22 July 1934 – The death of Dillinger and the Texas Death House escape.


22 July 1934 is usually remembered for Public Enemy Number One John Dillinger, shot dead in an alley next to Chicago’s Biograph Theater. Betrayed by brothel-keeper Ana Cumpanas alias ‘Anna Sage,’ the notorious ‘woman in red’ whose dress that night was actually orange, Dillinger’s story finally ended in the traditional fashion.

Betrayed, ambushed, cornered and armed with only a.25-calibre Colt 1908 pocket pistol, Dillinger died in a hail of bullets. As one of America’s most legendary criminals died at the hands of J. Edgar Hoover’s equally-legendary ‘G-Men,’ another event that day was thoroughly overshadowed, the Texas Death House escape of 1934.

Wherever there are condemned prisoners there are people with nothing to lose. Convicts whose appeals have failed, whose lawyers have given up (if they could afford one) and who know the Governor won’t call are among the most dangerous prisoners to keep under lock and key. Until 1934 Texas had been very good at that. After 1934 its reputation for holding and killing its condemned was permanently altered, blood and bullets had scarred it forever.

In 1934 the Death House was sited at the south-east corner of the Walls Unit in Huntsville where a different one still does regular business. Eight cells and a barber’s chair were separated from the Texas Thunderbolt only by a green door leading into the death chamber itself. Ever convict could see one of the number have his final haircut, their head shaved to avoid a fire when stepped through the green door, sat down and died.

The original Death House has long fallen into disuse. From 1924 to 1952 it held the condemned until being moved into another building. The condemned are no longer housed there, being driven from other units only for their execution. Today that involves lethal injection. In 1934 it was Old Sparky, the electric chair whose generator still resides in the Death House building today.

On 22 July that year the old Death House was almost full. Its eight cells held six men, five awaiting their date with the executioner and another for his repeated escape attempts. Eldridge Roy Johnson (alias Charley Frazier, A.W. Adams and several other names) was held there in the hope that the most secure building at Huntsville could hold him.

Frazier, the best escape artist in the Southwest, had already escaped prisons in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas including breaking out of Huntsville once already. Through a corrupt guard Frazier supplied the necessary pistols.

It would hold Frazier, but not all the others. Joe Palmer and Raymond Hamilton, both former members of the Barrow-Parker Gang, would make it outside the walls. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow had helped them escape the notorious Eastham Prison Farm (then the worst penal institution in Texas) and Palmer had murdered guard Major Joel Crowson in the process.

Blackie Thompson had been a member of the less-infamous (but equally serious) Fishing Hole Gang. Thompson faced execution for armed robbery and kidnapping, both then capital crimes in Texas. Whitey Walker, also of the Fishing Hole Gang but not facing execution, did most to plan and organise organise the escape.

Jim McKenzie and another condemned prisoner named Rector refused to leave the Death House. McKenzie did provide copies of the necessary keys both to the cell doors and the Death House door itself, but did not try to leave the prison. It may have been the last mistake Ira Rector ever made. Condemned for murder and robbery, Rector rode the lightning on 2 April 1935 aged only twenty-one.

During a prison baseball game they made their move. Leaving the Death House with a guard disarmed and locked in Hamilton’s cell they were joined by Roy Johnson, Whitey Walker and Hub Stanley. Outside the wall getaway cars waited to rush them safely out of Huntsville until it all went wrong.

Via the lower yard gate the seven escapers headed for he prison firehouse and a ladder tall enough to scale the outer wall. With another guard disarmed five of them were now carrying guns and were willing to use them. With tower guard Burneaux disarmed another tower guard spotted them and the firefight began.

Within minutes Walker was dead, Frazier had been shot six times (but survived) and Johnson and Stanley had surrendered. Thompson, Palmer and Hamilton had reached their getaway car. Not only had they escaped a maximum-security prison for the second time in seven months, they had done the previously-unthinkable. They were the first to escape from within the Death House itself.

By the time Dillinger was laid out in a Chicago alley Hamilton and Palmer were long gone, but it was DIllinger who made headlines outside Texas. Had he stayed at home that night then the Texas escape would have been the story of the next day’s papers. As it was Hamilton and Palmer may have been quite content to see their names and faces pushed further down the press running order. The less famous they were, the less likely they were to be recaptured. They had successfully escaped a seat in the Texas Thunderbolt, but not for long.

Thompson met his end not in the electric chair, but from a lawman’s bullet. He was killed by Deputy Sheriff Roy Brewer near Amarillo on 6 December 1934. By then Hamilton and Palmer had also been recaptured and returned to the Death House. Only time and the green door stood between them and the Texas Thunderbolt.

They had spent little time outside of Huntsville anyway. Hamilton returned to robbing banks before he was recaptured without a shot fired. On the evening of 5 April 1935 a posse caught at the Rock Island rail terminal in Fort Worth. Taken by surprise and heavily outnumbered, Hamilton had two loaded .45-caliber pistols and three spare clips, all full. He never got the chance to use them.

Palmer had only lasted until 8 August 1934. Found sleeping next to a loaded .45 automatic in Paducah, Kentucky he was arrested and refused to identify himself. If he was hoping to buy enough time tescape Paducah’s less-secure local jail Palmer was to be very disappointed. Chief of Police Bryant identified him from a detective magazine and Palmer was back at Huntsville within a week. His last ride was almost over.

The escape destroyed any chance of either a successful appeal or the Governor’s clemency. Despite their records Governor Allred did come under considerable pressure to spare them, holding firm against petitions and personal appeals for mercy. Their execution date was set for 10 May 1935 only a month after Hamilton’s recapture.

Texas was out of patience with Palmer and Hamilton. It was obvious that neither was likely to be reformed into an honest citizen and they had embarrassed the Texas penal system twice, killing a guard in doing so. If they could not or would not reform Texas wanted them dead, quickly.

When the time came Hamilton had fallen apart at least once. As their date drew closer Hamilton, once a cocky and needling gangster, became a increasingly scared and trembling inmate. Ironically it was Palmer, also scheduled to die and having vowed to have nothing to dow ith his erstwhile partner, who consoled him in his final hours. Aged only twenty-one and eleven days short of his twenty-second birthday, Hamilton had already racked up an astonishing 362 years of unserved time.

Palmer went first before a large audience. Normally the death chamber hosted only small groups of witnesses and officials. For Palmer and Hamilton over forty men crammed themselves into the small room. Palmer went calmly and quietly. He would have preferred to die in a shoot-out, feeling an execution and its attendant publicity would worsen things for his family. He didn’t get a choice.

At a silent signal the executioner threw the switch. Cycles of power ripped through Palmer, his body leaping against the leather restraints. First a jolt of 1800 volts, then 500, then 1300 and a final jolt of 500 over the course of a full minute. After being allowed to cool for a few minutes Palmer was examined and officially pronounced dead.. As Palmer’s smoking body was removed self-styled ‘Gentleman Bandit’ Raymond Hamilton was sent for.

