Wednesday, December 26, 2007

December 26th A Grim Anniversary In American History

On December 26th, 1862, under orders from President Abraham Lincoln, 38 Dakota Indian men were hung at the same time in the main square in Mankato, Minnesota.

Christmas that year came and went, and the next day there was the largest mass execution in US history.

The account of the hangings carried in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, here, is definitely worth a read.

Big number, 38. Count off 38 people the next time you are walking down the street.

A website constructed by the University of Missouri, Kansas City, has a pretty complete account of the issues, which began with broken treaties, mass Indian expulsions, then armed conflict between Dakota Indians native to Minnesota and white settlers, and ended with the Battles of The Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee that eventually brought these conflicts to a conclusion in South Dakota 28 years later.

It's a completely sordid chapter in our history.

A Minnesota commanding general, Robert Pope, having been exiled to the west after losing the Battle of Bull Run to the Confederate Army had wanted Lincoln to hang 303 Indians.

Trials that led to the hangings were conducted in minutes, without translation, let alone attorneys.

After the hangings, pieces of hung Indians' skin were said to have been sold, and grave-robbers took cadavers.

Dr. William Mayo, co-founder of the Mayo Clinic, took the body of an Indian with whom he had had a prior confrontation, used it to teach anatomy, then kept the skeleton in an iron pot in his office for years.

What's relevant about reviewing the history of the Mankato hangings, other than the anniversary date, is that capital punishment seems on the decline in the US - - one of its last bastions on earth.

New Jersey recently abolished it, and the US Supreme Court, in striking down cases and issuing delays, has signaled that perhaps it will rule lethal injection a cruel and unusual punishment nationally.

Were that to happen, it would signal the beginning of the end of the death penalty in America.

In 1995 I spent months at the Milwaukee Journal writing about capital punishment. I learned that in the US, the death penalty had its origins in southern slavery and the lawless US west - - areas as distant from Wisconsin as their culture and history.

Texas comes to mind, as it is still the execution capital of the USA.

I came to believe that the death penalty served no useful purpose, but did waste enormous sums of money on costly trials, appeals and lengthy incarcerations that could have been better spent on crime-fighting and other related expenses.

Today, December 26th, is a better day than most to meditate on the history of the death penalty in our country, and to all its costs, then and now.


Anonymous said...

You are sad, empty and pathetic. This is a defining tragedy? How many are you ignoring to bother with this one.

You are little more than a leftist tool.

Jim Bouman said...

Looks like you hit a nerve with this one. Let us all hope that Anonymous comes back with his notion of the kind of defining tragedy of our history that needs airing in the blog.
I get the feeling that he's a proponent of capital punishment in Wisconsin, licking his wounds over the consistent rejection of that benighted cause.

Ben Masel said...

If Hillary's nominated, will she, like bill, insist that support for the Death Penalty be restored to the Democratic Party Platform? Will the convention, as in 1996, roll over?

Bill's "60 new Death penalties" included such trivial offences as growing hemp.