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From hanging pirates to firing squads, pictures reveal 303-year history of SC executions

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Back and forth on an autumn day in 1718, the bodies of at least 20 pirates swung from nooses in Charleston.

The crime of the men, among the first recorded to have been executed in South Carolina, had been classically colonial. “Piratically and feloniously,” they stole two boats of slaves, sugar and rum floating close to shore, a jury of British settlers decided.

The punishment they received is modern still. More men now sit waiting for execution on the state’s death row than the number tried in 1718.

Between the two groups of condemned men lie many others. Over the past 303 years, more than 680 people have been killed in state-sponsored executions in South Carolina, according to historic and public records obtained by The State Media Co.

They were killed using different methods. Until 1912, under the direction of local counties, records show hundreds of people were hanged to death, 11 were burned and three were gibbeted — their bodies left to dangle and their corpses to rot in the metal chains they were hung inside.

The 1912 execution of William Reed, the first man put to death by the electric chair in the South Carolina state penitentiary, inaugurated a new era of electricity and organization. From that time on, executions became the charge of officials in Columbia, and a note of each except the last two was logged in the official Execution Book.

After the state killed Reed in the electric chair, 247 others died in it too. Today, 109 years later, the chair is South Carolina’s primary method of execution, making it the only state in the country where that is still the case. All other states that once used the electric chair have since stopped entirely or have switched to offering it just as an alternative.

Below are images and documents that reflect South Carolina’s unique execution history. Some were shot by photographers decades ago, then recently reprinted with help from the Richland Library, where The State’s photography archives are stored. Others, obtained under the open records law, have never before been published.

1718 through the 1970s: From pirates to Pee Wee

At least 20 men — Britons, Sots, and Jamaicans among them — were charged with piracy and hanged in Charleston in 1718. They were some of the first recorded to have been executed in the area.

At least 20 men — Britons, Sots, and Jamaicans among them — were charged with piracy and hanged in Charleston in 1718. They were some of the first recorded to have been executed in the area.

The state’s Execution Book notes most of the executions conducted in South Carolina since 1912, when the killings stopped being handled by local counties and became the job of those at the State Penitentiary.

The state’s Execution Book notes most of the executions conducted in South Carolina since 1912, when the killings stopped being handled by local counties and became the job of those at the State Penitentiary.

South Carolina’s electric chair, first deployed in the death house in 1912 and photographed here in 1956, has been used to kill 248 people. Since 1937, the official in charge of the electrocution rapped the pictured cane on the floor to signal the beginning of the electrocution.

South Carolina’s electric chair, first deployed in the death house in 1912 and photographed here in 1956, has been used to kill 248 people. Since 1937, the official in charge of the electrocution rapped the pictured cane on the floor to signal the beginning of the electrocution.

George Stinney Jr., 14, was executed in the state’s electric chair in 1944, the youngest American with a confirmed birth date to be executed in the 20th century. He was posthumously exonerated in 2014 because of the unfair trial he received. South Carolina has executed at least 23 teenagers. All were Black.

George Stinney Jr., 14, was executed in the state’s electric chair in 1944, the youngest American with a confirmed birth date to be executed in the 20th century. He was posthumously exonerated in 2014 because of the unfair trial he received. South Carolina has executed at least 23 teenagers. All were Black.

Everett Small, a new switchman for the electric chair at the State Penitentiary, was photographed by The State on April 6, 1961.

Everett Small, a new switchman for the electric chair at the State Penitentiary, was photographed by The State on April 6, 1961.

In 1976, Pee Wee Gaskins was convicted for murder and sentenced to the electric chair. In this photo from 1977, Gaskins was pictured at the Sumter County courthouse after testifying before a grand jury about another death. By the time the Florence County native was executed in 1991, he had killed an estimated 15 people.

In 1976, Pee Wee Gaskins was convicted for murder and sentenced to the electric chair. In this photo from 1977, Gaskins was pictured at the Sumter County courthouse after testifying before a grand jury about another death. By the time the Florence County native was executed in 1991, he had killed an estimated 15 people.

Terry Roach, pictured leaving the van, and Joseph Carl Shaw, in a striped shirt behind him, were convicted of murdering two teenagers and sentenced to death by the electric chair in 1977. Roach would not have been sentenced to death today, since he was 17 when he committed the crime. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that sentencing people to death who were children at the time of their crimes violated the federal constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments. Roach was executed in 1986 at the age of 25.

