Slave executions in the United States: a descriptive analysis of social and historical factors.
A CRITICAL PERSPECTIVE ON BLACK SLAVE EXECUTIONS
From a critical perspective, the central dynamic in any societal system of intergroup domination and oppression is social control. In United States society the dominant white population seeks to control the group life of nonwhite minorities through various institutional apparatuses of social control. One institutional apparatus of social control in the United States is the criminal justice system. Quinney (1977) explains that the coercive force of the state, embodied in law and legal repression, is the traditional means of maintaining the social and economic interests of the dominant group. Accordingly, the official tasks of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, juries, and even the state executioner in the United States criminal justice system is to protect dominant group interests. The function of the United States criminal justice system is to maintain the social arrangement of differential power relations between the dominant white population and subordinate nonwhite minority populations. Since the power to define social behavior as criminal resides with the dominant group, any social behavior engaged in by members of subordinate groups that the dominant group perceives as a threat to their interests is criminal (Quinney, 1970; Chambliss and Seidman, 1971; Turk, 1969). Staples (1975, p. 18) explains the arrangement as: "The ruling caste defines those acts as crimes that fit its needs and purposes and characterizes as criminal individuals who commit certain kinds of illegal acts, while similar acts are exempted from prosecution and escape public disapprobation because they are not perceived as criminal or a threat to society." State imposed violence is fundamental to maintaining this social arrangement (Quinney, 1977; Aguirre and Baker, 1991). Benjamin (1991) adds to this notion by arguing that physical violence is integral to the United States system of control, domination, and exploitation. Regarding capital punishment, Kennedy (1997, p. 311) explains that "sentencing a person to death as punishment for crime is a unique flexing of state power." In this regard, the death penalty is used against those whose crimes victimize members, interests, or institutions belonging to the dominant group in society (Bowers and Pierce, 1980).
Slave executions in the United States can be explained from a critical perspective that examines dominant group oppression over powerless groups. Slavery prevailed for more than two centuries because it was legally enforced (Stampp, 1956). The history of punishment during slavery is the history of an extremely efficient institutional means for protecting dominant group interests in the United States (Morris, 1996; Kennedy, 1997). The first African slaves landed in the Chesapeake in 1619, and within just a few short decades the slave status of Africans had become fully institutionalized in regulatory statutes called slave codes. Slave codes became increasingly uncompromising and punishments imposed on slaves became increasingly more severe as slavery expanded beyond the colonies (Reiss, 1997; Nash, 1995; Kennedy, 1997; Morris, 1996). Slave executions conducted under colonial and state authority were also part of this dominion. of control over slavery. Virginia was the first mainland colony to adopt slave codes in 1682, but by 1712, most mainland colonies had developed oppressive codes to regulate slaves (Reich, 1989). Slave codes were the mainstay of the United States slave system, they reflected the attitudes of the master class, and they were specifically instituted to protect the interests of slave masters. Slave codes regulated every aspect of slave life. Slave codes defined slaves as property (without legal standing), they mandated slavery as lifelong and inherited, and they sanctioned harsh and brutal punishment of slaves for castigation for their violation. Most slave codes were implemented to prevent insurrection or in response to past rebellions (Reiss, 1997). Thus, slave codes protected whites against exigencies from slaves, and they ensured that slavery was not to be challenged by imposing the death penalty for anyone concealing slaves for purposes of escape, conspiring with slaves for purposes of insurrection, circulating seditious literature among slaves, and for anyone engaged in slave stealing (Bowers, 1984). For example, it was a capital offense in Louisiana "to use language in any public discourse, from the bar, the bench, the stage, the pulpit, or in any place whatsoever that might produce insubordination among slaves" (Stampp, 1956, p. 211).
This article focuses on a descriptive analysis of the social and historical factors that created a context for slave executions under civil authority in the United States. As a result, we do not account for private executions carried out by masters on their own slaves. The research record is relatively silent about private slave executions; much of the information found in the research record is anecdotal. Social historians have alluded to a handful of private slave executions in their interpretation of the relationship between state and private interests in the administration of criminal justice during slavery - what Genovese (1974) calls "the complimentary system of plantation justice." But an inventory of private slave executions conducted by slave masters has yet to be constructed, and thus, we are precluded from presenting a comprehensive analysis of the social and historical factors effecting private slave executions. The most substantive issue concerning social historians of slavery about the complementary system of plantation justice is the degree of authority society allocated to slave masters and third parties in controlling slaves (Morris, 1996; Friedman, 1993; Kennedy, 1997). For example, Friedman (1993, p. 52) makes it clear that slavery was a prime concern of colonial and state criminal justice systems, and that "masters and overseers had the basic job of controlling the slaves and policing slave society." In fact, slave codes imposed a duty upon slave masters to punish and control their slaves.
However, historians of slavery have limited their discussions on the relationship between state and private interests in controlling slavery to the criminal liability of slave masters and third parties for the death of a slave. Most slave codes decriminalized the use of violence against slaves by masters in the early colonial period. For example, as early as 1705 in Virginia "if anyone with authority correcting a slave killed him in such correction, it shall not be accounted felony, and the killer would be freed as if such accident had never happened" (Morris, 1996, p. 164). In the antebellum period, state governments expanded their control over slavery as the system developed and became more institutionalized and the rights of slave owners to commit violent acts against slaves became far more restrictive. For example, in 1798, Georgia's constitution included the provision that: "Any person who shall maliciously dismember or deprive a slave of life shall suffer such punishment as would be inflicted in case the like offence had been committed on a free white person, and on the like proof, except in case of insurrection by such slave, and unless such death should happen by accident in giving such slave moderate correction" (Morris, 1996, p. 172). One could argue that the idea behind more restrictive codes limiting the level of violence that could be directed toward slaves by their masters was to maintain and expand the slave system by making it less brutal. However, this argument can only hold if laws against brutality toward slaves were strictly enforced. Morris (1996, p. 181) is not impressed with the record:
Almost all homicides of slaves, from the colonial period to the end of slavery, ended in acquittals, or at most in verdicts of manslaughter, which meant that there had been some legal provocation from the slave. There were also killings that never led to criminal actions. Still, in theory some protection for the lives of slaves existed because people could be punished for their homicides. Occasionally they were. To that limited extent the law mediated or controlled some of the violence created by a social relationship based on the violent control of labor power in a biracial society. But the master-slave relationship was so delicate that it was intruded upon only in extreme or unusual circumstances. Those circumstances could be quite indeterminate and imprecise.