When Hamilton was taken from his cell he asked whether Palmer had died. On being told Palmer was dead and it was his turn Hamilton braced himself for the end. By the time his cell door was opened Hamilton had recovered something of the sneering cockiness that had made him so unpopular, especially with former colleague Clyde Barrow. Almost sauntering through the green door he coolly seated himself while the straps and electrodes were applied. Asked whether had anything to say Hamilton looked around at the unusually large crowd and forced a smile and a brief farewell:

“Well, goodbye all.”

Whitey Walker had been shot dead. Hub Stanley and Roy Johnson had surrendered. Blackie Thompson had fallen to a lawman’s bullet and Hamilton and Palmer had been electrocuted. If Rector had hoped not escaping would earn mercy he had been fatally wrong.

Charley Frazier was eventually returned to Louisiana where he again tried to escape. Shot six times Frazier survived, later converting to Christianity and forgoing his criminal ways. Roy McKenzie had already been in the Death House for twelve years when the break-out happened.. After his sentence was commuted he remained there as a janitor.

Years after his life was spared cop-killer McKenzie saved a guard from a frenzied attack by condemned killer Herman ‘Humpy’ Ross. Ross had earned a vicious reputation even before arriving in the Death House. His reputation only worsened when he tried strangling Guard Rucker who had strayed too close tot bars of Ross’s cell. McKenzie had to club Ross unconscious with a heavy iron keyring to save Rucker’s life.

Ross, fighting and cursing, had to be forced into the chair just after midnight on 4 June 1952. Even to get him seated required several guards to grab him, preventing Ross from attacking reporter Don Reid. Reid, repoerter for local newspaper the Huntsville Item, author of ‘Have a Seat, Please’ and later an abolitionist, was lucky to escape injury. Minutes later Ross was dead, Reid later writing that even for violent offenders like Ross death was not the answer.

The electric chair they had been so desperate to escape outlived them all. Retired in 1964 after the execution of armed robber and killer Joseph Johnson, Jr, it lay for years on a prison rubbish dump. Reclaimed and restored, it was resurrected as the Huntsville Prison Museum’s star exhibit. When once convicts would have done anything to escape its grasp tourists have to be persuaded not to sit in it.

On This Day in 1909 – The Santa Clara Valley Bank Robbery, the world’s first using a getaway car.


To this day many people, including crime buffs, believe the world’s first bank robbery involving a getaway car was performed in France. The quasi-Anarchist Bonnot Gang are often credited with being first, escaping in a stolen Delauney-Belleville after robbing the Societe Generale bank in Chantilly, France on 21 December 1911. This isn’t accurate, although the Bonnots are rightly credited as the first European gang to use Browning automatic pistols instead of revolvers.

The Bonnot Gang committed the first successful bank robbery with a getaway car, but were not first to use one. That happened in California two years earlier. The town of Santa Clara and aspiring robbers Frank Smith and Leo Nevins (alias Joe Willetts and Fred Carr) share that dubious distinction. Quickly caught, Smith and Nevins would also share lengthy terms at San Quentin and Folsom and an unwilling place in the chronicles of crime.

Relatively speaking, bank robbery is one of crime’s newer phenomena. In the US it began during the 1860’s after the Civil War of 1861-1865. Until then thieves preferred burgling banks to robbing them. Many saw banks as too secure and the likelihood of gunplay too high. It simply didn’t fit their idea of risk versus reward. The rewards for burgling could often be far greater, the burgling of Philadelphia’s Bank of Pennsylvania vault netted $162,821. That would be a very tidy haul even today. In 1798 it was absolutely astounding. According to the dollar values of 1798 that haul today would be around $3,390,012.

From a technical standpoint it made more sense to many pre-war felons to tunnel into vaults or burgle with the help of crooked employees. They could take more time and often larger hauls stealing by stealth and the risk was far lower. Burgle a bank on a Friday night and it might not be noticed until Monday morning, Tuesday if the Monday was a public holiday.

The longer a burglary went unreported, the more time they had to escape with the loot. The less violence was involved (and preferably none at all) the less public outcry would force police to pursue them. A firefight leaving wounded citizens and bodies on the sidewalk only increased public outrage and thus police action. Even when robbing banks became more popular than burgling them professional robbers still regarded shoot-outs as the behavior of amateurs.

Armed robbery often involved violence, usually a shoot-out. If caught by a posse or outraged townsfolk many outlaws could expect summary justice, being left to hang from the nearest tree. Many were captured, sentenced and executed without ever seeing the inside of a courtroom. Even if they did survive being caught the courts were notoriously heavy-handed. Judges like Isaac Parker earned a grisly reputation as ‘the Hanging Judge,’ a reputation they didn’t always deserve.

Bank burglary wasn’t a capital crime, either, not before or after the Civil War of 1861-1865. In some post-war States (Alabama and Mississippi for instance) armed robbery definitely was. Regardless of whether anyone was hurt or even a single shot fired, some States could execute armed robbers and often did. Texas was even prepared to execute felons for being felons, what the State called ‘being an habitual criminal.’

After the war crime changed like almost everything else. On 15 December 1863, shortly before noon, an armed intruder walked into the Malden Bank in Massachusetts. Minutes later he walked out with $5000 after shooting cashier Frank Converse through the head. Converse, only seventeen years old, was the son of bank founder Elisha Converse. He died almost immediately. Killer Edward Green, a former postmaster and drunkard heavily in debt, was later caught and hanged for the crime at the Middlesex County Jail on 13 April 1866. His sudden ability to pay his debts had given him away. Returning the remainder of the stolen money didn’t save him.

On 13 February 1866 a group of former Confederate guerillas robbed the Clay County Savings Association in Liberty, Missouri. Behind them lay their first victim, a student shot dead outside the bank. With the war recently over and the James Gang initially composed of former ‘bushwhackers’ (as Confederate guerillas were known), the robbery may have been a political act.

What later became the James-Younger Gang was led at the time by former bushwhacker Arch Clement and it’s debatable whether Jesse James and older brother Frank were then members. Political crime or not, it’s often credited (wrongly) as the first daylight bank robbery in American history. It was far from the last for the James brothers.

If the US had a Golden Age of bank robbery it was from after the Civil War until the late 1910’s. The Crime Wave of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, though bloody and brutal, was more of a flash in the pan.

Most people today are familiar with the crimes of the James-Younger Gang, John Dillinger, Willie Sutton and a host of others. The early bank robbers like James relied on their wits, a fast gun and a faster horse. Later they replaced horses with cars, often extensively overhauled to make them faster and easier to drive. Along with proper planning (courtesy of soldier-turned-criminal Herman ‘Baron’ Lamm who revolutionized the art of bank robbery) a gun and a getaway car are now standard practice. That all began in a quiet California town on 3 August 1909.

Today Santa Clara lies in Santa Clara County, not far from the county seat of San Jose. South of San Francisco Bay, Santa Clara County is home to Silicon Valley and the county is one of the most affluent in the nation. On the morning of 3 August 1909 it was a far smaller, quieter, sleepier place than it is now. ‘Fred Carr’ and ‘Joe Willetts,’ however, were about to disturb the peace in historic fashion.

