When Hanging Wasn’t Brutal Enough for Black Prisoners: Southern Whites Brought In “Old Sparky”

From Reading Religion:

The End of Public Execution

Race, Religion, and Punishment in the American South

By: Michael Ayers Trotti

266 Pages — $32.95

  • Published By: University of North Carolina Press

Michael Ayers Trotti’s The End of Public Execution: Race, Religion, and Punishment in the American South opens with a short transcription of a newspaper article about an Atlanta hanging. The report is about the 1891 execution of Frank Danforth, a Black man who had been convicted of the murder of his wife. The report mentions preachers saying prayers and singing, Danforth swaying to religious music, his repeated testimony to his belief in his own salvation, and white women who stood on a jailhouse fence to watch his execution. Trotti observes that the report describes Danforth’s execution as private because it was done behind jailhouse walls, even though hundreds of people were in attendance.

Michael Trotti

The single newspaper account includes many themes that Trotti highlights in his study of the over 1,300 newspaper reports of executions that he examined in writing the book—including the role of Black clergy, the condemned claiming to be redeemed before they are executed, the treatment of the execution itself as a site of religious significance, the complex ways that race and gender interacted during executions, and the gradual transition from fully public executions to private ones with few witnesses.

Trotti’s book is a deeply researched text that offers an account of capital punishment that is attentive to regional history’s specificities. Such a focus is vital because the South accounted for the majority of the nation’s executions while containing a minority of the population. The volume also makes clear how futile it is to try to understand the history of capital punishment in the United States without focusing on race, because, as Trotti recounts, 82 percent of all executions in the late 19th century South were of Black men.

The book contends that Southern public executions, while inseparable from racial violence, were turned into religiously significant “moments of prayer and even celebration,” where the condemned were often repentant and claimed they had accepted the salvation of Jesus Christ (10). Interracial crowds coming to witness these executions often saw what the author describes as being “in essence, an African American camp meeting at the scaffold” (12).

Public executions, intended to demonstrate the power of white authorities, ended up highlighting the leadership of Black clergy and featuring the condemned man as a uniquely significant figure, assigned a starring role in a grand theological drama. While careful not to overstate the radicalism of these gatherings, Trotti maintains that “the egalitarianism of religion meant that these hymns, prayers, confessions, professions of faith, and Bible passages were a challenge to white supremacy nonetheless” (31).

Many of the book’s conclusions are startling and run contrary to expectations. Notably, Trotti argues that public executions were perceived as a less harsh form of punishment than later privatized executions. Private executions were not merely a progressive technocratic measure, but the move to use electrocution rather than hanging, and to move executions inside of state prisons, was consciously adopted to foster greater terror in poor and Black populations.

“Old Sparky” was the electric chair’s nickname in numerous southern states. This one was in Texas.

White critics of public executions feared that these spectacles valorized the condemned prisoner, allowing Black men to claim a Christian redemption before they were killed. These critics also worried that public executions gave Black crowds too much control and foregrounded Black religion. Rather than a chronicle of punishment gradually becoming more humane, Trotti persuasively amasses sources to show that there was a deliberate effort to make it more brutal.

The End of Public Execution also challenges an often-repeated historical claim that lynching rates fell in the 1890s as that method of white supremacy was replaced by legal executions. Using statistical data, mainly collected byDaniel Hearn and Lewis Laska, Trotti argues that lynching rates and legal executions fell in tandem.

While Trotti acknowledges that there are severe problems with the data being analyzed because they undercount executions and lynchings, the picture that emerges defies easy categorization. What is undeniable is the vast scale of death caused by the state, as Trotti observes: “for more than once a week (on average) for generations, someone was legally executed in the South” (102).

Despite the depth of research that went into the book, further details on the particulars of religious expression at public executions would have been welcome. At one point, the text refers to “African American evangelical Christianity” being evident at the gallows, avoiding mention of any specific denominational group (25). Even if newspaper reports of executions did not always specify the denomination of the ministers present, the inclusion of the ministers’ names, in some cases, would allow further research to identify what churches and denominations they belonged to.

The account of Frank Danforth’s execution that appears in the book’s opening, for example, refers to three ministers by name. Trotti generally sticks to abroad level of generality when discussing Black religion. The book briefly mentions class differences in religious expression and that Catholics rarely demonstrated the theatricality of Protestants at executions. Still, it otherwise elides discussion of any regional, denominational, or theological differences between Black Christians that might have been present at executions.

As it is, The End of Public Execution significantly contributes to understanding the history of capital punishment and the South. It demonstrates that even at a moment of intense state violence, Black religious expression shaped the narrative and provided a redemptive significance to what was occurring.

This history is not purely one of resilience; it reveals that rather than a march of progress toward less barbaric punishments, the privatization of execution led to something even more coercive than the oppression that came before. Trotti, however, ends on a hopeful note, observing that in 2021, Virginia became the first state in the South to abolish the death penalty, and musing that political change may be possible. Histories like this one make it impossible to deny that capital punishment in the United States has been inseparable from a legacy of white supremacy and provide compelling arguments for ending the practice.

Isaac Barnes May is a student at Yale Law School.

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