The following is an excerpt from The End of Public Execution: Race, Religion, and Punishment in the American South by Michael Ayers Trotti, available now wherever books are sold.
A Camp Meeting at the Gallows
There is a fountain fill’d with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains,
Lose all their guilty stains.
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.
A short address was made by parson Hays, colored; the hymn, If I must die, oh let me die in Jesus, was sung, which was followed by a prayer by parson Crow, colored. During the singing the pathetic voice of the condemned man [Isam Kapps] was heard above all others when it came to the verse commencing If I must die oh let me die in peace with all mankind. At the close of the hymn Kapps stepped on the center of the trap and addressed the immense concourse for ten minutes.… Continuing for three minutes in an enthusiastic strain, he bid all farewell. His arms and legs were pinioned, the black cap drawn over his face, and with the words “Oh Jesus, I come this evening,” the trap was sprung and Kapps was launched into glory.
—Galveston Daily News, 8 May 1880
Public executions in the South were religious rites as well as state-sanctioned capital punishment. They were visible, contested moments of punitive power and of sanctification. From the perspective of the state, the purpose of an execution was more than to end a criminal’s life; it was also to demonstrate vividly to the wider public the costs of criminality. Punishment is designed to be punitive (against a particular lawbreaker) but also preventative (a warning to avoid crime). And in the South, “since there is this widespread belief that prison sentences are not effective deterrents to [African American] crime, there is a tendency, periodically, to single out a Negro for hanging—to make a lesson of him that the community will not soon forget.” In theory, displaying such an execution in public before a crowd of thousands might further stress that message to the wider community: here, before you all, is what happens to a murderer.
But public events cannot be so easily controlled by the state, particularly when the state’s representatives were not the only authorities atop the gallows. In the Protestant-dominated South, an execution required the presence of religious leaders, for a soul was about to leave this world of sorrow to be judged by God. This religious ceremony at the public gallows fundamentally shaped the nature and experience of these events, and in a direction askew from, or even countervailing, the state’s punishment goals.
Christians believe that every one of us is a sinner, as we are all spiritually frail and beset by temptations in this imperfect world, and most Protestant faiths stress how we all deserve our destiny to be damnation. It is only the grace of God that saves any of us—flawed vessels that we are—from that eternal punishment. Evangelical denominations particularly stress how this grace is not earned or deserved, not based on one’s place in the world or even one’s actions, saintly or sinful. Grace is given: a miracle. This fundamental tenet of Christianity—a belief even more central, perhaps, to the evangelical Protestantism dominating the South (including African American churches) than to most—is no less true for those sinners who found themselves on the gallows. In the light of a religion steeped in both the universality of sin and the hope that any repentant and devout soul might be blessed by the miracle of God’s grace, it is important for every sinner, at the end, to have a chance to embrace the Lord and to ask for forgiveness. “The wages of sin is death.” But that is not the end of the scriptural passage: “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Public executions in the South were religious rites as well as state-sanctioned capital punishment.
What made the religious significance of execution days still more stark was the fact that the Christian tradition offered countless examples of parallel moments: a history filled with blood and sacrifice, including the sacrifice of the son of God, echoed in a holy sacrament, first offered by Jesus to his disciples: “Take, eat, this is my body … drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The Gospels then describe how even the son of God found this world full of tribulations, and he died bleeding on a cross, killed by the state out in the open and beside common criminals, to save us from our sins. The story of the early church is likewise strewn with martyrs and those suffering in service of God’s work on earth. Suffering, sacrifice, sin, and grace were woven into the most central beliefs, stories, and sacraments of the evangelical churches of the South as well as into any funeral service of Christians. In public executions, the ministers and the condemned made these powerful touchstones of Christianity the central elements of their services.
In that way, public executions were not mere moments of punishment; they were moments of prayer and even of celebration: a sinner coming home to Christ, leaving this flawed world to find a place in heaven. Public executions had a liturgy of sorts, a set of standards and expectations that most condemned embraced. And the messages in these public performances of faith were among the most multilayered in this era of white supremacy, for while a Black man (four-fifths of the South’s legally condemned were Black) was dying for his missteps, he was also claiming before a crowd of hundreds or thousands to be going to heaven, to be forgiven, to be in God’s loving hands, willing and (often) happy to be moving on from his difficult life through Christ’s grace to a paradise in God’s many-mansioned home.
The scholarship of racial violence in the South, when it has addressed public execution at all, has tended to treat it as something of an analog to lynching. This is giving far too much weight to the government’s goals in terms of punishment, presuming that their plans for a chastising punishment regime were fulfilled in practice. For a tremendous number of white and Black southerners, religion was central to their lives and to their understanding of the world; to them, the secular authorities on the scaffold (the sheriff and guards) in no way displaced the authority of God’s ministers who stood on the scaffold as well. The sheriff might be on the stage in front of the congregation, and he might release the trap, but the representatives of the ultimate authority, to many in the crowds assembled, would be the ministers of God who led the congregation in prayer and hymns and urged the poor sinner to repent. One was acting merely in the moment, performing a human task; the other was guiding a soul to eternity by doing God’s work.
Read more in The End of Public Execution: Race, Religion, and Punishment in the American South by Michael Ayers Trotti.
Michael Ayers Trotti is professor of history at Ithaca College. He is the author of The Body in the Reservoir: Murder and Sensationalism in the South.