Symposium: Historical Perspectives on Capital Punishment

Thursday, 6th September 2018

Sutherland School of Law, University College Dublin

The symposium will bring together new historical research and critical perspectives on the death penalty, crossing jurisdictions to examine its operation in England and Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and the United States. It will take place in parallel with the North-South Criminology Conference.

Symposium sessions will be chaired by Dr Catherine Cox, Associate Professor in the School of History, University College Dublin, and Dr Mary Rogan, Associate Professor in the School of Law, Trinity College Dublin.

The event will be followed by a wine reception, and the launch of Professor Ian O’Donnell’s recent book Justice, Mercy, and Caprice: Clemency and the Death Penalty in Ireland (OUP, 2017). The book will be launched by Thomas O’Malley BL, Law Reform Commissioner.

The event is kindly funded by the College of Social Sciences and Law, the Sutherland School of Law, and UCD’s Legal History Group.


Attendance is free but guests are asked to RSVP to no later than Monday September 3rd

‌Speakers' Papers

Dr Rachel Bennett, Wellcome Trust Research Fellow, Department of History, University of Warwick

Capital Punishment and the Criminal Corpse in Scotland, 1740-1834
In the annals of criminal history there is a rich sub-genre dedicated to the infliction of capital punishment, particularly from the mid-eighteenth to the early-nineteenth century. Within this, the Scottish experience has remained largely unexplored. This paper will demonstrate that the period 1740 to1834 was one of debate and lamentation over the use of the death sentence and shifting beliefs about its place within the criminal justice system. In turn, it was one of fundamental change in how the theatre of the gallows was staged in northern Britain. The paper will examine the use of the death sentence at crucial junctures across this period. In doing so, it will show that the drivers behind the use of the noose and the intensified discussions over the capital code shared similarities with the situation in England. However, it will also reveal unique Scottish experiences that challenge Anglocentric narratives and enhance our understanding of this period as one of focal change in the implementation of capital punishment in Britain. In addition, the paper will identify an intermediate stage in the decline of public bodily punishment. By the mid-eighteenth century, pre-mortem suffering had been replaced by post-mortem infamies, culminating in the 1752 Murder Act. However, it will argue that the punishment of the body continued to be a cornerstone of the criminal justice system as both dissection and hanging in chains placed the criminal corpse on display.


Dr John Walliss, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, School of Social Science, Liverpool Hope University

“Every page of our statute book smelt of blood”: Current Research on the Bloody Code
In this paper, I will summarise recent work on the so-called ‘Bloody Code’ of the long eighteenth century. The historiography of the Bloody Code was dominated during the 1970s and 1980s by the debate between Marxist historians and others over the extent to which capital punishment operated during this period as a tool of the ruling elite to protect property interests. However, in recent years, several historians have begun to ask different questions. In this paper, I will discuss work on what has been termed the ‘geography of the bloody code’; that is, the often stark differences between how the capital code was administered at the centre and on the periphery. In particular, I will focus on my recent book, The Bloody Code in England and Wales, 1760-1830 (Palgrave, 2018) to explore the differing patterns of sentences of death and executions across England and Wales during the period.


Dr Lynsey Black, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Law, University College Dublin

Murder, Capital Punishment, and the Irish in Scotland, 1864 to 1914
Throughout the nineteenth-century, significant numbers of Irish persons emigrated to Scotland, crossing the sea to take advantage of the greater employment opportunities in the industrialised central belt from Glasgow to Edinburgh. By 1851, 18 per cent of Glasgow’s population was Irish-born, while in some areas over half the population was Irish-born. These Irish immigrants lived their lives under the shadow of the popular stereotype of the Irish as unruly and prone to violence. Scholars such as Peter King and Carolyn Conley have noted that the Irish duly became an ‘out group’ in Scotland during this period. This paper explores the cases of Irish people sentenced to death for murder in Scotland from 1864 to 1914. It examines the role of nationality in the profile of persons sentenced to death, exploring the high number of Irish persons who were convicted of murder and sentenced to death during this period. Delving into the circumstances of these cases the paper explores how, in the context of the Irish as an ‘out group’, cases of murder were processed through the courts, perceived by the public, and represented in the press. Drawing on archival court materials and contemporaneous press reporting, the paper examines issues such as the prevalence of sectarian tensions, and the Catholic Irish as ‘other’.