DATA ON SLAVE EXECUTIONS IN THE UNITED STATES
There are several major data sources on executions in the United States (Aguirre and Baker, 1994). Espy's death penalty index, however, remains the most comprehensive list of confirmed executions in the United States (Espy and Smykla, 1991). In May 1970, M. Watt Espy began collecting data on public executions from his home in Headland, Alabama. Espy moved his data collection project to the University of Alabama Law Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1977 under the directorship of John Ortiz Smykla and the Inter-University Consortium of Political and Social Research. The University of Alabama Law Center continued the documentation on new cases and amending cases already confirmed for several years under the auspices of the Capital Punishment Research Project. Espy recently moved the research project back to Headland where he continues to document death penalty cases.
The latest version of Espy's death penalty index available for public use contains information on 14,634 executions performed under civil authority in the United States beginning with the first execution in the American colonies of Captain John Kendall, an ex-councillor of Virginia, in 1608. The index has recorded information on individual prisoners and the circumstances surrounding the crime for which prisoners were executed between 1608 and 1991. The inventory identifies the name, race, age, sex and occupation of the offender, and the date, place, jurisdiction, offense, and method of execution. Espy's inventory consists of information on executions collected from prison officials and departments of correction, contemporary newspaper coverage of crimes, trials, and executions, actual court records of trials and various appeals, and through contact with local historians, historical societies, museums, and county clerks. A unique feature of Espy's death penalty index is that it contains information on 1,749 slave executions conducted in the United States. Slave status is designated in Espy's inventory as the occupation of executed offenders. Of these executions, 1,720 were of black slaves. It should be noted that Espy's index probably undercounts the actual number of slave executions since the occupation of executed prisoners is not ascertainable or otherwise unknown for almost 52 percent of the executions listed in the file.
HISTORICAL PERIODS IN THE EXECUTION OF SLAVES IN THE UNITED STATES
Espy's inventory shows that slave executions in the United States began as early as 1641 and lasted until March 1865. The regional totals of slave executions presented in Table 1 suggest that four distinct periods differentiate the growth of slave executions in the United States - a period of dormancy from the 1640s through the 1720s, a period of growth from the 1730s through the 1780s, a period of stability from the 1790s through the 1850s, and a period of decline from 1860 to March 1865. Table 1 presents the number of slave executions in the United States across two historical periods and six geographical regions. These historical periods are the colonial period from 1641 to 1789 and the antebellum period from 1790 to 1865. The colonial period concerns the number of slave executions that took place from 1641 to 1789 in the New England and Middle colonies, from 1665 to 1789 in the Chesapeake colonies, and the number of slave executions that occurred between 1720 and 1878 in the Carolina and Georgia [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] low country. We have also divided the antebellum period into three distinct regions. Espy's death penalty index reveals that slave executions took place from 1791 to 1839 in Northern states, from 1790 to 1865 in Upper South states, and from 1795 to 1862 in Lower South states.
Our regionalization conforms to the recognition among social historians that various forms of slavery developed in discrete regions of the United States at different times and for separate reasons. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries three different slave systems developed in the British mainland colonies (Berlin, 1980; Wright, 1991; Franklin and Moss, 1988). Slavery was first established in the Chesapeake region of Virginia and Maryland in the early 1600s and was highly centralized on small tobacco plantations. In the New England and Middle colonies slavery was without plantations, and most slaves worked as domestics, agricultural workers, and skilled and unskilled industrial workers. Slavery expanded into North Carolina and South Carolina in the early 1660s. The Georgia low country did not develop slavery until the mid-1700s. In the Carolina and Georgia low country slavery was concentrated on large tobacco and rice producing plantations.
By 1790 slavery had significantly declined in the northern territories where the number of free blacks far outweighed the number of slaves. For example, the New England colonies had 14,000 free blacks in 1790 and the 3,700 slaves comprised about 25 percent of the overall black population. New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire had slaves in 1790, but Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts counted no slaves in the 1790 census. By 1860, the distribution of slaves in the north had diminished to 64 including some eighteen lifetime apprentices in New Jersey (Kolchin 1993).
The southwestern region of the South developed a slave-based cotton plantation economy in the 1750s when slavery began to expand westward and where slavery's geographical boundaries began to take on the dimensions upon which the Civil War was fought. Cooper and Terrill (1991) show graphically that by 1800 southern slavery had become centralized in the western regions of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and southern Florida. By 1860, slavery engulfed North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, southeastern Arkansas, west-central Tennessee, parts of Kentucky and Missouri, and western Texas.
The westward expansion of slavery into the southern states is clearly illustrated in slave census data (Kolchin, 1993). We have reproduced these data for selected regions in Table 2. The data presented in Table 2 show that in 1790 there were 700,000 slaves in the United States population with roughly 75 percent of the slave population distributed in the Upper South and about 19 percent interspersed throughout the Lower South. The slave population of the Upper South totaled 521,169 persons in 1790. In the Lower South the slave population totaled only 136,358 persons in 1790. The census data presented in Table 2 shows that only three states had slave populations; namely, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana. Although the absolute number of slaves in the Upper South increased by threefold from 521,169 slaves in 1790 to roughly 1.5 million slaves in 1860, the overall proportion of slaves distributed in Upper South states actually decreased from 75 percent of all United States slaves in 1790 to about 22 percent of the slave population in 1860. On the other hand, the proportion of United States slaves distributed in the Lower South increased from roughly 19 percent in 1790 to [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 2 OMITTED] more than 45 percent in 1860. And the absolute number of slaves in the Lower South swelled by eighteen-fold from 136,358 in 1790 to 2.4 million slaves in 1860. And the distribution of slaves in the Lower South increased from three states in 1790 to eight states in 1860. The 1860 census shows significant slave populations distributed in Lower South states - South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.
