Mimesis Law
27 May 2020

Execution As Spectacle: Wasn’t That The Point?

June 19, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — io9’s True Crime, a blog with varied interests, posted The Day A Serial Killer Died, A Morbidly Festive Atmosphere Reigned, an article on the execution of Ted Bundy. The article decried the “festive atmosphere” but somewhat misses the point. Americans have always celebrated executions, almost viewing it as entertainment.

On the day after Christmas, 1862, the U.S. Army hung 38 Santee Sioux for going off of the reservation where they were starving to death because of the corruption of the Indian agents. After the uprising, an Army commission sentenced 303 Indians to death, but President Lincoln would only approve the execution of 38. The Army built one huge gallows and used 1,500 infantrymen to keep the crowd of thousands back while the execution took place. For decades the hanging was commemorated by a six-foot-tall four-ton granite monument.

In West Virginia in 1897, John Morgan was publicly hung for a triple murder in Ripley, West Virginia. The town of 500 became host to about 6,000 who came to witness the execution.

In 1936, Rainey Bethea, a black man convicted of rape, was publicly hung in Owensboro, Kentucky. There were about 20,000 who attended the hanging, and the main concern in the news at the time was that the Sheriff in charge of the execution was a woman. Photographs show the crowd looking on, in clean white shirts and hats.

The truth is that there have been strident calls to bring back public executions. Ted Nugent called for the Boston bomber to be publicly hung. Of course, I think brother Ted wanted to skip the trial and have the hanging within 60-days of the arrest. Above the Law’s David Lat, together with Zachary Shemtob, opined in the New York Times that executions should, at the very least, be videotaped and made available to the public.

There are at least two different arguments in support of the issue. On one side, there are those who believe that public executions would appall the public and lead to an end of the death penalty. On the other hand, there are those who believe that it would serve to show the public what happens when you commit a heinous crime, hoping that it would better fulfill its role as a deterrent.

I don’t believe it is so clear-cut. There are many who would support the elimination of the death penalty. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia do not currently have a death penalty. [Edit] All of the lower 48 states are in the north and east, with the exception of New Mexico. Washington and Oregon currently have a moratorium on the practice, so you are left with the south and the west (not including the west coast).

At the same time, there are those who would watch the executions, just as there were those who would travel to watch a hanging. It won’t deter crime necessarily, but it will become entertainment, just as it was for decades of our history. The further south one gets, the more apt one will meet someone who supports public executions. After all, the most active death penalty states are Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Florida; it stands to reason that there is not only more support there, but greater interest in watching it happen.

The question that we need to ask ourselves is whether we want the death of another human being to be relegated to mere entertainment. Whether we want it or not, there will always be those who will gravitate to these events, who will view it as something to be celebrated. Yes, if the death penalty is being used, then the public should be aware, but we should never go back to the carnival atmosphere of public hangings of the past.  The one thing a public execution should never be is a party.

3 Comments on this post.

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  • Jeff Gamso
    19 June 2015 at 10:10 am - Reply

    No, public executions aren’t likely to speed abolition, however much some abolitionists would like to believe they would.
    No, public executions aren’t likely to increase deterrence. Think of all the pickpockets who thrived on the throngs at executions.
    And no, public executions should not be entertainments. But they would be.

    And yet, executions should be public. Even though it would neither serve some utilitarian deterrent purpose nor lead to abolition. They should be public because we should get to see, maybe even be forced to see, what the government chooses to do in our name.

    And they should be public despite the tailgating because then we would get to see, for real, just who we are.

  • Cornflake S. Pecially
    19 June 2015 at 11:56 am - Reply

    Not sure if I am reading your “All of these states are in the lower 48, in the north and east…” correctly in your seventh paragraph?

    Alaska and Hawaii don’t have the death penalty, not even for their terrorists citizens, those that expose ideas of wanting to be officially excluded from the “lower 48”, their super crazies, or even their garden variety cold blooded murdering citizens.

    • shg
      19 June 2015 at 1:39 pm - Reply

      Yup. Fixed (I hope).