The robbers of Santa Clara’s Valley Bank had the planning, the gun and the getaway car. Carr and Willetts were also the very first to replace horses with horsepower, trundling away with a shotgun and $7000 in gold coins. They didn’t get much further, their getaway driver saw to that. They beat the Bonnot Gang by a considerable margin, but not the posse led by Sheriff John Langford.

Carr and Willetts hailed from Oregon and, inspired by legendary outlaws like Jesse James, were determined to become legendary outlaws themselves. That were still teenagers didn’t trouble them much and Willetts at least had some criminal credentials. Captured after the Santa Clara robbery he was later identified as committing a previous robbery in Everett, Washington. Leaving a local bank with a paltry $1300, Willetts also shot a cashier while doing so.

Of Carr we know relatively little. Being the duo’s junior partner, he was certainly young. He was also impressionable, impulsive and foolish, the type of underling more experienced crooks like Willetts could easily dominate. Carr would spend the next several years in San Quentin regretting the fact. Willetts would draw ten years, plus there was the small matter of the Everett robbery.

Today’s bank robbers would use a car, van or possibly a stolen ambulance. They might also dress respectably to avoid arousing suspicion, something the Santa Clara robbers were smart enough to do. They’d also avoid using a hired car with an unwitting getaway driver, but that is with over a century of hindsight

Carr and Willetts hired a car and driver because they knew almost nothing about cars. They couldn’t drive them and didn’t know how to steal one. This being 1909, cars were rather thin on the ground at the time. Even the Model T Ford had only been in production for a few months. With that in mind and nobody ever having used one in a bank robbery, their decision seems less ridiculous than it first might.

As it was their choice of car wasn’t a bad one for its time. The Thomas Motor Company of Buffalo, New York had produced not only a car, but a thoroughbred. In 1908 a Thomson Flyer had won a race from New York to Paris. Covering a staggering 22000 miles in an equally-staggering 169 days, the Flyer had left Broadway and arrived in Paris 26 days ahead of the second-placed car. A major achievement even today, it was a sensation in 1908.

Osen & Hunter’s Garage provided the getaway car and driver. For Carr and Willets it was a simple task to visit a local garage and ask the manager. Sited on North First Street, the manager didn’t have one, but he could get one from nearby San Jose. According to the 14 August Los Angeles Herald of 14 August that was exactly what they did. All they wanted they said, was a:

“Sixty-horsepower Thomas Flyer to take them to Santa Clara.”

They left out the small matter of committing armed robbery once they got there.

With a car, driver and shotgun the duo headed for Santa Clara’s Valley Bank, arriving at around 10am. Pulling up almost directly opposite the bank itself, their expensive car and respectable appearance drew no attention or, more importantly, suspicion. The most anyone did was look at the Flyer, a rare sight on California’s roads at the time. To any onlookers they looked like two prosperous young men visiting the bank to do some business.

They were, just not the usual kind.

The bank was open for business. Vice-President Albert Harris, Cashier Fred Birge, Paying Teller Frank Roberts and Bookkeeper Charles Johnson were all at their posts and doing their day’s work when the Flyer pulled up outside. Within minutes Carr and Willetts were inside and the Santa Clara robbery was in progress. Unwitting wheelman James Brown sat outside, still unaware of what he was involved in. He wouldn’t be unaware very much longer.

According to the 14 August edition of the Los Angeles Herald two well-dressed strangers walked into the bank and ordered the only two customers present to leave immediately. Having done so the customers, a pair of Portuguese women, remained outside. There never having been a bank robbery involving a car they simply weren’t expecting any trouble and neither were the bank staff. That changed very quickly when the duo produced a shotgun and a sack. According to the Sausalito News edition of 21 August these were accompanied by the demand;

“Come through with the big gold.”

The staff hastily complied. While one of the robbers (probably Carr) leapt through the cashier’s wicket and started shoveling gold coins into the sack. The other made things even clearer by threatening to kill anyone who didn’t comply. Given his previous crime that was probably Willetts. The threat worked. Within minutes the sack bulged with over $7000 in coins, a heavy haul to carry.

Unlike his passengers driver James Brown knew plenty about cars especially his Model 35 Thomson Flyer. He didn’t know he was about to become the world’s first wheelman. Not surprisingly he wasn’t too happy when he found out and that was the pair’s undoing. The first Brown knew about it was when Carr and Willetts left the bank and piled into his car. According to the 14 August edition of the Los Angeles Herald they then ordered him to “Let her out,” preferably quickly.

Just to make things absolutely clear Cashier Birge appeared outside the bank entrance. In his hand was a loaded revolver. According to the Los Angeles Herald he fired only one shot at the Flyer as the robbers and their unwilling, extremely frightened driver made their getaway. Brown’s day was only getting worse. First he’d been duped into aiding an armed robbery and now he was being shot at. He needed no further incentive to drive away as though his Flyer had wings.

Birge had been both brave and sensible. The fewer shots he fired, the lower the chance of anyone being hit by a ricochet or stray bullet. It only took the sound of one pistol shot to alert everybody within earshot that something was wrong. Much of Santa Clara’s male population heard it and immediately rushed to help.

The Flyer wasn’t a Ferrari by any means, but it was certainly better than most cars of its era. At least it would have been if driver Brown hadn’t thrown a fake spanner in the works. When Smith and Nevins left the bank complete with shotgun and swag bag Brown at last knew what kind of trouble he was in, though its historic nature probably escaped him at the time.

Brown no doubt knew what awaited him if he didn’t think quickly. No jury in California would have believed he wasn’t in on the robbery and that most likely meant a long stay in either San Quentin of Folsom. That was assuming he wasn’t killed in a shoot-out, his passengers didn’t kill him to ensure his silence or that the rapidly-gathering crowd didn’t lynch anyone they caught. He must have known it was a fairly bad day when Folsom or San Quentin were his least-worst options.

As the trio trundled away from the Valley Bank, Brown thought quickly and then acted.

Accounts differ regarding precisely what he did. The Sausalito News reports him crashing his car into a tree around five miles from the bank. The Rich Hill Tribune of 19 August reports that he deliberately engineered a breakdown closer to the crime scene. Either way Carr, Willetts and their very heavy sack of coins were now trying to escape on foot.

Bank employees, Santa Clara Sheriff John Langford and much of the town’s male population were in hot pursuit and some of them were armed. Some were on foot while the rest commandeered cars, bicycles and anything else available. The robbers, struggling with gold instead of banknotes, found the going hard. Even the thought of a possible lynching only took them so far and the pursuing posse was getting closer with every passing minute.

Brown, meanwhile, was only too happy that his unwitting and unwilling participation had ended. He was alive, physically unharmed and managed to convince Sheriff Langford he wasn’t a hardened outlaw. He hadn’t been shot or strung up, either. About the best he could say for that particular morning’s work was that he was better off than his erstwhile passengers.