The Dormancy Period
A period of dormancy in slave executions in the United States began in 1641 with New York's execution of a slave for sodomy/buggery/bestiality ("homosexual practices"), and the period ends with the hanging of a slave in Massachusetts for murder in 1729 (Reiss, 1997). We have labeled this period dormancy because the number of slave executions that took place during this period is much lower when compared with the other historical periods. Espy's data reveal that slave executions in the United States were limited to the colonial period in the New England and Middle colonies, the Chesapeake colonies, and the Carolina and Georgia low country. The legal jurisdictions of these regions executed a total of fifty slaves in the dormancy period, representing nearly 3 percent of the total number of slaves executed in the United States. Twenty-four slaves were executed in the New England and Middle colonies, twenty-two slave executions took place in the Chesapeake colonies, and the Carolina and Georgia low country executed four slaves during this period. Regarding the New England and Middle colonies, Espy's index shows that New Jersey executed eleven slaves; accounting for the highest number of slaves executed in that region during the dormancy period. New York executed nine slaves and Massachusetts executed four. Regarding the Chesapeake region, Virginia executed twenty slaves and Maryland executed two slaves. In the Carolina and Georgia low country during the dormancy period, Louisiana executed one slave and South Carolina executed three slaves.
The Growth Period
Table 1 shows a period of growth in the execution of slaves in the United States. This period begins with the military hanging of a slave in the state of New Jersey for poisoning in 1731, and ends with the hanging of a female slave for arson in the state of New York in 1789. This period is labeled growth because the number of slave executions increased from fifty executions in the dormancy period to 411 slave executions from 1730 through the 1780s. The number of slave executions occurring in the growth period accounts for about 24 percent of all slave executions in the United States.
More slaves were executed in the Chesapeake colonies during the growth period than in either the New England and Middle colonies or the Carolina and Georgia low country. While the New England and Middle colonies executed seventy slaves and the Carolina and Georgia low country executed forty-six slaves, the Chesapeake region executed 295 slaves. In the New England and Middle colonies, New Jersey and New York executed 86 percent of all slaves executed in the region during the growth period. New Jersey executed twenty-two slaves and New York executed thirty-eight slaves. Of the slaves executed in New York, thirty were executed in 1741. It was during this growth period that "slave unrest wreathed eastern seaboard states that led to white fears and hysteria of slave violence" (Jordan, 1968, p. 116). Also in the New England and Middle colonies during this period, Illinois executed one slave, Massachusetts executed seven, and Pennsylvania executed two slaves. In the Chesapeake colonies, while Maryland executed seventeen slaves and West Virginia executed four slaves, North Carolina executed 107 slaves and Virginia executed 173 slaves. Slave executions in Virginia and North Carolina account for nearly 72 percent of all slave executions conducted in the growth period. In the Carolina and Georgia low country during the growth period, Georgia executed one slave, Kentucky executed three slaves, Louisiana executed eighteen slaves, and South Carolina executed twenty-four slaves.
The Period of Stability
A period of stability in slave executions occurred during the antebellum period between the 1790s and the 1850s. We call this period stability because the number of slave executions remained consistently high throughout this seven-decade period. In this period, 1,161 slaves were executed, accounting for about 68 percent of all slave executions in the United States. The Northern states executed fifteen slaves in the stability period. Massachusetts executed one slave, New Jersey executed three slaves, New York executed seven slaves, and Pennsylvania executed four slaves. Most slave executions took place in the Upper South during the stability period. Virginia executed 500 slaves in the stability period, and this number accounts for 86 percent of all slave executions in the period. North Carolina executed another fifty-eight slaves, followed by fifty-one slave executions in Kentucky, thirty-seven slave executions in Tennessee, twenty-two in West Virginia, eighteen in Maryland, and twelve in Missouri. The Lower South states executed 438 slaves during the stability period. Alabama and Louisiana executed the highest number of slaves during the stability period with 176 slaves and 127 slaves respectively. South Carolina executed seventy-eight slaves, followed by Georgia (33), Mississippi (13), Texas (7), Arkansas (3), and Florida (1). Interestingly, it is in the stability period that the peak decade in slave executions took place. The 1850s account for roughly 14 percent of all slave executions in the United States, with the Lower South states executing most of the 234 slaves put to death during this decade.
Decline in Slave Executions
The 1860s experienced a 46 percent decrease in the number of slave executions over the 1850s. During this period, the number of slave executions decreased from 234 in the 1850s to 108 during the 1860s. As a result, we have labeled the 1860s a period of decline. However, one must keep in mind that the 1860s comprise only the years 1860 through March 1865 when South Carolina executed the last slave in the United States pursuant to military authority. While Northern states did not execute any slaves in the period of decline, the Upper South executed fifty-eight slaves and the Lower South executed fifty slaves. In the Upper South during this period, Virginia executed forty-three slaves, followed by Kentucky (5), North Carolina (4), Tennessee (3), Maryland (1), West Virginia (1), and Missouri (1). In the Lower South, Alabama executed forty-one slaves, South Carolina executed five slaves, Florida executed two slaves, and Georgia and Texas each executed one slave.
Another major limitation in the research record on slave executions is the lack of empirical analysis on the association between the frequency of slave executions and the concentration of slaves in the general population. A general consensus among social historians of slavery is that the state imposed sanctions meted out to slaves for major crimes became more severe as the number of slaves increased in proportion to the white population (Reiss, 1997; Morris, 1996; Reed, 1972; Corzine et al., 1983; Tolnay et al., 1989; Beck et al., 1989; Blalock, 1989). Empirically, however, the research is limited to extralegal executions. For example, Wright (1991) contends that black lynchings were more likely to occur in counties with heavy concentrations of blacks in Kentucky from 1865 to 1940, and that this pattern is consistent with trends that prevailed historically throughout most southern states. Beck and Tolnay (1990) have noted that an increase in the racial composition of the populations in Lower South states from 1882 and 1930 was associated with more frequent black lynchings. In contrast, McMillen (1990) found an inverse relationship between black lynchings and the number of blacks in the general population in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era. That is, black lynchings increased as the number of blacks in the general population decreased and vice versa. Although these researchers examined black lynchings rather than black legal executions, we argue that trends in black lynchings and black executions are actually complementary means Of imposing death as a punishment for blacks. In our analysis of black lynchings and executions in Kentucky from the 1860s through the 1930s, we argue that the imposition of lethal punishment is a total lethal sanctioning construct in that the power to impose lethal punishment on blacks did not simply shift from the hands of white lynch mobs to the power of the state, but that both white lynch mobs and the state shared in the imposition of death to blacks (Aguirre and Baker, 1994). As a result, one should not view black legal executions as substituting for black lynchings.
