Six Famous American Executions

Sacco and Vanzetti demonstration, March 1925Sacco and Vanzetti demonstration, March 1925. (Photo: Boston Public Library)

1) Nathan Hale

Born in Connecticut in 1755, Hale was caught up in the turmoil of the American Revolution. He joined the Continental Army in 1775, and in September 1776 volunteered to spy on the British in New York. Captured, Hale was hanged on September 22, 1776. He may or may not have uttered the famous words: “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

2) John Brown

On December 1859, the state of Virginia hanged abolitionist John Brown. This execution profoundly affected American history. In the short term, it created one more crack in the growing rift between the North and the South. In the longer term, though, it set a precedent that likely extended the Civil War. Before Brown’s execution, Americans had never defined the punishment for treason. By sentencing Brown to death, Virginia leaders established that the appropriate punishment for treason was death. That precedent likely caused southerners uneasiness when they, themselves, turned traitors to the U.S. Government a year later. While President Lincoln took pains to promise leniency, fears of execution surely motivated some Confederates to keep fighting.

3) Dakota Hanging

The largest mass execution in American history took place on December 26, 1862. The U.S. Government hanged 38 Dakota Indians (sometimes called Santee Sioux) for murder and rape during the Dakota War (formerly known as the Santee Uprising). In August 1862, starving Dakota tried to force settlers off the Minnesota lands the Indians had ceded to the government in exchange for supplies that never arrived. More than 600 settlers, between 100 and 300 Indians, and more than 100 soldiers died in the conflict. A military commission sentenced 303 surrendered Indians to death. President Lincoln, though, recognized that executing Indians for fighting Americans would establish a dangerous precedent for his own troops. If the US government could kill Indian combatants, what would stop it from killing Confederates? And what would stop Confederates from killing surrendering Union soldiers in turn? Lincoln found a way to split the baby. He commuted the sentences of any Indian whose crimes were related to battles, upholding execution only for those convicted of rape or murder of civilians. Then, after making a first move toward defining “war crimes,” the government hanged 38 men in Mankato, Minnesota.

4) Sacco and Vanzetti

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti became international symbols of state oppression when they were executed on August 23, 1927. Italian immigrants, they were convicted of murdering a paymaster during a robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1920. While they were probably involved in some way in the events with which they were associated, the evidence and trial, as well as the appeals process, was deeply flawed. Observers believed that the government was determined to stifle political opposition and planned to execute the two anarchists for their beliefs rather than their actions. The two men became symbols of the importance of free speech and civil liberties. And a few months after their execution, Sara Rosenfeld Ehrmann, a Brookline housewife and mother of two young children, accepted leadership of the Massachusetts Council Against the Death Penalty, beginning her lengthy effort to abolish the death penalty in the state.

5) Rainey Bethea

Bethea was the last person in America to be executed publicly. An African American, Bethea was convicted of rape and murder of a 70-year-old white woman in a speedy and troubling 1936 Kentucky trial. While the story was not surprising, that the sheriff in charge of the execution was a woman made the news. Florence Shoemaker Thompson had recently taken over as county sheriff to complete her husband’s term after his death. The chance to see a woman executing a man brought national media and up to 20,000 gawkers pouring into Owensboro, Kentucky, the site of the hanging. In the end, Sheriff Thompson turned the job over to a man, but the media circus so embarrassed Kentucky officials they put a stop to public executions. Other states quickly followed suit.

6) Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

On June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg became the only two American civilians executed for espionage during the Cold War. They were convicted of giving information about the atomic bomb to the USSR. Julius was an atomic engineer. His wife Ethel was accused of helping him pass information. Evidence against Ethel was slim at best; she was added to the complaint to pressure Julius into giving up other names. Both refused to do so. Executed in the electric chair, they became the symbols of Communist infiltration of the American government, fueling the fervent anti-communism of the McCarthy Era.

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We're History

We're History Team. We’re History tells the story of how America became what it is today. Written and edited by scholars, it is real history, with all its triumphs, failures, twists, and ironies.

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