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“To lawless rapine bred”: A study of early Northeastern execution literature featuring people of African descent

Tanya M Mears, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation explores execution literature, a genre of literature popular in the Northeastern American colonies and successor states. The texts I explore are written between 1693 and 1817 and feature people of African descent. There are three types of texts that make up execution literature; execution sermons, written and delivered by pastors written especially for the condemned immediately before his or her execution, last words, autobiographical texts taken from the prisoner's own mouth immediately before death, and dying verse, rhyming poetry written on occasion of the execution of the criminal. Although execution literature can provide a wealth of information, it has tended to be excluded from consideration as a means of discovering more about the experiences of people of African descent by the popularity of Slave Narratives. Whereas enslaved men and women including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Mary Prince and William and Ellen Craft are well known and their lives well represented in secondary literature, Joseph Hanno, Mark, Phillis, John Joyce and Peter Matthias among others are noticeably absent from the scholarship. Additionally, I argue that Puritans and their descendants were, as Robin Blackburn puts it, “ethno-religious exclusivists.” To refer to Puritans as racists is historically inaccurate. Biological racism as an ideology was invented later, with the advent of the institution of chattel slavery. Puritans and their descendants held a different worldview, reflected in execution literature. They believed themselves to be the direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews of the Bible. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was New Israel, and here they attempted to align their lives as closely with Biblical precedent as possible. The Bible, especially the New Testament, emphasized that people ought to be less concerned with their earthly condition than with their eternal destination. One never knew when he or she would die; therefore it was of the utmost importance to spend one's life preparing for judgment. The significance of execution literature is not in its relationship to other genres of literature written by and about people of African descent. Instead, the literature itself provides a wealth of information that has not been explored to the full.

Subject Area

Black history|American history|American literature

Recommended Citation

Mears, Tanya M, "“To lawless rapine bred”: A study of early Northeastern execution literature featuring people of African descent" (2005). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3179901.