We are unable to calculate slave execution rates in the colonial period because slave census data are unavailable before 1790. Ironically, census data on the black population in the colonies is available beginning in 1610 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975). For our purposes, we have calculated the black execution rate as an alternative to slave execution rates. Figure 1 illustrates trends in the black execution rate and the percent of blacks in the total population of the United States by decades throughout the colonial period from the 1640s through the 1780s. Given that most blacks in the colonial period were slaves, black execution rates provide us with a limited context for observing the relationship between the slave population and slave executions.
The data presented in Figure 1 show that the percent of blacks in the United States population increased from 2.2 percent in the 1640s to 20.7 percent in the 1780s - over ninefold, and that the black execution rate increased from 0.01 in the 1780s to 0.12 in the 1860s - twelvefold. These data tend to support the general observation that as the number of slaves increased in the colonial population, the punishment meted out for major crimes became more severe. That is, these data support the argument that black lethal sanctioning is closely associated with increases in the concentration of blacks in the general population.
We have calculated the slave execution rate in the antebellum period since slave census data are available from 1790 to 1860 (Cramer, 1997; Kolchin, 1993; Berlin, 1975). In Figure 2 we have illustrated trends in the percent slave population, and slave execution rates in slave states where slave executions took place from the 1790s through the 1860s. During this period, the percent of slaves in the general population of slave states decreased from 33.5 percent in 1790 to 32.1 percent in 1860, while the slave execution rate increased from 0.09 in the 1790s to 0.73 in the 1860s - about an eightfold increase. These data do not support the general observation made by social historians that as the slave population increased, punishments imposed on slaves became more severe. These data show that punishment imposed on slaves became progressively more severe despite a moderate decrease in the percent of slaves in the general population.
CHARACTERISTICS OF SLAVE EXECUTIONS
Race of Executed Slaves
Espy's death penalty index shows that capital punishment jurisdictions executed 1,749 slaves. Although 1,720 of these slaves were black, twenty-nine of these persons whose occupation is noted in the inventory as slave were not black. Twenty-two slaves are identified in the inventory as white, six are identified as Native American, and in one case the race of the slave is unknown. These data raise the question of whether other racial, ethnic, or ancestral populations were enslaved in the United States. The historical record suggests that the United States did not exclusively enslave African blacks. For example, in 1708, South Carolina had about 1,400 American Indian slaves (Reich, 1989). Researchers, however, are quick to point out that the enslavement of whites and Native Americans amounted to nothing more than a socioeconomic experiment. "The rulers of the colonies were not too scrupulous about the color or national origin of the work force. They tried Indian slavery, and they also tried to enslave white men and women. When these attempts failed, the spotlight fell on Africans" (Bennett, 1982, pp. 44-45). Both blacks and whites were indentured servants during the colonial period and there was very little distinction made between them (Axtell, 1992; Franklin and Moss, 1988). Early colonists assigned white and black servants the same tasks and [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 3 OMITTED] were held in "equal contempt" (Bennett, 1982, p. 39). To Wright (1991, p. 51), African blacks were "servants in somewhat the same sense as their white counterparts. Most were probably closer to slaves than to indentured servants. On the whole they seemed to serve longer than whites." The status of whites, however, was clear; poor white English laborers came to the colonies as tenants, bond servants, and apprentices - but not as slaves. [For an interesting fictional account of Irish settlers arriving in the colonies as indentured servants for the English settlers, who often traded them for goods with the Indian tribes, see: Moss, 1995.]
Table 2 presents the characteristics of slave executions in the United States. According to Table 2, forty-two percent of all slave executions in the United States were for crimes of murder including conspiracy to commit murder, robbery-murder, rape-murder, murder-burglary, and arson-murder. Death penalty jurisdictions also executed slaves for theft crimes, slave revolt, arson, poisoning, and unspecified felonies. One slave was executed for witchcraft in the colonial period. Although the circumstances under which these crimes occurred remain unaccountable, some historical literature has addressed the social conditions giving rise to executing slaves for rape and slave revolt (Jordan, 1968; Kennedy, 1997; Marable, 1983; Morris, 1996; Aptheker, 1968).
Throughout the history of United States criminal justice, black males have been disproportionately executed more often for rape than any other racial and ethnic groups (Aguirre and Baker, 1991, 1994). An examination of Espy's file reveals that blacks comprise more than 80 percent of all executions for rape crimes. The data in the Espy file are in accordance with observations in the research record that extralegal executions in the United States also reflect a disproportionality of black lynchings for rape (Cutler, 1969; White, 1969; Raper, 1933; Chadbourn, 1933; Shay, 1938; Berry, 1958; Foster, 1959; NAACP, 1969; Wells-Barnett, 1969; McGovern, 1982; Snead, 1986; Grant, 1975; Zangrando, 1980; Hall, 1979; Kluger, 1975). Scholars have also established that racial disparity characterizes the imposition of the death penalty for rape in more contemporary periods as well (Johnson, 1957; Bowers, 1984; Wolfgang and Riedel, 1975). For example, the rate of black executions for rape in the United States is nine times the rate of white executions for rape (Aguirre and Baker, 1994). Official criminal justice statistics on executions imposed under civil authority since 1930 show that blacks comprised 89 percent of all executions for rape (U.S. Department of Justice, 1994). The South region executed 98.3 percent of all blacks executed for rape. The north-central states have executed seven blacks for rape, but western and northwestern states have never executed a black person for rape. On the other hand, the District of Columbia, Virginia, West Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma have never executed a white for the crime of rape.
