History of capital punishment

Page last modified 2/1/2021

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See also Crime and Punisment, Prisons


The status of the death penalty is complex worldwide. Essentially there are four possible situations, 1) Total abolition of the death penalty, 2) Abolition for ordinary peacetime offences, but possible retention in wartime (there may also be an experimental period of de-facto abolition before legal abolition is instituted), 3) The death penalty exists but is not used in practice, 4) The death penalty exists and is being used. Within (4), the range of offences liable to the death penalty can vary from murder only to include, possibly, political crimes, and even ‘economic’ crimes such as theft and forgery, also serious drugs offences, or, (e.g. in Iran) distributing certain forms of pornography. Within (3), executions may take place rarely, then the death penalty passes into disuse again for some years.

‘Executions ceased’ implies this was the last year an execution took place.

Islamic Law may support the death penalty. It may also be used in South and East Asian countries for drug offences and heinous sex offences. African countries also tend to support it as the only appropriate punishent for murder.

See Social Changes (layer Three) at https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=15nUwJvKQxvETRQKdlXHiAzGdVlF_U6dZ&ll=55.058625814792904%2C1.860228234960914&z=7

For abolition of death penalty

2/2019, Sri Lanka restored the death penalty, as part of a drive against drug trafficking, after a moratorium of 43 years (see 1976).

2018, Washington State, USA; Court declared the death penalty ‘arbutrary and racially biased’. The sentences of the 8 men on death row were all commuted to life imprisonment.

2018, India extended the death penalty to cover rape of a child aged under 12. Previously the death penalty in India had covered murder, kidnapping, treason, terroriam, and rape that left the victim in a vegetative state. The more by Prime Minister Narendra Modi followed an outcry after a series of sex attacks in the country, and allegations that the Government was not doing enough to tackle this.

14/8/2018, The US State of Nebraska performed its frst execution for 20 years, as Carey Dean Moore, a 60 year old who had been incarcerated for 38 years, was given a lethal injection for murdering two taxi drivers. US support for the death penalty stood at 54% in 2018, up from 49% in 2016.

2017, 49% of US citizens supported the death penalty, down from 80% in 1995.

23/7/2014, Joseph Wood, convicted of double murder, took nearly 2 hours to die by lethal injection in an Arizona prison. Questions were raised on the practicality of the death sentence in America.

5/2002, The European Union adopted Protocol no.13 demandning abolition of the death penalty in all member countires under all circumstances.  This followed on from Protocol no. 6 in 4/1983 added to the European Convention on Human Rights abolishing the death penalty. There has been no execution in any of the Council of Europe’s 47 member States since 1997.

1/1996, Executions resumed in Thailand; the last previous execution had been in 1987.

1995, New York State, USA, restored the death penalty, under Governor E. Pataki, after a break of 32 years. Spain abolished the death penalty from its Military Penal Code. The South African Constitutional Court abolished the death penalty.

1995, The South African Constitutional Court, in the case of The State v. T Makwanye and M Mcbunu, that the death openalty was ‘incompatible with the prohibition against cruel and degrading punbishment ‘. However the South African Parliament, faced with rising levels of violent crime, was reluctant to abolish the death penalty. See 7/1992.

12/1995, Moldova abolished the death penalty.

11/1995, The President of Mauritius was obliged to ratify a second vote of the National Assembly abolishing the death penalty. He had been reluctant to do this because he was dissatisfied with the length of alternative imprisonment proposed. See 1987.

8/1995, The Gambia restored the death penalty, following a military coup. See 1993.

6/1995, A moratorium on executions in Albania.

1994, Lebanon hanged a man, 11 years after the last use of the death penalty there.

1994, Kansas, USA, restored the death penalty, after a break of 29 years.

1993, The Philippines restored the death penalty. The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Hong Kong abolished capital punishment. See 1995. Greece abolished the death penalty for ordinary offences during peacetime.

1992, Angola abolished the death penalty. Sierra Leone executed those convicted of a coup plot, after a lull in executions of over a decade. Turkey abolished the death penalty for drugs offences, and Taiwan made the death penalty for mudred discretionary rather than mandatory.

7/1992, The South African Minister of Justice announced a suspension of the death penalty, see 1971, 1995.

2/1992, Algeria declared a State of Emergency, and executions resumed in 8/1993. There was a temporary moratorium on the death penalty from 12/1993, but executions resumed from 3/1994.

