M. Watt Espy, America’s Foremost Historian of Executions, Dies


M. Watt Espy, Jr., of Headland, Alabama, died this week, leaving behind a lifetime of work chronicling executions in the United States. Widely recognized as American’s foremost historian of executions, Mr. Espy was 76.

Beginning in 1970, Mr. Espy set out to document every execution carried out in the United States. His vast collection of primary documents, including state Department of Corrections records, newspapers, published and unpublished county histories, proceedings of state and local courts, holdings of historical societies, magazines, and holdings of historical societies, museums, and archives, were donated to the State University of New York at Albany Libraries’ M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives in January 2008. The Espy Papers are now part of the University at Albany’s National Death Penalty Archives.

Mr. Espy devoted more than four decades of his life to documenting the more than 15,000 American executions conducted since 1608. His painstaking collection of papers, records, photographs, and other documents stands as an unique and invaluable contribution to the history of capital punishment in America.

Watt Espy assembled indispensable and unassailable facts that demonstrate the arbitrariness and racial bias in the American death penalty system. His singular life’s work has preserved crucial information on this country’s use of capital punishment and will continue to contribute greatly to the death penalty debate.