The best books about the history of capital punishment

Who am I?

When I started researching the history of early modern public execution, I read a few eyewitness accounts in which people behaved so strangely that I realised I understood nothing about the realities of this once-common historical practice. By reading the books on this list, I quickly discovered that the ceremony of capital punishment was a performance in which the entire community participated, filled with rituals and behaviours that had enormous emotional and spiritual significance for everyone involved, not just the ‘poor sinner’ on the scaffold. I also discovered that music and singing were crucial parts of the performance, with ballads being sung about the event for years afterwards. 

I wrote...

Singing the News of Death: Execution Ballads in Europe 1500-1900

By Una McIlvenna,

Book cover of Singing the News of Death: Execution Ballads in Europe 1500-1900

What is my book about?

Across Europe, from the dawn of print until the early twentieth century, the news of crime and criminals' public executions was printed in song form on cheap broadsides and pamphlets to be sold in streets and marketplaces by ballad-singers. Set to well-known tunes, ballads were frequently written in first-person voice, and often purported to be the last words, confession, or 'dying speech' of the condemned criminal, yet were ironically on sale the day of the execution itself! Singing the News of Death looks at how song was employed across Europe for centuries as a vehicle for broadcasting news about crime and executions. Examining ballads in English, French, Dutch, German, and Italian across four centuries, Una McIlvenna offers the first multilingual and longue durée study of the complex and fascinating phenomenon.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Art of Executing Well: Rituals of Execution in Renaissance Italy

Why did I love this book?

It’s not often I’m moved to tears by an academic book, but this book did it for me by putting me in the shoes of a Florentine patrician trying to comfort his friend the night before his execution. The main historical source of the book is an extraordinary ‘how-to’ manual: the one used by the ‘comforting confraternities’ of 16th-century Bologna, men who volunteered to spiritually prepare condemned criminals for their final moments on earth and, in so doing, hopefully increase their chances of salvation. The book explains the various methods and tools that the comforter could use, including prayers, songs, and pictures, and reveals the complex rituals of execution that began long before the prisoner’s arrival at the scaffold. A moving account of the realities of historical capital punishment.

By Nicholas Terpstra (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Art of Executing Well as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Renaissance Italy a good execution was both public and peaceful―at least in the eyes of authorities. In a feature unique to Italy, the people who prepared a condemned man or woman spiritually and psychologically for execution were not priests or friars, but laymen. This volume includes some of the songs, stories, poems, and images that they used, together with first-person accounts and ballads describing particular executions. Leading scholars expand on these accounts explaining aspects of the theater, psychology, and politics of execution.

The main text is a manual, translated in English for the first time, on how to comfort…

Book cover of Tyburn's Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775

Why did I love this book?

McKenzie looks at the extraordinary phenomenon of the 'last dying speech' that condemned prisoners in Britain got to give from the scaffold. In particular, she explores events at Tyburn, London's most notorious execution site, in the 18th century, exploring how this period saw an explosion of printed literature that featured the criminal as an Everyman from whom everyone could learn a harsh lesson in morality. It's a fantastic exploration of the reality of the gallows versus what one could read in print: from the 'game' highwayman who refused to bow to society's expectations to the fearful, trembling prisoner who begged for mercy. Totally fascinating. 

By Andrea McKenzie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Tyburn's Martyrs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The public execution at Tyburn is one of the most evocative and familiar of all eighteenth-century images. Whether it elicits horror or prurient fascination - or both - the Tyburn hanging day has become synonymous with the brutality of a bygone age and a legal system which valued property over human life.But, as this fascinating cultural and social history of the gallows reveals, the early modern execution was far more than just a debased spectator sport. The period between the Restoration and the American Revolution witnessed the rise and fall of a vast body of execution literature - last dying…

Book cover of The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe

Why did I love this book?

An art history book might not seem like the most obvious choice for a list like this, but this one is a revelation: we often forget that Crucifixion paintings are scenes of capital punishment. Merback looks at crucifixion images of northern European masters of the late medieval and early modern period, and reveals that the often mangled positions of the limbs of the two thieves on either side of Christ are depictions of the kinds of mutilations that spectators regularly witnessed on the bodies of those broken on the wheel (where the limbs were smashed and then 'woven' through the spokes of a cartwheel - no, really). This study is important not only for understanding the physical practices of execution on the Continent, but also for exploring the profound religious significance of the entire execution ritual. 

By Mitchell B. Merback,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This text reconstructs the religious, legal and historical context of the Crucifixion and of other images of public torture. The result is an account of a time when criminal justice and religion were entirely interrelated and punishment was a visual spectacle devoured by a popular audience. Mitchell Merback compares the images of Christ's Crucifixion with those of the two thieves who met their fate beside Jesus. In paintings by well-known Northern European masters and provincial painters alike, Merback finds the two thieves subjected to incredible cruelty, cruelty that artists could not depict in their scenes of Christ's Crucifixion because of…

Book cover of The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century

Why did I love this book?

What must it have been like to be an executioner? In this detailed and moving study, Harrington explores the extraordinary diary of Meister Franz Schmidt, the 16th-century executioner of Nuremberg, who kept notes on every one of the 394 people he executed, as well as the countless others he tortured, whipped, and disfigured according to the law's demands. This book is therefore essential for understanding exactly how this mysterious craft was carried out, but the surprising twist in the tale is how Schmidt spent his entire life seeking to have his family's honour restored in a period when executioners were believed to be able to ritually 'pollute' another human simply by touch. Harrington's real achievement here is explaining how dishonour was the central force within public punishment—something we too easily forget today.

By Joel F. Harrington,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Faithful Executioner as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a dusty German bookshop, the noted historian Joel F. Harrington stumbled upon a remarkable document: the journal of a sixteenth-century executioner. The journal gave an account of the 394 people Meister Frantz Schmidt executed, and the hundreds more he tortured, flogged, or disfigured for more than forty-five years in the city of Nuremberg. But the portrait of Schmidt that gradually emerged was not that of a monster. Could a man who practiced such cruelty also be insightful, compassionate - even progressive?

In The Faithful Executioner, Harrington teases out the hidden meanings and drama of Schmidt's journal. Deemed an official…

Book cover of Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France

Why did I love this book?

Many think that the medieval period was the era of cruel and sadistic punishment, but it was, in fact, the Renaissance that saw the rise of the great spectacle of the 'theatre of horror': scaffolds erected to display the brutal dismemberment and suffering of executed prisoners in front of thousands of spectators. Although it focuses on France, Friedland's study explores why, all across Europe, this period saw an appetite for something so graphic. It explores the history of capital punishment from the Romans onwards, so it's essential reading for the theory behind executions, but the real strength lies in its exploration of the gulf between what theorists believed and what the general public actually did at executions, and why they attended in their thousands. 

By Paul Friedland,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Seeing Justice Done as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the early Middle Ages to the twentieth century, capital punishment in France, as in many other countries, was staged before large crowds of spectators. Paul Friedland traces the theory and practice of public executions over time, both from the perspective of those who staged these punishments as well as from the vantage point of the many thousands who came to "see justice done". While penal theorists often stressed that the fundamental purpose of public
punishment was to strike fear in the hearts of spectators, the eagerness with which crowds flocked to executions and the extent to which spectators actually…

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