PANEL: Historical Perspectives on the Death Penalty--England and America
Saturday, October 20, 2000, 1:15-2:45
Chair: Thomas A. Green
University of Michigan Law School
Making the `Bloody Code': Forgery Legislation in Eighteenth- Century England
The criminal code of eighteenth-century England imposed the death penalty for a wide variety of offenses. Historians have, for the most part, accepted the argument first offered by nineteenth-century legal reformers that the steady accumulation of capital statutes over the course of the century was a product of legislative inattention. They have also detected in this mass of legislation a tendency to value property more than human life. Their judgment on this activity is best summarized in the phrase most often used to describe its product, "the Bloody Code." In my paper I intend to reexamine in detail the eighteenth-century legislation dealing with forgery, the crime that most frequently came in for parliamentary attention. Perhaps one-third of all the capital statutes passed between 1700 and 1830 dealt with this offense. A wide range of scholars have seen in the attention given to this crime evidence of Parliament's effort to extend to new forms of property protections accorded to more traditional forms of wealth. They have found in this broad category of legislation proof of the sloppy practice and inhumane spirit that lay behind criminal measures during the period. I will show that this legislation does not support the usual explanations offered for the character of eighteenth-century justice. A close reading of the several hundred statutes dealing with forgery reveals a different story, one that distinguishes sharply between the treatment of "public" and "private" property, and one that forces us to reconsider who was responsible for the bulk of criminal legislation.
Origins and Consequences of the Electric Chair and the Gas Chamber
Between 1888 and 1950, 27 states adopted the electric chair as their means of execution. Another new device, the gas chamber, was adopted by eleven states between 1921 and 1955. Hanging had been the universal American method of execution in the late nineteenth century, but by the middle of the twentieth only seven states retained the gallows.
The cause of the transformation was an intensified distaste among respectable Americans for the display of pain. The new execution technologies were expected to be more humane on two fronts - painless to the condemned and less visually troubling to spectators. But the search for a clinical, undisturbing method of execution had some unexpected consequences. By the middle of the twentieth century, executions were being conducted not by ordinary people acting on the community's behalf but by scientific experts running machinery beyond the capacity of most to operate, a shift that partially undermined capital punishment's retributive justification. Retribution was additionally undermined by the fact that the new technological death penalty was conspicuously not the most severe tool in the community's arsenal, so it was no longer plausible to assert that the worst crime deserved the worst punishment. The deterrence rationale lost much of its strength as well. Because of their cost and their need for technological expertise, the new execution devices further centralized and privatized the ritual of execution. Capital punishment now had to be administered before a small audience that included none of the people the message of deterrence was intended to reach.
Comment: James Oldham
Georgetown University Law Center
Michael Meranze, Deparment of History
University of California, San Diego