Archive for November 3rd, 2012

Which U.S. Governors have overseen the most executions?

2 comments November 3rd, 2012 Headsman

This past week, Texas Governor Rick Perry notched his 250th execution. Writers, movie stars, guys who didn’t do it … Perry has executed them all.

That’s far and away the most for governors under the modern US death penalty regime. But is it an all-time record?

Rick Perry is number one.

The answer appears to be “yes”: a review of state execution data reveals no other governor throughout the U.S. constitutional era who even approaches Perry’s body count, at least not when it comes to peacetime civilian cases. Only two other men — Perry’s predecessor George W. Bush, and Depression-era New York chief executive Herbert Lehman* — appear to have signed off on as many as one hundred executions.

In attempting to explore this question, I compiled this rough list of the U.S. governors who have overseen a large number (35+) of executions. Emphasis on rough. The method I’ve used here is just a quick manual comparison of the historical U.S. executions recorded in the Espy file to U.S. governor terms as reported on Wikipedia. Then, I backed out known federal executions, which for most of U.S. history took place in various state prisons. (For instance, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were electrocuted at Sing Sing in New York … but not by authorities of the Empire State.)

I would not suggest sourcing anything one depends on to the figures in this chart without further investigation and qualification; the list is certain to contain errors, including:

  • Omissions or mistakes by the Espy file itself.
  • Miscalculations or misdating on my part.
  • Governors who served non-consecutive terms who I’ve failed to identify.
  • Any consideration of governors who might have been temporarily incapacitated or absent during their term with another party exercising the relevant powers in their stead
  • Civil War executions, which I simply steered around

Beyond attributing numerical counts to date ranges, this list reflects essentially no state- or period-specific research: it’s worth bearing in mind that the legal context and gubernatorial authority relative to the death penalty vary over time and between states. A name and a number on this list is not the same as judging a governor personally “responsible” for all or any of those executions, not even necessarily to the extent of having signed off on a death warrant. It’s only in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century that states centralized all executions away from localities and into state penitentiaries, with the familiar appeal-for-clemency ritual. A given governor’s personal involvement in a given local execution prior to that (and particularly in antebellum America) is not to be assumed. Even now, some states (present-day Texas included) limit the ability of the governor to extend clemency, or vest that power in an agency.

Caveats aside, here’s that rough (rough!) list:

The large numbers here predictably map to large states (with lots of people to commit lots of crime and generate lots of death cases) and/or long-serving governors. Rick Perry is about to start his 13th year as Texas governor, and this is actually a remarkably long tenure. Most governors in U.S. history have held the office for surprisingly brief periods, just 2-4 years.

For example, post-Reconstruction Jim Crow Georgia executed at a terrific pace (routinely ten or more executions per year, for decades on end) and several of its governors therefore appear on this list … but those governors had what you might call limited upside, as they were term-limited to two consecutive two-year terms. Had Georgia ever put an executive kingpin in the governor’s mansion for a decade or more, that person would easily rank up there with Bush and Lehman. (Not with Perry, though.)

Typical office tenures have somewhat lengthened into the 20th and 21st centuries, but this is just when the execution rate itself has fallen off. Many of the larger (50+) execution totals come from the period when those two trends crossed in the first half of the 20th century, with men (Ann Richards, George W. Bush’s predecessor, is the only woman to show) running large states for five-plus years.

This confluence also leads to the interesting appearance of liberal lions among the 20th century’s most prolific American executioners:

  • Liberal “Rockefeller Republican” Thomas Dewey, with 95 executions as New York’s governor.
  • Dewey’s running mate in the “Dewey Defeats Truman” presidential election, Earl Warren: he sent 82 to the gas chamber in a decade as California governor before he was appointed to leave his lasting legacy heading a left-leaning Supreme Court
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who okayed 51 executions as governor of New York (and then 16 more federal executions as president)
  • Gifford Pinchot, who’s best known as the progressive-era father of the Forest Service, but also spent eight years as Pennsylvania’s governor and oversaw 81 executions.

Feel free to chime in with corrections, data points, musings, and bootless speculations in the comments.

* Herbert Lehman was the son of one of the founders of Lehman Bothers investment bank. Bush was the son of the founder of the inexplicable Bush political dynasty. We’re guessing nobody thought of their prolific-executioner connection when the Bush administration let Lehman Brothers go bankrupt in 2008.

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1858: Henry Jackson, in Decatur

Add comment November 3rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1858, a slave named Henry — property* of a local farmer named William Jackson — was hanged in Decatur, Georgia for attempted rape.

