Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Execution


By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 26, 2010

When you see “Execution” as the heading for an article in the 1912 Young Woman’s Journal, the article will be a dignified exposition by a genteel lady about the efficient planning and carrying out of an ennobling program for the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association.

When you see “Execution” in the heading for an article in the 1885 Juvenile Instructor, the article will be a dignified exposition of an uplifting principle for the tender minds and hearts of the Sunday School children for whom the magazine was published.




Capital punishment in criminal jurisprudence means the punishment of death. It is called capital punishment from the Latin word, caput, meaning “head.” The head, being the most vital, is usually that part of the body which is acted upon. This extreme penalty, notwithstanding the practice of the world from the remotest times down to the present day, has frequently been frowned down by philosophers and philanthropists, who have gone so far as to deny the right to so punish, of any earthly power. The weight of authority, however, appears in favor of capital punishment. Reference can also be confidently made to the old Testament, which is the foundation of all law, as sufficiently exhibiting the mind of the Great Lawgiver in retard to this matter:

“Whosoever sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”

I will here state that in former times the committing of murder was by no means the only crime for which the perpetrator received death at the hands of the law, but capital punishment was meted out to those who committed the most trivial offenses. During the reign of George III. we read in the history of England that the following were among some of the numerous offenses which involved a sentence of death: “Stealing in a dwelling-house to the amount of 40 shillings; stealing privately, in a shop, goods to the value of 5shillings; counterfeiting the stamps that were used for the sale of perfumery; and doing the same with the stamps used for the certificates for hair powder.”

The inhumanity of such a state of the criminal code gave way, towards the end of the reign of this king, to a course of legislation which has reduced the application of death as a punishment within its present humane limits. Practically, indeed, it is only in the case of treason and murder that the capital sentence is ever pronounced in any of the civilized nations to-day; and even then it is not always carried out, as certain circumstances connected with the committing of the crime, extreme youth, etc., often spares the life of the convict at least.

It may be necessary to state that in other nations the administration of the criminal law has perhaps been, on the whole, as severe as in England during the same period.

Imposing the death penalty as the ordinary punishment for all felonies was not the only inhuman feature of former criminal jurisprudence. The manner of executing capital punishment was so brutal and unfeeling that it causes one to shudder at the thought of the extreme tortures imposed upon the poor unfortunates.

I will here give a few of the modes of inflicting the punishment of death: From the end of the first until the middle of the eighteenth century, drowning was one of the many modes, then in vogue, of capital punishment; but it was generally inflicted upon women and the meaner and more infamous offenders among men, the greater and more distinguished criminals being hung. The drowning was performed in various ways according to the nature of the offense. A faithless wife was smothered in mud. Other offenders were drowned in pits, well, etc. The doom of the parricide (one who murders a parent or ancestor) was to be put into a sack and cast into the sea. In Saxony, as late as 1734, a woman convicted of child-murder was sewn up in a sack, along with a cat, a dog and a snake and thus drowned.

Breaking on the wheel was a very barbarous method of inflicting the punishment of death, formerly in use in France and Germany, when the criminal was placed on a carriage wheel, with his arms and legs extended along the spokes, and the wheel being turned around the executioner fractured his limbs by successive blows with an iron bar, which were repeated until death ensued. This custom was abolished in France at the Revolution, giving way for a more humane manner of inflicting death, which was performed by a machine called the guillotine. it is composed of two upright posts, grooved on the inside and connected on the top by a cross beam. In these grooves a sharp iron blade, placed obliquely, descends by its own weight upon the neck of the victim, who is bound to a board laid below. The speed and certainty with which this machine does its work gives it a great superiority over the ax or sword, to say nothing of the merciless form of execution upon the wheel and other cruel modes in former use.

Many other modes of capital punishment might be referred to, together with the painful and cruel tortures applied to those who refused to plead when arraigned before a tribunal, and for extorting evidence from witnesses, etc., but the subject is too unpleasant for further consideration. Enough has been quoted to show what hard-hearted and merciless natures were possessed by those who made and executed laws in the early history of the nations.

Our cut illustrates the manner in which a semi-barbarous and heathen people of to-day administers the death penalty to the culprit. The scene, exhibiting, as it does, the presence of the king, his subordinate officers and many of his subjects, manifests their inexorable natures. Their custom, however, is not nearly so brutal and inhuman as that which existed among nations who considered themselves more enlightened and civilized.

Since the dawn of freedom and liberty the life of man is considered before the law as his most sacred heritage, and the death penalty is not meted out to him, with few exceptions, save when he takes the life of his innocent fellow-being, thus carrying out the intent of the divine law quoted in the beginning of this article.

Formerly the object of the punishment was to seek revenge upon the offender and compel him to atone for his wrongs by the slow and cruel tortures inflicted upon him. – W.J.L.

I have not yet identified the author, “W.J.L.”

