Capital Punishment: A History

Article by Simon Renwick. Edited by Linley Wareham. Additional Research by Jack Barnes.

Capital punishment is still to date a highly contentious and controversial issue amongst many societies, with religious, moral and political inputs  all affecting the state’s position on ‘the death penalty’. Capital punishment has had an interesting history; from its beginnings in ancient societies, through various eras incurring different methods of execution, up to the present day, where, on the face of it at least, the modern world has begun to fall out of love with the idea.

King Hammurabi of Babylon

Looking back nearly as far as 4 millennia ago, we find the earliest records of the ‘death penalty’; the Babylonian King Hammurabi ordered that 25 different offences, which ironically did not include murder, were so abhorrent to society they required the retributive action of punishment by death. However, to find the first recorded sentencing of death we must travel to a different century (and continent), placing ourselves in 16th Century BCE Egypt, where a member of the Egyptian nobility was tried for magic, a capital offence, and made to take his own life (one would guess he did not conjure the Avada Kedavra curse on himself).

With the passing of more centuries, so to passed the apprehensive attitudes towards using the death penalty; by the 7th Century BCE, Draconian code made all offences punishable by the death penalty! Punishments also became more creative as the centuries continued; what had started out as a simple practice of chopping a pickpockets head off with an axe had developed into a fine art – crucifixion, beating to death and impalement were all options of the capital punishment menu, and fed the appetite of tyrant rulers such as Nero and others.

After possibly the most infamous execution in history, that of Jesus of Nazareth in 29 AD by the Romans, the ‘civilised’ world’s love for finding new and torturous methods of death became more regimented; Britain was among the first to begin to use a ‘staple’ form of execution, starting with death by a quagmire, and later moved to a whole less watery affair by hanging from the gallows.

Meanwhile, all the time arguably the West had been falling head over heels for the penalty of death by [for instance a criminal being hurled off a cliff while tied up in a sack which also contains a monkey, snake, rooster or other animal], the Islamic world had been practicing the idea of capital punishment for centuries already, and it had since become a pivotal and centric form of justice in the Islamic legal system. On the authority of both God and humans, Sharia law demanded the punishment of certain acts; they believed that for a lot of these, straight execution was an applicable sentence. Many of the crimes, some of which in Western society today would not be seen as crimes at all, are still offences which can condemn people to death, such as homosexuality and adultery, and ‘treason’ against the Islamic religion, although others acts are still punished in the West, although not to the severity of Sharia law, such as rape.

Edward I

Back in Europe however, a change was coming; this would be the first sign of the death penalty breeding contesting beliefs on a divisive issue. Not only did the fresh breeze of the English Channel followed William the Conqueror to victory in England in 1066, so too did the abolishment of the death penalty. Instead, the saintly William decreed that the highest punishment out of war for a criminal was that of mutilation of the face (if the Nobel Peace Prize had existed in the 11th century…).

This quickly decomposed as a concept though; under Edward I a new wave of capital cruelty ensued, with heart-warming examples such as two gatekeepers being executed for allowing a convicted murderer to escape; in Edward’s defence, the gallows had been booked for 4 that afternoon, they may as well be used…

The dark ages brought with it dark humour surrounding the issue of the death penalty; hangings now became a public event, and women and children alike would join hundreds of eager onlookers at a time to see John the coin clipper be hung for his crimes. Change was needed, and change came, at least initially in the form of thinking. But there was nothing funny about the quasi-sadistic levels of execution; it is claimed that under Henry VIII 72,000 people were executed for various crimes against the state (2 of them for not being able to bear sons…)

But once again the pendulum like swing of opinion swayed back into the territory of opposing the death penalty. Liberal thinking, intensified by the Enlightenment of the latter half of the 2nd millennium questioned the role of religion in modern society, and in particular the political system; was it right to have someone put to death for supposed heresy of a religion, and even for calls that someone was a warlock or magician? As centuries went by, more weight was put behind the idea that capital punishment was an inherently wrong practice, and should thus be avoided.

What followed, mostly in the 20th century, were a series of incidents that profoundly dismantled the grip that capital punishment had over legal jurisdiction in global society; the influence of Rene Cassin led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protected small children and women from capital punishment. More treaties followed, and these, despite not absolutely abolishing the penalty, mounted pressure on many countries, from Spain to the UK, to abolish the death penalty; between 1984 and 2009 the number of countries no longer practicing the death penalty increased by 65, double the amount in 1984. It was even abolished by the United States’ Supreme Court in the last quarter of the 20th Century, but was reinstated later on, yet this has had its own knock on affect since states such as Illinois, Nebraska and New Mexico among others to have dropped the death penalty.

Warren E. Burger

Now we have reached the end of our ‘history’, what is to become of capital punishment? The balance of capital punishment throughout the globe is still in a precarious position; its continued use in Islamic causes draws criticism from liberal Western thinkers, who believe it is a direct infringement on the natural rights of man. Furthermore, the Western world has still not fallen completely out of love with the death penalty; America still extensively practices capital punishment, although, as of March 2011, 16 states do not actively use the death penalty.

Apart from America, most Western democracies have let go of the practice, branding it outdated and the growing consensus in developed countries is that capital punishment is wrong. This leaves us at a crossroads – still practiced in the law of states under Islamic rule and guidance and arguably the most powerful Western state, the USA, capital punishment is alive and thriving. However we should not assume that all of those under the bracket of these two classifications necessarily agree with it, and or ascribe such a belief to all Islamic faith and American nationality; the turning belief of many democratic nations has set up what could be an even more interesting phase for the idea of capital punishment, one that may even define its global position entirely.


1)      Capital punishment in the USA was abolished by the Supreme Court in 1972 in the case Furman vs. Georgia. The Court found the death penalty was unconstitutional as it went against the 18th Amendments’ ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ clause.

2)      However in Gregg vs. Georgia, the death penalty was resumed in American in 1976. It was decided capital punishment was not ‘cruel and unusual’ as long as there was an appeal system for defendant before he was executed.

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