On the Evolving Technique of Capital Punishment in America

September 29, 2008

posted and written by Caroline Picard; part of a research job from 2007.

On the Evolving Technique of Capital Punishment in America

Beheading: Medieval

After 1878, Utah disallowed all behadings (Banner, 2002).

The Gallows: The Method for Cowboys, Rogues and Martyrs.

Initially America used a single tree to sentence it capital offenders. Initially a capital offense could range from the stealing of grapes, killing chickens and trading with Indians to murder, treason or piracy. Each colony was so small that any offense was an unequivocal threat to domestic stability. (http://deathpenaltyinfo.msu.edu/c/about/history/history-10.htm) Criminals were not merely men, but symbolic offenders of the very order Americans were trying to establish. Pilgrims brought their methods from England and because the justice system was still rudimentary, as the rest of life, there were no accommodations for the long-term prisoner. North Carolina did not have a state penitentiary, for instance, and there seemed no suitable alternative to capital punishment (Hugo Adam Bedau, The Death Penalty in America (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1982). It was not until 1799 that the first state penitentiary was built in Philadelphia, and even that was the crowning achievement for Benjamin Rush (signer of the declaration of Independence) and the first abolitionist movement, (Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, Who Owns Death?, Harper Collins, 2000).

A hanging was a public spectacle, delivered through the ritual of a minister’s sermons, where often the executed lead the public in a solemn hymn before they met their end. Criminals died as a reminder to all constituents of the new world that humanity harbors the potential to do wrong. Lest the order of the whole be compromised, wrongs were not tolerated. The first recorded execution was that of Captain George Kendall in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608. He was arrested for suspicious activity, and accused for spying for Spain. (Lifton and Mitchell, 2000).

As life in America developed need for the death penalty waned (Victor L. Streib, Death Penalty In a Nutshell, 2nd Ed., Thomas/West, 2005) and in this new stability, it was harder to dehumanize the criminal. The distance between crime, as symbolically epitomized by the prisoner, and the greater good, what was represented by the gawking community, diminished and the moral distance necessary for conviction had to be recreated. Concern for both executioner and executed called for new strategies to reduce the awkward if not gruesome exhibitions of death. Where once there was only a tree, gallows were built. Where before there had only been a ladder to kick out from under the prisoners’ feet, a horse and carriage was rigged first, and finally supplanted by the trap door.

Complaints of inconsistent deaths inspired a new method, “The Upright Jerker,” in 1831.  With the death of pirate Charles Gibbs in New York, a noose was strung through two additional ropes that ran along pulleys and weights, rather than being tied directly to the gallows. By this method, the hanged man up jerked up first then dropped down, increasing a quick fractured spine instead of the five for eight minutes of struggling asphyxiation, or the incidental decapitation. This method became the national standard by 1845 (Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty, Harvard University Press, 2002). Nevertheless, there were still innumerable flaws and ugly foibles that pointed to the inefficiency and pain in mechanized executions. Any complication revealed the frailty of both the system and condemned criminals, by which a significant moral distance between the public and its’ host of evil was lost.

With the exception of lethal injection, innovation creating distance and reduced the obvious culpability of any executioner. At one point experimental mechanisms with rigs, water, weights and levers made the criminal hang himself.

Michigan was the first state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason in 1846 (Streib, 2005).

These developments, though crude, demonstrate an inherent queasiness in the American psyche and as the audience of execution grew with the population, there was a reciprocal demand to remove the hanging ground from the center of town. In 1811, New York resident Elizabeth Glover demanded reimbursement from the city when attending viewers damaged her fence (Banner, 2002). The morbid  ceremony of execution had also been replaced with a lower class rabble, the traditional procession towards death seeming more like a circus show with alcoholic beverages and lottery tickets. The sanctity of a symbolic execution was gone. By 1841, every state in the Northeast and Atlantic Coast regions held their executions in the prison yard to a limited and elite audience (Lifton and Mitchell, 2000). Distance was thereby reinstated  and the greater public was disassociated from a first hand experience of capital punishment. The myth of crime and punishment was restored in the defense of social security.

The Electric Chair : What is typically associated with Hollywood and Sensationalism (“he’ll fry!”)

