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Execution Songs

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.

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.

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