1876: The slave Francisco, Brazil’s last execution

Brazil carried out the last civil execution in its history on April 28, 1876.

The beloved and long-serving Emperor Pedro II — Brazil’s last emperor, for he was deposed in 1889 in favor of a Republic — had developed a strong aversion to the death penalty.

“I am not a supporter of capital punishment,” Pedro II mused in his diary on New Year’s Day, 1862,

but conditions in our society still make it necessary, and it exists in law. However, employing of the prerogatives of the regulating power, I commute death sentences, whenever the circumstances of the case justify so doing it.

Just two months before writing that entry, Pedro had failed to stop the execution of Jose Pereira de Sousa.

But as the years went on, Pedro would find his sought-for justification to intercede ever more frequently … and in time, universally. There were still death sentences handed down in the last decade-plus of the Brazilian Empire, but the sovereign’s pen sustained a standing moratorium.

Jose Pereira de Sousa’s 1861 hanging proved to be the last civil execution of a free man in Brazil’s history — the qualifier courtesy of Brazil’s status as the Western world’s last slave state. (Slavery wasn’t abolished in Brazil until 1888.)

The black slave Francisco was the very last condemned man whose execution the Emperor Pedro II failed to block. Francisco was one of a trio of slaves who had two years prior bludgeoned to death their former masters, João Evangelista de Lima and his wife. One of Francisco’s confederates was killed on the run; the second died in prison. (Source, in Portuguese like most of the little to be found about Francisco.)

Its distinguishing characteristic from the standpoint of posterity is simply that it was the last; and, that its milestone characteristic underscores Brazil’s painful slaving history.

These circumstances have recommended Francisco’s last passion to annual re-enactments (more Portuguese) on the anniversary of his execution, in the city of Pilar, Alagoas where it all took place.

After Francisco, Pedro’s already-dogged obstruction of the death penalty became absolute, persisting over the last 13 years of his reign. By the time he yielded the executive power to the Republic of Brazil, his persistence had put capital punishment permanently beyond the pale for Brazil’s subsequent authorities.

Even Brazil’s 20th century dictatorships, while implicated in extrajudicial killings, never made bold to break the taboo on a formal judicial execution.

Theoretically, the death penalty is still to this day available in Brazil though only for a major wartime crime. (It would be carried out by firing squad.) In reality, as Emperor Pedro observed with satisfaction after his involuntary retirement from politics, it’s as dead as a letter can be.

This reminds of what I have done for the abolition of the death penalty by law, rather than in practice, since I achieved that some 30 years ago through always commuting the penalty.

-Pedro II, June 15, 1890 (Source for both Pedro’s diary pull-quotes)

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