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History of the Death Penalty, Executions, and Last Meals


History of the Death Penalty

The earliest record of a death penalty comes from King Hammaurabi of Babylon in the 18th century BC. The Romans, not to be outdone (the Romans were never to be outdone) implemented the death penalty as punishment “for all crimes.” According to, among the methods employed were “crucifixion, drowning, beating to death, burning alive, and impalement. “

In Britain during the Tenth Century A.D., the death penalty was alive and well with hanging the usual method, but in the Eleventh Century William the Conqueror abolished this form of punishment except in times of war. Such largess would not last however, as Henry the VIII took rule in the Sixteenth Century. You know King Hank. He's the one who had his wives beheaded if they failed to give him a son, and they were queens. You can imagine what punishments a normal citizen faced, 72,000 of them. Methods of execution included “boiling, burning at the stake, hanging, beheading, and drawing and quartering.” Some offenses targeted were not only the usual treason, but refusing to confess to a crime and marrying a Jew. (Hey, some of my best friends are Jews.) Over the next two centuries, crime increased and the crimes of stealing, cutting down a tree and stealing a rabbit from a warren were added to the list of crimes punishable by death.

In America, the first record of the death penalty is recorded as taking place in Jamestown in 1608, and the first execution was that of Captain George Kendall for treason. In 1612, Sir Thomas Dale, governor of Virgina added stealing grapes, killing chickens, and trading with Indians. It got worse. In 1865, the New York Colony added the crimes of striking one's mother or father or denying the 'true God,' a practice many religious zealots would like to employ today.

Objections to the death penalty, either in toto or in scope, date back to the founding fathers when Thomas Jefferson tried to revise Virginia''s use of it. The bill was defeated by one vote. In 1794, Pennsylvania repealed the death penalty for all offenses except first degree murder. (Bohm, 1999; Randa, 1997; and Schabas, 1997).

Executions were a public spectacle, and in 1834 Pennsylvania was the first state to remove them from the public eye. Shortly thereafter, in 1836, Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason. Later, the death penalty was abolished completely by Wisconsin and Rhode Island. By the end of the century, the world would see the countries of Venezuela, Portugal, Netherlands, Costa Rica, Brazil and Ecuador follow suit. (Bohm, 1999 and Schabas, 1997).

In the 1900s to the present, issues related to legal executions has ebbed and flowed, and laws have been rewritten and changed and changed back again.

Texas electric chair used until 1954.

Texas electric chair used until 1954.

The Death Penalty Worldwide

The Resolution Supporting Worldwide Moratorium on Executions was passed by the United Nations in 1999. This calls on countries which have not abolished the death penalty to at least restrict its use. Ten countries, including the United States, China, Pakistan, Rwanda and Sudan voted against the resolution, (New York Times). Hmmm. The United States is keeping some interesting company.

In Japan, "Capital punishment has been unofficially scrapped...with the appointment of a left-wing justice minister who is an outspoken opponent of the country’s controversial system of secret executions." (The Times - United Kingdom, Sept 19, 2009)  Previously, prisoners were given only a few hours warning of execution by hanging. Family members were informed after the fact. Amnesty international called Japan's policy "utterly cruel."  It is not official.

"Japan is the only industrialized democracy, apart from the United States, to maintain capital punishment."

While the death penalty is alive and well in the U.S., the numbers have diminished with 300 in 1998 to 143 in 2003. More than half the international communities have abolished it either completely or defacto. However, over 78 countries retain the death penalty. (Amnesty International, 2004)

Chinese execution van.

Chinese execution van.

Methods of Execution

Currently, countries worldwide employ several methods of carrying out executions, including firing squad, hanging, stoning, lethal injection, beheading, crucifixion, and electrocution.

China traditionally used a bullet to the back of the head to carry out death sentences, but has recently introduced mobile killing vans and lethal injections to execute condemned prisoners in an effort to be less offensive to Western sensibilities.