Capital punishment jurisdictions executed 143 black slaves for rape crimes including actual rape, attempted rape, and attempted rape aggravated by burglary. Espy's data show that slave executions for rape account for 8.3 percent of all slave executions. It is not surprising to find that so many slave executions took place for rape crimes. Historically, capital offenses included specific restrictions on interracial sexual contact between black men and white women. Rape offenses for black males included virtually any form of contact with white women including writing letters to white women, proposing marriage to a white woman, eloping with a white woman, or simply paying attention to a white woman. Yet the rape of a black woman was not a criminal offense in the antebellum period; rape as a criminal category existed only for white women. White slave owners punished black men who raped black women, but no legal consequences befell white men who raped black women - there was simply no legal apparatus in place to criminally charge the offender with a crime (Free, 1996). Consequently, white men sexually attacked black women with legal impunity. One of the most troubling statistics on black rape in the United States is that no white man has ever been executed for the rape of a black woman in the history of American criminal justice (Marable 1983). Flowers (1990, p. 169) notes: "Black rapists have been far more likely to be put to death when their victims were white females rather than black females, whereas the death penalty has been imposed on white rapists exclusively when their victims were also white."
The rape complex, or rape myth as some social commentators call it, is inextricably linked to miscegenation. Historically, interfacial reproduction has been the subject of American criminal law (Roberts, 1993). Public indignation characterized miscegenation by the 1660s, and by the mid-eighteenth century all plantation colonies had enacted legal prohibitions against miscegenation. Strong public condemnation of interracial mixture between black and white stems from clear perceptions of difference between Englishmen and African slaves (Jordan, 1968). Black Africans were not Englishmen, and as Jordan (1968, p. 144) explains, "[t]he colonists' conviction that they must sustain their civilized condition [they saw Africans as lacking civilized culture] wherever they went rendered miscegenation ipso facto a negation of the underlying plan to settlement of America." Even as late as 1865, Black codes defined the inherent illegality of interracial relation ships. In December of that year, the Mississippi Black Code held that:
It shall not be lawful for any freedman, free Negro or mulatto to intermarry with any white person, nor for any white person to intermarry with any freedman, free Negro or mulatto, and any person who shall so intermarry shall be deemed guilty of felony, and on conviction thereof shall be confined in the State Penitentiary for life; free Negroes and mulattos are of pure Negro blood, and those descended from a Negro to the third generation inclusive, though one ancestor in each generation may have been a white person (Marable, 1983, pp. 110-111).
One can make a general observation regarding the rape myth and its association with the institutionalization of slavery and the development of a southern plantation economy. For instance, the propensity of sex crimes against white women by black men was unprecedented in the South before 1830 (White, 1969). Analysis of the Espy inventory bares this out. Before 1830, 106 black executions for rape crimes occurred in the United States, but after 1830, 1,081 black executions for rape crimes took place. Yet, given the sizable population of black slaves during the period, ample opportunity existed for blacks to commit rape crimes. One can speculate that Southern whites simply made more frequent charges of rape against blacks as other regions of United States society condemned the torturous treatment of blacks (White, 1969).
Slave rebellions in the United States took on a variety of forms including malingering, self-mutilation suicide destruction of slave owner's crops, tools, and livestock; running away; or criminal activity like stealing and violent insurrection (Reiss, 1997). Despite the significant number of slaves executed for slave revolt in the United States, slave insurrections were infrequent and posed very little direct challenge to slavery in the United States (Cooper and Terrill, 1991; Jordan, 1968). Reiss (1997, p. 198) mentions that "no American slave revolt was ever successful." The most cataclysmic slave uprisings occurred in the slave islands of the Caribbean and in South America. From a critical perspective of slave insurrections, Derrick Bell (1987, p. 247) notes that "slave owners used the threat of violent slave revolts as the 'common danger' to gain support for slavery among whites, including those who opposed the institution on moral grounds and those in the working class whose economic interests were harmed by the existence of slave labor." One reason for the failure of slaves to resist slavery through organized violence, unlike other slave societies, was that whites far outnumbered slaves. Even in South Carolina and Georgia where slaves comprised much of the population, they were too isolated to organize a successful insurrection in a land where whites controlled weapons and the state's police power (Cooper and Terrill, 1991). Slaves also had no benevolent groups empathetic to their cause that could help them in a revolt. Further, because of fervent religious beliefs and strong family ties, slaves were psychologically ill-equipped for revolution - "most slaves developed neither the ideology nor the desperation that open rebellion required" (Cooper and Terrill, 1991). Nevertheless, many slaves engaged in various individual forms of passive resistance. Schaefer (1996, p. 191) explains that slaves "feigned clumsiness or illness; pretended not to understand, see or hear; ridiculed whites with mocking, subtle humor their masters did not comprehend; and destroyed farm implements and committed similar acts of sabotage." Similarly, Reich (1989) has noted that slaves often manifested their resistance to bondage through malingering, running away, injuring themselves, infanticide and suicide, assaulting or poisoning overseers or owners, breaking tools, pilfering, and burning barns.
According to Espy's execution index, states executed 245 slaves for slave revolt. The overwhelming majority of slave executions for revolt took place in Upper South (68) and Lower South (123) states during the antebellum period. We have graphically illustrated the number of slave executions in the United States by year from 1641 to 1865 in Figure 3. One can see in Figure 3 that the graph line has well-defined points showing substantive increases in the number of slave executions. We have identified these points as coinciding with the years 1741, 1795, 1802, 1822, and 1840. Analysis of Espy's index shows that these years correspond to the highest numbers of slave executions for slave revolt. Nash (1995, p. 51) points out that "[t]hroughout the Southern colonies the obsessive fear of slave insurrection ushered in institutionalized violence as the means of ensuring social stability." In this regard, Louisiana executed seventy-seven slaves for slave revolt, South Carolina executed forty-one, Virginia executed thirty-six, North Carolina executed twenty-five, and Georgia executed two slaves for slave revolt. New York is the only northern state that executed slaves for slave revolt. In 1741, the United States military hanged, burned, or hung in chains, twenty-nine slaves in New York for a slave insurrection. Again in 1795, the United States military hanged twenty-three slaves in Louisiana for participation in slave revolts. North Carolina executed twenty-three slaves for slave revolt in 1802, and Virginia executed eleven slaves in the same year for the same criminal offense. South Carolina hanged thirty-four slaves in 1822 for slave revolt. In 1840, Louisiana hanged twenty-nine slaves for participation in slave unrest.