Terry Roach, pictured leaving the van, and Joseph Carl Shaw, in a striped shirt behind him, were convicted of murdering two teenagers and sentenced to death by the electric chair in 1977. Roach would not have been sentenced to death today, since he was 17 when he committed the crime. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that sentencing people to death who were children at the time of their crimes violated the federal constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments. Roach was executed in 1986 at the age of 25.

Pee Wee Gaskins, already on death row on April 4, 1978, led investigators and members of the Florence County Sherriff’s Department to a site where he had buried other bodies.

Pee Wee Gaskins, already on death row on April 4, 1978, led investigators and members of the Florence County Sherriff’s Department to a site where he had buried other bodies.

1985 through 2021: Drugs, delays and death penalty limbo

During the 1970s, South Carolina’s executions were paused after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty could be a violation of the constitutional protection against both cruel and unusual punishment and unequal treatment. Some of the justices pointed out that capital punishment had a history of being imposed arbitrarily and with a racial bias against Black people.

S.C. punishments issued for sexual assault, for instance, indicate racism. The first Black man executed in South Carolina after being convicted of rape was killed in 1746. It wasn’t until 1941 — almost 200 years later — that a white man was sentenced to death for the same crime.

Meanwhile, no white person in South Carolina has ever been assigned the death penalty for committing “assault with intent to ravish”, as the charge is listed in the Execution Book, or attempted rape. But 26 Black men have been. The last one to die was Robert Johnson, a Holly Hill farmer, who was electrocuted in 1960.

After 1976, when a series of decisions from the Georgia Supreme Court helped reverse the previous ban on executions, South Carolina began to prepare its death chamber again. By the morning of January 11, 1985, it was ready for Joseph Carl Shaw, who had been convicted of killing three people in Richland County.

“Killing was wrong when I did it, and it is wrong when you do it,” read Shaw in his final statement around 5 a.m., minutes before he was jolted to death with 4,600 volts of electricity. “I hope you have the courage and the moral strength to stop the killing.”

The state of South Carolina executed 42 people after him.

Most of those men died by a different method. For 16 years, starting in 1995, executioners administered a series of drugs to kill those condemned to death. Today that execution option is no longer available. After autopsies of people killed that way started showing troubling effects and pharmaceutical companies became hesitant to provide the medicines for executions, government officials could not obtain the drugs.

Thirty-seven men remain on South Carolina’s death row waiting to die — and waiting for the firing squad, the state’s latest approved method of execution. They can’t be executed until the Department of Corrections readies the method, the S.C. Supreme Court decided in June.

Jim Harvey, who helped craft S.C. execution protocols and oversaw 13 executions, is reflected in his collection of Bibles in 2021.

Jim Harvey, who helped craft S.C. execution protocols and oversaw 13 executions, is reflected in his collection of Bibles in 2021.

The night before Joseph Shaw was electrocuted in 1985, people gathered with candles to protest the execution.

The night before Joseph Shaw was electrocuted in 1985, people gathered with candles to protest the execution.

At his home in Lexington on July 3, 2021, Jim Harvey shows a device called the “iron claw” that was used to grasp the hands of people brought to the S.C. death house in the new era of executions.

At his home in Lexington on July 3, 2021, Jim Harvey shows a device called the “iron claw” that was used to grasp the hands of people brought to the S.C. death house in the new era of executions.

Shaw’s body was rolled into Richland Memorial Hospital for an autopsy following his execution.

Shaw’s body was rolled into Richland Memorial Hospital for an autopsy following his execution.

The family of Sharon Faye Smith, the murder victim of Larry Gene Bell, gathered at her grave on what would have been her 18th birthday, on June 24, 1985. Smith, a student at Lexington High, was abducted from her home and later found dead. Bell was executed for the crime in 1996, and chose the electric chair over lethal injection.

The family of Sharon Faye Smith, the murder victim of Larry Gene Bell, gathered at her grave on what would have been her 18th birthday, on June 24, 1985. Smith, a student at Lexington High, was abducted from her home and later found dead. Bell was executed for the crime in 1996, and chose the electric chair over lethal injection.

