During his life, M. Watt Espy searched libraries and courthouses across the country gradually building what is widely considered the most comprehensive record of executions in the country.
For decades the archive sat in stacks of boxes in his Alabama home. Next year the archive, which is now housed on the far shelves of the special collections library at the University at Albany, will be available digitally to researchers across the world.
The collection includes over 28,000 handwritten index cards describing individual executions as well as supporting documents from news sources, courthouses, local histories and countless sources.
The execution archive – dubbed the Espy File – documents over 15,000 government-sanctioned executions dating to 1608. Before his work, researchers thought there had been closer to 5,000 legal executions in American history. The Espy File, which Espy donated to UAlbany in 2008, is the centerpiece of the broader UAlbany Death Penalty Archive, which also includes records from advocacy groups, lawyers and others.
Thanks to a Council on Library and Information Resources grant, the university is undertaking an 18-month long project to digitize the Espy archive and organize it in an easily accessible and searchable format. Once complete, researchers will be able to log in and search thousands of executions by name, state, method and much more. The material will be far more usable that in its current form.