The not-so-deadly duo struggled gamely on, their pursuers gaining ever more rapidly. Eventually they caught up at a dry creek bed a few miles from Santa Clara. Realizing that fighting was futile and further flight was impossible Carr and Willetts surrendered and came quietly. Both bloodshed and a possible lynching had been averted.

Many might believe that lynch law had gone in California if not other parts of the country. It hadn’t, not by a long way. California’s last confirmed lynching happened in 1933 when Thomas Thurmond and John Holmes suffered mob justice for the kidnapping and murder of department store heir Brooke Hart almost twenty-four years to the day after Smith and Nevins were sent to prison.

Lengthy prison sentences were the best they could expect and that was precisely what they got. The posse didn’t shoot them, lynch them or handle them roughly at a time when outlaws could still suffer summary justice. Instead Sheriff Langford, Deputy Sheriff Lowell and a local citizen named Alderman arrested them, recovering the stolen gold in the process. Of a little over $7000 only forty, a twenty-dollar gold piece and four five-dollar pieces, wasn’t back in the Valley Bank’s vault by the end of the day.

Initially the two robbers at first refused to give their names when booked into the local jail. Despite refusing to identify themselves they were oddly talkative about their crime and their future plans. The Los Angeles Herald of 15 August 1909 quotes Willetts extensively:

“This Santa Clara robbery was only an experiment. We intended, if it was successful, to go after a bigger and richer institution next time and to clean up a lot of money before we were through.”

Going further into self-incrimination, Willetts helpfully admitted they’d come close to committing another robbery:

“We obtained a machine in Oakland and had it remain around the corner, just as we had in yesterday’s job. Carr and I went to the First National around noon and looked the place over. We were well armed and if there had not been so many clerks and so many people passing outside we would have held up the cashiers and tellers and tried to get all the money in sight.”

There was, of course, a very good reason for Willetts to try remaining anonymous and it failed. Giving false names when arrested, their time in the county jail persuaded them to reveal their true identities. When they appeared before Judge Godsbey they admitted their real names were Frank Smith and Leo Nevins and, both claiming to be under eighteen, sought to be tried in the juvenile courts instead of as adults.

Their reasoning was as simple as it was self-serving. When the duo finally revealed Smith at least knew he was in very serious trouble. While employees from the Valley Bank identified him for that crime, police soon found he was a suspect in the Washington bank raid as well. Two employees from the Everett Bank visited the jail, looked briefly at him and did the identifying. Their help firmly linked Smith to the robbery and shooting of the Everett cashier the year before. Being tried in California as a juvenile might just get Smith the same treatment when he faced his accusers in Washington State.

The pair were swiftly remanded to await trial and, if they were hoping to be tried as juveniles, they were to be sorely disappointed. On 31 August they’d appeared before Justice of the Peace Thompson in Santa Clara. Thompson had lost no time ruling they were to be tried as adults, sending their case back to the Superior Court.

The wheels of Justice turned far more swiftly in 1909 than they do today and it wasn’t long before Smith and Nevins stood in the California Superior Court for sentencing. On 19 November they heard their fate, the judge seeming to accept that Smith was the more culpable of the two.

Smith received a ten-year sentence in San Quentin and his troubles wouldn’t be over when he was paroled. He still had to answer charges from the Everett robbery when he was released in California. Nevins, considered the junior partner, received a comparatively short stretch. He would go to Folsom for only four years. These were considered lenient sentences at the time. Section 211 of the California Penal Code in 1909 defined robbery as:

‘The felonious and violent taking of money, goods or other valuable thing from the person of another by force or intimidation. Every person guilty of robbery shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for a term not less than one year, and which may extend to life.’

All told it could have been much worse, especially considering Smith’s previous offence. It was certainly better than they would have got in many other states. Not a shot was fired, the two robbers were under the age of twenty-one, nobody was seriously distressed and almost all the stolen gold had been recovered. That and Nevins’s obvious naivety was enough to secure fairly light sentences for both of them.

They’d attempted to be tried as juveniles to avoid heavier punishment, granted, but that was hardly surprising. Opened in July 1852, San Quentin is California’s oldest prison and by 1909 it had thoroughly earned its grisly reputation for suffering, violence and death. Until the opening of Folsom in 1880 San Quentin was California’s only state prison, although given Folsom’s reputation trying to avoid either was easily-understood even by the sentencing judge.

Of course it didn’t end at Santa Clara in 1909. The era of motorized mayhem was only just beginning. Santa Clara merely inspired generations of crooks to replace horses with horsepower. The Bonnot Gang’s successful robbery in 1911, a sensation at the time, sealed the deal. Criminals now knew that not only could they rob banks with getaway cars, they could also escape successfully. Once that had been proved the motor vehicle joined the underworld’s arsenal, as important as the guns they carried.

Smith and Nevins were the first, but far from the last. Another innovator was Old West outlaw Henry Starr. Still robbing banks in 1915 and an outlaw since 1893, Starr achieved what the Dalton Gang had failed to do and the James-Younger Gang never even tried, rob two banks in the same town at the same time. The Daltons had tried it on horseback at Coffeyville, Kansas on 5 October 1892 and been wiped out in the attempt. In doing so (or failing to) the slaughter at Coffeyville has entered American history and legend as much as the Daltons themselves.

It would be another twenty-three years before Starr did what the Daltons couldn’t. Starr was an Old West outlaw related by marriage to outlaw legend Belle Starr and with links to the Younger brothers. Cole and Bob Younger, of course, rode with Frank and Jesse James. His grandfather was Tom Starr, a legendary outlaw in his own right. Though an Old West outlaw to the bone, toward the end of his career Henry saw advantages in the new technology. Horses were old hat, cars were the future.

When Starr’s gang hit two banks in Stroud, Oklahoma on 27 March 1915 their means of escape was the getaway car. Successfully robbing the Stroud National Bank and the First National Bank at the same time, Starr’s gang did what the Dalton’s had been destroyed attempting to do. Starr and gang member Lewis Estes were both wounded and captured, but the rest of the gang made off with $5815 in America’s first double daylight bank robbery.

Within a few years of the Santa Clara raid American bank robbery was transformed by Herman ‘Baron’ Lamm. An illegal immigrant thrown out of the Prussian Army for cheating at cards, Lamm planned and led bank robberies like commando raids. He reconnoitered targets and drew up floor plans and maps of escape routes before a robbery. His gang rehearsed like actors using floor plans laid out by Lamm.

Lamm called escape routes ‘git roads,’ making his wheelmen drive them repeatedly using the maps and a stopwatch. Only when he felt they were ready to hit their target and escape unscathed did Lamm actually rob a bank. The ‘Lamm technique’ or ‘Lamm method’ was born and many of its basic principles are still used by bank robbers even today.

Lamm finally came unstuck during a robbery in Clinton, Indiana on 16 December 1930. Realizing capture was inevitable, Lamm shot himself. What became known as the ‘Lamm method’ was passed down to a new generation of felons. Lamm gang members Walter Dietrich and James ‘Oklahoma Jack’ Clark taught a new generation of bank robbers including Charlie Makley, Ed Shouse and Harry Pierpont. All incarcerated at the Indiana State Penitentiary in the 1920’s they in turn taught a young first offender named John Dillinger.

