Execution as a criminal punishment has been a part of U.S. history since the early colonial days of the seventeenth century. It is a story of changing methods based on what the public considers the most effective deterrent to future criminals, as well as what is considered sufficiently humane. There is also a long history of debate over the morality of taking human lives.
Capital punishments were harsh in colonial times. Though hanging was the most common method of execution, other methods—including burning alive, beheadings, and being crushed under a stack of stones—were also used. Whipping was the most common form of noncapital punishment. All of these punishments were carried out in public places and witnessed by large crowds. By the early nineteenth century hanging became the accepted form of execution over the more brutal types since the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibited cruel and unusual punishment. Executions were also moved out of public viewing and into the newly built state prisons.
Execution continues to be among the most controversial moral issues in criminal justice. Many considered hanging an inhumane form of execution. Depending on the nature of the rope, weight of the convict, the distance of the drop, and various other factors much could go wrong, including gruesome beheadings. A movement to abolish capital punishment began in the 1830s, and after a lull during the American Civil War (1861–65; war in the United States between the Union [North], who was opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [South], who was in favor of slavery) gained momentum again in the 1870s.
During the 1870s scientists were experimenting with the recent discovery of electricity, which led to construction of the first power plant in 1879. For the first time a useful form of electric power was available to communities. Competition grew between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse in early electric energy development through the 1880s. By 1888 a more reliable power supply was being delivered to cities. After witnessing accidental electrocutions of animals and people, some immediately believed electricity could be the means to painless and swift deaths to replace hangings.
New York State adopted electrocution as its means of execution and it became law on January 1, 1889. Those supporting the death penalty believed electrocution would counter opponents' arguments that the death penalty was inhumane.
The first excerpt, "Far Worse Than Hanging," gives a vivid account of the first execution by electrocution. The debate over the humaneness of execution was in the forefront of the newspaper reporter's mind in writing his account of the execution, which did not go smoothly. Despite the flaws in the execution of William Kemmler, the death penalty persisted in the United States and by the 1920s had gained renewed support.
The second excerpt, "The Plea of Clarence Darrow," provides parts from what many consider the most eloquent speech against capital punishment ever delivered. The courtroom plea was made by famous defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, who represented two young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, at their murder trial.
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