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The 'Midnight Assassination Law' and Minnesota's Anti-Death Penalty Movement, 1849-1911

155 Pages Posted: 9 Apr 2011  

John D. Bessler

University of Baltimore - School of Law; Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: 1996


This article traces the history of Minnesota's anti-death penalty movement and the 1889 Minnesota law - dubbed by contemporaries as the "midnight assassination law" - requiring private, nighttime executions. That law, authored by Minnesota legislator John Day Smith, restricted the number of execution spectators, prohibited newspapers from printing any execution details, and provided that only the fact of the execution could be lawfully printed. Also commonly referred to as the "John Day Smith law," this Minnesota statute was challenged as being unconstitutional by Minnesota newspapers after those newspapers printed details of a botched hanging and were charged with violating the law. The article discusses how Minnesota's "midnight assassination law" affected the state's abolitionist movement and influenced America's death penalty debate. In particular, the article recounts how two court decisions upholding the constitutionality of the law - one by the Minnesota Supreme Court and one by the United States Supreme Court - contributed to the rise of private, nighttime executions in America.

Keywords: capital punishment, death penalty, Minnesota, history, executions, Midnight Assassination Law, John Day Smith, botched hangings, Minnesota Supreme Court, United States Supreme Court, William Williams, lynch mobs, frontier justice, newspaper reporting, freedom of the press,

JEL Classification: K14, K39, K49, H79

Suggested Citation

Bessler, John D., The 'Midnight Assassination Law' and Minnesota's Anti-Death Penalty Movement, 1849-1911 (1996). William Mitchell Law Review, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 577-730, 1996. Available at SSRN: or

John D. Bessler (Contact Author)

University of Baltimore - School of Law ( email )

1420 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21218
United States
4108374690 (Phone)
4108374450 (Fax)


Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States


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