August 2: Connecticut’s Final Public Hanging

 

In 2012, Connecticut became the 17th state to outlaw the death penalty. For the first 200 years of Connecticut’s history as colony and state,however, public executions with large crowds attending were viewed as an effective deterrent of serious crimes. They were major community events, attracting hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of onlookers to watch the morbid spectacle. Speeches and moralizing sermons were given beforehand, and taverns welcomed the huge spike in business that accompanied such a large gathering of people.

This was certainly the case with the execution of Oliver Watkins of Brooklyn, Connecticut, on August 2, 1831. Watkins had been 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 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 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 also placed a greater emphasis on criminal rehabilitation over capital punishment. Simultaneously, 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.

Afternote:

After this entry was posted, a Facebook reader (Love Being MeMe) suggested that Andrew P. Potter, who was hanged in New Haven on July 20, 1846 for committing murder, might actually have been the last person publicly hanged in Connecticut. The Rev, H. B. Soule, who wrote criticizing his execution, stated, “The multitude, the pressing eager, thronging multitude . . . have come, with the murmer of their thousand voices, have in breathless stillness waited on the awful scene, and have now again returned to their homes and the business of life.” This was true, but only in part. An eyewitness to the execution reported in the July 21, 1846 Hartford Courant that Potter was executed in an “enclosed yard in which are about one hundred spectators (an immense crowd being without the walls and entirely excluded from view.)” The crowds came, but they saw nothing. Fully public hangings had ended in the Land of Steady Habits, but the public apparently still very much wanted their spectacle. Thanks, “Love Being Me Me,” for helping make TODAYINCTHISTORY.com such an interesting, and rewarding project to work on.

Further Reading

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