BOOKS: History of the Death Penalty


A new book, No Winners Here Tonight: Race, Politics, and Geography in One of the Country’s Busiest Death Penalty States, by Ohio journalist Andrew Welsh-Huggins, explores the history of Ohio's death penalty and raises questions of fairness by examining the state's experience with capital punishment. Citing historical examples, the author argues that the death penalty has been carried out in an arbitrary fashion from its earliest days and has fallen short of the state’s standard of executing only the “worst of the worst." This book is the first comprehensive study of the history of the death penalty in Ohio.  (The state has about 188 people on death row and has carried out 28 executions since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s.  In 2008, Ohio was the only state outside the south to carry out an execution.)


 (A. Welsh-Huggins, “No Winners Here Tonight,” Ohio Univ. Press, 2009).  The book may be purchased here.

  • Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts by Alan Rogers explores the unique history of the capital punishment in Massachusetts. Rogers chronicles the more than 300 years that Massachusetts executed men and women in the state through to the eventual abolition of the punishment in 1984. The historical approach recounts the Puritans’ views on capital punishment in the 1700’s, the 1830’s House vote that almost abolished the death penalty, and the cases that were the turning point for the state.
A sample of reviews of this book:

“The range and depth of coverage are impressive…The twelve chapters address key aspects of jurisprudence, such as defendant rights, the insanity issue, the right to an attorney, criminal discovery, confession, and the selection of an impartial jury…This is masterful scholarship on an immensely important subject.” Lawrence Goodheart, author of Mad Yankees.

"This book is a perfect model for any future death penalty historian- one can only hope that Rogers’ successors will do for a state such as Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Ohio what he has done for Massachusetts.” Hugo Bedeau, author of The Death Penalty in America.

Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts (University of Massachusetts Press, 2008) can be purchased here


