Executions yearly by sex in the North American colonies and the United States from 1608 to 2010. Includes individual case data and comparison of yearly totals from official and scholarly sources.
Historical execution statistics for the U.S. and the colonies that become the U.S. are difficult to summarize meaningfully because of the greatly changing scope and justice systems in the area covered. A few executions are recorded per year in the early colonial period, with 15 and 12 executions occurring in 1675 and 1689, respectively. Executions in the immediate, post-Revolutionary War period, 1784-1790, averaged 29 per year, a high number relative to prior years. The sex ratio for persons executed was 18 men per woman. The average number of executions per year generally increased through U.S. history up to World War II. The sex ratio of persons executed also generally increased through this period. In the Great Depression years 1932-1938, 172 persons were executed on average per year, with a sex ratio of 150 men executed per woman executed. The U.S. has not abolished capital punishment. From 2001 to 2010, an average of 55 person were executed per year, with a total sex ratio of 91 men executed per woman executed.
The main source of American historical execution data is the Espy File. The name Espy File memorializes M. Watt Espy. Beginning in 1970, Espy, working from his home without scholarly funding, did exhaustive primary-source research to catalog and count executions. He has made a major contribution to the compilation of U.S. execution statistics. John Ortiz Smykla, Professor of Criminal Justice, subsequently extended and digitized the execution statistics. Dean Golding, Professor at West Chester University, further extended the dataset. He added additional case detail codings and data for the most recent years. Golding made his complete dataset freely available on the web through the Death Penalty Information Center.
The documentation to the Espy-Smykla dataset notes that some of the executions recorded were “confirmed only with partial data.”^ Probably more importantly, some executions may have been missed. In 1938, local sheriffs administered 36% of executions (69 executions).^ Collecting information about executions that local sheriffs administered is particularly difficult. The tabulations from the Espy File and its successors are thus likely to undercount executions for the period prior to World War II.
Counts of executions under civil authority differ from the number of persons sentenced to death. Persons sentenced to death can be pardoned, retried and re-sentenced, or have their death sentence suspended or commuted. In the U.S. from 1973 to 2004, 934 males and 10 females were executed (93 males per female). During that period, 7463 males and 151 females were sentenced to death (49 males per female).^ On December 31, 2004, U.S. prisons held under the sentence of death 3263 males and 52 females.^
Recent data are available in the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Capital Punishment series.
- charts: average executions per year and male-female execution sex ratio, 11-year moving average, yearly from 1608, with charts
- yearly by sex: executions yearly by sex from 1608
- Statistical Abstract: changes in reported execution demographics in US Bureau of Census table on executions published in the Statistical Abstract
- ESG: Espy-Smykla-Godling (ESG) execution dataset, showing for each execution the attributes name of person executed, sex, race, age, state, offense date, execution date, victim characteristics, and method of execution (considerable missing data among the execution instance attributes)
- ESG source: source transformed into the ESG sheet
- official source: Bureau of Justice Statistics execution time series, yearly total (not by sex) from 1930