M. Watt Espy Papers, 1730-2008
- Espy, M. Watt, 1933-2009
- The M. Watt Espy papers chronicle the extensive research efforts that led to the creation of the Capital Punishment Research Project and the database known as the Espy File. Espy spent three decades gathering and indexing documentation of legal executions in the United States. His papers contain both primary and secondary sources used to catalog thousands of instances of capital punishment in the United States and its territories since the 1600s. The collection includes material from corrections records, newspapers, county histories, legal proceedings, and books. In addition to the records pertaining specifically to the death penalty, there is also a selection of magazines collected by Espy that cover true crime stories as well as life in the American Old West.
- 88.76 cubic ft.
- English and English
- Preferred citation:
- Preferred citation for this material is as follows: and Identification of specific item, series, box, folder, M. Watt Espy Papers, 1730-2008. M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University at Albany, State University of New York (hereafter referred to as the Espy Papers).
Access and Use
- Conditions Governing Access:
Access to this record group is unrestricted.
The researcher assumes full responsibility for conforming with the laws of copyright. Whenever possible, the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives will provide information about copyright owners and other restrictions, but the legal determination ultimately rests with the researcher. Requests for permission to publish material from this collection should be discussed with the Head of Special Collections and Archives.
- Scope and Content:
The M. Watt Espy Papers document more than three decades of research from the nationally recognized expert on legal executions in the United States. Beginning as a macabre hobby in 1970, M. Watt Espy, Jr. began chronicling tens of thousands of government-sanctioned capital punishment sentences from the colonial period until the present day. His solitary hobby eventually became an all-consuming passion and he embarked upon a full-time career as the commanding force behind the Capital Punishment Research Project.
In 1987, The New York Times profiled Espy, his work and his “death penalty obsession” stating: “By all accounts Watt Espy’s collection is as unique as he is eccentric.” This statement remains an accurate description of Espy’s materials and the death penalty researcher himself. The collection includes Espy's vast documentation of executions in America, including a series of typed index cards listing individuals executed. Espy’s method was to collect information by obtaining state Department of Corrections records, newspaper articles, published and unpublished county histories, proceedings of state and local courts, magazines, and holdings of historical societies, libraries, museums, and archives. In addition, there is aggregated research data, administrative files, general subject research and notes, professional correspondence, news articles about or citing Espy, statements to the media, copies of his published and unpublished writings (including numerous opinion editorials), texts of speeches and testimonials before government panels, a personal signed portrait and autograph collection, scholarly works by others writing in the fields of history, crime, capital punishment, and the legal system, materials from advocacy organizations, photographs of individuals executed, and true crime, penitentiary, and general interest publications and books. Although the materials in the collection include eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century dates of creation, please note many of these items are photocopies of originals.
The collection also documents Espy’s research and thought process over the course of more than three decades. Espy’s materials illustrate the shift of research methodologies of the 1970s and 1980s through the twenty-first century. While he began by spending countless hours typing up correspondence to libraries, archives and historical societies, and scouring microfilm, the later portions of the collection include e-mail correspondence and news articles culled from the Internet. Of note, Espy rejected his earlier beliefs favoring capital punishment and over time became a critic of executions, arguing they did not deter future criminal acts and objecting to the number of individuals executed who were not guilty.
- Biographical / Historical:
M. Watt Espy, Jr. (1933-2009) was widely recognized as one of the foremost historians of legal executions in the United States. Beginning with his own personal resources, in May 1970, Espy began the first serious quest to chronicle and document more than 15,000 government-sanctioned executions in the United States since 1608—an effort that formally became the Capital Punishment Research Project. His method was to collect information by obtaining state Department of Corrections records, newspapers, published and unpublished county histories, proceedings of state and local courts, magazines, and holdings of historical societies, libraries, museums, and archives.
Initially Espy accumulated and recorded information about executions in the United States from his home in Headland, Alabama as a part-time pursuit while working in sales. Between 1977 and 1985, however, the University of Alabama Law Center in Tuscaloosa hired Espy to continue his work and during this time he published “Capital Punishment and Deterrence: What the Statistics Cannot Show”, Crime & Delinquency, (Vol. 26, No. 4, 537-544 (1980). He also wrote numerous opinion editorials and histories of the death penalty for major daily newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, The Atlanta Constitution, The Virginian-Pilot, The Columbus Dispatch, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and The Nashville Tennessean, throughout the 1980s. In 1984, the National Science Foundation awarded a grant to support the preparation of a comprehensive computer database with Espy’s exhaustive research as its foundation.
