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Until 1899, the death penalty in West Virginia was carried out by county governments. Following a public hanging in Ripley in 1897—a spectacle that attracted about 5,000 onlookers as well as the national press—legislation was introduced to transfer that responsibility to the state. Delegate John Darst, a Jackson County Republican, sponsored a bill calling for executions to be done only in Moundsville, ‘‘within the walls of the West Virginia Penitentiary . . . within an enclosure to be prepared for that purpose . . . so constructed as to exclude public view . . . .’’ Governor Atkinson signed the bill into law on February 18, 1899.

By this time, six other states had already abolished the death penalty. Opposition to capital punishment took root in West Virginia in the 1910s. Moundsville lawyer J. Howard Holt published Crime and Its Punishment in 1918, a pamphlet arguing that reform should be the only goal of punishment. He distributed copies of the tract to judges and legislators, but was discouraged that it had ‘‘apparently no good result.’’

Charges that capital punishment was too cruel eventually had some effect: In 1949, West Virginia abandoned hanging in favor of the electric chair, following a national trend toward more humane executions. The chair, constructed by an inmate who was an electrician, was first used in 1951 when Harry Atlee Burdette and Fred Clifford Painter were put to death for the murder of Edward C. O’Brien.

The international attention given to human rights in the wake of World War II led many western nations to reconsider capital punishment. Much of western Europe discontinued the practice, and opposition to the death penalty gained momentum in the United States. In West Virginia, bills calling for its abolition were introduced in the House of Delegates in 1955, 1957, 1959, and 1963. Finally, in 1965, Democrats Jesse Barker of Kanawha County and Robert Holliday of Fayette County successfully ushered HB 517 through the House. Despite opposition in both the House and Senate, this bill to repeal the death penalty was signed into law by Governor Hulett Smith.

Between 1899 and 1959, the state put 94 men to death. (Two women were sentenced to death, but both sentences were commuted to life in prison.) The majority of those executed had been convicted of murder, eight had been convicted of rape, and three had been convicted of kidnapping. During these 60 years, West Virginia reflected another national trend: It executed a disproportionately high percentage of African-Americans. Forty African-Americans were put to death—42.5 percent of all executions. Census figures for 1900 to 1960 show that the state’s total Black population averaged about 5.7 percent.

Despite arguments that the death penalty deters crime, West Virginia enjoyed very low crime rates in the decades following abolition of the death penalty. Though regular attempts have been made in the legislature to reinstate capital punishment, West Virginia remains one of 23 states that do not impose death sentences.

This Article was written by Christine M. Kreiser

Last Revised on October 18, 2023

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Bumgardner, Stan & Christine Kreiser. 'Thy Brother's Blood': Capital Punishment in West Virginia. West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly, (March 1996).

Cite This Article

Kreiser, Christine M. "Capital Punishment." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 18 October 2023. Web. 24 July 2024.


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