This post could conceivably inspire comments  not only about the suitability of such a topic and illustration in a magazine for children and youth, but to the pros and cons of the death penalty itself, in the past and the present, in the U.S. and elsewhere. If so, please keep your opinions and any strong terms they provoke focused on that issue, and not directed toward other commenters who may express other views. Thanks.



  1. Wow. You won’t see this in the New Era anytime soon. And that’s a good thing. Is this a follow-up to the post on The Rack? I can’t wait for next month’s article on stoning.

    Comment by Clark — March 26, 2010 @ 9:33 am

  2. I’m reminded of a professor in law school who said that one of his teachers had gone to great lengths to explain that it was the sentence that was executed, and not the prisoner, but that didn’t make much difference to the poor unfortunate.

    And the Latin caput for “head” is perilously close to the German kaputt for broken-down, worthless, etc. Reminds me of Ambrose Bierce’s musings on the meanings of “belladonna” in Italian and English.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 26, 2010 @ 10:16 am

  3. I’m guessing that this lession help keep the youth in line. Wow, what is a wierd subject to teach during church. I bet that made good conversion at the dinner table Sunday evening..’So John what did you learn today?’

    Comment by Mex Davis — March 26, 2010 @ 10:53 am

  4. This is a nice counterpoint to some of the more extreme Reformation rhetoric thirty years or so earlier. Makes me wonder if it was calculated to be so.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 26, 2010 @ 10:56 am

  5. Mark, I thought of the same thing when I read “caput”.

    I wonder if this article was prompted by the rumors spreading of how capital punishment was used in Utah.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — March 26, 2010 @ 11:01 am

  6. J.
    You beat me to the question.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — March 26, 2010 @ 11:02 am

  7. Sitting with my two youngest crowded 7 to a side pew (long story) last Sunday night at a Standards Night fireside, the speaker was illuminating the subject of repentance, and one of his texts was from Alma, who described the spiritual discomfort felt before repentance as being “racked with sorrow.” To help the kids get the idea of what that meant, the speaker felt he needed to describe what a “rack” was. As he did so I thought of two things, first, was a torture rack really what Alma had in mind? and second, I thought of the JI article recently republished here.

    I wonder if, perhaps, in a similar fashion, these articles were meant to provide a sort of (perhaps misplaced) context for a reader’s present or future scriptural or ritual experience?

    Comment by Coffinberry — March 26, 2010 @ 11:07 am

  8. Oh. One more thought. These articles with their woodcuts remind me very much of the Martyr’s Mirror, an Anabaptist staple continuing through the 19th century.

    Comment by Coffinberry — March 26, 2010 @ 11:11 am

  9. Oh my goodness, Ardis. I must have been reading too fast. I somehow thought that the included article was by May Green, and I was feeling rather astounded, since I had just seen her in the Mormon Migration records that you linked to on the sidebar. Her mother’s occupation was listed as “Lady” and everything I know about the very proper Green family would not encompass the fact of May Green writing an article like this.

    The article actually sounds like it was written by a man — the author lists the punishments for faithless wives and mothers who do away with their children but does not mention an equivalent punishment for males committing the same crimes.

    Comment by Researcher — March 26, 2010 @ 11:41 am

  10. I’d like to know what the unfortunate cat, dog and snake did in 1734 to warrant the death penalty, that’s really odd.

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — March 26, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

  11. That almost reminds me of the joke where the cow and pig came to the farmer’s door to complain about the traveler who had been sent to sleep in the barn.

    Comment by Mark B. — March 26, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

  12. The dog, cat and snake were added punishment. They would react very badly to the confinement and attack the culprit inflicting severe pain but taking their mind off the fact that they are drowning (OK in made up that last part). People can be very cruel when it comes to punishment or doling out death. Anne you get two for one, animal and criminal control. Still don’t see where this fits in to any lession plan.

    Comment by Mex Davis — March 26, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

  13. It appears to me that WJL made very close use of material published in Chambers’s Encyclopaedia, including its entries on capital punishment, drowning, guillotine, and breaking on the wheel (wheel, breaking on the).

    Comment by Justin — March 26, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

  14. “Right?


    Ardis, your joke was well-executed.

    (Sorry. Had to do it.)

    Comment by Hunter — March 26, 2010 @ 7:37 pm

  15. Deterrence.

    In the 1970’s the murder rate increased dramatically. It is postulated that this was because the change in the death penalty laws and in the way the death penalty was applied, the criminal class (or those inclined to commit crime, etc) came to realize that the probability of paying the ulimtate price for the ultimate crime had become relatively small.

    Also when the death penalty and lengthy prison sentences stopped being applied to those under age 18, crime in that age range also increased. Causation, or correlation? The street cops I’ve known have told me causation.

    Comment by Bookslinger — March 27, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

  16. Researcher: if women wrote the laws, enforced them, and judged the offenders, male adulterers might end up being sent to…
    a much smaller guillotine.

    Comment by Bookslinger — March 27, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

  17. /snicker/

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 27, 2010 @ 7:59 pm

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