In 1987, that database became a reality when the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) published a dataset, Executions in the United States, 1608-1987: The Espy File (ICPSR 51). The portable data file furnishes information on executions performed under civil authority in the United States between 1608 and July 6, 1987, and describes each individual executed and the circumstances surrounding the crime for which the person was convicted. Variables include age, race, name, occupation, and sex of the individual; date, jurisdiction, place, and method of execution; and the crime committed. Also recorded is whether the only evidence for the execution was official records indicating that an executioner or slave owner received compensated for an execution. The Espy File was subsequently updated to include executions through 2002.
The Espy File is based on several ledgers that Espy used to confirm an execution. In one ledger, he arranged executions alphabetically by state and then in chronological order. Espy recorded the name, race, age and occupation of the offender, county of conviction, crime, date and method of execution. A second ledger contained the same cases listed chronologically, beginning with 1608. Espy included just the name of the individual, the crime, and date, location, and method of execution. A third, and much smaller ledger, also is arranged by year and contains post-Furman executions beginning in 1986. There is also a page for new confirmations from nineteenth and earlier twentieth century dates.
Espy’s work went beyond simply tallying the total number of executions. Instead he passionately researched and gathered all available background information on those executed, writing detailed note cards, narratives, and the ledger entries, which are all included in the collection. He painstakingly sought confirmation that officials carried out even the most obscure death sentences. Espy innovatively utilized antebellum state and county warrant records outlining compensation for executed slaves in his research. He explored the lesser known area of juvenile executions, documenting cases where children and teenagers received death sentences. Espy chronicled gruesome capital punishments for participants in slave rebellions during the colonial period. In addition, he uncovered botched executions where law enforcement hanged or electrocuted the same man more than once to complete the death sentence. As a further indication of his all-consuming interest in researching capital punishment, Espy filled the walls of his home with photographs of individuals executed.
Although he attended the University of Alabama for two years following service in the United States Navy during the Korean War, Espy never received a college degree. However, through his work, he earned the respect and admiration of academics, advocacy groups, and members of the general public. In 1991 the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty honored Espy with a special award at its annual meeting. His professional relationships with noted death penalty abolitionists, sociologists, criminal justice professors, authors, lawyers, members of Congress, and advocacy group executives are detailed in his correspondence. This group includes such notables as former director of the American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project Henry Scharwzchild and leading experts on capital punishment Dr. Hugo Bedau, and Dr. Michael Radelet, who once commented that “’[Espy] is widely recognized by everyone in the academic world as America’s foremost death penalty historian." (Ronald Smothers, “Headland Journal; Historian's Death Penalty Obsession,” The New York Times, October 21, 1987.) Letters describe how public defender offices and defense attorneys hired Espy to research past crimes and executions as part of mounting a defense in capital cases. Prisoners exchanged correspondence with him for insights gleaned from his work and moral support. (Series 5: Correspondence).
Following his affiliation with the University of Alabama Law Center, Espy continued to research and document executions, write, consult, and lecture from his home base in Headland until his death in August 2009.
- Acquisition information:
Initial items in the M. Watt Espy Papers were donated by Mr. Espy or his nephew Major Allen Espy to the University Libraries, M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, between 2008 and 2016. Daniel Allen Hearn donated additional items in 2018.
- Processing information:
Processed in 2011 by Jodi Boyle and Kerry Lynch.
- Death Penalty
Executions and executioners--Press coverage--United States
Executions and executioners--United States--States
Executions (Law)--United States--Cases
Lethal injection (Execution)--United States
Gas chambers--United States--History
Capital Punishment Research Project
Abolition movement--United States
Capital punishment--Moral and ethical aspects
Capital punishment--United States
University of Alabama. Criminal Justice Program
Criminal court records
- Bedau, Hugo Adam
Espy, M. Watt, 1933-2009
Ingle, Joseph B. (Joseph Burton), 1946
Radelet, Michael L.
Smykla, John Ortiz
Capital Punishment Research Project
- Headland (AL)