Although opposition to the death penalty has had various revivals and secessions, it stirred as early as 1767, was all but forgotten during the Civil War and resurged in the 1890’s as the country focused on more “scientific” explanations for criminal and their crimes (Craig Haney, Death By Design: Captial Punishment as a Social Psychological System, Oxford University Press, 2005). Science was a badge of civilization, which afforded a new and objective platform upon which society could protect the dignity of Humankind. Electricity would be the new handmaid for Justice. It was first considered ‘therapeutic’ as when 1881 Mrs. President, Lucretia Garfield, considered installing an “electric bathtub” in the white house to cure her husband’s ills, (Banner, 2002). Keeping this New Science in mind, New York decided the electric chair was the improved method. As advertised it was neater, quieter, elegant, modern and compassionate (Lifton and Mitchell, 2000). Electrocution was the death sentence of a progressive, industrial Nation, a far cry from its and clumsy gallows of the colonial era. At the time Edison and Westinghouse were competing to dominate the market, the first touting the benefits of Direct Current (DC), the latter Alternative Current (AC). Edison created the first electric chair using an alternate current because he thought it would finally put an end to his competitor; after all, the last thing the American public would want was to furbish their homes with the same electrical technology used for capital executions. As part of this campaign, Edison touted the dangerous properties of AC and publicly executed 1,000 stray cats and dogs in New Jersey. Despite the vehement protest of Westinghouse, the world’s first electrical execution law went into effect on the first day of 1889 (http://inventors.about.com/od/hstartinventions/a/Electric_Chair.htm) and executed William Kemmler by that method in 1890. (L. Randa, Society’s Final Solution: A History and Discussion of the Death Penalty, University Press of America, 1997).

Because the chair required a direct power source (the generator) executions traveled to state penitentiaries that could afford the expense of new equipment. Families directly associated with the crimes were less likely to participate in the executions and upper class white males became the predominant audience. Word of executions was primarily mediated through second or third hand reports. “It was the story of death in a distant place, at the hands of a mysterious machine most would never see except in movies. The eighteenth-century exponents of capital punishment, who placed great emphasis on the deterrent value of visual display, would have been astonished had they known what was coming” (Banner, 2002). Media played a significant role in the popular opinion of this new procedure, and the death penalty thereafter (Haney, 2005). It was the sensation of criminology that served to reinforce old roles through the eyes of various stories in newsprint. The mode of death was as abstract to the general public. Photography was not allowed in the death chamber (Banner, 2002) and the public was subject to the pull of political and economic influence that directed news reports. The distance between the cause of a safe society and the blight of a criminal was mediated here by science and technology, sequestered and discreet locations for punishment, and the accounts of a few witnesses. Like science, media was another tool for distance.

Despite best efforts the first electrical execution was predictably gauche, proving that there was a certain electrical skill required. Strategies for measured currents had to be developed, and with them a whole mythology of the electric chair and the executioner. The world itself is a senseless combination that would literally mean to follow electricity (Banner, 2002). Particular chairs wielded macabre reputations, given diminutive and anthropomorphic reputations. “Old Sparky” for instance was Florida’s three-legged electric chair that had been carved out by inmates in 1923 and used until 1997. Another chair was made from the gallows that preceded it. Or Alabama’s “Yellow Mama” that had accomplished 169 (33 white) deaths in 2000 (Lifton and Mitchell, 2000).  Harrowing tales of criminals thought dead who were instead unconscious and revived on the autopsy table, encouraged public scrutiny. Generally, bodies were donated to science to ensure both that criminals were ultimately put to good use and that each culprit would feel the weight of desecration.

Where before any man could have tied the noose and opened the trap door, now executions were restricted to specialists familiar the equipment. Edwin F. Davis, the electrician who had built the original electric chair in 1890, became New York’s prime executioner and, in some sense fathered an industry. Before he died in 1890, he killed 240 people. His predecessor, John Hulbert killed 120 more. Hulbert’s successor, Robert Elliot was the elected executioner in five other states, and managed to execute so many people that he eventually became a morbid celebrity in his own right. (Stuart, 2002). In an effort to further reduce the agency of any one individual, two buttons were added, in order to further distribute the agency of death between two people.

