The Job of Capital Punishment, Public and Private

Michel Foucault begins his seminal book, Discipline and Punish (1975), with a detailed account of a horrific public execution. On March 26, 1757, Robert-François Damiens was set to face his punishment for attempting to assassinate King Louis XV. This punishment had to be fit for one who threatened the life of the semi-divine, “God’s representative on Earth.”[i] First, he was made to kneel, naked, before the door of the Church of Paris and repent for his crime.[ii] He was then taken to the execution site at the Place de Grève, where the flesh on his breast, arms, and legs would be torn by “red-hot pincers” and covered in a mixture of “molten lead, …oil, …resin, …wax and sulfur.” The hand with which he held the knife was also burned with sulfur and his limbs were tied to four horses, each running in a different direction.[iii]

Various accounts of the event show the many ways in which the execution failed and was drawn out. The executioner had to twist Damien’s flesh with the pincers several times in order to remove appropriately sized pieces. The four horses were not capable of severing quartering Damiens—several attempts were made in various directions, two additional horses were added, and after an hour Damiens’ body was still intact. The executioner then cut the flesh on each limb to the bone and reattached him to the horses to complete the drawing and quartering. When Damiens was finally in pieces, he was thrown on a pyre for several hours, where witnesses say they could still see him breathing.[iv]

Figure 1


Figure 2

Such extensive details of this nightmarish scene are known because stories and writings about Damiens’ execution are plentiful. Pamphlets and drawings of this scene were published in various languages detailing each step of the process (Figures 1 & 2), eyewitnesses wrote their accounts,[v] and even Charles Dickens refers to the scene in A Tale of Two Cities.[vi] Many portraits were made and distributed of Damiens wielding a knife (Figures 3 & 4). The execution of Robert-François Damiens, in all of its horror, became a common subject of grotesque fascination.

Portrait de Damiens en Buste

Figure 3

Portrait de R F Damiens

Figure 4






Of course, while this public execution was one of the longest and most gruesome, it was by no means the first. In London, the name, Tyburn, became synonymous with public hanging. Public executions at Tyburn began as early as 1196 and ended with the botched ten-minute-long hanging of John Austen in 1783[vii] [viii]. The Tyburn Tree, an enormous triangular hanging tree erected in 1571 was a source of both fear and enthusiasm; this “Triple Tree” made it possible for capital prisoners from London’s Newgate Prison to face mass hangings and for thousands of people to watch.[ix] At the “theatre”[x] of Tyburn, and later at the Place de Grève, a dark play would unfold. Ideally, the power and proximity of the executioner (and often a Church official, as well) would invite the condemned to “confess…guilt and express faith” in salvation.[xi] This confession instills in the audience that the State and Church are justified in their actions to correct a behavior that is not welcome in their society. Public punishment, then, becomes a “display of [government] authority.”[xii]

Why was Damiens’ punishment so severe? If the punishment is simply meant as a means of seeking retribution for Damiens’ wrongdoings or even as a way to show the power of the government, surely an execution by hanging, like those carried out at Tyburn, would have been enough. In attempting to kill the king, Damiens challenged both state and religious authority. Simply hanging Damiens, dressed in his finest,[xiii] would not have been enough to deter the public from committing such an act of treason. Debasing and dehumanizing Damiens took away all of his dignity, effectively warning others against followings the regicide’s lead. As Reverend James Dana said in a sermon before the public execution of American Joseph Mountain (1790), “You must die—must be hanged as a spectacle to the world, as a warning to the vicious.”[xiv] Thus is the job of the public execution—to “embody justice, …punish, …[and] deter.”[xv]

In the early United States, Benjamin Rush (Figure 5) attempted to warn against using executions as public spectacles. He and other reformers believed that subjecting innocent audiences to such violent acts desensitized and demoralized them to crime. Rather than warning against criminal action, public executions would lead to more criminals and, in turn, more executions.[xvi]

Figure 5

Figure 5

While Rush’s words alone did not lead to the privatization of capital punishment, public punishment truly was not as successful a warning as it should have been. The theatre of execution only worked if the most important actor, the condemned, played his part. Sometimes, however, the condemned would approach the gallows with either a genuine wish for repentance or a strong moral conviction that he was innocent and only God could fairly judge him.[xvii] In both cases, the condemned became something of a martyr after death, transforming in the eyes of the spectators from criminal to victim.

This transformation severely undermined the authority of Church and State. Private executions, however, could allow those in power to regain control of the narrative. Pamphlets detailing the trial, execution, “last words, and dying confessions” proliferated.[xviii] Interestingly enough, these private dying confessions, now made public in pamphlets, often took the form of warnings:

“One burglar’s confession even thanked the [jailer] for his ‘good advice and counsel.’ … [A] teenager, executed at Dedham, warned with his ‘dying breath and last words . . . Do not CHEAT—Do not STEAL—Do not LIE—Do not commit ADULTERY—Especially, do not destroy VIRGIN INNOCENCE—and, above all, do not KILL.’”

