5 things you may not know about death penalty

With Maryland becoming the latest state to abolish its use, we look back on capital punishment's tortured history

Published April 3, 2013 1:05PM (EDT)


This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet 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 RegisterThe 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.

3. Capital punishment is bound up with public spaces of racism, torture and sadism.

In the late afternoon of April 28, 1836 barges were docking for the night along the slips lining the Mississippi River in St. Louis. As the ships emptied of hard men bound for drink, a fight erupted, and two brawling boatmen were arrested by officers George Hammond and William Mull. Seeing his comrades in danger, Francis McIntosh, a mulatto boatman fresh off the Flora, which had just arrived from Pittsburgh, rushed the constables, thus diverting their attention long enough for his friends to escape. The outraged police then grabbed McIntosh, who was threatened with harsh punishment for his rash actions. Knowing full well what this meant to a man of mixed race in the South, McIntosh panicked, drew a blade, wounded Mull, killed Hammond, and fled down a back street, where he was soon captured by witnesses. McIntosh was taken to the local jail for holding, but was soon dragged from his cell by a mob that chained the boatman to a locust tree, piled wood as high as his knees, and torched him -- thus enacting the racist mob violence decried above by Lincoln.

The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1840 reported that after the fire had subsided and onlookers began to wonder if he was dead, McIntosh moaned "No, no, I am suffering as much as ever; shoot, shoot me." But the crowd was not there to see him die so much as to witness their neighbors reveling in his suffering. "No, no," an onlooker quipped back, "I would sooner slacken the fire if that would increase his misery." And McIntosh's misery was indeed pleasurable for the gathered crowd.

Indeed, the public was taught not only to watch such fiery examples of the death penalty but to enjoy them and thus to prove through their enthusiasm not only their fealty to white supremacy but their willingness to support that order's most brutal uses of violence. Saidiya Hartman has argued that one of the key goals of slave-masters was to encourage "the diffusion of terror": in order to perpetuate the legitimacy of white supremacy, the power invested in those who committed racially driven public violence needed to be diffused widely and therefore enmeshed with as many facets of daily life as possible. Rather than being rare and spectacular, violence should be ever-present and banal, a constant presence shadowing life. The public square should function, then, not only as a space of communal friendship and commerce but also as a reminder of the violence that makes public life possible.

4. Capital punishment's strongest supporters justified executions as acts of biblical retribution.

During the great antebellum debates about the death penalty, America's most vocal supporter of capital punishment was George Barrell Cheever. An arch-conservative Calvinist with degrees from Bowdoin and Andover Theological Seminary, Cheever burst into national prominence in 1835 as a temperance activist. Ripping drinkers was but a prefatory move, however, for Cheever became the nation's most famous preacher by using debates about capital punishment as occasions for lambasting the nation's rapid slide toward Hell.

Unlike John L. O'Sullivan, Walt Whitman, Lydia Maria Child, Frederick Douglass, and the period's other proponents of modernity, Enlightenment, republicanism, racial justice, and gender equity, Cheever believed democracy was an invitation to madness. In one July Fourth oration, he preached that "The government of this world is with Satan, and for this reason the friendship of the world is declared to be enmity against God...we mean that men live according to Satan's principles; he is the spirit that now ruleth in the children of disobedience; and the children of disobedience are by hundreds of millions the majority among the inhabitants of this world."

Democracy is but a façade for Satan's work, for both in its broad philosophical principles and especially in its Jacksonian variant, it empowers "the children of disobedience," thus paving the way for "hundreds of millions" of little Devils, each crawling along in a path of sin. Cheever thus supported the death penalty as one of the last bulwarks again Hell-on-Earth.

Like many conservative theologians of the day, Cheever feared that abolishing the death penalty would invite God's wrath. Revoke the death penalty, such thinking went, and famines will strike, plagues will sweep across the plains, rivers will flow backwards -- God will destroy us. Like death penalty supporters today, Cheever argued that the death penalty deterred criminals from committing more and worse crimes; this meant, then, for Cheever, that abolishing the death penalty would "make murderers out of common thieves and robbers."

Given the high stakes involved, and considering what can only be called Cheever's towering condescension regarding the abilities of his fellow Americans, it will come as no surprise to learn that he believed that the only means of appeasing God was through "RETRIBUTION!" For Cheever, "RETRIBUTION" alone honors "the righteous terrors of [God's] Law." Then as now, God would be called upon to sanction death.

5. Despite the specter of the death penalty, abolitionists held their ground.

William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator -- the nation's most important anti-slavery and anti-death penalty magazine -- was dedicated to the uncompromising and revolutionary promises of the Enlightenment, modernity and democracy. Garrison and his "Boston clique" were also, however, Antinomian extremists who, not unlike Cheever, believed that God had anointed them his chosen messengers of truth; the core members of the community that revolved around the Liberatoreven, so Lawrence Friedman argues, "looked to Garrison as a messiah."

Garrison's unwavering Christian anarchism was encapsulated in the opening salvo of the first issue of the Liberator, where he famously barked, "I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice.... I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD."

Garrison was heard all right: so much so that by 1843 a mob attacked him and threatened to kill him for his views. The scene was Boston, October 1843, when Garrison was scheduled to speak at an antislavery gathering featuring George Thompson, another prominent abolitionist. While Thompson escaped the fury of the thugs, Garrison was captured and paraded through the streets with a noose around his neck. Still, Garrison was used to such theatrics, as he often awoke to find nooses dangling on his front porch -- a clear threat of the fate awaiting those who opposed slavery and hangings.

Despite such threats, Garrison's Liberator became one of the nation's premier outlets for articles, stories and poems arguing for abolishing capital punishment. As Garrison's brave example demonstrates, death penalty abolitionists cannot be intimidated by threats of violence.

By Stephen Hartnett

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Alternet Capital Punishment Death Penalty Slavery Torture