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The recorded history of capital punishment on American soil dates back more than 400 years. The first execution of an Englishman, in what is now the United States, was that of Captain George Kendall, which took place in Virginia’s Jamestown colony in 1608. The colony’s blacksmith at the time, James Reed, was condemned to death for treason. But he managed to save himself by pointing the finger at Captain Kendall. He argued that Captain Kendall was a dangerous conspirator. Kendall was tried and condemned to death. And he was executed by firing squad. There was a wide array of capital offensive in colonial America. And the laws varied from colony to colony. Most were based on the British Bloody Codes, which codified more than 200 offenses as capital crimes, including lower level offenses, such as petty theft, cutting down trees in an orchid, and disturbing a fish pond.
In America capital statutes included murder, rape, and robbery, along with other crimes tied to religion or morality, such as witchcraft, blasphemy, working on the Sabbath, adultery, and worshipping false idols. Most of the individuals executed in colonial America, however, were executed for murder, witchcraft, and being a pirate. 40% of those executed were executed for murder, 25% executed for witchcraft, and 15% of the executions in colonial America were for pirates. Early death penalty laws were often accompanied by a scripture passage justifying the laws. This is because executions in colonial America were strongly tied to religion. Given the strong ties to religion, early executions were public, often hanging at the gallows. This provided a larger audience for clergy to preach to, and was intended to be a deterrent for other would be offenders. T
he execution was a ritual lasting several hours, that included a public procession to the gallows, accompanied by sermons, singing of hymns, and the condemns last words. The last words were supposed to be the defendants final opportunity to declare a renewed faith, and ask for forgiveness. It was his or her opportunity to receive Atonement before dying. Public executions in colonial America were generally solemn events, and considered wholesome and educational for children. Behavior of the spectators was that of a restrained celebration. There were generally few executions in colonial America, because the newly founded country needed The vast majority of those executed were men. Only 35 for women.
Women were much more likely to be executed for witchcraft. And the most women executed in any one year was 1692, the year of the Salem Witch Trials. Most of the people executed in colonial America were black. In part, this is because blacks were often considered outsiders. And the execution of outsiders was less disruptive to the community. And yet, it still provided the opportunity to deter other offenders, and for clergy to preach. The average age at execution was 30. But known executions in colonial America were up to the age of 83, and as young as 12. Though only about 2% of those executed were juveniles. Methods of executions in the US also originated in Europe. The following short video will introduce you to some of the historical execution methods upon which executions in colonial America where based. After centuries of brutal executions, the quest for the most humane method of ending human life continues.
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