A prof from the University of Montreal (see, detractors, we are not all red state cavemen. Learned folk stop by as well) sent in this link to a PBS Frontline special that aired a few years ago about the history of the death penalty a few years ago. It is rather long, but a must read for those like-minded freaks that visit this site.
A few highlights....
As far back as the Ancient Laws of China, the death penalty has been established as a punishment for crimes. In the 18th Century BC, the Code of King Hammurabi of Babylon codified the death penalty for twenty five different crimes, although murder was not one of them. The first death sentence historically recorded occurred in 16th Century BC Egypt where the wrongdoer, a member of nobility, was accused of magic, and ordered to take his own life. During this period non-nobility was usually killed with an ax.
...In the 5th Century BC, the Roman Law of the Twelve Tablets codified the death penalty. Again, the death penalty was different for nobility, freemen and slaves and was punishment for crimes such as the publication of libels and insulting songs, the cutting or grazing of crops planted by a farmer, the burning [of] a house or a stack of corn near a house, cheating by a patron of his client, perjury, making disturbances at night in the city, willful murder of a freeman or a parent, or theft by a slave. Death was often cruel and included crucifixion, drowning at sea, burial alive, beating to death, and impalement (often used by Nero). The Romans had a curious punishment for parricides (murder of a parent): the condemned was submersed in water in a sack, which also contained a dog, a rooster, a viper and an ape. The most notorious death execution in BC was about 399 BC when the Greek philosopher Socrates was required to drink poison for heresy and corruption of youth..
During the middle ages, capital punishment was accompanied by torture. Most barons had a drowning pit as well as gallows and they were used for major as well as minor crimes.
The first recorded execution in the English American colonies was in 1608 when officials executed George Kendall of Virginia for supposedly plotting to betray the British to the Spanish. In 1612, Virginia's governor, Sir Thomas Dale, implemented the Divine, Moral, and Martial Laws that made death the penalty for even minor offenses such as stealing grapes, killing chickens, killing dogs or horses without permission, or trading with Indians. Seven years later these laws were softened because Virginia feared that no one would settle there.
...The first great reform era occurred between 1833-1853. Public executions were attacked as cruel. Sometimes tens of thousands of eager viewers would show up to view hangings; local merchants would sell souvenirs and alcohol. Fighting and pushing would often break out as people jockeyed for the best view of the hanging or the corpse! Onlookers often cursed the widow or the victim and would try to tear down the scaffold or the rope for keepsakes.
Finally, in 1846, Michigan became the first state to abolish the death penalty (except for treason against the state), mostly because it had no long tradition of capital punishment.
In 1853, Wisconsin abolished the death penalty after a gruesome execution in which the victim struggled for five minutes at the end of the rope, and a full eighteen minutes passed before his heart finally quit.
And, much, much more.....