Like many pioneers Smith and Nevins couldn’t have known what they’d started any more than James Brown had known he was going on their robbery. Before Santa Clara a fast horse was the getaway vehicle of both choice and necessity. Since Santa Clara bank robbery has become a staple of crime not only in America but further afield. The getaway car has become a staple of bank robbery the world over.

Whether Smith and Nevins fully appreciated their place in criminal history we’ll never know. We do know that generations of bank employees, law enforcement officers and innocent bystanders certainly don’t. It wasn’t Smith’s last foray into armed robbery, either. There will be far more on him in a later chapter…

The stories of both the historic Santa Clara robbery and Smith’s criminal comeback can be found in my forthcoming book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Northern California,’ published on August 28 2020. My previous book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York‘ is currently available.

On This Day in 1964 – Joseph Johnson, Jr., the night they drove Old Sparky down.


“The crunch. The mounting whine and snarl of the generator. The man’s lips peel back, the throat strains for a last desperate cry, the body arches against the restraining straps as the generator whines and snarls again, the features purple, steam and smoke rise from the bald spots on head and leg while he sick-sweet smell of burned flesh permeates the little room.

The generator purrs to a halt.

The Warden does not move. Neither do the guards. But the physician steps forward. He places the stethoscope against the steaming chest, listens intently. He turns to the Warden.

“I pronounce this man dead,” he says.

It is 12:08am.

The ritual has ended.”

Journalist Don Reid worked for and later edited local newspaper the Huntsville Item. During his tenure Reid regularly made the short walk from his office or home to the death chamber, watching 189 men die as he described in his unforgettable book ‘Have a seat, please.’

The title was ironic, the phrase was usually uttered by the prison Warden as a condemned prisoner stood in front of the electric chair nicknamed ‘Old Sparky’ or the ‘Texas Thunderbolt.’ Southern hospitality remained Southern hospitality even to despised criminals who were about to be executed.

Texas was one of the last States to adopt electrocution, then the most popular method in the country. In 1923 State Senator J.W. Thomas passed a bill discarding both the gallows and making the State reponsible for executions. Individual counties no longer had that grim task to perform.

Once hanged in public in their county of conviction the condemned would now die privately by a new method then regarded as more humane.First used by New York to execute murderer William Kemmler at Auburn Prison on 6 August 1890, by the 1920’s ‘Old Sparky’ was enjoying its most popular and busiest phase.

Of the 361 men electrocuted by Texas between 1924 and 1964 Reid personally watched over half of them. Some died alone, others in double, triple or even multiple executions. The first five men to ride Texas lightning (Charles Reynolds, Ewell Morris, George Washington (no relation), Mack Matthews and Melvin Johnson) all died at the same time, just after midnight on 2 August 1924.

On 30 July 1964 Old Sparky claimed another Johnson. Joseph Johnson, Jr, died for murder during a robbery. With a record of prior offences career criminal Johnson could hardly have expected mercy from a Texas court. That he was also African-American when the Civil Rights campaign was still relatively new probably didn’t help either.

Convicted of murdering Joseph Ying Chiu during a robbery in 1962, Johnson was typical of Death Row inmates. He was poor, African-American and already had a criminal record. His appeals stayed Joe Byrd’s hand until 1964, but not forever. Had he been condemned a few years later Johnson might have survived until Furman vs Georgia saw Huntsville’s death chamber closed, at least temporarily. But, just as five men had to be first sommebody had to be last and it was Johnson’s turn.

By the time the Thunderbolt struck for the last time the routine was well-established and virtually set in stone. Everybody involved, from convicts to prison staff, lawyers, friends and relatives of the condemned knew heir part and played it, though not always willingly. The condemned were and remain a breed apart in Texas even down to their prison numbers.

Every item of prison property has a number, not just the convicts. Texas made a point of assigning a special designation for condemned convicts. Dead men walking can expect to be numbered in the order they arrived on Death Row, not at the prison itself. Prefixed with ‘EX’ (short for ‘executee’) Johnson was ‘EX-453.’

After Johnson’s death the chair itself was left on a garbage dump for years before being restored and now resides at the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. Old Sparky was officially item 8573 in the prison inventory. Now it remains the star attraction at Huntsville’s museum although visitors are regularly (and sometimes firmly) reprimanded for trying to sit in it. The thought of anybody taking a selfie in a chair that killed 361 people is as distasteful to museum staff as it would be to anyone else.

Neither Johnson’s crime or execution were seen as anything out of the ordinary. Texas had been executing around eight to ten men a year for decades, the time when Texas became the most lethal State in the Union was still decades away. The only thing distinguishing Johnson’s death from the 360 before him was it would be the State’s last for nearly twenty years.

When the generator wound down after Johnson’s death it would never whine and snarl in anger again. Nobody present knew at the time they had just witnessed an important moment in Texas history. Johnson slumped in the chair after the power was cut, never to be felt again. His life and Sparky’s service ending in the same second.

Nobody would be executed in Texas for another eighteen years. In 1972 the US Supreme Court made its historic ruling in Furman vs Georgia striking down death penalty laws across the entire country. By the end of that year Texas and other States were rewriting their death penalty laws knowing that if the Supreme Court approved their death chembers would open for business. By 1973 Texas was already condemning more prisoners to die, this time by the new method of lethal injection.

Texas was among the first to adopt lethal injection, but was beaten into second-place by Oklahoma. As Texas and other States expected the Supreme Court reversed itself in 1976, its ruling in Gregg vs Georgia allowing individual States to resume executions provide their laws passed the Court’s scrutiny. They increasingly did win Court approval, being written and rewritten with the Court’s approval firmly in mind.

When executions resumed Texas returned the favour. Oklahoma had beaten Texas to installing lethal injection but Texas was first to actualy use it. On 7 December 1982 murderer Charles Brooks, Jr. died at Huntsville, earning himself an unwilling place in criminal history as the world’s first convict to die by lethal injection. He would be very far from the last.

Frank Rimieri, Adolph Koenig and Doctor Allan Mclane Hamilton – A dark day that cast a very long shadow…


When Frank Rimieri and Adolph Koenig rode the lightning at Sing Sing on 20 February 1905 that was nothing unusual in itself. First used on William Kemmler on 6 August 1890, New York’s electric chair was already seeing regular use. Single and double executions like this one were standard practice and New York, already enthralled by its new invention, hadn’t even begun to use it as regularly as it later would.

A so-called ‘double event’ already raised little attention unless one or more of the condemned had a particular notoriety. Neither Rimieri or Koenig were of any particular note, but witness Doctor Allan McLane Hamilton certainly was. In a sense Rimieri and Koenig, in theory the most important players in the morning’s drama, would become bit-part players in Hamilton’s story.

