Comparative National Statistical Interest in Executions

face of a prisoner

In 1805, the British government began compiling statistics on the number of persons executed in England and Wales. Over the subsequent decade, executions averaged about 67 per year.

The U.S. did not begin reporting national execution statistics until 1926. Executions in the U.S. during the preceding half-century averaged 112 per year. For decades this level of judicial disposal of persons did not motivate the collecting of U.S. execution statistics.

U.S. national statistical tabulation of executions began with a single line in a summary table. The U.S. Census Bureau began the series Prisoners in State and Federal Prisons and Reformatories with data published for 1926. That data included a line for executions in its summary table “movement of the prison population.” In its publication for 1930, the series added a separate section entitled “The Death Penalty.” It contained tables of executions by state, race, and age for persons executed in 1930.

The best available execution dataset, the Espy-Smykla-Golding dataset, documents 28 more executions from 1930 to 2002 than are recorded in official U.S. execution statistics. The difficulty of counting executions in the U.S. reflects a history of decentralized, relatively informal punishment by death. Lynching is an extreme example of those institutional characteristics.

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