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Public executions were once commonplace American spectacles. In one instance, Puritan clergymen convicted and executed nineteen people for the "crime" of witchcraft. On the other side of the country many years later, San Francisco's city fathers held "official" vigilante hangings. But today, executions are rigidly controlled bureaucratic procedures authorized by the state. In The Hangman's Knot: Lynching, Legal Execution, and America's Struggle with the Death Penalty, Eliza Steelwater presents a fascinating history of execution in the United States, from colonial times to the present. With a compelling narrative and gripping personal stories, she documents how this debate became one of the most contentious of our time. The author, a veteran death-penalty researcher and co-founder of Project HAL (Historical American Lynching), shows that the answer to the death penalty's future lies in a discussion of its past. Using information from Project HAL and the authoritative Capital Punishment Research Project - including records of over 15,000 legal executions and 4,500 lynchings nationwide - Steelwater delivers a vivid understanding that America's unparalleled and powerful 200-year-old policy of execution as "punishment politics" is alive and well today. Bringing a fresh perspective to the death-penalty debate, she demonstrates that execution has often had less to do with crimes committed than with the political and economic ambitions of those who controlled the punishment system.
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Eliza Steelwater, a native of New Orleans, has researched and written about capital punishment for fifteen years, since receiving a four-year Alumni Federation doctoral fellowship to study at Louisiana State University. One of her study sites was the nearby and infamous Angola penitentiary. She is the co-founder of Project HAL, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to collect and provide information about lynchings and legal executions, with the goal of one day eradicating them. She lives in Bloomington, Indiana.From Publishers Weekly:
This is an excellent short history of capital punishment-from Civil War-era lynchings to Illinois Gov. George Ryan's recent commuting of the sentences of that state's death row inmates-written by a fierce death penalty opponent who nonetheless displays an acute sensitivity to the many complexities of this issue. As founder of the nonprofit Project HAL (which tracks executions), and as part of the Capital Punishment Research Project, Steelwater has had access to records of thousands of legal executions, as well as thousands of lynchings. She skillfully and judiciously uses this information to argue that the struggles over the death penalty throughout U.S. history-and especially during three distinct eras of reform and rejection of capital punishment followed by eras of acceptance-are less about making sure that the death penalty is applied equally and more about "our many battles over who's in charge." Steelwater has written a definitive history of the arguments that have been used to justify the use of the death penalty: the early attempt to "politicize punishment" through the creation of penitentiaries and the death penalty; the influence of the Southern festival of shivaree along with the Ku Klux Klan in making lynching acceptable as a way to "express moral judgment," however dubious such judgments were; the influence of the vigilantes in the West, especially San Francisco, on efforts "to justify illegal execution and other lawless acts in the name of a moral crusade, a demonstration of popular sovereignty, or both."
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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