Abstract

Every state in the South executed criminals in public well into the Gilded Age, and most of those criminals were African American. Surprisingly, the public nature of these executions was not generally considered a humiliation. More often, the crowds served as a congregation for the religious ceremony at the scaffold, investing the moment with meaning both for the condemned and the largely African American crowd gathered. A legal public execution of a black man in the late-nineteenth century included hymns sung by a mixed-race crowd, prayers from an African American minister, and a public profession of faith (“I’ll meet you all in heaven!”) from the convicted rapist or murderer. Whites (and state legislatures) increasingly turned away from public execution in the late-nineteenth century South, seeing that this ceremony negated the chastening lesson that a criminal penalty should elicit. This may be an important context for understanding the growing impulse at this time to wrest criminals out of the legal system altogether and lynch them. Few things would have seemed more disturbing to racist southern whites than a black murderer or rapist proclaiming his divine salvation to a crowd of thousands of singing and praying blacks. Like lynching, privacy in executions was designed to be more terrifying, its mysteries offering a more harrowing brand of justice. Stripped of both black religious authority and African American crowds, private executions would not merely be behind walls, they would be Jim Crow executions: witnessed only by white men and bereft of any wider religious context.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 195-224
Launched on MUSE
2011-11-12
Open Access
N
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