The executions of Rimieri and Koenig, though, would cast a far longer and darker shadow than anyone could have believed. Not everybody was in favour of electrocution as a means of dispensing quick, painless and reliable judicial death and Hamilton already disliked the idea of electrocution. Witnessing the reality for the first, last and only time revolted him so much that he pressed even harder for his preferred method. Hamilton was only at Sing Sing for a couple of hours, but that brief visit had lasting consequences for America’s condemned.

Doctor Allan McLane Hamilton was already a distinguished physician and, in the language of the time, an equally-distinguished ‘alienist.’ What we nowadays consider soemwhere between a psychiatrist, psychologist and profiler, Hamilton was one of the leading alienists of his time and his opinions, medical or otherwise, carried weight.

Already opposing electrocution if not capital punishment itself, Hamilton had long had a different method in mind that New York had already declined. The deaths of Rimieri and Koenig spurred his efforts to find somewhere to use it. After testifying for the defence in a civil lawsuit, Hamilton realised he needed to know more about the lethal aspects of electricity and SIng Sing was the perfect place to find out.

To quote his 1916 memoir ‘Recollections of an Alienist’:

“As the result of this experience I determined at the first opportunity to qualify myself for any subsequent appearance on the witness stand in any other possible case of this kind, and within a few months I was invited to attend an electrocution at the State’s Prison at Ossining, the hour being fixed at six o’clock in the morning.”

Hamilton’s curiosity was about to lead him into a dark place and along an even darker path, albeit unwittingly. He could never have known the consequences of that cold, grey winter morning at Sing Sing. If he had Hamilton might well have reconsidered. As it was, he didn’t. His first sight of Sing SIng’s death chamber unnerved him greatly What was to follow, although tame by Sing Sing standards, marked him for the rest of his life:

“As we entered most of the small room was in darkness, but in the centre was an ugly, cumbersome wooden chair upon which was placed a number of electric bulbs, all harmless enough in themselves, but horrible in their cuggestion that their resistance was typical of what was in store for the unfortunate who was later to take their place. The ugliness of the chair and its business-like character were striking, for no such piece of furniture could be used for anything but torture, and it forcibly called up the old wood-cuts of the Inquisition that I collect.”

The executions themselves were nothing out of the ordinary, at least not Sing Sing staff. First came scrap trader Rimieri, condemned for the senseless shooting of fellow-trader Jacob Pinto after a dispute over the ownership of some glass bottle. Rimieri’s execution was brief as his crime had been pointless. After two jolts he was dead and within minutes Adolph Koenig entered the chamber.

With wisps of smoke and burnt flesh still in the air Koenig, condemned for strangling his girlfirend after she had refused him money for alcohol, also received two jolts. Both were then carried into the small morgue adjoining the death chamber for the autopsies mandated under State law. The ‘double event’ had been and gone and Hamilton, appalled by the sight, vowed to pursue his own ideas with renewed vigour. As Hamilton himself described Koenig’s death:

“This time the killing was more difficult, and when the Warden said to the executioner “You had better give him another,” the increased current was sufficient tof rom a tiny arc beneath the rim of the head electrode, so that the smell of burned flesh and hair was distressingly perceptible and horrid. It was not long before my nervous system and stomach rebelled and I hurried to the cool outer air and left Sing Sing as soon as I could.”

That was far from the end of the story. In fact it was only the beginning. Hamilton had long favoured poison gas as a better, more humane means of execution. Believing carbon monoxide could be pumped into a prisoner’s cell while they slept, the cell itself being made airtight for the occasion, Hamilton set about transforming his vision into grim reality.

His memoir was published in 1916 when the First World War saw the regular use of poison gases like chlorine, phosgene, mustard gas and cyanide in both attack and defense. Cyanide, though used less often than other chemical weapons, could be devastating to unprotected troops and seemed the most effective and least inhumane option for despatching condemned prisoners.

US Army Major Delos Turner also felt gas might be a viable form of execution and with Hamilton and others set about finding a legal jurisdiction prepared to try it. In the early 1920’s the State of Nevada duly obliged. Over the objections of some Nevada legislators, doctors and Warden Dickerson of the Nevada State Prison in Carson City, a former barbershop within the prison grounds was converted into an improvised gas chamber. All that remained was to find a suitable test subject. Chinese gangster Gee Jon, condemned for murdering Tong member Tom Quong Kee during a gang feud, would have the dubious distinction of being the first convict to test the new method.

The executions of Rimieri and Koenig had opened yet another chapter in America’s search for the ultimate wy to inflict the ultimate penalty. Jon was slated to die at 9am on 8 February 1924, almost nineteen years to the day since Rimieri and Koenig had reinvigorated Hamilton’s fondness for lethal gas. As dawn broke on that February morning in Carson City the dawn of America’s gas chambers broke with it.

So too did the improvised chamber itself, almost. Although Jon died quickly (unlike the first electrocution, the best said for that being that William Kemmler actually died at all) witnesses did have to be hurried away after the smell of cyanide gas was noticed outside a supposedly-airtight chamber. That said, Nevada’s gas chamber had been quicker, cleaner and generally better than New York’s electric chair, at least on its first outing. It did not keep its early reputation for long.

Mixing sodium cyanide with dilute sulphuric acid in an airtight room under controlled conditions was as much a learning process as any other method. Just as the electric chair had needed a large number of experimental (often gruesomely-botched) outings to establish exactly how to use it the gas chamber proved no different. It was the most complicated, expensive method America has ever used, it was messy and unlike any other method it could easily kill witnesses and execution teams if not properly used, maintained and repaired.

Mistakes were also common even decades after its introduction. Mississippi replaced its travelling electric chair with a permanent gas chamber in the 1950’s, horribly botching its frist on murderer Gerald Gallego in 1954. In 1983 Mississippi botched the gassing of Jimmy Lee Gray with nightmarish results. It was suggested that in both executions that executioner Thomas Berry Bruce might have been drunk while doing his job.

In San Quentin’s two-seat chamber also saw botch after botch, perhaps the worst being the execution of Leanderess Riley in 1953. Riley, an abnornally small man, managed to escape the estraining straps three times before he could be pinioned long enough for executioner Max Brice to pull the lever.

In 1940 ‘Vampire Killer’ Rodney Grieg had provided yet another horrific memory for San Quentin staff. Strapped into one the chamber’s two perforated steel chairs Grieg, facing away from the witnesses and the fumes rising up around him, cocked his head over one shoulder and flashed them a wolfish grin before starting laugh maniacally at them. His laughter was stilled permanently only moments later.

None of these nightmares (or dozens of others) persuaded Nevada to change its method until the 1970’s when Jesse Bishop became the state’s last ‘gassee.’After its premiere in Nevada the States of Missouri, California, Oregon, New Mexico, North Carolina, Mississippi, Colorado, Maryland, Arizona and Wyoming adopted it.

Just as electrocution brought new words and phrases into the English lnaguage so to did the gas chamber. ‘Electrocution’ was a portmanteau word designed specifically to describe ‘electrical execution’ as it was originally known. ‘Old Sparky’ has starred in many a book, film, song and documentary.

