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University of Massachusetts Press
Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts

Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts

by Alan Rogers


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For more than 300 years Massachusetts executed men and women convicted of murder, but with a sharp eye on "due proceeding" and against the backdrop of popular ambivalence about the death penalty's morality, cruelty, efficacy, and constitutionality. In this authoritative book, Alan Rogers offers a comprehensive account of how the efforts of reformers and abolitionists and the Supreme Judicial Court's commitment to the rule of law ultimately converged to end the death penalty in Massachusetts.

In the seventeenth century, Governor John Winthrop and the Massachusetts General Court understood murder to be a sin and a threat to the colony's well-being, but the Puritans also drastically reduced the crimes for which death was the prescribed penalty and expanded a capital defendant's rights. Following the Revolution, Americans denounced the death penalty as "British and brutish" and the state's Supreme Judicial Court embraced its role as protector of the rights extended to all men by the Massachusetts Constitution. In the 1830s popular opposition nearly stopped the machinery of death and a vote in the Massachusetts House fell just short of abolishing capital punishment.

A post–Civil War effort extending civil rights to all men also stimulated significant changes in criminal procedure. A "monster petition" begging the governor to spare the life of a murderer convicted on slight circumstantial evidence and the grim prospect of executing nine Chinese men found guilty of murder fueled a passionate debate about the death penalty in the decade before World War I.

The trials and executions of Sacco and Vanzetti focused unwanted international and national attention on Massachusetts. This was a turning point. Sara Ehrmann took charge of the newly formed Massachusetts Council Against the Death Penalty, relentlessly lobbied the legislature, and convinced a string of governors not to sign death warrants. In the 1970s the focus shifted to the courts, and eventually, in 1980, the Supreme Judicial Court abolished the death penalty on the grounds that it violated the Massachusetts Constitution.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781558496330
Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press
Publication date: 03/19/2008
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 980,861
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Alan Rogers is professor of history at Boston College and a past president of the New England Historical Association.

For a video of Rogers discussing the methodology of this book, please see

Table of Contents

Preface     ix
Acknowledgments     xv
Murder and Due Proceeding in Colonial Massachusetts     1
"Hideous Consequences" and the Declaration of Rights     39
"Under Sentence of Death": The First Effort to Abolish the Death Penalty     79
"The Monster Petition"     106
A "Tong War" and the Second Effort to Abolish the Death Penalty     137
Sacco and Vanzetti     169
The Insanity Defense     208
The Right to an Attorney and Criminal Discovery     251
Confession: Neither Fear nor Favor     273
The Right of the Accused to an Impartial Jury     296
"Success-At Long Last"     330
The Abolition of the Death Penalty     355
Epilogue: After Abolition     397
Notes     407
Index     490

What People are Saying About This

Lawrence Goodheart

The range and depth of coverage are impressive.... The twelve chapters address key aspects of jurisprudence, such as defendant rights, the insanity issue, the right to an attorney, criminal discovery, confession, and the selection of an impartial jury.... This is masterful scholarship on an immensely important subject.

Hugo A. Bedau

This book is a perfect model for any future death penalty historian — one can only hope that Rogers's successors will do for states such as Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Ohio what he has done for Massachusetts.

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