Although the number of open slave insurrections was few, runaway slaves posed a menacing problem for southern planters. Often slaves ran away from abusive masters or to "avoid punishment...or to get revenge for punishments already received" (Stampp, 1956, p. 113). Nevertheless, between 40,000 and 100,000 slaves escaped from slavery despite fugitive slave laws that provided for their return even if they reached free states (Schaefer, 1996). Roughly half of all runaway slaves were recaptured or killed, with this percentage increasing to about 73 percent for newly arrived Africans who were unfamiliar with the English language and the geographical territory. Punishment for runaway female slaves was particularly harsh. Reiss (1997) describes the punishments meted out to runaway slaves.
A first attempt led to up to forty lashes; an R was branded on the right cheek for a second offense; an ear was cut off plus forty lashes for a third attempt; castration was performed if the slave tried a fourth time (a female fourth-time offender had her left ear cut off and an R branded on her left cheek); and a fifth offense resulted in execution or incision of the Achilles tendon (Reiss, 1997, p. 194).
Although punishment inflicted on runaway slaves was particularly harsh, it is not surprising to find that Espy's death penalty index lists only one slave execution for aiding runaway slaves - executing a runaway slave would deprive the owner of a slave's labor. Yet, death penalty jurisdictions executed twenty white persons for aiding runaway slaves.
Method of Execution
Historically, the United States criminal justice system has been particularly harsh and creel (Reich, 1989; Friedman, 1973). Torture has been commonplace; even in the modern era (Miranda v. Arizona, 1964). Corporal punishment of slaves has taken various forms including stocks, pillory, flogging, branding, ear cropping, and castration. Prisoners often had their tongues bored and their noses slit. Capital punishment has been particularly violent. A common misconception about slave executions in the United States is that hanging was the sole method of execution before 1830 (Reiss, 1997). Although hanging and burning were the most popular methods for executing blacks in the United States before 1830, Espy's index reveals that criminal justice jurisdictions utilized a variety of other methods to execute blacks as well. Of the 1,098 blacks executed (including 1,035 slaves)before 1830, 990 were hanged, 60 were burned, eight suffered breaking on the wheel, three were hung in chains, three were gibbeted ("hanged on an upright post with projecting arm, so they slowly strangled rather than having their necks broken from a scaffold"), and fifty-one were put to death using some other method of execution or the execution method is unknown (Reiss, 1997). Table 3 shows that about 84 percent of all slave executions that took place in the colonial period and 97 percent of all slave executions in the antebellum period were by hanging. Burning of slaves to death as punishment accounts for about 11 percent of slave executions. Burning was a more popular method for executing slaves in the New England and Middle colonies during the colonial period. About 34 percent of all slaves executed in the New England and Middle colonies were burned to death. Breaking on the wheel was most prevalent in the Carolina and Georgia low country and accounts for about 16 percent of all slave executions in that region during the colonial era. Since executions in the early period of United States history were public events, hanging and burning of slaves perhaps served as a public example of the penalty for slave insubordination and insurgency. Reiss (1997, p. 196) points out, for example, that slaves were often forced by their masters to watch the execution of a slave, "and on occasion an arrogant slave was forced to cut the head off."
Regional Variation in Slave Executions
As referenced in Table 3, nearly 27 percent of all slave executions in the United States took place during the colonial period, and that 73 percent of all slave executions occurred in the antebellum period. Thus, far more slaves were executed in the antebellum period than in the colonial period. In the colonial period, northern states account for 117 slave executions and southern states accounted for 344 slave executions, but northern states accounted for only 3.5 percent of all slaves executed in the antebellum period. As to particular regions in these two historical periods, one can see from Figure 4 that slave executions were more prevalent in the Chesapeake colonies during the colonial period than in the New England and Middle colonies and the Carolina and Georgia low country. While the Chesapeake colonies account for about 18 percent of all slave executions in the United States during the colonial period, the Carolina and Georgia low country colonies executed about 3 percent of all slaves and the New England and Middle colonies executed about 5 percent. New York (47) and New Jersey (33) account for the highest numbers of slave executions in the New England and Middle colony region during the colonial era. In the Carolina and Georgia low country region, South Carolina (27) and Louisiana (19) account for the highest numbers of slave executions. In the Chesapeake colonies, Virginia (193) and North Carolina (101) executed far more slaves than any other colonies in the colonial period.
As for the antebellum period, Northern states executed less than 1 percent of all slaves executed in the United States, Lower South states executed about 28 percent, but the Upper South states executed nearly 44 percent of all slaves executed in the United States. In the Upper South states, Virginia executed 543 slaves - accounting for nearly 32 percent of all slave executions in the United States. In fact, Virginia executed nearly three times as many slaves as all other Upper South states combined in the antebellum period. The comparably exorbitant number of slave executions in Virginia is most likely an outcome of its history as a slave state and of having a sizable proportion of slaves in its population.
Female Slave Executions
Beginning with the Virginia execution of Jane Champion in 1632 and ending with the Texas execution of Karla Faye Tucker in February 1998, capital punishment jurisdictions have authorized the execution of 358 women in the United States - with only two female executions taking place since 1976 when the United States Supreme Court reinstituted capital punishment in Gregg v. Georgia.(1) Of all female prisoners executed in the United States, 197 were black, and of all black female executions 151 were slaves.
More than 83 percent of all black female executions in the United States took place before emancipation. Most black female slave executions were for murder, including conspiracy to commit murder and attempted murder. Black female slaves were also executed for arson, poisoning, and unspecified felonies. It has been suggested that black female slaves were also executed for witchcraft (Hill, 1995); however, Espy's death penalty index does not support this allegation. Murder committed by slave women usually involved the killing of their owner, their owner's mistress, or some member of their owner's family (Streib, 1990). Most slave women resorted to crime in retaliation for brutal treatment by their masters. A typical case of murder by a female slave, for example, involved the killing of a white master after repeated sexual assaults and rapes (Kennedy, 1997). Many poisonings and attempted murders resulted from unintentional acts by slave women. Cases of poisoning typically involved an accusation of poisoned food prepared by the slave for the owner's family; however, it is much more likely poisoned food resulted from a lack of safe food preparation methods (Streib, 1990). Yet, as Nash (1988, p. 12) puts it, "crimes committed by slaves against their masters...served as daily reminder of the discontent of slaves."
Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia executed nearly two-thirds of all female slaves. Virginia alone executed seventy-two female slaves, accounting for nearly half of all female slave executions. Massachusetts executed the first female slave in 1681. She was burned to death for arson. South Carolina executed the last female slave executed in the United States. She was hanged for an unknown crime in March 1865. At seventeen-years-old at the time of her execution, she also has the dubious distinction of being the youngest female slave ever executed in the United States.(2) Virginia executed the oldest female slave ever executed in the United States. She was sixty-five-years-old when she was hanged for murder in 1857. Nearly 90 percent of all female slave executions were hangings, but thirteen female slaves burned for their crimes. While state jurisdiction was the civil authority under which most female slave executions took place, the United States military executed twenty-five female slaves.
Jurisdictional authority in the administration of capital punishment in the United States is an important consideration because the transfer of execution authority from local (city and county) to state jurisdictions constitutes a fundamental change in the imposition of the death penalty in United States society. With the development of state prison systems, states began to require that executions be conducted under their exclusive authority and behind prison walls (Bowers, 1984). Although the first state-imposed execution occurred as early as 1853 in the District of Columbia, states did not begin to execute capital offenders routinely until the 1930s: It wasn't until the 1960s that states gained exclusive control over executions; aside from federal and military executions.
Regarding the issue of legal authority over black slave executions in the United States, Espy's inventory shows that state authority governed about 77 percent of all slave executions. However, no state executions of slaves took place before 1777. Before 1777, all slave executions occurred under military authority. After 1777, military authority governed the execution of twenty-three slaves in 1795 and one slave in 1865. Local and federal jurisdictional authority regulated the execution of two slaves. In July 1821, local authority warranted the hanging of a slave in Virginia for rape. The only federal execution of a slave occurred in December 1826 when New York hanged a slave for murder. Sixteen territorial executions of slaves occurred in Louisiana in January 1811 for slave revolt.
Slave Owner Compensation for Slave Executions
An added dimension to slave executions in the United States is that states often compensated slave owners for the loss of executed slaves. The rationale for reimbursing slave owners for the loss of executed slaves was to prevent owners from concealing slaves accused of capital crimes (Hindus, 1987), and "to shift the costs of public justice to the public at large and balance the owner's interests and public security" (Morris, 1996, p. 253). Compensation laws appeared very early in slavery. Virginia, for example, adopted the first compensation law in 1705. The amount of compensation paid the slave owner was usually assessed by a jury at less than the full value of the slave. Many jurisdictions did not reimburse slave owners for the full value of an executed slave because slave crime was viewed as the result of the owner's failure to manage slaves properly. Stampp (1956, p. 199) explains that "since the execution of a slave resembled the public seizure or condemnation of private property, most of the states recognized the justice of the owner's claim." South Carolina paid a flat rate of $200 per slave. Some states refused to compensate owners of slaves convicted of murder or rebellion. For example, before 1843 South Carolina did not reimburse slave owners for the loss of an executed slave convicted of murder or rebellion. Espy's death penalty index confirms that none of the seventy-two slave executions conducted in South Carolina before 1843 for murder or slave revolt involved compensation paid to slave owners. It wasn't until 1855 that the South Carolina legislature voted to compensate owners one-half of a slave's value for slaves convicted of murder and rebellion (Hindus, 1987).
Of all slave executions in the United States, 284 (16%) involved compensation paid to slave owners. In the colonial period before 1790, eighty-six slave executions took place in North Carolina between 1734 and 1786 that involved owner compensation. West Virginia also paid compensation to a slave owner for the state hanging of a slave in 1787. In the antebellum period after 1790, nearly 51 percent of all black slave executions involving owner compensation occurred in Alabama. Of the 217 slaves executed in Alabama, 144 of these executions involved reimbursement to slave owners. The number of slave executions involving owner compensation in southern states included thirty-two cases in Virginia, fifteen cases in Louisiana, four cases in Mississippi, two cases in Kentucky, and one case in West Virginia. It is interesting that in 83 percent of all slave executions in southern states during the antebellum period involving compensation paid to slave owners, the crime for which the slave was executed is unknown. In addition, states may not have been the only legal entity that compensated slave owners for the loss of executed slaves. From 1782 to 1865, all slave executions involving compensation were conducted under state authority. But Espy's inventory shows that the jurisdictional authority over more than sixty-five slave executions involving owner compensation that took place between 1734 and 1775 was that of the military.
Executions of Free Blacks
Table 3 shows that free black people comprised a sizable population in the United States during slavery.(3) The free black population numbered 59,466 and comprised about 8 percent of the overall black population in the United States in 1790, but by 1860 the free black population increased to 488,070 and comprised about 11 percent of the overall free black population (Kolchin, 1993; Berlin, 1975). Northern states had the highest proportion of free blacks in their population during this period. While the absolute number of free blacks is comparable for northern and southern states, there is considerable variation in the representation of free blacks as a proportion of the black population for these regions. In northern states, free blacks numbered 27,109 and comprised about 40 percent of the black population in 1790; by 1860 the entire black population in the North was no longer living in bondage. In southern states, however, the free black population numbered 32,357 and roughly 5 percent of the black population in 1790, but by 1860, although the numbers of free blacks had increased to 261,918 they comprised only about 6 percent of the black population.
A comparison of the free black population in the Upper South and the Lower South shows a higher representation of free blacks in the Upper South than in the Lower South. In the Upper South, the number of free blacks in 1790 totaled 30,158 persons and was about 6 percent of the black population. In 1860, the free black population was 261,918 and about 13 percent of the black population. Regarding individual states in the Upper South, Delaware, the District of Columbia, and Maryland had the highest percentages of free blacks; but Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee had far lower percentages of free blacks. In contrast, free blacks in the Lower South numbered 2,199 in 1790 and about 2 percent of the black population, and in 1860 the number of free blacks in the Lower South totaled 36,955 and about 1.5 percent of the black population. Although the number of free blacks in the Lower South increased between 1790 and 1860, the representation of blacks in the total population remained consistently low. Louisiana and South Carolina had the highest proportions of free blacks in their black populations in comparison to the other Lower South states.
