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 14th Century BC, the Hittite Code also prescribed the death penalty. The 7th Century BC Draconian Code of Athens made death the penalty for every crime committed. 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.
Mosaic Law codified many capital crimes. In fact, there is evidence that Jews used many different techniques including stoning, hanging, beheading, crucifixion (copied from the Romans), throwing the criminal from a rock, and sawing asunder. The most infamous execution of history occurred approximately 29 AD with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ outside Jerusalem. About 300 years later, the Emperor Constantine, after converting to Christianity, abolished crucifixion and other cruel death penalties in the Roman Empire. In 438, the Code of Theodosius made more than 80 crimes punishable by death.
Britain influenced the colonies more than any other country and has a long history of punishment by death. About 450 BC, the death penalty was often enforced by throwing the condemned into a quagmire. By the 10th Century, hanging from gallows was the most frequent execution method. William the Conqueror opposed taking life except in war, and ordered no person to be hanged or executed for any offense. However, he allowed criminals to be mutilated for their crimes. 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. For example, in 1279, two hundred and eighty nine Jews were hanged for clipping coin. Under Edward I, two gatekeepers were killed because the city gate had not been closed in time to prevent the escape of an accused murderer. Burning was the punishment for women's high treason and men were hanged, drawn and quartered. Beheading was generally accepted for the upper classes. One could be burned for marrying a Jew. Pressing became the penalty for those who would not confess to their crimes. The executioner placed heavy weights on the victim's chest. On the first day he gave the victim a small quantity of bread, on the second day a small drink of bad water, and so on until he confessed or died. Under the reign of Henry VIII, the numbers of those put to death are estimated as high as 72,000. Boiling to death was another penalty approved in 1531, and there are records to show some people boiled for up to two hours before death took them. When a woman was burned, the executioner tied a rope around her neck when she was tied to the stake. When the flames reached her she could be strangled from outside the ring of fire. However, this often failed and many were literally burnt alive.
In Britain, the number of capital offenses continually increased until the 1700's when two hundred and twenty-two crimes were punishable by death. These included stealing from a house in the amount of forty shillings, stealing from a shop the value of five shillings, robbing a rabbit warren, cutting down a tree, and counterfeiting tax stamps. However, juries tended not to convict when the penalty was great and the crime was not. Reforms began to take place. In 1823, five laws passed, exempting about a hundred crimes from the death [penalty]. Between 1832 and 1837, many capital offenses were swept away. In 1840, there was a failed attempt to abolish all capital punishment. Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, more and more capital punishments were abolished, not only in Britain, but also all across Europe, until today only a few European countries retain the death penalty.
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.
In 1622, the first legal execution of a criminal, Daniel Frank, occurred in Virginia for the crime of theft. Some colonies were very strict in their use of the death penalty, while others were less so. In Massachusetts Bay Colony the first execution was in 1630, but the earliest capital statutes do not occur until later. Under the Capital Laws of New-England that went into effect between 1636-1647 the death penalty was meted out for pre-meditated murder, sodomy, witchcraft, adultery, idolatry, blasphemy, assault in anger, rape, statutory rape, manstealing, perjury in a capital trial, rebellion, manslaughter, poisoning and bestiality. Early laws were accompanied by a scripture from the Old Testament. By 1780, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts only recognized seven capital crimes: murder, sodomy, burglary, buggery, arson, rape, and treason.
The New York colony instituted the so-called Duke's Laws of 1665. This directed the death penalty for denial of the true God, pre-meditated murder, killing someone who had no weapon of defense, killing by lying in wait or by poisoning, sodomy, buggery, kidnapping, perjury in a capital trial, traitorous denial of the king's rights or raising arms to resist his authority, conspiracy to invade towns or forts in the colony and striking one's mother or father (upon complaint of both). The two colonies that were more lenient concerning capital punishment were South Jersey and Pennsylvania. In South Jersey there was no death penalty for any crime and there were only two crimes, murder and treason, punishable by death.
However under the direction of the Crown, harsher penal codes were execution there until 1691 [sic]. In Pennsylvania, William Penn's Great Act (1682) made passed in the colonies [sic]. By 1776, most of the colonies had roughly comparable death statutes which covered arson, piracy, treason, murder, sodomy, burglary, robbery, rape, horse-stealing, slave rebellion, and often counterfeiting. Hanging was the usual sentence. Rhode Island was probably the only colony which decreased the number of capital crimes in the late 1700's.
Some states were more severe. For example, by 1837, North Carolina required death for the crimes of murder, rape, statutory rape, slave-stealing, stealing bank notes, highway robbery, burglary, arson, castration, buggery, sodomy, bestiality, dueling where death occurs, hiding a slave with intent to free him, taking a free Negro out of state to sell him, bigamy, inciting slaves to rebel, circulating seditious literature among slaves, accessory to murder, robbery, burglary, arson, or mayhem and others. However, North Carolina did not have a state penitentiary and, many said, no suitable alternative to capital punishment.