-Louis P. Masur, Rites of Execution, p. 34 [xix]

In addition to allowing for a certain telling of events, withdrawal of executions to the private sphere created a more controlled environment. Whereas public executions drew large crowds that were difficult to control, private executions made for order and bureaucracy. While earlier capital punishment acted as a sort of play, this new punishment took the form of a ritual—orderly, regulated, and extensively rationalized.[xx]

Foucault theorized that two things occurred in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. First, capital punishment was made private. The ritualization that followed privatization allowed for Foucault’s second change—sanitization. As punishment moved indoors, there was no longer a need for excessively gruesome executions. All executions could be performed in the same clean, swift manner. The condemned were sometimes even anesthetized—more and more measures were taken to ensure that punishments were humane and that no executioner would ever get his hands dirty.[xxi]

However, as privatization and sanitization became the norm, toeing the line between humane treatment and animalistic fascination grew harder. Brian K. Smith describes those on death row as “liminal figures.” They are marginalized, many of them “non-white, single, young, poor, [and/or] mentally disturbed.” In this way, they are “both ‘us’ and ‘not us,’” humanized because they are worthy of being judged as everyone else, but dehumanized by their criminal and marginal status.[xxii]

Figure 6

Figure 6

This dehumanization has been made shockingly apparent as recently as the 1930s. The last state-sponsored public execution occurred on August 15, 1936 in Kentucky. The hanging of Rainey Bethea, accused of rape, drew crowds of approximately 20,000. Vendors sold food, and the crowd screamed and jeered at Bethea. Sensationalized newspaper articles about the hanging that day drew on this grotesque enthusiasm—a headline in Louisville read, “’Did You Ever See a Hanging?’ ‘I Did,’ Everyone in this Kentucky Throng can now Boast.”[xxiii] Another article in The New York Times, “10,000 See Hanging of Kentucky Negro—Crowd Jeers at Culprit,” describes the way the crowd scrambled for scraps of “The Negro’s” hood for souvenirs as anything but humane.[xxiv]

While Bethea’s death was as swift and clean as those in private gallows, the crowd treated him like a circus animal—like an “other.” This is a clear example of the changes that capital punishment has undergone over the centuries. While capital punishment was initially a way to deter people from crime by using convicts as examples, through privatization the job of the “humane” state became rehumanizing these liminal figures through equalized, bureaucratic, and ritualized punishment.

-Emily Davancens


[i] Mooney, J. “A Tale of Two Regicides.” European Journal of Criminology 11, no. 2 (2013): 230. doi:10.1177/1477370813494860

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1995, 3

[iv] Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 3-5

[v] ibid., 3

[vi] Mooney, “A Tale of Two Regicides,” 231

[vii] “Marble Arch and Public Executions.” HISTORY. June 10, 2014. Accessed October 5, 2016.

[viii] Devereaux, Simon. “Recasting the Theatre of Execution: The Abolition of the Tyburn Ritual.” Past & Present 202, no. 1 (February 01, 2009): 129. doi:10.1093/pastj/gtn019.

[ix] HISTORY, “Marble Arch and Public Executions”

[x] Devereaux, “Recasting the Theatre of Execution,” 129

[xi] Smith, Brian K. “Capital Punishment and Human Sacrifice.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 68, no. 1 (March 2000): 6. doi:10.1093/jaarel/68.1.3.

[xii] Masur, Louis P. Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776-1865. New York: Oxford UP, 1989, 26.

[xiii] HISTORY, “Marble Arch and Public Executions”

[xiv] Masur, Rites of Execution, 25

[xv] Smith, Philip. “Executing Executions: Aesthetics, Identity, and the Problematic Narratives of Capital Punishment Ritual.” Theory and Society 25, no. 2 (April 1996): 241. doi:10.1007/bf00161142.

[xvi] Masur, Rites of Execution, 26

[xvii] Smith, Brian K., “Capital Punishment and Human Sacrifice,” 7

[xviii] Masur, Rites of Execution, 34

[xix] ibid.

[xx] Smith, Brian K., “Capital Punishment and Human Sacrifice,” 4-5

[xxi] ibid., 9

[xxii] ibid., 13-14

[xxiii] “After 75 Years, Last Public Hanging Haunts Kentucky City,” New Haven Register, November 8, 2011.

[xxiv] “10,000 See Hanging of Kentucky Negro.” The New York Times, August 15, 1936.



Figure 1: Exécution De Damiens. 1757. Collection Michel Hennin. Prints on the History of France., Bibliothèque Nationale De France, Paris.

Figure 2: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Robert François Damiens.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 30, 2016.

Figure 3: Portrait of Damiens, Bust, 3/4 Headed Right into an Oval Border, He Holds His Knife in Hand. 1757. Collection Michel Hennin. Prints on the History of France., Bibliothèque Nationale De France, Paris.

Figure 4: RF Portrait of Damien, Bust, 3/4 Headed Left. 1757. Collection Michel Hennin. Prints on the History of France., Bibliothèque Nationale De France, Paris.

Figure 5: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Benjamin Rush.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 30, 2016.

Figure 6: “10,000 See Hanging of Kentucky Negro.” Digital image. TimesMachine. August 15, 1936.