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Theater of Death: Capital Punishment in Early America, 1750-1800

Gottlieb, Gabriele (2006) Theater of Death: Capital Punishment in Early America, 1750-1800. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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This dissertation analyzes capital punishment from 1750 to 1800 in Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston. All were important Atlantic ports with bustling waterfront and diverse populations. Capital punishment was an integral part of eighteenth-century city life with the execution day as its pinnacle. As hangings were public and often attended by thousands of people, civil and religious authorities used the high drama of the gallows to build community consensus, shape the social order, and legitimize their power. A quantitative analysis of executions reveals patterns of punishment over time. The number of executions was relatively low in the colonial period, varied greatly during the Revolution, rose sharply in the mid- to late-1780s, and then declined during the 1790s in Boston and Philadelphia but remained high in Charleston. There were also important differences between the cities which influenced the death penalty: the fusion of civil and religious authority in Boston, most visible in execution sermons; a penal reform movement and opposition to capital punishment in Quaker-influenced Philadelphia; and the relations between masters and slaves as well as the question of dual sovereignty over life by the state and the master in Charleston. This study argues that capital punishment was an important tool of social control in early urban America. Executions were especially frequent in moments of real or perceived crisis. The mindset of juries was therefore essential in determining the punishment of a crime. More importantly, the death penalty was especially deployed to control the lower classes, as the majority of the condemned were young, male, and poor. Executions were correlated to forced labor. Boston, the city with the lowest percentage of forced labor, experienced the lowest rate of executions. Charleston, the city with the highest percentage, also witnessed the highest rate. Philadelphia fell between. The 1780s, a time when contemporaries believed that they experienced an unprecedented crime wave, saw the highest numbers of executions in all three cities with a peak late in the decade. By then the protection of property had become the primary agenda of the death penalty in urban areas.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Gottlieb, Gabrielegagst12@pitt.eduGAGST12
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairRediker, Marcusred1@pitt.eduRED1
Committee MemberDrescher, Seymoursyd@pitt.eduSYD
Committee MemberHall, Van Beckvanbeck@pitt.eduVANBECK
Committee MemberGoldman,
Date: 30 March 2006
Date Type: Completion
Defense Date: 7 December 2005
Approval Date: 30 March 2006
Submission Date: 8 December 2005
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > History
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: capital punishment; crime; early America; executions
Other ID:, etd-12082005-165901
Date Deposited: 10 Nov 2011 20:09
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2016 13:53


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