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Jolting Bits of History

The recent passing of World Day Against the Death Penalty led to some personal reflections on capital punishment over at Crisis? What Crisis? It also got me thinking about some historical tidbits on the execution of the guilty (or presumed guilty).

Nothing like a day out at the arena with the family

Nothing like a day out at the arena with the family

It slices, it dices...

It slices, it dices...

I’m sure some of the fun facts about state-sponsored death are pretty well known: stonings in biblical times, crucifixion with the Romans (a particularly slow form of death, in some cases: the history books record guys chatting while waiting for their final breath, or even signing contracts — maybe a book deal about their experience), or being devoured by beasts in the arena. The French went high-tech, for the 18th century anyway, with the guillotine. In a good year during the Revolution (“good” being relative), about two thousands people got the big slice.

Let him dangle, indeed

Let him dangle, indeed

The death penalty came to America with the English colonists (not sure what the French and Spanish did in their settlements), and in 1612, Virginia called for executing grape thieves, among others (so says the Death Penalty Information Center, which has an informative history on the subject). The Pilgrims, influenced by both common law and the Bible, had a variety of capital offenses, including: treason; murder; everyone’s favorite, “solemn compaction or conversing with the devil by way of witchcraft”; arson; rape; and the deadly duo of sodomy and buggery (bestiality). In the capital cases, the guilty was, in a phrase I always find somehow quaint, “hanged by the neck until his body is dead.”

If death penalty fans thought the guillotine was a big improvement, they really got their rocks off with the electric chair. And who was one of its best-known proponents in the United States? The Wizard of Menlo Park, a guy who knew his way around a volt and an amp, Thomas Alva Edison. Ol’ Tom promoted the use of the chair in New York largely for business reasons. No, he wasn’t making the chairs. He was trying to show that AC current, a rival to the DC systems he was trying to install, was too deadly for residential or commercial use.

Imagine the scene: It’s 1888. Edison needs someone to spread the bad word about AC, largely the creation of his former employee, Nikola Tesla. The Serb now works for Edison’s business rival, George Westinghouse. The Wizard invites another AC opponent to conduct tests in his New Jersey lab. The tests involve electrocuting dogs, two calves, and a horse with AC current, as a precursor for using a similar system as a form of capital punishment. The process came to be called “Westinghousing,” and Edison did all he could to make sure AC current was used in the first electric-chair execution. That killing took place in New York in 1890, and by all accounts it was a horrific affair, with the condemned man surviving the first jolt. Despite Edison’s efforts, however, the better system won and AC went on to become the standard electrical current, for electrocutions and more benign uses.

Thankfully, as humans found more advanced ways to kill each other with legal sanction, a few wise souls began to argue against this barbarity. The call for abolishing the death penalty started during the Enlightenment, and by the 1840s, Michigan had eliminated capital punishment for all crimes except treason. Yet in the decades that followed, only several states stopped executions, and at times, social trends would lead states to reinstate them. Finally, by the mid-20th century, abolition seemed to pick up steam. Then the Supreme Court heard a number of cases, as death penalty opponents tried to argue executions were “cruel and unusual punishments” prohibited under the Eighth Amendment and its application to the states through the Fourteenth.

A major case came in 1972, Furman v. Georgia. In a 5-4 decision, the Burger Court struck down capital punishment laws in the 39 states then carrying out executions. But the judgment only dealt with laws that did not give juries guidelines or limits when deciding capital cases; it did not say capital punishment was always and everywhere unconstitutional (though in separate concurring decisions, Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall said it was). Four years later, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Court said capital punishment is cool if state laws set standards for sentencing, taking into account such things as aggravating and mitigating circumstances.

So that’s where we are today in the good ol’ USA. Execution is fine, though a growing number of states are taking capital punishment off their books. New Mexico was the latest, earlier this year. Connecticut’s General Assembly voted to as well, but Governor Jody Rell killed (haha) the bill. Still, if you’re a death penalty foe, as I am, the numbers remain bleak: 35 states do allow capital punishment, along with the federal government and the military. The folks behind World Day Against the Death Penalty still have some work to do.

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