May 20, 2019

Espy Project: Missing Executions from 1860-1875 Mississippi

by Miles Lawlor

Looking back, I was most struck by how many executions in the American South had been left uncounted in the original dataset. The first state that I was assigned to create metadata for was Mississippi. While I do not have a background in the history of the death penalty, there was something that just seemed... off about the data. When I initially scanned through the execution IDs that were already in use from M. Watt Espy's dataset, I was surprised to see what I thought were relatively long gaps in the time between executions in the 19th century. Had the state really not put anyone to death between 1859 and 1875? Given the rate of executions in Mississippi during the early 20th century, this didn't seem all that likely. Had the Civil War and Reconstruction perhaps been a period of significantly lower crime rates or lenient sentences?

Newspaper clipping documenting the execution of Merrit, an enslaved man executed in 1863 who was not included in the original Espy File dataset.

Newspaper clipping documenting the execution of Merrit, an enslaved man executed in 1863 who was not included in the original Espy File dataset.

Well, no. In fact, there were at least 88 executions in Mississippi during this time that had been left out of the original data. Once I started going through the alphabetical folders that Espy had maintained for the state, these "new" executions started to appear. Espy had certainly been made aware of these deaths, through both his own research and the work of others as well. For any number of reasons, they simply had not been integrated into the original dataset. They lurked below the surface, available only to those who had the time and resources to go through the files in person.

Newspaper clipping and note made by Watt Espy discussing the case of Henry Hanna, a freedman executed in 1870 who was not included in the original Espy File dataset..

Newspaper clipping and note made by Watt Espy discussing the case of Henry Hanna, a freedman executed in 1870 who was not included in the original Espy File dataset.

That's to say nothing of the many more execution records culled from the Multiple States folders. Many of these records came from the voluminous lists that Espy maintained. All of us responsible for metadata creation came to know Espy's habit of keeping prodigious lists of the executed, often annotated with his updates from further research or snippy editorial comments. Generally speaking, the files in these multi-state folders provided far less information on the executed than the state-specific folders. Oftentimes they included little more than a date and location along with the name of the executed. Sometimes, particularly when the person executed was enslaved, a name was not even available. Yet these lists confirmed many more executions than had been originally listed.

Newspaper clipping documenting the execution of Henry Foote in 1866. Foote was not included in the original Espy File dataset.

Newspaper clipping documenting the execution of Henry Foote in 1866. Foote was not included in the original Espy File dataset.

Poor documentation: A newspaper clipping documenting two nameless enslaved men who were executed in 1823.

Sourced note written by Watt Espy discussing the case of Green Dorrah, a freedman employed as a "body-servant" on a plantation who was likely executed in 1871 and was not included in the original Espy File dataset.

But why had so many executions been under-documented? There are probably a number of factors at play here. First and foremost, the Civil War and Reconstruction certainly shaped local record-keeping procedures in ways that are still being reckoned with. Newspapers in Mississippi were of course still published during that era, but Espy seems to have relied on them less. Whether newspapers from this time stopped providing the kind of execution data that he needed or whether those newspapers weren't preserved is less clear. It seemed as though more of his execution records came from papers outside of the state and from other types of sources entirely. County histories and court documents played a prominent role in providing coverage to this area as well.

Newspaper clipping discussing the case of John McCaffary.

Newspaper clipping discussing the 1845 execution of Jim Hanes, an enslaved man. Hanes was not included in the original Espy File dataset.

It's possible too that executions were not reported on as regularly during this period. Espy often printed copies of newspaper articles on executions, though there seemed to be less of those for the southern states I worked on during the Civil War and immediately after. With war and death a part of everyday life, perhaps newspapers were less inclined to devote precious column space to the workaday state-sponsored killings away from the front lines. In the end too, Espy's lists weren't fully integrated into state files. Many executions simply weren't filed as they could have or should have been.

May 15, 2019

Espy Project: Working with Challanging or Anonymous Records

by Amanda Partridge

Having spent countless days and months reading over and documenting the Espy materials, I have a come to appreciate what he was trying to accomplish. Having collected most of his materials before the Internet and the variety and number of sources he was able to gather shows his diligence and dedication. Sometimes the execution would be no more than a passing mention in a narrators recollections. Others would be thirty documents long having been written about over and over again. Some of those executed were well know criminals like, Bonnie and Clyde while others were not considered important enough at the time to bother publishing their names. A few were "special" enough to have invitations sent and this relic may be all that is left to inform the future of this person's death. I have read many letters written to court clerks, historical societies and libraries, following up on leads or requesting any information they may have about executions in their counties. This collection is a culmination of this hard and work. It brings to the front one of the darkest parts of our justice system.

