Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Execution songs

By Claude Fischer

African American being hanged (circa 1906)

For millennia, executions were a major public event in the western world. Hanging or shooting or stoning or burning or disemboweling someone in the public square served to warn people against transgressing the law, denying the faith, or just ticking off the ruler. Public executions were also opportunities for moral instruction as presiding ministers extracted death-pyre confessions from the soon-to-be-deceased and chastised onlookers about their immoralities. But public executions also provided great entertainment. Crowds of spectators thrilled to the horror, gore, and ghoulishness, while they drank, partied, and cheered – and perhaps reflected on the World to Come.

African American being hanged (circa 1906)

By the mid-20th century most western nations had abolished the death penalty. Growing sensibility and sentimentality among the middle classes had led them to abhor the public spectacle and then the very idea of killing even killers. The United States has not, of course, abolished capital punishment, but by mid-century executions here had moved behind closed doors and become solemn ceremonies in front of small and select audiences.

In a recent Journal of Social History paper , Ithaca College historian Michael Trotti adds an important racial dimension to this story of the western “civilizing process.” In the U.S. South, moving executions indoors seemed to spur an increase in lynchings, as authorities tried to make executions less inspirational and more intimidating to blacks.

In public

Steven Pinker’s best-selling The Better Angels of Our Nature provides both horrifying descriptions (and images) of capital punishment and of audience reactions, as well as a history of its decline in the West. Danel Cohen’s Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace describes the “message” of capital punishment in early New England. Executions were occasions for ministers, Cotton Mather for example, to give sermons, later printed into booklets, on the price of sin and, in subsequent generations, on the possibilities of last-minute salvation. Over time, the words of the condemned themselves appeared in these best-selling execution pamphlets. The doomed, often just pirates and thieves, would lecture the audience to avoid the evil paths that they had taken to their fatal end.

The late 19th-century southern executions Trotti describes were similar, but executions of blacks – who comprised by far most of the southerners executed – were distinctive. Given the important role of executions in enforcing the Jim Crow caste system through intimidation and given the efforts southern blacks made to find some space for asserting themselves, public executions of blacks became important rallies for local African American communities; they became “public rituals celebrating black salvation.”

Hundreds and even thousands of black residents from counties around came out for hangings. “What amounted to an African American camp meeting [developed] at the scaffold, with the condemned man speaking at length . . .” The words of doomed convicts, being on the threshold of death and meeting with their Maker, were sanctified. Depending on the local sheriff’s leniency, the condemned might speak briefly or for a long time. The soon-to-be-deceased often adopted the cadences of black preachers and the language of salvation; they were going to a Better Place. Their audiences responded with the demonstrative emotions, calling out, and songs of the black church. (Working on the outskirts of the crowds were hawkers of souvenirs, food, and liquor.)

While the authorities viewed a public execution as a way to awe blacks into quiescence, the crowds often saw an execution as either the martyrdom of an innocent man done an injustice by white power or, when the condemned man confessed to the crime, as a moment when a sinner finds last-minute redemption. Either way, black audiences often saw executions as instances of the “Good Death.”


For the authorities, then, the instructional message was lost. Moreover, the camp revival atmosphere undermined the executions’ seriousness. In the 1880s and ‘90s, southern legislators started moving executions inside prisons, although they left much discretion to local sheriffs. Local sheriffs, in turn, often deferred to constituents who insisted on public hangings. Public executions thus lasted into the 1930s. The reformers pressed on in large part because treating an execution as a drunken circus was unseemly to them. But southern officials were also concerned that black audiences were treating the condemned blacks as heroes.

noose As executions started moving indoors, the audiences became small, select, and predominantly white. At about the same time, around the turn of the last century, lynchings of blacks rose in number. Lynchings, too, had predominantly white audiences. Unlike public executions, however, lynchings provided black victims no chance to speak, to preach, or to be celebrated by the black community; instead, the condemned were tortured and humiliated as well as hung. More critically, lynchings sent victims to their “maker unprepared” by last-minute declarations of faith. Lynchings were thus a much more effective tool of racial terrorizing than were legal executions. As one white newspaper editor wrote, a lynching “carries with it a grewsomeness [ sic ] which Negroes of fifty miles around do not forget” – a different lesson than the songful, religious send-off of the public executions.

Public executions and lynchings are (almost) totally a thing of the past. But Trotti’s article reminds us that both America’s official and the unofficial capital punishments were much more than official and unofficial justice. They were in some parts the country — not just the South, by the way — part of the American caste system.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history .