The chamber too has had its share of nicknames. Colorado’s (installed under the rule of Warden Roy Best) became known as ‘Roy’s Penthouse. California’s was known variously as the ‘little green room,’ the ‘coughing box,’ the ‘smokehouse’, the ‘time machine’ and, most famously, a nickname given to it by Warden Clinton Duffy. Duffy, ironically a firm opponent of the capital punishment, gave it a name that writer Raymond Chandler and director Howard Hawks made familiar to readers, movie-goers crime buffs everywhere, the ‘Big Sleep.’

Perhaps fittingly the most recent and probably last use of lethal gas, Arizona’s execution of Walter LaGrand on 3 March 1999, was also a drawn-out affair. LaGrand, who died in Arizona’s gas chamber a week after his brother Karl had received a lethal injection, took eighteen minutes to die. That LaGrand was also a German national gave his case an historical resonance uncomfortable to anybody.

All told, the results of Hamilton’s ‘lethal chamber’ (and the electrocutions of Rimieri and Koenig) were probably far from what he had in mind.

Incidentally, the story of California adopting the gas chamber can be found in my book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Northern California‘ due out on August 28. It can be pre-ordered now.

Dwight Beard, a tale of two cities and (at least) two murders.


Unlike in Dickens’ classic novel Dwight Beard did not go to the guillotine as an act of redemption. The nobility so prized by Dickens (himself opposed to capital punishment) simply wasn’t in Beard’s nature. On 4 June 1937 he sat in the ‘Texas Thunderbolt’ at Huntsville, riding the lightning for a murder during one of his many armed robberies. Many would look at his record and believe

Unlike Dickens’ protagonist Sydney Carton, Beard was anything but virtuous and certainly more than just a misguided rogue. He was a dedicated and full-time professional criminal, armed robber, escaper and killer. Even having narrowly escaped electrocution in North Carolina did nothing to deter him from murdering in Texas.

By the time he arrived in the Death House at Huntsville in 1934 Beard had broken laws in several states, killed in North Carolina and Texas, been charged with another murder in Georgia and had already been condemned to die once only to have his sentence commuted. The mercy shown by North Carolina was rewarded only by a successful escape from Central Prison near Ralrigh, many more robberies and at least one more murder. Texas proved decidedly less merciful.

Born in Lenoir in Caldwell County, North Carolina in 1909 Beard wasn’t the typical Death Row inmate. He’d completed school and been to North Carolina Stae College (now North Carolina State University) where he’d distignuished himself as an athlete and football star. At a time when most condemned inmates were poor, poorly-educated and often illiterate the college-educated Beard stood out.

That did nothing to stop him pursuing a career in crime, nor did it make him a particularly successful crook. Though he committed many robberies in several states Beard was only a small-timer, never connecting with the big-league outlaws of his time. His was a life of many crimes, small hauls and constantly fleeing from the law, at least until he murdered North Carolina grocer Augustus Buonos in .February 1932.

Quickly caught and condemned to North Carolina’s electric chair, Beard lost no time in arranging his own parole. First his death sentence was commuted, offering him a chance to serve his time and go straight. Beard did neither. Simply walking out of the penitentiary wearing someone else’s clothes, he strolled out through the penitentiary gates and straight back to robbing and running. His close brush with death had deterred him not one iota. After all, death for outlaws is an occupational hazard.

It was even more of a hazard down in Texas where armed robbery, murder, rape and even being an habitual criminal were still capital crimes. In 1934 Ray Hamilton and Joe Palmer (both alumni of the Bonnie & Clyde gang) had been sent to the Death House in Huntsville, Texas for murder during an escape, Hamilton had also been convicted of being an habitual criminal. After a stunning escape from the Death House in 1934 both Palmer and Hamilton were recaptured, meeting their end on 10 May 1935.

After heading for Texas where he was identified as participating in at least a dozen armed robberies, seven in Dallas and five in Fort Worth. Hee would also be charged withthe murder of a police officer in Georgia. Just as the murder of a grocer had sent him to Death Row in North Carolina a similar crime sent him to the Death House in Texas.

Gas station owner John Roberts was also a retired Dallas detective. It was natural for him to fight when Beard tried to rob his gas station on 22 December 1935. He even succeeded in wounding Beard, but Beard still killed Roberts before fleeing. Still wanted in North Carolina and Georgia (itself very fond of its electric chair) he now faced execution if he was caught in Texas.

Even if he had drawn only life in Texas Beard still faced life in North Carolina and probably death in Georgia. Georgia had introduced the electric chair in the early 1920’s and made free use of it, especially for cop killers. By the time Georgia’s chair was retired in the early 2000’s it had executed nearly 450 prisoners beginning with Howard Hinton on 13 September 1924.

When he was arrested and condemned for murdering Roberts his future (or complete lack thereof) became grimly apparent. Whether he drew life or death made no difference to Beard. Either way he would almost certainly die in prison, the only question was whether he died of old age or walked the last mile.

For a man in so deep a predicament Beard had been cocky when he was first condemned. In all fairness this was nothing unusual among crooks of the time and it wasn’t as if Beard had forgotten what a North Carolina death sentence sounded like. Besides, Beard had plans for escape. On arriving at Huntsville he remarked simply “I missed the chair in North Carolina and I will miss it here too.”

He was wrong, as wrong as anyone could be. Beard’s previous record made him a prime target for the electric chair and with no chance of clemency from the Governor. Even if he had his second death sentence commuted or was even pardoned Beard would still return to North Carolina if Georgia didn’t electrocute him first. That would likely be after he had endured and survived decades within the Texas penal system, one of the harshest and most brutal in the country. Assuming, of course, he had survived.

Increasingly desperate and with time fast running out, Beard tried to emulate Hamilton and Palmer’s escape of 1934. He failed, Texas had made their previously-secure Death House virtually impregnable. Whatever precautions had failed when Hamilton and Palmer made the first successful Death House escape in Texas history had been rectified.

With old procedures changed, new precautions taken and Huntsville staff being especially vigilant Beard had no chance of escaping either the Death House or the chair. He had some small consolation in knowing he wouldn’t walk his last mile alone. Murderer Wisie Ellison would die on the same day. About his failed escape Beard was philosophical, remarking “You can’t blame a guy for trying.”

Just after midnight on 4 June 1937 the pair met their ends. Approximately forty witnesses had crammed into Huntsville’s death chamber, mostly to see the notorious Beard pay his debt to society. Ellison, a far less notorious felon, rated barely a mention in the next day’s newspapers. He just walked in, sat down and died.

As Beard entered the chamber, its air still seasoned with a scent of burnt hair and scorched flesh, Deputy Warden and executioner Joe Byrd gave him the traditional greeting. Gesturing toward the chair he said simply “Have a seat, please.”

Once Beard was strapped, capped and ready to die Byrd asked him if he had anything left to say. Beard, lying through clenched teeth, asserted his innocence for the last time. According to him both murders had been committed by other men who he refused to name. With Beard’s final speech concluded Byrd pulled the switch and Beard died at 12:02am.

