This project and this website are an effort to compile and analyze the history of federal executions. That seemingly straightforward task is complicated by the absence of any listing of federal executions. That’s right; we do not know how many federal executions have been conducted. In the absence of any already existing compilations and analyses, this project is necessarily a work in progress.

The first step, which I began in January 2020, just as the Trump administration was undertaking a reckless spate of executions and the future of the federal death penalty was being discussed, was to mine a variety of existing databases to try to identify every federal execution.

The Espy files, now housed at the University of Albany , where they are being cleaned, organized, and digitized, are both a remarkable corpus and an imprecise and incomplete accounting. It is the starting point for any history of the death penalty. Complicating matters, in addition to numerous errors of omission and commission, Espy’s records are organized by the location of the execution rather than the jurisdiction under which it was conducted. Though federal executions are conducted under the authority of the U.S. Marshal Service, for most of American history they were conducted using local and state execution chambers.

Analysis of Espy’s records finds 338 cases (prior to 2001) he identified as federal executions. However, closer examination of those cases indicates more than 100 of them were not conducted by federal civilian authorities enforcing federal law.

Part of the challenge is deciding how to count executions conducted by military and territorial authorities (including the District of Columbia), particularly in the patchwork of jurisdictions that predated comprehensive statehood. Part of the challenge is sorting through old and incomplete records, particularly prior to the advent of the internet and digitized court, newspaper, and other public record databases.

Working from Espy’s list, I excluded executions conducted under local law and military law in the District of Columbia (thus excluding the Lincoln conspirators and the Nazi saboteurs). I also excluded executions of convictions produced in other military courts, as well as in territorial courts and conducted by territorial authorities. The latter cases – such as in the Arizona, Idaho, and Oregon Territories – were prosecuted by local or pre-state authorities rather federal authorities. The notable exception to this are the numerous executions conducted under federal law in so-called Indian Territory (later Oklahoma), as well as a handful of others conducted under federal authority for crimes that occurred on Native American reservations.

I also excluded cases that Espy included in error, whether as a result of an overlooked commutation or a misunderstanding of the original records. The result is, at present, 227 executions, beginning in 1790 and ending in 2021.