Rian Sutton, Doctoral Candidate, School of History, University of Edinburgh

A ‘matter for the consideration of the Executive alone’: Narratives of Mercy in the Cases of Women Sentenced to Death in New York City and London, 1880-1914
This paper will examine the exercise of mercy in cases of women sentenced to death in New York City and London between 1880 and 1914. It will consider the ways in which the process of executive justice can be seen as a continuation of the trial, albeit one that had been stripped of the substantive rules and regulations that governed formal trial proceedings. Trials are often viewed as a space where verdicts are reached through a negotiation between the formal law and popular conceptions of right and wrong (the unwritten law). Although principles of the unwritten law were used in trial proceedings and undoubtedly influenced jury decision-making, they are not relevant, strictly speaking, for determining guilt or innocence and so could not be deployed as valid legal arguments. However, the discretion of the Governor or the Home Secretary was not subject to the same restrictions. As such, narratives which were disallowed, never introduced, or failed to carry weight during the trial, could nevertheless still be considered in the process of executive justice. This paper will explore these narratives and the various actors that put them to use. Particular attention will be paid to the role played by the public through petitions for clemency and letters to the Governor or Home Secretary and the press. It will also explore the ways in which clemency campaigns often extended beyond the immediate issue of the fate of the condemned to discuss broader social issues such as legal reform and women’s right to vote.

Dr Lizzie Seal, Reader in Criminology, Sussex Rights and Justice Centre, University of Sussex

Lived Experiences of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) People Sentenced to Death in England and Wales, 1900-65
This paper will draw on findings from a Leverhulme-funded research project that examines the cases of all 58 black and minority ethnic individuals (all men) sentenced to death in the twentieth century in England and Wales. BME individuals were over-represented in terms of executions: they accounted for 4.6 per cent of civilian executions in this period, while accounting for only 0.3 per cent of the population in 1950. Whereas white men were reprieved at a rate of 40 per cent, BME men were only reprieved at a rate of 25 per cent. This particular paper will explore the lived experiences of BME men sentenced to death, rather than focusing on the workings and discourses of the criminal justice system. To do so, it will draw on sources such as witness statements, depositions, court testimonies, petitions and, where available, letters that provide a means of contextualising both the men’s wider lives and their experiences of being tried for murder and sentenced to death. The paper will aim to provide a social historical account of the lives of BME men sentenced to death in England and Wales between 1900 and 1965, and the ways in which they navigated the criminal justice system. Witness statements reveal much about the occupations and interpersonal lives of the people involved in cases of murder. Petitions for clemency enable analysis of how condemned individuals sought to influence how their actions and character were perceived by authorities, including how they incorporated discourses of justice in order to do this.

Professor Ian O’Donnell, School of Law, University College Dublin
An Interfering Judge, a Biddable Executive, and an Unbroken Neck

Cahir Davitt (1894-1986) was a judge who, by his own admission, ‘was not in favour of executing anyone if it could be avoided.’ His aversion to capital punishment first came to light during the civil war when, as Judge-Advocate General to the national army, he used a variety of legal ruses to persuade the Army Council not to execute death sentences imposed by military courts. He was appointed a judge of the High Court in 1945 and presided over five murder trials where a guilty verdict was returned and he was required to impose the mandatory sentence of capital punishment. In one of these cases (an in another where he was not the sentencing judge) he attended a cabinet meeting and argued, successfully, that the law should be deflected from its course. These interventions were kept secret at the time. They will be analysed in the context of the separation of powers doctrine and the process of executive clemency.