1991, Papua New Guinea restored the death penalty, for ‘wilful murder’.

1990, Mozambique and Namibia abolished the death penalty. Sao Tome & Principe, which had retained the death penalty for military offences only, completely abolished it. Zambia made the death penalty for murder discretionary rather than mandatory. Nepal abolished the death penalty again (see 1945, 1985) for all but ‘exceptional crimes’ – a protyection against assassination attempts on the Royal Family.

1990, Bulgaria commuted all death sentences to 30 years imprisonment. However a death sentence was passed in 1992, but this too was commuted to imprisonment.

7/1990, The Czech and Slovak Republics abolished the death penalty.

1989, Cambodia and New Zealand abolished the death penalty. Singapore extended the death penalty to all offences involving the use of firearms.

1989, Executions ceased in Serbia.

7/1/1990, Romania abolished the death penalty.

1988, Executions ceased in Poland.and Zimbabwe.

1987, Executions ceased in Mauritius. See 11/1995. The new government of the Philippines, following the overthrow of the Marcos regime, abolished the death penalty as an infringement of human rights. Haiti abolished the death penalty.

1987, East Germany abolished the death penalty.

1985, Nepal restored the death penalty for some murders and terrorist offences,  see 1945, 1990. Executions resumed in Guyana after a 15-year break. They ceased again in 1991. St Christopher-Nevis executed one man; no executions since then. South Carolina, USA, resumed executions after a break of 21 years.

Executions ceased in Chile and Belize.

1984, Executions ceased in Surinam. Argentina abolished the death penalty – it had been reintroduced by a military government in 1971, abolished for non-military crimes in 1972, and reintroduced after a military coup in 1976. 1990s political initiatives to reintroduce the death penalty have been thwarted by the Roman Catholic Church. North Carolina, USA, executed a woman after a break of 21 years.

5/9/1984, Western Australia became the last Australian State to abolish capital punishment.

1983, Executions ceased in Guatemala. Cyprus abolished the death penalty. Malaysia instituted the death penalty for possession of drugs.

1982, Executions ceased in Tonga.

1981,  Cape Verde abolished the death penalty.

18/11/1981, France formally abandoned the use of the guillotine.

18/9/1981, Under President Mitterrand, France abolished the guillotine and capital punishment.

1980, Turkey ended a 7-year period, from 1973, with no executions. Between 1980 and 1983 there were 48 executions in Turkey; 23 for ordinary crimes and 25 for political crimes.

1979, The Seychelles and Fiji abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes during peacetime. Peru abolished the death penalty. Executions ceased in Trinidad and Tobago. Thailand instituted the death penalty for possession of drugs.

15/4/1978, The death penalty was abolished in Spain.

1977, Libya resumed executions after a lapse of 20 years. Bahrain executed a convict after a lapse of 20 years in executions; however it has again ceased executions since then. Bermuda executed two men for a political murder, the first executions there for 34 years. Executions have aganin ceased since then. Grenada resumed executions after a lapse of 15 years; executions ceased again in 1978.

10/9/1977. The last official execution by guillotine in France; execution of Hamida Djandoubi. See 17/6/1939.

1976, Executions ceased in Sri Lanka (see 1959, 2019). However serious civil unrest lead to the adoption in Parliament of a Private Member’s Bill in 1995 restoring the death penalty for ‘extreme murders which shock the public conscience’.

14/7/1976. Canada abolished capital punishment for peacetime offences, after an experimental moratorium of five years. A move to reintroduce in in June 1978 was heavily defeated in parliament.

4/1976, Executions ceased in Jamaica, for four years.

1975, Executions ceased in Bosnia. Singapore instituted the death penslty for possession of drugs.

1974, Papua New Guinea abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes during peacetime.

1971, The Society fot the Abolition of Capital Punishment was founded in South Africa. See 7/1992.

1969, Brazil restored the death penalty (see 1882). However in 1979 the death penalty was declared to be applicable only in times of war. Iran instituted the death penalty for possession of drugs.

18/12/1969. The death penalty for murder was formally abolished in Britain.

1968, In Nauru, no executions since independence in 1968.

2/1967, In Australia, Ronald Ryan became the last person to be hanged, for murdering a prison guard when he escaped from prison in December 1965.

1966, The Dominican Republic abolished the death penalty.

