Unsettling Women: The Executions of Women in the United States, 1877-1941

Daniel LaChance, Emory

Between the 1870s and the 1930s, elites across the United States worked nation to transform executions into bureaucratic affairs conducted in private by professional white men. They wanted capital punishment to appear to the public as a practice in which the state worked to protect society from dangerous threats to its security. As a result of these changes, there was no longer a place for women in execution audiences, and execution chambers became almost exclusively masculine spaces. But women continued to comprise a small minority of those put to death by the state. Forty-four women (23 white, 21 Black) were executed by seventeen states and the federal government during this period. A Victorian, patriarchal understanding of women as especially vulnerable members of the society conflicted with their occasional presence as “murderesses” being put to death by the state. Through a comprehensive examination of local and sometimes national newspaper coverage of their executions, I argue that journalists portrayed women of both races in ways that distanced them from traditional qualities of femininity. And yet the meaning of their deaths at the hands of the state depended on their race. In coverage of white women’s executions, these renderings often gave way to depictions of their vulnerability. As a result, stories about white women facing death were more sympathetic to their plight, calling into question the humaneness of the death penalty. By contrast, stories about condemned Black women reflected a broader fear of Black rebellion beyond the crimes for which they were being punished. Descriptions of Black women’s executions were unsympathetic toward their plight. In racially distinct ways, the executions of women unveiled the violence and politics of capital punishment that the bureaucratization of state killing was supposed to mask.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 127. Narrative and Counter-Narratives of White Supremacist Violence in the Postbellum South