The End of Public Execution

Race, Religion, and Punishment in the American South

By Michael Ayers Trotti

266 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 11 tables

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7041-6
    Published: December 2022
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7040-9
    Published: December 2022
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-7042-3
    Published: November 2022

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Before 1850, all legal executions in the South were performed before crowds that could number in the thousands; the last legal public execution was in 1936. This study focuses on the shift from public executions to ones behind barriers, situating that change within our understandings of lynching and competing visions of justice and religion. Intended to shame and intimidate, public executions after the Civil War had quite a different effect on southern Black communities. Crowds typically consisting of as many Black people as white behaved like congregations before a macabre pulpit, led in prayer and song by a Black minister on the scaffold. Black criminals often proclaimed their innocence and almost always their salvation. This turned the proceedings into public, mixed-race, and mixed-gender celebrations of Black religious authority and devotion. In response, southern states rewrote their laws to eliminate these crowds and this Black authority, ultimately turning to electrocutions in the bowels of state penitentiaries. As a wave of lynchings crested around the turn of the twentieth century, states transformed the ways that the South's white-dominated governments controlled legal capital punishment, making executions into private affairs witnessed only by white people.

About the Author

Michael Ayers Trotti is professor of history at Ithaca College. He is the author of The Body in the Reservoir: Murder and Sensationalism in the South.
For more information about Michael Ayers Trotti, visit the Author Page.


"[Trotti] weaves a wholly unexpected story for how the New South ended up at the electric chair. His narrative, backed by extensive evidence and data drawn from 1,300 executions carried out in the former Confederate states between the end of the Civil War and 1936, is less a story of the consolidation of state power through technological and political means than a history driven by the agency of Southern African Americans resisting a paranoid and reactive state."—The Civil War Monitor

“This focused study opens up vital questions about religion, public space, and punishment in American life and brings an ignored archive into view for American religion.”—American Religion

"In this thorough exploration of the religious and redemptive significance of executions for African Americans, Trotti examines the complicated historical narrative of capital punishment and contemporary debates over the survival of the practice. Interpretive yet backed by excellent statistical support, this book is an essential read for a wide audience of scholars."—Randolph Roth, author of American Homicide

"Trotti demonstrates how African Americans subverted the didactic component of 'legal' executions and transformed an expression of white authority and terror into a potentially redemptive ceremony. A timely contribution to African American, southern, religious, and criminal justice history."—Jeffrey S. Adler, author of Murder in New Orleans: The Creation of Jim Crow Policing