Proponents of the death penalty, many of whom said they came from Winthrop College, waved signs outside of the Central Correctional Institution prior to the execution there of James Terry Roach on January 10, 1985.

Proponents of the death penalty, many of whom said they came from Winthrop College, waved signs outside of the Central Correctional Institution prior to the execution there of James Terry Roach on January 10, 1985.

South Carolina’s electric chair was placed at the center of the death chamber in the Broad River Correctional Facility in 1998. The viewing room to the right is where media, lawyers and family members from both sides sit as witnesses.

South Carolina’s electric chair was placed at the center of the death chamber in the Broad River Correctional Facility in 1998. The viewing room to the right is where media, lawyers and family members from both sides sit as witnesses.

Aimee Ruffner was 8 when her older brother, George Stinney Jr., 14, was found guilty of murder. Ruffner was present when the 70-year-old case was reopened and witnesses were called to answer questions in 2014 . Her brother’s murder conviction was later overturned and Stinney posthumously exonerated that year.

Aimee Ruffner was 8 when her older brother, George Stinney Jr., 14, was found guilty of murder. Ruffner was present when the 70-year-old case was reopened and witnesses were called to answer questions in 2014 . Her brother’s murder conviction was later overturned and Stinney posthumously exonerated that year.

A federal jury on Jan 10, 2017 unanimously recommended the death penalty for Dylann Roof, pictured, after he killed nine Black churchgoers at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Roof, a Columbia native, was the first person sentenced to death for a federal hate crime. He has been housed on death row at the federal penitentiary, located in Indiana, since 2017.

A federal jury on Jan 10, 2017 unanimously recommended the death penalty for Dylann Roof, pictured, after he killed nine Black churchgoers at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Roof, a Columbia native, was the first person sentenced to death for a federal hate crime. He has been housed on death row at the federal penitentiary, located in Indiana, since 2017.

Rose Simmons, whose father, Rev. Daniel Simmons, was killed along with eight others by Dylann Roof during a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church, holds a photograph of her father after Roof’s sentencing.

Rose Simmons, whose father, Rev. Daniel Simmons, was killed along with eight others by Dylann Roof during a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church, holds a photograph of her father after Roof’s sentencing.

S.C. Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, left, and Gov. Henry McMaster announced outside Columbia’s Broad River Correctional Institution on Nov. 20, 2017 that the state did not have the drugs for lethal injections.

S.C. Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, left, and Gov. Henry McMaster announced outside Columbia’s Broad River Correctional Institution on Nov. 20, 2017 that the state did not have the drugs for lethal injections.

Freddie Owens, Richard Moore and Brad Sigmon, currently on death row, had their executions stayed after South Carolina ran out of lethal injection drugs. In 2021, the executions of Sigmon and Owens, who legally changed his name to Khalil Divine Black Sun Allah, were again delayed. The S.C. Supreme Court ruled the state must offer the firing squad as an alternative method to the electric chair.

Freddie Owens, Richard Moore and Brad Sigmon, currently on death row, had their executions stayed after South Carolina ran out of lethal injection drugs. In 2021, the executions of Sigmon and Owens, who legally changed his name to Khalil Divine Black Sun Allah, were again delayed. The S.C. Supreme Court ruled the state must offer the firing squad as an alternative method to the electric chair.

On June 17, 2021, a protester called for the end of the death penalty at a rally and memorial for the nine people killed by Dylann Roof. A federal appeals court upheld Roof’s conviction and death sentence two months later, on Aug. 25, 2021.

On June 17, 2021, a protester called for the end of the death penalty at a rally and memorial for the nine people killed by Dylann Roof. A federal appeals court upheld Roof’s conviction and death sentence two months later, on Aug. 25, 2021.

This is what the firing squad execution chamber looks like at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah — the last place in America where the state executed a man with a firearm. The S.C. Department of Corrections has spent about $50,000 to ready its own chamber for bullets but has refused to release information about how it spent the money and who were the vendors involved. Media experts said that is a violation of South Carolina’s open records laws.

This is what the firing squad execution chamber looks like at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah — the last place in America where the state executed a man with a firearm. The S.C. Department of Corrections has spent about $50,000 to ready its own chamber for bullets but has refused to release information about how it spent the money and who were the vendors involved. Media experts said that is a violation of South Carolina’s open records laws.

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