Women and Race: An Examination of the Death Penalty Throughout American History

A Brief History of the Execution of Women 1632 – Present

Stale depicting the Hammurabi Code being dictated to the King of Babylon, 1760 BCE (AHA).

Entry #4: A Brief History of the Execution of Women

Since the beginning of time, the death penalty has been handed down to both men and women for death worthy offenses. Although the crimes which carry a sentence of death have changed, capital punishment has withstood the test of time. The origin of the death penalty can be traced back to the Code of Hammurabi. Written in 1760 BCE, it outlined the first crimes punishable by death however, out of the twenty-five death eligible offenses listed in the code, murder was not one of them. While the document does list adultery, theft, aiding or housing slaves, and incest as being death worthy crimes, it does not directly indicate murder as a crime punishable by death (Code of Hammurabi). It also does not discriminate between men and women when it comes to who is eligible for death as a punishment. The execution of women has not been and is not, a universal rarity. Although there are certain states within the U.S. that have conducted fewer executions than others, the fact remains that women are often held to the same punishment standards as men, for the crime of murder. Women also faced the gallows during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials in which most all of the condemned, were women.

From 1632 to 1900, over five hundred women were executed in the United States with a total of fifty-three to follow from 1900 to present day (DPIC). This number was obtained by means of recorded executions which is likely to exclude slaves, some minority groups such as Native Americans and Hispanics, and others since it is known that record keeping was not accurate, especially in the colonial period, and some documents have been lost over time. This figure also only accounts for women who have already been executed and does not list the fifty-five women who are currently on death row (DPIC). This number being extremely low compared to the execution of men, (roughly one woman out of one hundred men) during the same time span, it does prove that women were often held to the same standard of punishment as men and at times, maybe even more so for crimes such as adultery and witchcraft (DPIC).

The first women to be executed in the United States was Jane Chapman in 1632 for what

Execution of Bridget Bishop on June 10, 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts (Bell).

is presumed to be the crime of murder, but no actual offense was documented (American Female Hangings). Most women who faced the gallows or death chambers did so for the crime of murder, attempted murder or accessory to murder (Gallagher). The second most common reason for execution was witchcraft as part of the Salem witch trials however, all convictions and executions for this crime were isolated to the states of Massachusetts, Maryland and Connecticut, with Massachusetts being responsible for twenty out of the twenty-six executions for witchcraft. There have been no other occurrences of conviction or execution for witchcraft in the U.S. since 1692 (Gallagher). It was also Massachusetts that executed the first and only women, 18-year-old Mary Latham, and her lover for the crime of adultery (American Female Hangings). Murder, witchcraft, and arson are the top three crimes committed by women that resulted in their execution, most by method of hanging, electrocution coming in second, and burning over shadowing the remaining methods, such as lethal gas. There is virtually no difference between a man’s execution and a woman’s. In fact, most women executed before 1976 were executed with another male prisoner (American Female Hangings). The only real difference between the execution procedures were the condemned woman’s special attention to her appearance before execution. It was not uncommon for the families of the condemned, the townspeople, or a local church to either make or buy a new outfit for

Judge John Paul Stevens played a key role in the Supreme Court case, Gregg v. Georgia (Coenen, 2016).

the woman to wear especially for the event (American Female Hangings). In most cases, her hair and make up neatly done. This was usually done as a community effort as executions during this time were carried out swiftly after sentencing unlike the average sixteen and a half year wait of those women currently on death row in the United States (DPIC).


It is interesting to note that over fifty percent of all documented female executions from 1632 to 1962, were African American women with only about thirty-six percent being white women. The remaining six percent being of Native American or Hispanic descent (Gallagher). This speaks to the nature of times which also included the Lynching Era (1882-1930) in which targeting of minority groups, especially African Americans led to arbitrary convictions and executions which were carried out on a basis of little to no evidence. In the new death penalty era, these numbers are virtually reversed with thirty-seven percent of current death row inmates being white women, thirteen percent African American, and the other eleven percent being Native Americans, Hispanics and Asians (DPIC). This data clearly depicts the changes within death penalty sentencing due to elimination of mandatory death penalty statutes in 1963, and Supreme Court cases such

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were the first and only couple convicted and executed for the crime of espionage during the Cold War (Procon.org).

as the Gregg v. Georgia, Proffitt vs. Florida and Jurek vs. Texas (Gregg decision) decisions which aimed to eliminate arbitrary use of the death penalty.


By the turn of the century, use of the electric chair began to phase out hanging as a method of execution and by the new death penalty era (after 1976), there would only be two states, Delaware and Washington to keep the method of hanging in place. The first women to be executed by electrocution was Martha Place in Kings, New York on March 20, 1899 for the crime of murder. After her, twenty-four other women would follow, all for crimes relating to murder except for one. Ethel Rosenberg was the only women to be executed in U.S. history for espionage and herself and her husband Julius were the only accused Russian spies convicted and executed during the Cold War. The most used method of execution since 1976 is death by lethal injection in which sixteen women in the United States have received, the first being Velma Barfield on

First built in 1888, death by electric chair became the premeir method of execution at the turn of the century (Montaldo,2017 ).

November 2, 1984 for the murder of her boyfriend (DPIC).


In conclusion, the implementation of the death sentence in regard to women has been a fairly common occurrence throughout history. Although men have vastly out shadowed women as far as number of executions, the fact remains that women are not always spared from facing the gallows, “old sparky”, the gas chamber, or lethal injection. Although the question of morality and compromise of social structure has raised concern regarding the enforcement of female executions, it is a practice that does not seem to be going anywhere soon as fifty-five women wait on death row for results of their appeals.





American female hangings 1632 to 1937. (n.d.). In Capital Punishment UK. Retrieved from http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/amfemhang.html

Bell, B. A. (n.d.). Did Thomas Pell Act on Pangs of Remorse After Witchcraft Persecution Involving His Family? [Photograph]. In Historic Pelham. Retrieved April 3, 2017 from http://historicpelham.blogspot.com/2014_10_01_archive.html

Code of Hammurabi. (n.d.). (L. W. King, Trans.). (Original work published 1760 BCE)

Coenen, Dan T. “Gregg v. Georgia (1976)” [Photograph]. New Georgia Encyclopedia. 17 May 2016. Web. 29 March 2017.

Gallagher, Rob. FEMALE EXECUTIONS 1632 to 1962 (n.d.). In The ESPY File Before the Needles. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20080514035210/users.bestweb.net/~rg/execution/FEMALES.htm

Montaldo, C. (2017, April 4). Last Words Spoken by Famous Criminals[Photograph]. In Thought Co. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/last-words-famous-criminals-before-execution-970951

ProCon.org. Historical Timeline History of the Death Penalty (2017). In ProCon.org. The Leading Source for Pros & Cons of Controversial Issues. Retrieved April 3, 2017, from http://deathpenalty.procon.org/view.timeline.php?timelineID=000025

Stele with Law Code of Hammurabi [Photograph] (n.d.). In American Historical Association. Retrieved from https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/teaching-resources-for-historians/teaching-and-learning-in-the-digital-age/world-history/images-of-power-art-as-an-historiographic-tool/stele-with-law-

Women and the Death Penalty (n.d.). In Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/women-and-death-penalty#facts


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