December 03, 2004

*Capital Punishment

In honor of certain court proceedings in California, here is a brief (very brief) history of capital punishment in general.

Capital punishment is nothing new, and has probably been around as long as human disputes. The first recorded incidences in Europe took place in the 5th Century B.C., and Egyptians were diligently recording their death sentences at least a thousand years earlier.

Crimes worthy of death were quite Indian man who damaged a dam could be drowned near the scene of the crime; an Egyptian who injured a cat could be killed even though the cat lived; a Roman who sang unflattering songs about high-ranking officials might meet his end; a Babylonian merchant selling bad beer could be put to death; a Middle Eastern trial witness who committed perjury might be embalmed alive; and a Babylonian architect would be held responsible if his poorly constructed house fell in on the owner or his son...although the architect would simply be fined if the owner's wife or daughter were killed.

One thing you might notice if you look at capital punishment is that nobility or others of a high social rank were often killed more quickly/kindly than ordinary peasants. A public and torturous execution was meant to be a deterrent to the masses. After all, a quick and painless death might not seem like such a bad thing to someone struggling to survive on a daily basis.

Those of higher status were often allowed a more gracious exit...Socrates, for example, was given the choice of banishment or death by poisoning. He chose the poison, and spent the day surrounded by his family, friends, and followers. When the poison was delivered, he drank it and died in their company.

As civilizations have become more prosperous, capital punishment has fallen out of favor, or become as painless as thought possible. Life is worth more to society as a whole. Although some places (Texas?) have a high rate of executions, it's still better than, say, England during Henry VIII's reign. During his rule (1509-1547), over 65,000 hangings took place in England. The gallows were the site of weekly family gatherings, drunken revelry, and entertainment. And while the public spectacle was meant to be a deterrent to crime, pickpockets often worked the crowd as the hangman did his work.

Now, even though a prosperous country like the United States allows executions, they are private affairs. And they are not doled out for piddly crimes--they are reserved for those who themselves show no respect for human life.

Posted by Jennifer at December 3, 2004 04:54 PM


i feel stupid. didn't know Socrates was executed. but then again, i'm a self-proclaimed history idiot, and when i played Trivial Pursuit with Frank the first time, i might have named Andrew Jackson as a writer of the Constitution. ::hangs head in shame::

but i can tell you which movie set during Christmas has the line "Now I have a machine gun. Ho Ho Ho." :)

Posted by: sarahk at December 4, 2004 11:59 AM