During his life, M. Watt Espy searched libraries and courthouses across the country gradually building what is widely considered the most comprehensive record of executions in the country.
For decades the archive sat in stacks of boxes in his Alabama home. Next year the archive, which is now housed on the far shelves of the special collections library at the University at Albany, will be available digitally to researchers across the world.
The collection includes over 28,000 handwritten index cards describing individual executions as well as supporting documents from news sources, courthouses, local histories and countless sources.
“Watt devoted his life to this hobby – let me call it – he went from courthouse to courthouse, library to library, town to town,” said Jim Acker, a distinguished professor at UAlbany School of Criminal Justice and a death penalty scholar who conducted an oral history with Espy.
The execution archive – dubbed the Espy File – documents over 15,000 government-sanctioned executions dating to 1608. Before his work, researchers thought there had been closer to 5,000 legal executions in American history. The Espy File, which Espy donated to UAlbany in 2008, is the centerpiece of the broader UAlbany Death Penalty Archive, which also includes records from advocacy groups, lawyers and others.
Thanks to a Council on Library and Information Resources grant, the university is undertaking an 18-month long project to digitize the Espy archive and organize it in an easily accessible and searchable format. Once complete, researchers will be able to log in and search thousands of executions by name, state, method and much more. The material will be far more usable that in its current form.
“To use any of this material, since it’s in paper form, you have to come to Albany,” said Brian Keough, head of the university’s special collections. (The library does scan and send digital versions of small parts of archives to researchers who can’t make it to campus.)
“What the grant will do is digitize every index card and piece of paper,” Keough said. “If you search for Conrad Vaughn (one of thousands in the archive), you will get all of those papers right at your fingertip.”
Espy, who lived in Headland, Alabama, continued his research until he died in 2009.
The raw statistics of the archive are already available to researchers through the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data at the University of Michigan. Arkansas, for instance, which executed four death row inmates by lethal injection last month, carried out 23 lethal injection executions prior to 2002. Between 1608 and 2002, 502 people were executed in Arkansas, according to Espy’s records.
In New York dating to the Colonial period, over 1,100 executions were carried out, including 404 hangings, 695 electrocutions and 20 burnings. The state abolished the death penalty a decade ago. (The archive covers “legal” executions that were carried out in accordance with the law and does not include “extralegal” killings like the countless lynchings of blacks in the 1900s.)
While the raw statistics paint a grim picture, Acker said, the details embedded in the archive tell a much fuller story. Once available digitally in its entirety, researchers – ranging from teams of scholars and lawyers to amateur historians and family members digging into their past – can look into the details of how specific executions were carried out, what the condemned’s final words were and the details of the crime that led to an execution.
There was this case from Albany, for example, an execution reported in a Boston newsletter on July 9, 1741: “We hear that a negro belonging to John Laver, Esq., was burnt alive for carrying a child… into the woods and there barbarously murdering of it on the last day of May…. After a strong pursuit, the murderer was taken and on the 8th of June was take and brought to Albany where he was executed on the 12th.”
“Here it goes so far beyond the statistical; the stories are rich with detail,” Acker said. “They come alive in a way.”
Acker said the archive also informs modern debates over the death penalty. The archive details some cases that were ultimately overturned, including the execution of 14-year-old George Stinney.
As states have struggled acquiring the drug combinations needed to carry out lethal injections, lawmakers have proposed considering formerly used methods like the firing squad. In some states, those methods are still on the books. Want a record of old firing squad or gas chamber executions? Check the Espy File.
“People need to appreciate that these kinds of issues have permeated the history of capital punishment,” Acker said. “They aren’t new, there have been struggles to learn the lessons of history.”
For his part, Espy was no fan of the death penalty. He told a CNN interviewer that he changed his mind about the death penalty’s deterrent value after about six months of researching historical executions, citing cases when alleged victims “turned up alive” after a defendant was put to death. He estimated as many as half of the people executed for rape might have been innocent.
“Murder is a crime against society,” Espy said in his Southern drawl. “Executions are crimes against humanity.”