How a Traveling Salesman in the 1970s Became a Leading Opponent to the Death Penalty

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James Acker, a distinguished teaching professor at the School of Criminal Justice, and Brian Keough, head of the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections & Archives, are among the founders of the University’s National Death Penalty Archive (NDPA).

The NDPA contains a repository of publicly-accessible materials that track the history of capital punishment in the United States.

Acker and Keough join the series to share about the digitization efforts of a collection by M. Watt Espy, a researcher who spent three decades of his life gathering and indexing documentation of legal executions for what would become the nation’s largest database on capital punishment.

The M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections & Archives has since added 6,000 executions to the list through the verification process of Espy’s work.

Espy began the project in the 1970s as a traveling salesman pedaling encyclopedias and cemetery plots, among other goods. While the scholar was originally an advocate for capital punishment, he became an avid opponent following growing concerns about racial prejudice in the legal system.

During a pre-Internet era, Espy documented over 15,000 executions conducted between 1608 and 2002.

Espy died in 2009 at the age of 76.

The University at Albany Libraries was responsible for salvaging the “Espy File” from Espy’s home in Headland, A.L. following his passing and moving the database to its current home at the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections & Archives.

The NDPA is a partnership between the University at Albany Libraries and the Capital Punishment Research Initiative (CPRI) at the University’s School of Criminal Justice.

Learn more about the Espy Project.

Image from the "Espy File" collection: Mug shot of George Stinney, a 14-year-old who was convicted of murdering two white girls in Alcolu, S.C. He was executed by electric chair in 1944.

The UAlbany News Podcast is hosted and produced by Sarah O'Carroll, a Communications Specialist at the University at Albany, State University of New York, with production assistance by Patrick Dodson and Scott Freedman.

Have a comment or question about one of our episodes? You can email us at mediarelations@albany.edu, and you can find us on Twitter @UAlbanyNews.

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