9/11/1965. The Act legally abolishing capital punishment in the UK came into force. This Act was largely due to the efforts of Sidney Silverman MP.

1964, Executions ceased in Bhutan.

21/12/1964. The UK Commons voted to end capital punishment.

13/8/1964. The last hangings in Britain took place – the murderers Peter Anthony Allen at Walton Prison, Liverpool, and John Robson Walby at Strangeways Prison, Manchester.

1962, Monaco abolished the death penalty. In Western Samoa, no executions since independence in 1962. Israel last used the death penalty, when it executed Adolf Eichmann.

12/10/1961. New Zealand voted to abolish the death penalty for ordinary crimes during peacetime.

1959, In Sri Lanka (then, Ceylon), a Commission on Capital Punishment recommended its abolition for an experminental period, see 1976.

1957, Executions ceased in Brunei.

1956, Honduras abolished the death penalty.

16/2/1956. The British Parliament voted to end the death penalty.

13/7/1955. Nightclub hostess Ruth Ellis became the last woman hanged, at Holloway Prison in Britain, for the murder of her lover David Blakely, following her conviction on 21/6/1955. However there was public sympathy for her; she claimed someone else put the gun in her hand; and her case was influential in bringing about the abolition of the death penalty in the UK.

12/7/1955, The last hanging at Lincoln Prison. Kenneth Roberts, 24, was executed for the murder of 18-year-old Mary Georgina Roberts in Scunthorpe.

10/2/1955, The House of Commons voted by a majority of 31 to retain the death penalty.

1954, Israel abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes during peacetime.

20/4/1954, Michael Manning, 25, murderer, became the last person to be executed in the Irish Republic.

23/9/1953, The Royal Commission on capital punishment said it should be left to the jury as to whether to impose the death penalty.

1/7/1953. MPs rejected a Bill to suspend the death penalty for 5 years.

1952, Executions ceased in the Maldives.

1950, Austria abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes during peacetime.

1949, West Germany abolished the death penalty.

1949, Finland abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes during peacetime. Last execution was in 1824.

20/1/1949, Attlee set up a Royal Commission on capital punishment.

12/1/1949. In Britain, Margaret Allen was hanged, the first woman hanged for 12 years.

1947, Italy abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes during peacetime.

1947, The Soviet Union abolished the death penalty for ordinary peacetime offences but restored it in 1950.

1945, Nepal abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes during peacetime. See 1985.

1942, Switzerland abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes during peacetime. See 1874.

15/8/1941, Josef Jakobs became the last person to be executed at the Tower of London. A German spy, he had parachuted into Huntingdonshire with a radio transmitter; however he injured his leg in the fall and was captured by the Home Guard. He was tried and shot the same day, in a chair.

17/6/1939. The last public execution in France. The German multiple-murderer, Eugen Wiedman, was publicly guillotined outside Versailles gaol, near Paris. See 25/4/1739 and 10/9/1977.

8/5/1933, The first execution by gas chamber in the US, in Nevada.

15/12/1930, A UK Commons Select Committee recommended ending the death penalty.

1928, Iceland abolished the death penalty.

1924, First use of the gas chamber in the USA for execution.

1921, Argentina abolished the death penalty, but later restored it.

8/5/1921. Sweden abolished capital punishment for ordinary crimes during peacetime. In 1901 a Bill to aboloish capital punishment had been rejected by the Swedish Parliament.

1920, The Soviet Union suspended the death penalty, but restored it in 1921.

1918, Austria abolished the death penalty.

1917, The Soviet Union suspended the death penalty, but restored it in 1918.

24/3/1911. Denmark abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes during peacetime.

1910, Colombia abolished the death penalty.

11/1/1909. Four murderers were publicly guillotined in northern France.

1907, Uruguay abolished the death penalty.

1906, Ecuador abolished the death penalty.

1905, Norway abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes during peacetime. No executions since 1876.

24/4/1905, China ‘de-barbarised’ its death penalty procedure. By Imperial Edict, the body was no longer cut up and the head exhibited for public view.

25/1/1902, Russia abolished the death penalty.

6/8/1890, In New York’s Auburn prison, the electric chair was used for the first time on the murderer William Kemmler. This method of execution was attacked as constituting ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ but was upheld in the US State and Federal Courts. By 1906 115 murderers had been executed by ‘electrothanasia’, and the method was had also adopted by the US States of Ohio (1896), Massachusetts (1898), New Jersey (1906), Virginia (1908) and North Carolina (1910).

