Death penalty laws go way back to the eighteenth century B.C. in the Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon. During the tenth century A.D., hanging became the usual method of execution. During the sixteenth century though, while Britain was under rule of Henry VIII, there were an estimated 72,000 executions. Common methods of execution included boiling, burning at the stake, drawing and quartering, hanging, and beheading. By the 1700s there were 222 crimes in Britain punishable by death such as stealing or cutting down a tree.
In America, the main influence of the use of the death penalty came from Britain. European settlers brought the practice of capital punishment to the Colonies. In 1608 the first person to be executed in the colonies was Captain George Kendall in Jamestown, Virginia. He was executed because he was a Spanish Spy. Governor Sir Thomas Dale of Virginia changed the death penalty laws in 1612, however, so that minor offenses such as stealing grapes or trading with indians were punishable by death. The death penalty laws were different in every colony though. Massachusetts Bay Colony held its first execution in 1930. The New York Colony launched the Duke’s Laws of 1665, making it so offenses such as denying the “true god”, were punishable by death.
During the nineteenth century though, many states had begun reducing the number of capital crimes. They also began building state penitentiaries. In 1834 Pennsylvania was the first state to hold an execution in correctional facilities rather than in public. By 1846, Michigan was the first state to abolish the death penalty with the exception of treason. Rhode Island and Wisconsin, although, soon abolished it for all crimes. While more states continued to abolish the death penalty, some made more crimes capital offenses, especially those committed by slaves.
In 1888 New York built the first ever electric chair and two years later, executed William Kemmler using this method. Many other states followed New York and began using this method too. But during a ten year period from 1907 to 1917, six states completely abolished the death penalty and three limited the number of capital offenses. By 1920 though, all but one of those states had reinstated in. Four years later, Nevada first introduced cyanide gas as a method of execution while searching for a more humane way of execution. Gee Jon was the first person to be executed this way. The state tried pumping gas into his cell while he slept but this proved to be unsuccessful and the gas chamber was constructed.
The 1930s had more execution than any other decade in the U.S., with an average of 167 executions annually. In the 40s there were about 1,289 executions but in the 50s, the number dropped dramatically. Many states abolished or limited the death penalty. During the ten year time span, 715 people were executed. Numbers only continued to drop with 191 executions between 196-76.
Before the 1960s, the fifth, eighth, and fourteenth amendments were interpreted as permitting the death penalty. However, during the early 1960s it was suggested that the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment and violated the eighth amendment. So, on June 29, 1972, the supreme court suspended the death penalty in a five to four vote. Florida was the first to reinstate the death penalty only five months later by rewriting its death penalty statute. Thirty-four other states followed Florida. And, after a ten year ban on all executions, Gary Gilmore was executed in January of 1977 in Utah by way of the firing squad. That same year Oklahoma adopted lethal injection as a method of execution. The first execution using lethal injection did not happen until 1982 when Charles Brooks was executed in Texas.
Today, thirty-one states still permit the death penalty and all of them use lethal injection. A few states use other methods though. Utah and Oklahoma use the firing squad. Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington still use Hanging while Missouri, Wyoming, and Arizona use lethal gas. Nine states still use electrocution. Among them are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. In 2015 there were twenty-eight executions but there have been a total of 1,435 since 1976.