Letter to Watt Espy from historian Philip J. Schwarz that shows one way that Espy collected documentation.

Letter to Watt Espy from historian Philip J. Schwarz that shows one way that Espy collected documentation.

This project taught me something. Not just about the stories themselves and histories they told (although that is true) but about the difficulty of trying to document the past. Poor handwriting due either to sloppy writers, archaic style and language or poor photocopies made deciphering records a struggle. Then there is the decision of the correct spelling between a possible two (or three) options pulled from the source materials. Some documents seem to have left out all mentions of time period, location or name so I spent a lot of time searching for any clue as to who or what a record was about. Additionally, not all documents that belong together were obvious. It was a puzzle; looking for clues that potentially tie them to one another. I have a new appreciation for those who undertake these types of historical projects.

Poor documentation: A newspaper clipping documenting two nameless enslaved men who were executed in 1823.

Poor documentation: A newspaper clipping documenting two nameless enslaved men who were executed in 1823.

Detailed documentation: A page from a true crime magazine that discusses the case of Eugene Gambetta.

Detailed documentation: A page from a true crime magazine that discusses the case of Eugene Gambetta.

Finally, a couple things that stuck out to me. One was the states that very quickly abolished the death penalty. In Wisconsin, abolition took place in 1853 just five years after becoming a state. The first and last man legally hung by the State of Wisconsin was named John McCaffary. He was dropped from the gallows but did not die for over ten minutes according to a newspaper article. This was not the only such case. Numerous reports of botched executions, sometimes the result of a rope that was too long, have happened in most states I worked on. Unlike Wisconsin, though, other states did not see this as a reason to abolish the practice. To be clear, McCaffary was not the only execution in Wisconsin. There are an additional eleven records of extralegal lynchings, tribal executions, and executions prior to statehood. New Hampshire is also an anomaly. As one of the original thirteen colonies, I would have expected many cases of capital punishment as they have been around longer. New York and Virginia each have executed well over twelve-hundred people but New Hampshire only a couple dozen. Is it the size, location or something else? I could go on but once the project is finished I encourage you to check it out for yourself.

Newspaper clipping discussing the case of John McCaffary.

Newspaper clipping discussing the case of John McCaffary.

May 13, 2019

Espy Project: Disparities in Documentation

by Sheri Sarnoff

Watt Espy kept detailed notes of the executions that he found in various newspapers, archives, books, correspondence, and prison records. While Espy's notes were often detailed, the records themselves often lacked information that helped identify the person who was being executed. Often times, the records would indicate the crime committed, when and where the execution took place, the name of the executioner, any fees that the execution produced, and sometimes they even identified the witnesses that attended the execution. Despite all of these details, the name of the person being executed was often left out. Usually if the person being executed was African American or Native American, not only would the record not contain their name, but it would also not contain their gender. This contrasted the execution records of white Americans, which usually had identifiable information including the name of the person being executed, their family, details of the crime, and their gender. For example, the people enslaved by of General Dillard of Lynchburg, Virginia are only identified by their master's name and their race. While there is information on General Dillard and his plantation, there is no other information on the enslaved people that were executed in June of 1863. That same year in Virginia, an extensive list of white men who were executed was made. In this record you can identify the person's first and last name, their gender, their age, their occupation, the county they were executed in, and the crime they committed. It is interesting to note that the records originated from the same year and in the same state, but the information that was recorded was based on the person's race, gender, and status in society.

Newspaper Clipping, 'Slaves of General Dillard, hanged at Lynchburg, VA, June 1863' Continued: Newspaper Clipping, 'Slaves of General Dillard, hanged at Lynchburg, VA, June 1863'

As an archivist, looking through the unidentified records was a challenge. In some records the only identifying information was the year that the person was executed, the county they were executed in, and the crime they committed. I had to keep in mind when linking the document that I could not assume the person's given gender. While most records stated if the person who was executed was female, I could not assume their given gender if it was not listed. As an archivist, these documents taught me a valuable lesson on how to identify and process records. I had to make sure that I was providing as much information as I could without making assumptions about the people in the records. I urge researchers who are analyzing the collection to make sure that they are aware of the limitations of the sources and to make sure that they also are not making assumptions about the executed. By focusing on the information that the sources lack, you can learn a lot about record keeping and thoughts about race and gender in American society.

List of executions in Virginia from 1863.

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