Award Date


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Environmental and Public Affairs

First Committee Member

Terance Miethe

Second Committee Member

Anna Lukemeyer

Third Committee Member

David Tanenhaus

Fourth Committee Member

Randall Shelden

Fifth Committee Member

Hong Lu

Number of Pages



The death penalty has been a contested issue throughout American history. The United States has been executing offenders since Jamestown became a colony in 1608 (Allen & Clubb, 2008). Since that time, many issues have been raised about the death penalty including whether or not it is moral, discriminatory, or a deterrent.

This study examines the history of executions, including lynchings, in the United States from 1608 to 2009 using a variety of sociological theories on law and society. Some of the research questions that guide this project are:

* What is the nature of change in the relative prevalence of legal executions in geographic regions within the United States from 1608 to 2009?

* Does the incorporation of lynching data change patterns and relationships found in the legal execution data?

* What are the major social, political, legal, and economic factors associated with the relative prevalence of executions throughout specific regions in the United States from 1608 to 2009?

* Are particular factors more or less important at specific times and places in explaining the relative prevalence of executions or type of offenders executed?

* What existing theories of law and society best support the pattern of change and stability in the relative number and rate of executions in geographic regions in the United States over its entire historical periods, and in particular eras (e.g. Early America, The Long Nineteenth Century, and The Twentieth Century and After)?

The current study uses a comparative case method to conduct a qualitative and quantitative inquiry into the social conditions associated with patterns of stability and change in executions over time. Patterns of stability and change are explored throughout American history and specific regions in the country.

The data used in this study comes from multiple sources. Lynching data was obtained from the work of multiple researchers who have studied lynchings in various regional areas around the country. Execution data comes from a file called the Espy file, which contains execution data from 1608 to 2002. Data on executions from 2003 to 2009 was obtained from the Death Penalty Information Center, which compiles and maintains records on U.S. executions.

This study explores the use of functionalist and conflict theories of law and society as potential explanations for patterns of change and stability in executions over time and particular geographical regions in American history. Durkheim's and Erickson's contributions to functionalist theory are discussed, and the work of conflict theorists Marx, Chambliss, and Black are also included. Best's theoretical arguments about social constructionism are also examined in this historical study of executions. Taken together, these theories provide a framework to explore patterns in the empirical distribution of executions overall and in particular time periods and regions throughout American history.

The structure of this dissertation is divided and organized into nine chapters. An introductory chapter (chapter one) is followed by a discussion in chapter two of the study methods, data sources, and operationalization of historical periods and geographical regions. Chapter three contains a discussion of the relevant theories of law and society that may be used to explain the patterns of executions over time, and chapter four contains a description of the data. Chapters five through seven address the death penalty at various points in American history. Chapter five covers Early America (1580-1815), and chapter six discusses The Long Nineteenth Century (1789-1920). Chapter seven includes The Twentieth Century and After (1920-2009). In each of these chapters, social, economic, legal, and political factors are discussed along with a description of the pattern of capital punishment. Chapter eight includes a theoretical integration that evaluates which theories best explain execution patterns in individual eras and overall throughout American history. The final chapter (chapter nine) provides conclusions and implications of this study for current capital punishment policy.


Capital punishment – Moral and ethical aspects; Death penalty; Executions and executioners; Executions (Administrative law); History; Lynching; United States


Criminal Law | Criminology | Criminology and Criminal Justice | History | Legal | United States History

File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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