Lethal Gas

Dr. Allen McLean Hamilton originally proposed gassing in 1896/97 (http://www.richard. clark32.btinternet.co.uk/gascham.html). The Medical Center of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, agreed upon the superior gentility of cyanide gas and although the 1888 New York Commission had considered this option, it was never seriously considered (Banner, 2002). Nevada was the first state to use gas in 1921 and borrowed the cyanide techniques used in WWI. Part of its humanitarian appeal stemmed from a logistical expectation, in which prisoners would be gassed in their cells while sleeping.  After a first failed attempt with Chinese immigrant and gang member Jon Lee, prison officials built a hasty airtight chamber with enough room for a single chair, and a little window for viewing. A pig was gassed in a test run, (Lifton and Mitchell, 2000), the pig died successfully, while Lee suffered the pains of an untried innovation. Officials had to wait for three hours before they could safely open the vault and dispose of the body (Banner, 2002). Major Delos A Turner, an army medical corps officer designed the first gas chamber (http://www.richard.clark32.btinternet.co.uk/gascham. html). After a few seemingly painless executions, eleven states switched to lethal gas, including Colorado, North Carolina, Missouri, Oregon, Mississippi, and New Mexico. Arizona switched to gas in 1930 after Mrs. Eva Dugan, the first woman to be executed in the state, accidentally lost her head when hanged because of a simple miscalculation (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/execution/     readings/history.html – fnB17). While southern and western states had been slow to make let go of their gallows, they now skipped over the electric chair altogether, preferring this most modern and mild death. As in the case of the electric chair, the more scientific and modern a method, the more humane it seemed to the public (Banner, 2002).

Like the electric chair, the necessary equipment was an expensive and stationary commitment. Inmates in San Quentin built their own chamber in 1937, fitting gaskets and valves and witnessing various tests (Lifton and Mitchell, 2000). In the end, the procedure was more predictable. Inmates were strapped to a chair with, in rooms like pods, and stethoscopes were strapped to their chests to monitor the pulse. An official pulls a lever in order to release sodium cyanide capsules into a dish of sulphuric acid placed directly under the prisoner’s chair (Lifton and Mitchell, 2000). Thereafter, the attendant waits for approximately 45 minutes. In 1950 Missouri, for instance, printed charts listing the predicted influence of gas (and eventual death), so consistent, that prison officials knew the head would fall forward first, then backward, and then between ‘apparent unconsciousness’ and ‘chamber doors opened’, the head would again fall forward (Banner, 2002). This new method was far more neat and tidy.

The main trouble was its insipid invisibility. Often attendants would flee from a scare that the gas was loose in the viewing room. “The cyanide is so toxic that prisoners wear no underwear, preventing any gas from being trapped in folds where it could prove dangerous to an undertaker” (Lifton and Mitchell, 2000). Nevertheless the obvious connection between holocaust practices in WWII didn’t tint the practice of gas chambers—perhaps because it did appear to be the kindest method. Leading execution technician Fred Leuchter Jr., urged the humane character of these mechanisms, sold gallows and gas chambers alike, and was eventually discredited when he traveled to Nazi Germany’s holocaust camps. While there, he allegedly proved that cyanide gas was not used at Auschwitz (Lifton and Mitchell, 2000). His machines have been used in several US states.

Here again, media provided another kind of instrument for viewing. With these new development methods of execution, complimented as they were with the constant ebb and flow of national support or objection, the public had a mediated experience of the criminal. In the 1920’s and 30’s, the death penalty was put to regular use and popularized on the front pages of newspapers (Streib, 2005). It was considered a necessary social measure and toted as such in various political writings at the time (Bohm, 1997). 1930 boasts the highest number of executions, putting an average of 167 people to death each year (Bohm and Schabas, 1997). In the 1940’s there were 1,289 executions. This fell to a total 715 in the 50’s and continued to drop(Bohm, 1999 and BJS, 1997). Without much change in legislature, support for the death penalty waned in the 50’s and 60’s. With the exception of a small number of rarely committed crimes in a few jurisdictions, all mandatory capital punishment laws had been abolished by 1963 (Bohm, 1999). Executions were infrequent and the death of Louis Monge in 1967 was the last execution for a decade (Streib, 2005). (facts this last paragraph also came from: 1.http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/execution/readings/history.html)

Lethal Injection

In 1973 Ronald Regan said as the Governor of California was quoted saying, “Being a former farmer and horse raiser, I know what it’s like to try to eliminate an injured horse by shooting him. Now you call the veterinarian and the vet gives it a shot [injection] and the horse goes to sleep – that’s it. I myself have wondered if maybe this isn’t part of our problem [with capital punishment], if maybe we should review and see if there aren’t even more humane methods now – the simple shot or tranquillizer.(8)” Quoted in Schwarzchild H. Homicide by injection, New York Times, 23 December 1982; cited in Denno D. Getting to death: are executions constitutional? Iowa Law Review, 1997;82:319-464, note 315 (p.374).

