Joshua Chamberlain served four one
year terms as Governor of the state of Maine from 1867 to 1871. One of the most
pressing issues put before Chamberlain was the issue of the death penalty.
Though the law provided for the possibility of capital punishments, actual
executions had not been enforced for years in Maine. The law provided that those
sentenced to death could be executed, but only upon the signature of a death
warrant by the Governor- an action previous executives had avoided. Chamberlain
detested the law. In the following letter to a prison warden, Chamberlain
emphasizes the fact that there is a clear distinction between inmates sentenced
to death and those given a lighter sentence. Yet Chamberlain stresses in this
letter that all is to be done in order to avoid the issue of executions in the
State and that hard labor and solitary confinement provided acceptable
alternatives. Despite Chamberlain avoidance of the capital punishment issue, he
did sign off on the execution of one individual, a former slave named Harris
convicted of murder and rape. Chamberlain's support of capital punishment in
this instance incensed members of the Republican Party and began the process
that ultimately led to the abolition of capital punishment in Maine in 1872.
State of Maine
Augusta Nov. 14th 1867.
W.W. Rice Esq.
Warden of State Prison
I would request you upon receiving convicts under sentence of death to place them in "solitary confinement," and if it is necessary to put them also at "hard labor" – as I am aware the law and the sentence in such cases indicate to help them separate from others who are under sentence of less degree. The reason for this is obvious, and I trust you will so understand my intention as not to take any course with such convicts which would embarrass me or you in the execution of the sentence, or which would produce an injurious effect upon the discipline or feelings of the prisoners generally in case the sentence were executed. It is my intention to take the responsibility of disposing of the cases which come under my jurisdiction, and not to shirk my duty and increase the embarrassments of my successors.
This is for your private information and guidance rather than for public notification; but it is proper for you to show this to the Inspectors of the Prison.
Very Truly yours
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Citation: Pejepscot Historical Society, Joshua L. Chamberlain Collection, Joshua L. Chamberlain Letterbook, Brunswick, Maine.
Index Terms: Governor; Maine; Death Penalty; Rice, W.W.; Capital Punishment; Convicts; Executions; Inspectors of the Prison; Warden of State Prison