In 2012, Connecticut became the 17th state to outlaw the death penalty. For the first 200 years of Connecticut’s recorded history, however, public executions were viewed as an effective deterrent for serious crimes and were often major community events, attracting hundreds if not thousands of onlookers to watch the morbid spectacle. Speeches and moralizing sermons were given beforehand, and taverns would welcome the huge spike in business that accompanied such a large gathering of people.
Such was the case with the execution of Oliver Watkins of Brooklyn, Connecticut, on August 2, 1831. Watkins was convicted of brutally strangling his wife Roxana in 1829, allegedly motivated by an extramarital affair he had with a local widow. Even though Watkins denied having anything to do with his wife’s death, a jury found the salacious testimony against him enough to merit a conviction, and a judge subsequently sentenced him to death by hanging.
On August 2, thousands of people crowded the streets of Brooklyn to watch Watkins’ execution and take part in the festivities that were sure to follow. Local tavern keepers had heavily promoted the event, and even paid for extra private security to watch over Watkins in his holding cell to ensure he didn’t escape or commit suicide before he was scheduled to be hanged. After Watkins was summarily brought out to the gallows and hanged, many of the onlookers remained in Brooklyn and partied late into the night, as had become the custom surrounding public executions.
Despite all the revelry surrounding Watkins’ hanging, however, a number of social and cultural changes that had been set into motion earlier in the 19th century that caused the practice of public hanging to fall out of favor with the general public. The religious revival that swept the United States near the turn of the century — popularly known as the Second Great Awakening — caused many Americans to rethink their treatment of society’s more undesirable members; an increase in permanent prison facilities across the country also placed a greater emphasis on criminal rehabilitation over capital punishment. The drunken spectacles that often accompanied public executions became increasingly distasteful to the Victorian sensibilities of the emerging middle class. Consequently, the execution of Oliver Watkins on August 2, 1831, became the last public hanging administered by the State of Connecticut.
“Connecticut Draws the Curtain on Public Executions,” connecticuthistory.org
Oliver Watkins et. al. “A Sketch of the Life, Trial, and Execution of Oliver Watkins, Who Was Hung at Brooklyn, (Conn.) on the 2d Day of August 1831, for the Murder of His Wife,” Harvard University Library Online Collections
“Capital Punishment in Connecticut: Changing Views,” connecticuthistory.org