  • “The Death Penalty: America’s Experience with Capital Punishment” by Professors Raymond Paternoster, Robert Brame, and Sarah Bacon is a comprehensive review of the death penalty in the U.S. Issues covered include the history of the death penalty in America and the changing nature of the U.S. death penalty, including such topics as eligible crimes, trial procedures, and methods of execution. In addition, the book covers questions about the influence of race on the death penalty, the execution of innocent persons, death row exonerations, and flaws in the death penalty system. The authors review current constitutional issues surrounding the death penalty, the effect of international law on the death penalty, and what effect these two factors will have on the future of capital punishment in the U.S. (Oxford University Press, 2007).
  • In the third edition of what some have called “the first true textbook on the death penalty,” author Robert Bohm, a correctional officer turned college professor, engages the reader with a full account of the arguments and issues surrounding capital punishment. His book, "DeathQuest III: An Introduction to the Theory & Practice of Capital Punishment in the United States," begins with the history of the death penalty from colonial to modern times, and then examines the moral and legal arguments for and against capital punishment. It also provides an overview of major Supreme Court decisions and describes the legal process behind the death penalty. This resource includes the most recent statistics on American public opinion, along with an appendix on the American Bar Association’s guidelines for the appointment and performance of defense counsel in capital cases. Bohm is currently a Professor of Criminal Justice and Legal Studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.(Anderson Publishing, 2007). See DPIC's Educational Curricula on the Death Penalty.
  • Corrections: A Contemporary Introduction is a new academic text being released by Allyn & Bacon publishers. Authored by Leanne F. Alarid of the University of Texas and Philip L. Reichel of the University of Northern Colorado, this resource offers a thorough examination of all aspects of the corrections area in a graphically rich format. It offers students the opportunity to think critically about the future of this field. The textbook features a chapter on Capital Punishment, along with many other topics. (Pearson Education, Inc., Allyn & Bacon, 2008). See DPIC's Curriculum on Capital Punishment.
  • Professor Matthew Robinson of Applachian State University has written a new book entitled Death Nation: The Experts Explain American Capital Punishment. This book provides a solid yet brief background on the major issues pertaining to capital punishment in the United States. It covers topics such as the history of the death penalty in America, American death penalty law, justifications for capital punishment, as well as alleged problems with its practice. The book also presents a study of expert opinion of capital punishment. The aim is to determine what published scholarly experts think about the death penalty. Does it meet its goals? Is it effective? Is it plagued by any serious problems? Do the experts support it? What is the likely future of capital punishment in the United States? (Summary by author, book published by Prentice Hall, available March 2007). See op-ed by Prof. Robinson, Tallahassee Democrat, Jan. 4, 2007.
  • A new book by Michael Meltsner, The Making of a Civil Rights Lawyer, provides a personal history of the civil rights movement from the perspective of an attorney committed to social change. Meltsner's writings bring to life a seminal period of legal reform in U.S. history. The book discusses famous cases and the turning points in the civil rights and death penalty movements. Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights notes, "Michael Meltsner has performed a great public service by recalling from his perspective as a lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund how lawyers helped bring about social change during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. This memoir will be of great interest to a generation unfamiliar with that remarkable time in American history, as well as to those familiar with the people and controversies he recalls." Meltsner is also the author of Cruel and Unusual: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment, the authoritative history of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's death penalty campaign. He is currently the Matthews Distinguished University Professsor of Law at Northeastern School of Law. (University of Virgina Press, available April 30, 2006).
  • "Legal Executions in California: A Comprehensive Registry, 1851-2005," by researchers Sheila O'Hare, Irene Berry, and Jesse Silva, provides comprehensive information on legal executions in California from 1851 to the present. Starting with the year the Criminal Practices Act first authorized executions in the state, the book's entries are organized by year of execution and contain the felon's name, race, age at death and a detailed narrative of the crime that resulted in the death sentence. When available, the race and age of the victims are also provided. (McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2006). See Executions and Resources.
  • The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America is a new book by Marie Gottschalk of the University of Pennsylvania analyzing the reasons behind the tremendous growth in the prison population in the United States. The book examines issues of race, the intersection of prisons with women's issues, and the consequences of widespread incarceration on society and the economy. The author delves into the recent history of the death penalty and relates it to the larger debates about crime and punishment. (Cambridge University Press 2006). See Books.
  • Researcher and former law professor Harriet C. Frazier has produced a thorough investigative work on the death penalty in Missouri: Death Sentences in Missouri, 1803-2005: A History and Comprehensive Registry of Legal Executions, Pardons, and Commutations. Building on the research of Watt Espy, Frazier discovered accounts of many additional executions in the state, especially in its earlier years. She devotes chapters to such important areas as executions of Native Americans, blacks, juveniles and women, and executions for the crime of rape. The book is both historical and up-to-date, including a discussion of innocent defendants who have recently been freed from Missouri's death row. (McFarland & Co. 2006). See History and the Espy File.
  • Back From The Dead: One woman’s search for the men who walked off America’s death row is the story of 589 former death row inmates who, through a lottery of fate, were given a second chance at life in 1972 when the death penalty was abolished. Joan Cheever, a former editor of the National Law Journal, who also represented a death row inmate in Texas, traveled the country interviewing inmates who had been condemned to death but whose sentences were reduced to life when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia in 1972. In addition to telling the stories of these inmates, and offering Cheever's own reflections in doing this research, the book contains valuable statistics on the 322 of 589 condemned inmates who were eventually released on parole. (Today, most capital offenders who are not given the death penalty are sentenced to life without parole.) (John Wiley & Sons 2006). Life Without Parole. See also the Web site Back from the Dead.