We have of this occasion a first-person account from a 16-year-old white neighbor of the Jackson farm, Catherine Hewes, and the impressions she recorded of it that evening are reprinted by John C. Edwards in “Slave Justice in Four Middle Georgia Counties” in the Summer 1973 Georgia Historical Quarterly. A few additional paragraph breaks have been added for readability, and [sic] notations where necessary either by myself or by Edwards; however, there are many other minor language irregularities not worth individually noting, and simply presented as-is.

The Execution of Henry Jackson a slave of William Jackson at Decatur Ga. at an early hour this morning I dressed myself and prepared to accompany my brother and Sister to Decatur, a beautiful village an [sic] the County site of DeKalb county Ga. As we lived four miles south of Decatur we crossed the Georgia R Road in sight of the village, where we stopped a few moments to enquire where the gallows had been located and were infomed that it was situated one mile north of the Court-house on the Shallow ford road.

By ten Oclock a great many people throned the streets, and clustered around the old weather beaten jail. Our little company had beome quite a respectable crowd before we reached the Public Square where we drove slowly through the immense mass of living beings. All along the way form the Court-house to the gallows Carriages, Wagons and carts were seen bearing on their living freight to the scene of the execution. The high and low the rich and the poor the free and the bond alike pressing forward to the gallows their desires of seeing the law enforced and crime meet its own reward.

After a slow tedious drive we arrived at the appointd place where the rough benches had been erected in an old field whos [sic surroundings were on the amphitheater order. For several hours I had been pleasantly situated and with good company which caused thime [sic] to pass by almost imperceptibly but when I was confronted by a “gallows,” the simple construction of which was two upright posts and a cross beam from the top of the posts I viewed it with horror.

My reflections gushed forth when my eye took in the surroundings. On one side of the gallows were the colored people and on the other side the white people who had gathered on the little hillock. It was quite gratifying to the feelings to see the willingness of slave owners to teach their Slaves an important lesson by sending them here to day. The gallows, yes here on this gallows ill-fated Henry, will have to give up his life for crime and go to his long home with God in eternity.

In the midst of my reflections I saw a vast crowd of people coming from Town toward the gallows[.] It was announced that “They are a coming.” and I looked and saw on [sic] Ox-cart coming on which rode the unfortunate Henry dressed in a suit of white sitting by the coffn which was to incase his lifeless form. They drove the Ox-cart near the gallows, then the drive unhitched the Sturdy oxen and proceeded to direct the cart by hand.

The Sheriff plased [sic] his guard and when the cart stopped under the gallows by the platform a negro man ascended the stand and sang Hymns. Many joined in singing aloud the praises of God, while I stood gazing on in amazement. At the conclusion of the Hymn he offered a very appropriate prayer which seemed to affect a great many. When he raised up from prayer he began exhorting the people from Acts 6-23 — “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” [sic -- she means Romans 6:23] When he had ended his discourse, the Rev. Jns. W. Yarbough got up and made a short, but very appropriate exhortation.

They closed the religious services, but the convict desired to speak to the people. His discourse was very affecting, so much so that some of the black women shouted praises to their immortal King. The mother of Henry screamed aloud and shouted with vehemence while her son stood on the platform speaking to the auditory. At the conclusion of his remarks the Officers began to fix for his execution. The Sheriff, Capt John Jones, a capital man, was very much affected during the Scene. They first tied his feet together, then his hands, and then adjusted his clothing. The Sherff then permitted him to look over the vast multitude which surrounded him for a few moments and then tied a white handkerchief over his face which excluded it from view.

The hangmans Knot was adjusted around his neck then the rope was passed over the cross-bar of the gallows[.]

All things read at 12 N the Sheriff descended the steps to the ground and with help drew the Cart on which the Convict stood from under him — leaving the dangling form of the poor victim suspended in the air by a rope. When the form dropped from the Cart, a loud groan went up from the people and then they people [sic] began to disperse.

After the untwisting of the rope and the shrugging of the shoulder had ceased the Dr. E N Calhoun (I believ [sic]) approached and took hold of the hand and after a few moments announced that life was extinct. We came back to town and staid [sic] a few hours, and while at the Old Washington Hotel Kept by Mr. Banks George, I saw the Sheriff Mr Jones bring the corps [sic] back and carry the coffin up a flight of rickety steps to the door of the second story of the jail and deposit it therein. Doubtlessly the Doctors will take advantage of this subject for anatomical investigation, and be found with sleeves rolled up chatting over the mortal remains of this deluded victim. We left town with Mrs Parker, masters Bob and Miss Betsy, and got home before night.

Cottage House DeKalb Ga.
Catherine M. Hewey
November 3, 1858

* Henry was William Jackson’s only slave, and the latter was not compensated by the state for Henry’s execution: it was a substantial loss to the master.

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