Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts



First Advisor

Dr. John L. Gordon, Jr.


Some form of capital punishment has been practiced for as long as there has been recorded history. Early laws were generally harsh and failed to consider the impact of crime on society. In 621 B.C. the Code of Dracon recorded the laws observed in Athens. The Code of Dracon revealed that almost all offences were punishable by death. Two centuries later a more humanitarian attitude was expressed in Greece. Plato believed in the segregation and reform of the criminal rather than his execution.

In England the death penalty for felony convictions was traced to the reign of Henry I. It has been estimated.that seventy-two thousand criminals, including children as young as twelve, were put to death, an average of 2,000 per year, during the reign of Henry I. Crimes punishable by execution increased in variety during the medieval period and numbered over two hundred by the end of the Stuart period. Capital crimes included all felonies, the stealing of goods valued at forty shillings or more, and such comparatively minor offences as the cutting down of garden trees, wounding of cattle and burning of crops. Women were executed as readily as men. Public opinion, revolted by the savagery of such laws, supported reform. In the early eighteenth century juries often evaluated the worth of stolen goods at thirty-nine shillings to avoid the necessity of imposing the death penalty. Preliminary steps toward abolition were taken in the nineteenth century in conjunction with legal reform.

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