The movement toward abolition of the death penalty started early in the history of the United States. After the colonies became independent, anti-gallows societies came into being in every state along the eastern seaboard. By 1850, an American Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, started in 1845, was well organized. With the forces arrayed against slavery and saloons, the anti-gallows societies were among the most prominent groups struggling for social reform in America.
In the mid-19th century, the highwater mark was reached for the abolition movement when Horace Greeley, the editor and founder of the New York Tribune, became one of the nation's leading critics of the death penalty. In New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, abolition bills were constantly before the legislature. Earlier, in 1847, the Territory of Michigan voted to abolish hanging and to replace it with life imprisonment for all crimes except treason--becoming the first English-speaking jurisdiction in the world to abolish the death penalty, for all practical purposes.
In 1852, Rhode Island abolished the gallows for all crimes, including treason; the next year Wisconsin did the same. In several other states, capital punishment for many lesser crimes was replaced by life imprisonment, and other reforms affecting the administration of the death penalty were adopted. By the middle of the last century in most of the northern and eastern states, only treason and murder remained as capitally punishable crimes. Few states outside the South had more than one or two additional capital offenses. The anti-gallows movement rapidly lost its momentum, however, as the moral and political energies of the nation became increasingly absorbed in the struggle over slavery.
After the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era, both Iowa and Maine abolished the death penalty, only to restore it soon afterward. In 1887, Maine again abolished the death p...