Along with the controversy surrounding capital punishment, are the methods used to enforce it. The search for the most "humane" form of execution has plagued the death penalty along with the effects it has upon modern society. Today there are four forms of execution used in the United States. These are firing squad, the electric chair, the gas chamber and the lethal injection. Back when America founded its independence, and up until the late 19th Century; the most popular form of execution was hanging.
It was symbolic in that the condemned would fall through the trap door suspended between "heaven and earth. " Hanging was a complicated method and many things went wrong with the executions. Early 19th Century hangings were held in public and often attracted large crowd. Public executions were used mainly as a form of deterring people from committing crimes against the state. Unfortunately, the crowds not only witnessed the execution, but also the gruesome consequences that often occurred.
Banner points out that there is a strong relation between the search for alternate methods of execution and the affects on the public who viewed them. It was not only the need for more reliable techniques, but the increasing problem of public executions. These instances forced the states to question these two issues that became greatly associated with capital punishment. By the turn of the 19th Century, the social elites and aspiring middle classes began to associate public executions with the worst of society.
Those who continued to attend public executions, especially women, were seen as vulgar and unrefined if their tastes were "… low enough to enjoy a hanging. "(p152) Most Northern and some Southern states moved executions into prison courtyards and away from the unruly crowds, that at times reached 25,000. Some questioned this decision, highlighting the fact that capital punishment helps deter the public from committing terrible crimes; by concealing the hangings, capital punishment was no longer a "first hand deterrent..
" and the public would not view the "consequences of crime. "(p147) The other side of this argument reveals how public executions caused the spectators to sympathise with the person who was about to be executed. This was the opposite of what the state wanted to achieve and in effect led to the criminal dying a martyr. "A hanging creates in spectators 'emotions of pity, humanity and sympathy, which incline them to take the part of the sufferer and to blame those who inflict those sufferings upon him.
' " This is something the state definitely did not want and further contributed to moving the executions out of public sight. Prison hangings were still operated before a crowd, but a smaller, more select group of individuals. Those who made it into a prison execution had to be a lot more well connected in order to receive an invitation. Many included pillars of society, those related to prison officials and sometimes famous people. A sense of privilege and reverence surrounded those who knew someone with enough authority to get them into a public execution.
Moving hangings into the prison courtyards created an opposite belief, that before when executions were public, only the lowest rabble would attend. When they became private affairs, there was an air of exclusiveness that only the upper classes wanted to be associated with. This lead to another issue, that the witnesses of the actual execution were not the people the state was aiming to deter from committing crimes. They are in a sense, breaking the law by being there and obsessing with the act of the execution itself.