Historical Punishments


Kentucky was admitted as a State into the Union in 1792 and by 1798 had established its penitentiary system. The first jail ever erected in Kentucky was built in the town of Danville. Though there is a lack of a specific date, an act of the Kentucky Legislature, approved on 20 December 1794, stated, “That the sum of $1,500 be appropriated for the erection of a public jail at the seat of government and that the following gentlemen, Harry Innis, Wm. Murray, Thos. Todd, John Logan, and Baker Ewing, be appointed commissioners to erect the said jail. As soon as the public jail is completed the commissioners shall give notice to the judges of the court of Oyer and Terminer and the said court shall thenceforward be held in the town of Frankfort, in the room prepared for that purpose.” An act in 1795 created the district courts and divide the state into six districts and provided that all criminals should be tried in these district courts. (See below for the original 1795 Act establishing the district court system.)

Chapter CLXXI

Before the establishment of the Kentucky penitentiary system, punishments for crimes in both Kentucky and Virginia were as follows:

  • Treason: Death by hanging, without benefit of clergy.
  • Slaves conspiring to rebel or murder any free person: death.
  • Free persons advising or conspiring with a slave in rebellion or murder: death.
  • Stealing or selling a free person for a slave: death.
  • Stealing a slave: death.
  • Murder of the first degree: death.
  • Robbing, or accessory before the fact: death.
  • Burglary: death.
  • Manslaughter: death.
  • Maiming, by cutting out the tongue, putting out the eye: death.
  • Killing a person in a duel: death.
  • Rape, or accessory thereto: death.
  • Carnally knowing or abusing a child under 10 years of age, or accessory before the fact: death.
  • Slave attempting rape on a white woman: castration.
  • Buggery, with man or beast: death.
  • Willfully setting fire to a house in town at night: death.
  • Slaves willfully burning any house: death.
  • Perjury and subornation of perjury: death.
  • Forgery of any coin, bank notes, or aiding in such forgery: death.
  • Forgery of any check, post-note, or order on any bank: death.
  • Forging or counterfeiting any tobacco bran, or exporting tobacco with any such brand or mark, with intent to defraud: death.
  • Destroying or concealing any codicil or will, or aiding therein: death.
  • Obtaining good or money by false tokens: death.
  • Horse stealing: death.
  • Embezzling or stealing, and taking any record, writ, return, process, warrant of any court: death.
  • Breaking jail, when the party was committed for any crime punishable with death: death without the benefit of clergy.

All felony offenses were punished with death by hanging, without benefit of clergy.

Combination pillory (top) and whipping post (bottom)

The benefit of clergy was denied under the following circumstances: First to all principles in the first degree in murder, burglary, arson, at common law; for the willful burning of any courthouse, or county or public prison, or the office of the clerk of any court; for the felonious taking of goods out of any church; for robbing any person in the dwelling-house, the occupants being within; for robbing any person on the highway; for house-stealing; for house-breaking by day, the owner being therein and put in fear.

All minor offenses were punishable either by burning in the hand, ducking, the pillory, or by whipping at the public whipping-post.

Capital Punishment in Kentucky:

A Brief Timeline

Note: Records have been lost of the executions between 1792 when the Commonwealth imposed capital punishment law until 1911. (From the Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, 12 June 1997)

  • 1911 – Kentucky installs its first electric chair at the state penitentiary at Eddyville. Jim Buckner, an 18-year-old from Marion County was the first of nearly 200 men executed in electric chair.
  • 1920 – Kentucky legislature requires that convictions of rape to be hanged in the public at the county jail yard with 50 witnesses to be present.
  • 1928 – A record of seven men are executed in one day at the state penitentiary at Eddyville.
  • 1936 – The last public execution in Kentucky and in the nation occurs in Owensboro to a crowd of more than 15,000 spectators.
  • 1937 – The last public hanging in Kentucky takes place with a court order barring the press.
  • 1938 – Kentucky’s law regarding public hangings is repealed after a public outcry, primarily from the public hanging of Rainey Bethea.
  • 1955 – Father and Son Roy and Leonard Tarrence are executed being Kentucky’s only father and son to die in Kentucky’s electric chair.
  • 1962 – A Henderson County man became the last person to be executed in Kentucky proceeding for several decades.
  • 1966 – A number of bills to abolish the death penalty in Kentucky fail to make any significant progress. However, governors would proceed to issue stays of executions, effectively ending them in Kentucky for decades.
  • 1972 – A Georgia case results in a temporary nation-wide stop of death penalties.
  • 1976 – The aforementioned Georgia case goes to the US Supreme Court and is determined to be valid, permitting executions again in the US.
  • 1977 – The first man executed since 1972 was a Utah man who faced the firing squad.
  • 1978 – Kentucky changes its death-penalty model similar to that of Georgia’s wherein there are minor changes in the electric chair at the state penitentiary at Eddyville.
  • 1997 – Kentucky again refurbishes its electric chair spending more than $30,000 for upgrades. Inmates are also given the choice of lethal injection or the electric chair.

Kentucky’s last public hanging in 1936, Rainey Bethea. (From the Courier-Journal, Louisville, Kentucky)

Preparing for Kentucky’s first lethal injection. (From The Advocate-Messenger, Danville, Kentucky)

(From the Paducah Sun, Paducah, Kentucky)

An Act to Establish District Courts in the Commonwealth of Kentucky

Contributed by Shawn Logan | contact@kyhi.org

⁘ Works Cited ⁘

  1. The Lexington Leader, 9 December 1949
  2. The Lexington Leader, 12 December 1952
  1. Sneed, W. C. (1860). A report on the history and mode of management of the Kentucky Penitentiary from its origin, in 1798, to March 1, 1860. Frankfort, Ky.: Senate of Kentucky.
  2. Meshew, J. (1997, June 12). The Death Penalty in Kentucky. The Courier-Journal.
  3. Kentucky. (1809-1819). The statute law of Kentucky: with notes, prælections, and observations on the public acts. Comprehending also, the laws of Virginia and acts of Parliament in force in this commonwealth; the charter of Virginia, the federal and state constitutions, and so much of the King of England’s proclamation in 1763, as relates to the titles to land in Kentucky. Together with a table of reference to the cases adjudicated in the Court of appeals. Frankfort, KY: Printed by and for William Hunter.

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