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1846: The last civil executions in Portugal

April 22nd, 2010 Headsman

Portugal has not carried out a civil (non-military, non-wartime) execution since hanging two murderers on this date in 1846.*

Despite some impressively sanguinary exercises of capital punishment in its history, the Iberian nation has been in the European vanguard of death penalty abolition.

Writing on what turned out to be the eve of Portugal’s landmark 1867 renunciation of the death penalty for criminal offenses, the 1866 report of Britain’s capital punishment commission observed:

The last execution which took place was at Lagos, on the 22nd of April 1846. And it is right to state also, that ever since the definitive re-establishment of a liberal government in this country, capital punishments have never been very numerous. Thus during the 13 years which elapsed between 1833 and 1846, inclusive, out of 99 culprits condemned to death there were only 32 executed, and the sentences of the remaining 67 were commuted.

[Portugal] is, then, the only [country] in Europe in which the punishment of death has been for the last 18 years de facto suppressed. Public opinion has gone before the law: and the law, in effacing this punishment from its provisions, far from being in anticipation of society, will not do more than give its sanction to a fact which has long been accepted by general feeling, and which at the present day it would be difficult to contravene. Even if the punishment of death were to remain inserted in the text of our penal legislation, I think I may with safety affirm it would be impossible to meet with a Minister of Justice who would venture to recommend the King to withhold the exercise of the Royal prerogative of pardon, and who would have the heart to order the timbers of a new scaffold to be again erected on the soil of Portugal.

Despite an abortive feint at backsliding during World War I, the popular sense of the issue does not seem to have changed much in the interim.

The tragedy of man, ‘a postponed dead body’ as Fernando Pessoa said, does not need an untimely exit from the stage. It is tense enough without an end that is artificial and planned by butchers, megalomaniacs, potentates, racisms, and orthodoxies. Therefore, being human, we demand unequivocally that all peoples should have a code of humanity. A code that for all citizens guarantees the right to die their own death.

-Portuguese writer Miguel Torga, at a 1967 colloquy marking the centennial of Portugal’s formal abolition of the death penalty for ordinary crimes.

* There are some scantily documented World War II treason executions; the death penalty was officially abolished for treason (the last capital crime on the books) in 1977.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Portugal,Public Executions

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5 thoughts on “1846: The last civil executions in Portugal”

  1. Silvia says:

    The Grand Duchy of Tuscany abolished death penalty in 1798, by will of Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo (later emperor Leopold II). There is still a local holiday to celebrate it.

    And even earlier the Republic of San Marino abolished it, de facto in 1486, de jure in 1865.

  2. Silvia says:

    I blooped: Tuscany abolished death penalty November 30th, 1786. Everything else stands true. Sorry about that.

  3. Headsman says:

    The Brits’ words, not mine. When they issued this report in 1866, though, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany didn’t exist any longer…

  4. Omegaman says:

    Yes, Portugal was an early proponent of ending the death penalty, however please note the caveat regarding past activities. To consider the end of capital punishment in context, it helps to have a brief understanding of the Tavora affair. 253 years ago from today but a mere 87 years from these last “civil” executions. I believe civilian would be more appropriate the civil. I can’t help but wonder what effect the Tavora affair had on public opinion regarding the state executing its citizens.
    The extreme punishments probably were still ringing in the ears 87 years later.

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