by late 18th, and then 19th century Americans that the death penalty was a crucial component of the violence needed both to control the plantation-driven South and to intimidate anti-slavery advocates in the North. In a popular lithograph of the time, a typical "Lord of the Lash" is seen sitting atop bales of cotton and tobacco, his ears those of a jackass, his left hand casually dangling a whip, his right foot resting atop the Constitution, portrayed here no longer as a noble document but as the slave-master's footrest. With his right hand pointing toward the ever-present gallows in the upper left corner of the image, a body already dangling from its rafters, the jackass/Lord declares to two thugs manhandling an abolitionist, "Sentence passed upon one for supporting that clause of our Declaration vis. All men are born free and equal." Illustrating the intimate relationship between slavery and capital punishment, and between supporting the death penalty and denying free speech, the Lord orders his victim to be stripped, tarred and feathered, and then "Hang[ed] by the neck, between the Heavens and the Earth!!!"

This assault on free speech, in the name of defending slavery, and as enacted via either torture (the tarring and feathering of opponents) or the death penalty (the slave master's chosen punishment for the abolitionist), was so common during the antebellum period that many Americans came to associate support for slavery and the death penalty with mob violence meant to trample constitutional rights. In fact, lynching was becoming so common a treatment for slaves, abolitionists, gamblers, and criminals that the young Abraham Lincoln described Mississippi as a death-driven Hell where "dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every road side, and in numbers almost sufficient to rival the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest."

Thus, by the 1850s, pro-slavery violence had become so tightly linked to the Democratic Party that abolitionists began denigrating their opponents as the "mobocrats;" southern Democrats had become synonymous with slavery and hangings, and capital punishment had become synonymous with killing free speech.

2. Death penalty fervor was stoked by an explosion of sensational mass media.

Today's TV may be the home of never-ending true-crime programming, but in the 19th century print media was the place to turn for the latest bizarre, sensational and gory true-crime stories. Beginning in the 1840s, America saw an explosion of magazines, newspaper stories, books, and pamphlets depicting the most gruesome crimes of the day. A titillated public gobbled up these sensational media offerings, which sparked outrage, fascination and fear. Could anyone be safe among the psychotic murderers who seemed to lurk everywhere?

Against this backdrop of mass-mediated fear, capital punishment came to be seen as a viable means of curtailing what was starting to look like a descent into depravity and wanton violence. Hysterical cries for executions were issued from pandering politicians to Bible-thumping preachers to anti-immigrant zealots eager to blame foreigners for crimes real and imagined. Early examples of this highly profitable print media included The American Blood Register ; The Annals of Murder, or Daring Outrages, Trials, Confessions, etc ; and The Lives of the Felons . From there it's a straight line to Discovery ID, Nancy Grace, and other modern-day purveyors of true crime hysteria.

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