Execution of the criminal was a public spectacle for most of human civilization. Public beheadings, the gallows, the guillotine, and the firing squad were all “executed through ritual and dramatic display” as a demonstration of state authority. The implementation of capital punishment as a public affair simultaneously administered justice and served a political purpose, accomplishing “juridico-political function.” The offender is found guilty, and his or her death is the pinnacle of justice served. Execution also gives the state the opportunity to seek retribution against the criminal who attacked the law and the sovereign state behind the law. Hanging Day in pre-1835 New York was a demonstration of power and warning, where the audience would both witness the strength of the state and simultaneously be deterred from committing crimes. Reform in the nineteenth century by writers such as Bentham, Beccaria, Rush, and Livingston focused on curbing the barbaric and bloodthirsty traditions of public executions.
The prison physician was responsible for both officiating at capital punishment and monitoring condemned inmates prior to their executions. This responsibility encompassed observing the health of prisoners in the holding cells, treating acute illnesses, and directing the electrician to flip the switch on the electric chair at the correct time. Post-mortem, the physician performed an autopsy to confirm the cause of death and analyze the efficiency of the chair itself. In this way, the physician became the primary employee involved with capital punishment, bearing both psychological and physical responsibilities.