By the time the death sentence was re-populaarized, old equipment had fallen into disrepair. The funds required to refurbish rusty electric chairs, or leaky gas chambers seemed too high a cost in comparison with the latest possibility of lethal injection. North Carolina Department of Correction estimated that the total cost of equipment for each administered death would only be $346.51 in 1994 (Banner, 2002). A cocktail of drugs, administered in sequence, appeared to put the prisoner to sleep, quietly, as one might their beloved pet. The prisoner is strapped to a table and needles are inserted. First the veins were flushed out with a saline solution, then a sleeping drug is administered and then at last a poison is given to stop the heart. Unlike previous methods, lethal injection was the most affordable, and in most cases was the easiest death to watch. The viewer is comforted with an empathetic calm. “In 1977, Oklahoma became the first state to adopt lethal injection as a means of execution, though it would be five more years until Charles Brooks would become the first person executed by lethal injection in Texas on December 2, 1982. Today, 37 of the 38 states that have the death penalty use this method”(http://deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?scid=8&did=479).

This too can be awkward. In the worst case, veins of a prisoner might collapse, or the administrator might struggle for a clumsy hour looking poking an arm for a vein. In one case and for lack of alternative, the needle was eventually inserted in the prisoner’s neck. Unlike preceding methods, lethal injection required a necessary closeness between the prisoner and the executioner, (Banner, 2002).

Lethal injection points to a contemporary view of death. Whereas other methods required some upright posture, lethal injection laid a criminal on his back. Perhaps this is what ultimately puts the public at ease, because inherent in the posture is an effort of graceful resignation. Coupled with the by-now traditional trend of privacy and seclusion, America at large has little beyond its imagination, and the political climate that colors any second hand report, with which to comprehend capital punishment. The death itself does not give the community its pageant of good and evil. Where before an audience would stare at the gallows to watch the drama of injustice resolve, now the drama takes place in the courtroom. It is the sentence that achieves public redemption (Haney, 2005).

Ethical questions muddle lethal injection because it is essentially against the ancient Hippocratic oaths that all doctors must take for a license. The American Medical Association barred medical employees from taking part in executions (Banner, 2002), but medical participation continues, particularly in Illinois, where doctors are ordered to administer death. This has led to an obvious conflict between professional ethics and the state legislature (http://web.amnesty.org/library/ Index/engACT500011998). In the past, physicians merely pronounced death, but without a doctor, concerns about the professional capacity of its executioners are raised. Without the proper education, it is possible that these drugs are not administered properly, inflicting pain on the condemned. How can one be sure that the inmate is free of pain if there is no doctor measuring his or her physiological condition. Often physician supply a sedative before prison officials take over the necessary procedure.


My personally preferred method (if I had to)

Because this is amazing. I don’t understand why someone wouldn’t just prefer this. You sit on a chair and then they set up this tent, in order to protect the identity of the firing squad. There is a target taped over your heart, and a pan is placed under your chair to collect most of the blood. Among the firing squad, a pattern of blanks and bullets is placed in each rifle, a pattern that no one knows, so that no one shooter can be held accountable for the lethal shot.  I guess you sit there with a blindfold, and maybe you have your back turned, I’m not sure.

But apparently they don’t like it because it’s messy. Which is another scrap of evidence that goes to show that these executions are more for the living than they are for the dying.

But I don’t know. It just seems ‘cleaner’ to me. I guess it take on average between 10-20 minutes before you die.

Shooting was only available in Utah and Nevada, but Nevada gave it up in 1921. The use of the firing squad in those states was originally for the Mormons, who in some cases required ‘blood atonement.’ (Banner, 2002.) Shooting is associated with military action, and there is thus a kind of honor, one could argue, that goes along with it (Lifton and Mitchell, 2000), this seems mitigated by a chair, instead of simply standing with your hands in the air, but perhaps that’s part of modernity.

One Response to “On the Evolving Technique of Capital Punishment in America”

  1. Josh Maxwell Says:

    I finally decided to write a comment on your blog. I just wanted to say good job. I really enjoy reading your posts.

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