Early Death Penalty Laws
In the Tenth Century A.D., hanging became the usual method of execution in Britain. In the following century, William the Conqueror would not allow persons to be hanged or otherwise executed for any crime, except in times of war. This trend would not last, for in the Sixteenth Century, under the reign of Henry VIII, as many as 72,000 people are estimated to have been executed. Some common methods of execution at that time were boiling, burning at the stake, hanging, beheading, and drawing and quartering. Executions were carried out for such capital offenses as marrying a Jew, not confessing to a crime, and treason.
The number of capital crimes in Britain continued to rise
throughout the next two centuries. By the 1700s, 222 crimes were punishable
by death in Britain, including stealing, cutting down a tree, and robbing
a rabbit warren. Because of the severity of the punishment of death, many
juries would not convict defendants if the offense was not serious. This
led to reforms of Britain's death penalty. From 1823 to 1837, the death
penalty was eliminated for over 100 of the 222 crimes punishable by death.
The Death Penalty in America
Laws regarding the death penalty varied from colony to colony. The Massachusetts Bay Colony held its first execution in 1630, even though the Capital Laws of New England did not go into effect until years later. The New York Colony instituted the Duke's Laws of 1665. Under these laws, offenses such as striking one's mother or father, or denying the "true God," were punishable by death. (Randa, 1997)