Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Gustav Niebuhr on the Biggest Execution in American History

You may recall that last week we did an Author's Corner interview with Gustav Niebuhr, author of Lincoln's Bishop: A President, A Priest, and the Fate of 300 Dakota Sioux Warriors.

Over at Newsweek's On Faith blog, Niebuhr tells the story of how Abraham Lincoln and an Episcopalian bishop named Henry Whipple responded to the 1862 execution of Dakota Indians in December 1862.  Here is a taste to whet your appetite:


Death row in Arkansas holds 38 inmates, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit that keeps track of such facts. Now, what if that state were to execute them all at the same time? By hanging — and did so publicly?
An unhappy precedent exists for just such an action — 38 hanged at one time and place. It took place a century and a half ago, on a single gallows built for that purpose in a small Minnesota city called Mankato. Every one of the condemned was a Dakota Indian; the federal government hired the hangmen. Hundreds of people turned out to watch.
The biggest execution on American soil, it could nonetheless have been much, much larger (and therefore that much more shameful) but for the involvement of two men. One everyone has known of since childhood: Abraham Lincoln. The other, these days, is far less recognized: Bishop Henry B. Whipple. Together, they offer an enduring lesson in reason and mercy in the face of great anger and violence.
The mass hanging directly followed the Dakota War, a fierce, five-week-long conflict that swept southern Minnesota in August and September, 1862, when some Dakotas — who had sold off their vast domain to the federal government and felt badly cheated of their compensation — turned violently against a growing population of white settlers. Hundreds died.
How many Indians would be executed as a result lay ultimately with Lincoln. He and Whipple had a crucial conversation about federal Indian policy first.
Here’s the essential chronology, starting with the bishop, among whose papers I’ve spent much time the past three years.
Read the rest here.