Espy's death penalty index shows that criminal justice jurisdictions executed 170 free blacks. The execution of free (non-slave) blacks occurred repeatedly throughout northern and southern states from 1679 through 1865. Twenty-seven free blacks were executed in northern states during the colonial period (before 1790), and 143 free blacks were executed in southern states during the antebellum period (1790-1865). While northern states executed twenty-one free blacks in the colonial period, southern states executed six free blacks. In the antebellum period, however, northern states executed sixty-nine free blacks and southern states executed seventy-four free blacks. In the north, Massachusetts (17), New York (14), and Pennsylvania (29) account for the highest number of free black executions, and in the south, Kentucky (11) Maryland (14), and Virginia (15) account for the highest number of free black executions. It is interesting to note that the ninety free blacks executed in northern states comprise roughly half of all free black executions in the United States before 1865. This is a striking peculiarity considering the fact that northern states had virtually abolished slavery by 1830.
Most free blacks (107) were executed for crimes of murder, including robbery-murder, rape-murder, accessory to murder, and attempted murder. Twenty-three free blacks were executed for rape (21) and attempted rape (2), and the remainder of all free blacks were executed for theft crimes (13), treason (2), piracy (3), arson (5), slave revolt (6) and aiding a runaway slave (1). The crimes for which ten free blacks were executed are unknown. Espy's data shows that all executed free blacks were hanged, and that twenty-five of these executions were mandated by state jurisdictional authority and one was a military execution. All were males. In terms of occupational status, many of the executed free blacks were domestics including servants, workers, and laborers. Several executed free blacks had semi-skilled positions such as barber, carpenter, fiddler, and mat maker. A few had maritime positions as sailors, seaman, and ship's pilot. Many of the executed free blacks had occupations of a marginal nature including convict, deserter, prisoner, fence, pirate, roustabout, and tramp. None of the executed free blacks whose occupation is known had professional positions.
The construction of a descriptive profile in this article is a heuristic device for identifying the characteristics of slave executions in the United States. based on the descriptive profile of slave executions we have made the following observations. First, our examination of historical periods in slave executions suggests that the execution of slaves is associated with the institutionalization of slavery. Our analysis shows that as slavery spread westwardly beyond the early colonies into the southwestern regions of Lower South, slave codes became increasingly stringent. As a result of slave codes becoming increasingly stringent, the number of slave executions increased particularly in the Upper South and Lower South. Second, there is a correspondence between geographical regionalization and the execution of slaves; that is, states in the Lower South executed far more slaves than states in the North and Upper South. Third, execution was used by white society as a tool for punishing slaves for participating in slave revolts despite the fact that slave insurrections posed very little threat to slavery. Fourth, the high incidence of slaves executed for rape suggests that white society used execution to enforce prohibitions against miscegenation.
We recognize that the contextual analysis of slave executions in the United States is noticeably limited. Despite its comprehensiveness, Espy's death penalty index is not an exhaustive inventory of confirmed executions in the United States. The inventory provides no information on many factors that scholars generally contend substantially influence the imposition of capital punishment; such as prior criminal history, offense seriousness, and degree of culpability. An equally important limitation of Espy's index is that we cannot determine whether states allowed slaves convicted of capital crimes to appeal their capital case to a higher court before execution (Aguirre and Baker, 1989, 1997). Determination of appellate review of capital cases is important when one considers that at the forefront of death penalty research is the idea that racial disparity in the imposition of capital punishment results from the denial of equal protection of the law. In other words, blacks have been executed with disproportionate frequency than whites because blacks have not been afforded the same legal protections as whites against biased criminal procedures. Some scholars have noted that states mostly denied slaves equal protection of the law (Kennedy, 1997; Morris, 1996); and that slave owners determined appellate review of capital cases involving slave offenders (Hindus, 1987). Yet slaves appealed their capital cases. For example, Nash's (1970) study of appellate courts in southern states between 1830 and 1860 found that black defendants received reversals of convictions in about 57 percent of the appeals. These cases usually involved error in jury composition and involuntary confessions. Rights of due process did not attach to the slave but to the slave owner since executing a slave resulted in state appropriation of a white man's private property.
While the descriptive profile helps us to understand the extent and utility of slave executions in a society dominated by white interests, our socio-historical analysis is limited in helping us to understand the context of slave executions. We remain severely limited in our ability to visualize the practice of slave executions using Espy's death penalty index. Without more definitive historical data on slave executions, we cannot approach constructing a similar portrait as that provided by Kluger (1975, pp. 89-90) on how black persons were subjected to lynchings as a form of lethal sanctioning:
A Negro charged with murdering a white man was seized and hauled to the local theater, where an audience was invited to witness his hanging. Receipts were to go to the murdered white man's family. To add interest to the benefit performance, seat holders in the orchestra were invited to empty their revolvers into the swaying black body while those in the gallery were restricted to a single shot.
A descriptive profile and contextual analysis remain problematic for depicting in a graphic sense the brutality of slave executions. It does, however, tell us that slave executions were rooted in the social fabric of United States society. These roots may be so deeply buried in the social fabric that they prevent change from taking place in how social control agencies in United States society victimize black persons.
Acknowledgment: The authors wish to thank Kristie Woods and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful editorial contributions to this article.
1. Judi Buenoano became the third woman executed in the United States on March 30, 1998. She was executed by electrocution in the state of Florida.
2. Connecticut hanged the youngest female prisoner executed in the United States. She was a twelve-year-old Native American girl who was executed for murder in 1786. Massachusetts hanged the oldest female prisoner executed in the United States. She was a seventy-one-year-old white women executed for witchcraft in 1692.
3. Northern free blacks were not in any sense free. Woodward (1968, p. 17) explains that "the northern black was made painfully and constantly aware that he lived in a society dedicated to the doctrine of white supremacy and Negro inferiority." Northern whites recognized that they could not buy or sell free blacks, separate them from their families, or legally make them work without compensation. Nevertheless, northern whites recognized that blacks were politically, socially, and physically unfit for white society. Northern states remained highly segregated.
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|Author:||Aguirre, Adalberto, Jr.; Baker, David V.|
|Publication:||The Social Science Journal|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1999|
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