Botched Executions and the Struggle to End Capital Punishment: A Twentieth-Century Story


  • We are grateful to the Mellon Foundation for the funding that made our collaboration possible.


Why have accounts of botched executions not played a larger role in the struggle to end capital punishment in the United States? In the twentieth century, when methods of execution became increasingly controlled and sterilized, botched executions would seem to have had real abolitionist potential. This article examines newspaper coverage of botched executions to determine and describe the way they were presented to the public and why they have contributed little to the abolitionist cause. Although botched executions reveal pain, violence, and inhumanity associated with state killing, newspaper coverage of these events neutralizes the impact of that revelation. Throughout the last century, newspapers presented botched executions as misfortunes rather than injustices. We identify three distinct modes by which newspaper coverage neutralized the impact of botched executions and presented them as misfortunes rather than as systemic injustices: (1) the dual narratives of sensationalism and recuperation in the early years of the twentieth century, (2) the decline of sensationalism and the rise of “professionalism” in the middle of the century, and (3) the emphasis on “balanced” reporting toward the end of the century.