1882, Brazil abolished the death penalty, but restored it under a military government in 1969.

1877, Costa Rica abolished the death penalty.

1874, Switzerland abolished capital punishment, although individual cantons retained the right to restore it if the murder rate rose. See 1942.

1870, The Netherlands abolished capital punishment for ordinary crimes during peacetime. No executions since 1860.

1868, Public hangings in Australia ceased.

26/5/1868, The last public execution in Britain took place outside Newgate Prison. Michael Barrett, the hanged man, had murdered 12 people with a bomb.

21/4/1868, In the UK, a Bill to abolish capital punishment, introduced by Mr Gilpin MP, was defeated by 127 votes to 23.

1867, Portugal abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes during peacetime.

1865, San Marino abolished the death penalty.

1864, Romania abolished capital punishment.

1863, Venezuela abolished the death penalty. Last execution in Belgium.

27/8/1861, Martin Doyle became the last person to be hanged in Britain for attempted murder.

1851, The last public execution in Germany. Executions thereafter took place within prisons.

1832, In Britain, house-breaking, sheep-stealing and forgery ceased to be capital offences.

16/12/1830, The last ‘hanging at execution dock’ in Britain. This punishment involved hanging of pirates, such as William Kidd in 1701; the convict was then left at low water mark and immersed three times by the tide before being buried.

31/12/1829, Thomas Maynard became the last person in England to be hanged for forgery.

1814, In England, hanging replaced beheading as a punishment for male traitors.

21/1/1790, In Paris, Dr Joseph Ignace Guillotin demonstrated to the National Assembly of Paris a new machine for ‘humane’ executions using a heavy blade falling on the victim’s neck. This method of execution was used in France from 1792

1790, In England, hanging replaced burning as a punishment for female traitors.

1789, Tuscany abolished capital punishment.

18/3/1789, Catherine (Christian) Murphy (Bowman) became the last person in Britain to be executed by burning at the stake (see 5/5/1790). She had been convicted of ‘coining’ (forgery), which was punished severely as a form of treason. After this date, hanging was substituted for burning.

1787, Austria abolished capital punishment. However it was restored in 1795 for High Treason and extended to some other crimes in 1803.

9/12/1783, The first executions at London’s Newgate Prison.

7/11/1783, The last hanging was held at Tyburn, west London. John Austin, convicted of forgery, was executed.  An estimated 50,000 had been executed at Tyburn.

24/8/1782, David Tyrie, having been found guilty of spying for the French, became the last person in Britain to be executed by hanging, drawing and quartering, at Portsmouth.

1778, The first execution by hanging in the newly-independent USA, of Bathsheba Spooner.

1765, According to William Blackstone, renowned legal writer, there were 160 offences carrying the death penalty under English Law.

5/5/1760, The first hanging by hangman’s drop at Tyburn, London. Earl Ferrers was executed for murdering his valet.

1750, Russia abolished capital punihshment, under Empress Elizabeth. However it was later restored.

28/7/1716, The last hangings for witchcraft in England; Mary Hicks and her 9-year-old daughter Elizabeth were executed at Huntingdon. The last hanging for witchcraft in Scotland was of Janet Horne, in Dornoch in 1727.

1708, The last recorded hanging, in Britain, of children; a 7 year old and his 11 year of sister were hanged at Kings Lynn. Common Law then presumed children just as capable of criminal intent as adults; in 1629, for example, an 8-year old boy was hanged at Windsor for burning two barns.

14/5/1650, The UK Parliament voted in favour of the death penalty for adultery but this was never implemented.

1612, The last two people in England to be burnt to death for heresy were executed. They were Bartholomew Legate and Edward Wightmann, of Lichfield.

1307, In Dublin, a device for beheading people was mentioned.

1250, In England, offences meriting the death penalty (hanging) included piracy and coin-clipping. At this time the Mayor of Exeter amnd the porter of the South Gate were hanged for negligence in leaving this city gate open at night, which allowed a suspected murderer to escape.

1200, In England, almost every town had a gibbet, and most manorial lords and abbeys also had them.

1100, In Norman England, hanging was generally giving way to mutilation as a punishmnent for theft. However under King Henry II, later 1100s, summary hanging (i.e. without trial) was reinstated as punishment for theft.


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