  • America Without the Death Penalty: States Leading the Way provides a comprehensive review of the conditions that resulted in twelve U.S. states not having capital punishment. The book looks at factors such as economic conditions, public sentiment, mass media, population diversity, murder rates, and the regional history of executions, that led to abolition in those states. The book's authors, Professors John F. Galliher, Larry W. Koch, David Patrick Keys, and Teresa J. Guess, provide an in-depth look at the nine jurisdictions that have banned the death penalty through legislative action and the three states that have banned it through court decisions. They also examine Washington, D.C., where residents have battled against Congressional efforts to reinstate capital punishment. ("American Without the Death Penalty: States Leading the Way," Northeastern University Press, 2002; paperback edition 2005).
  • Craig Haney, professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has just published a new book, Death By Design: Capital Punishment as a Social Psychological System (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2005). Haney explores a number of areas that skew death penalty sentencing in America:
    Jury selection--By systematically screening out opponents of capital punishment, the process produces unrepresentative juries and juries that include a high concentration of people who are more inclined to convict defendants.--Numerous studies reveal that jurors do not understand the instructions they receive as they begin the sentencing phase of capital trials. Cultural and media myths about crime--Print and broadcast news, as well as crime-based television dramas, exaggerate the rate of violent crime and demonize violent criminals. The book also offers a number of suggestions for reforms through the improvement of education, jury instructions, and media coverage of the issues. (U.C. Santa Cruz Press Release, Sept. 26, 2005)
  • Charles Duff's 1928 publication A Handbook on Hanging has been re-published with updates and a new introduction by journalist Christopher Hitchens. The book provides readers with a satiric look at the practice of carrying out executions. Duff writes not only of hanging, but of electrocution, decapitation, and gassing. He also takes a tongue-in-cheek look at issues such as botched executions, public response to executions, and deterrence. With factual details and notable quotations, this book focuses primarily on British history with the death penalty, but its themes are universal. (New York Review of Books, 2001)
  • The Second Edition of "America's Experiment with Capital Punishment: Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of the Ultimate Penal Sanction" provides an overview of the history, politics, law, empirical evidence, and other aspects of the contemporary debate about the death penalty in America. Updated from the original 1998 text of the same name, the book includes essays by noted death penalty experts. (Edit. by J. Acker, R. Bohm, & C. Lanier, Carolina Academic Press, 2003)
  • "The Hangman's Knot: Lynching, Legal Execution and America's Struggle with the Death Penalty" by Eliza Steelwater is a historic exploration of public executions. The book, which argues that the death penlaty today is uses narrative, personal stories, and rare archival photographs to put capital punishment in a historical context. The book will be available in August 2003. (Westview Press, 2003)
  • Legacy of Violence: Lynch Mobs and Executions in Minnesota: This book by John D. Bessler examines the history of illegal and state-sanctioned executions in Minnesota, one of twelve states that currently does not have the death penalty. The book is timely in that the current governor, Tim Pawlenty, has proposed reinstating the death penalty, which was abolished in 1911. The book includes detailed personal accounts from those who were involved in the events, as well as a history of Minnesota's anti-execution and anti-lynching movements, a review of historical wrongful convictions, and an analysis of the role that the media played in the death penalty debate. The author recounts the details of the largest mass execution in the U.S. of 38 Native Americans in Mankato in 1862 at the order of President Lincoln, and the brutal lynching in Duluth of 3 African-Americans accused of rape.(University of Minnesota Press, 2003)
  • The Death Penalty, An American History - America's experience with capital punishment is the focus of a new book by Stuart Banner, "The Death Penalty: An American History." The book is a detailed exploration of the nation's implementation of the death penalty, including the evolution of crimes punishable by death and methods of execution. The book also addresses the public's view of capital punishment over the past four centuries. (Harvard University Press, 2002)
  • Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and the Invention of the Electric Chair - In this book, author Richard Moran examines the development of the electric chair and the related debate that ensued between electrical pioneers Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. Moran's book explores news stories and witness accounts regarding electrocutions and how these contributed to the search for a more "humane" method of execution. (Knopf, 2002). See also, Methods of Execution.
  • "The Death Penalty in Georgia: A Modern History 1970-2000" by Michael Mears, Director of the Multi-County Public Defender Office in Atlanta, Georgia, is now available from the Georgia Indigent Defense Council. This history of the modern era of the death penalty in Georgia is designed to provide background information and an overview of the events which have shaped the use of the state's death penalty since its reinstatement on March 28, 1973. (The Georgia Indigent Defense Division of Professional Education, 1999)
  • Legal Executions in New England, A Comprehensive Reference, 1623-1960 is available from McFarland & Company, Inc. The book documents more than 700 legal executions in the six New England States. It is a companion volume to the previously released Legal Executions in New York State, A Comprehensive Reference, 1639-1963. The price for Legal Executions in New England is $75.00; the price for Legal Executions in New York State is $65.00.
  • Capital Punishment in the United States: A Documentary History, Bryan Vila and Cynthia Morris, eds., Greenwood Publishing Group (1997) - 112 primary documents related to the history of the death penalty arranged by historical period.
  • Bessler, John D.: "Death in the Dark: Midnight Executions in America", Northeastern Universtiy Press, Boston, 1997
  • Against Capital Punishment - The Anti-Death Penalty Movement in America, 1972-1994,by Herbert H. Haines. A moving account of abolitionist activism in the United States since the end of the 10-year moratorium in the late-1970s. (Oxford University Press, 1996). Now available in paperback.
  • Marquart, James W. et al.: "The rope, the chair and the needle: capital punishment in Texas, 1923-1990"; University of Texas Press, Austin, 1994
  • Baumann, Ed: "May God have mercy on your soul"; BonusBooks, Chicago, 1993
  • Linebaugh, Peter: "The London hanged: crime and civil society in the 18th century"; Cambridge University Press, New York, 1992
  • Carter, Dan T.: "Scottsboro: a tragedy of the American South"; Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA, 1969