He was buried with few mourners and without fanfare at Grove Hill Memorial Park in Dallas, site of some of his earlier robberies.The college boy and one-time football star had appeared before his last crowd. He was only twenty-seven years old.

Joe Byrd would long outlive Beard and around 360 others who died atop the Texas Thunderbolt. Ironically the prison graveyard, officially the Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery and (unofficially) ‘Peckerwood Hill,’ was named after its resident executioner. In later years Byrd regularly visited the cemetery tending the graves, including those of the men he put there. Dwight Beard was one of only hundreds who died at Joe Byrd’s hand.

US Federal Executions, a worrying new trend?


The recent Federal executions of three prisoners are both a rarity and perhaps the start of a worrying trend. While individual states have long been executing convicts within their own jurisdictions the Federal Government has historically been far more restrained. Historically speaking Uncle Sam usually hands out long sentences but seldom executes.

The most recent, that of Dustin Lee Honkin on 17 July 2020, was the last of three Federal executions within a week. All were executed by lethal injection at the US Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, Daniel Lewis Lee died on 14 July and Wesley Ira Purkey on 16 July, making Honkin’s the third within a week. Not only were these the first Federal executions in 17 years, not since 1948 have so many Federal executions happened within such a short timespan.

3 December 1948 saw convicts Samuel Shockley and Miran Thompson die in the gas chamber at San Quentin for their parts in the failed escape from Alcatraz of May 1946. They were the last casualties of the ‘Battle of Alcatraz and were followed by Carlos Ochoa. Ochoa, gassed at San Quentin on 10 December, died for the murder of a Federal officer.

The first Fderal execution of the 20th century was of a Native American named Great Bear in South Dakota on 2 December 1901. Committed on a Native reservation in Minnehaha County, Bear’s crime fell under Federal jurisdiction. The second was also performed in Minnehaha, Allen Walkingshield also facing the gallows on 28 January 1902

If we define Federal executons as those conducted under Federal rather than state authority there have only been 40 such executions since that of bootlegger James Aldermon in Broward County, Florida in 1927. Aldermon, convicted of murder on the high seas after a shoot-out with the Coast Guard, was also hanged, that original Federal law providing only the gallows.

Within a decade of Aldermon’s death the rule changed. From then on the Federal Government would pay individual states for housing and executing Federal prisoners using whatever method the state used at the time. Those condemned in New York faced electrocution, California’s Federal condemned faced the gas chamber and so on. Not until the early 1990’s did Federal executions come under complete Federal control with a permanent lethal injection facility at Terre Haute.

Approximately eighty others died in Washington D.C’s electric chair, the District of Columbia being under Federal mandate at the time, the last being cop killer Robert Carter in 1957. Most, however, exclude DC Jail’s executions from the common definition and so shall we, with a few notable exceptions.

Since Aldermon the notorious serial killer Carl Panzram was hanged at Leavenworth on 5 September 1930. Panzram, convicted of murdering a member of the prisons staff, died insulting the hangman and cursing him for his tardiness. Arthur Gooch was the only convict hanged under the Lindbergh kidnapping law. Gooch, executed on 19 June 1936, was hanged despite Oklahoma having adopted electrocution twenty years earlier. State Electrician Rich Owens, an accomplished killer by several means, proved a poor hangman and botched Gooch’s execution terribly.

George ‘Diamond King’ Barrett was another notable victim. The first to die under a new law specificially mandating death for those hwo killed Federal agents (FBI Special Agent Klein in Barrett’s case) Barrett was also hanged despite Indiana having descarded the gallows for electrocution in 1915. Barrett died at the Marion County Jail on 24 March 1936.

!938 saw two Federal executions of note. Anthony Chebatoris was hanged in Michigan which had abolished the death penalty for murder and hadn’t executed anybody in almost a century. After a bitter dispute with the Federal Government over whether Chebatoris could be executed in Michigan at all (which had no execution facilities) the Feds prevailed. A gallows was specially constructed and Chebatoris paid his debt at the Federal prison in Milan, Michigan on 8 July 1938. He had been convicted under the Federal law making bank robbery a capital crime, the National Bank Robbery Act of 1934.

In the same year James Dalhover was executed in Indiana under a Federal death sentence. Perhaps resulting from the Chebatoris wrangling Dalhover died in Indiana’s electric chair at Michigan City, Until the 1990’s it became standard practice for Federel prisoners to die by the method of whichever state they were convicted. The Federal Government paid nominal fees to states in return for their holding and executing Federal prisoners.

1942 saw perhaps the second-most notable date in the Federal death row diary, 8 August 1942. Six German spies captured during Operation Pastorius (Werner Thiel, Herbert Haupt, Richard Quirin, Edward Keiling, Heinrich Heinck and Herman Neubauer) all died at D.C Jail for espionage. They sat in the electric chair one after another only two days after President Roosevelt had confirmed their death sentences. New York executioner Joseph Francel had the busiest day of his 140-execution career working not for the State of New York (his usual employer) but for the Federal Government.

It was perhaps the best-known Federal execution that caused Francel (the fourth of five men to be New York’s ‘State Electrician’) to quit his post. Both before and after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died in the electric chair at Sing Sing on 19 June 1953 Francel had received threats and far too much publicity since his debut in 1939. He was also dissatisfied about the standard fees ($150 for one inmate and an extra $50 per prisoner for double, triple or multiple electrocutions.

After only nine more executions Francel quit in August 1954 citing too many threats, too much publicity and not enough money, ending his career by electrocuting William Draper for New York State on 1 July 1954. New York’s last Federal execution was performed on 12 August 1954 by Francel’s successor Dow Hover. Gerhard Puff (armed robber, murderer of FBI Special Agent Joseph Brock and one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted) was Hover’s first (and New York State’s last) Federal execution.

The last for nearly four decades was Victor Feguer, also Iowa’s last execution. Feguer died on the gallows at the Iowa State Penitentiary at Fort Madison on 15 March 1963. After his death prison officials discovered an olive pit in one his pockets, Feguer had requested olives as part of his last meal, hoping that the olive pit would grow intoa tree after his burial.

After Feguer the Federal death penalty existed virtually in name only, at least until the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh on 11 June 2001. McVeigh was unfazed by his execution, perhaps preferring political martyrdom to decades behind bars. By then the new lethal injection facility at Terre Haute was up and running and McVeigh was first to die in it. SInce McVeigh only Juan Garza and Louis Jones had died by Federal order until Daniel Lee, Wesley Purkey and Dustin Honkin died only days ago at the time of writing. Theirs, three lethal injections in only four days, were the first Federal executions for seventeen years.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that they died during the Presidency of Donald Trump. Trump, hawkish on capital punishment for decades, has proved embarrassingly hawkish even for some death penalty supporters. Only recently he refused to apologize for newspaper adverts calling for the return of New York’s death penalty in 1989, simultaneously demanding the executions of the Central Park Five who were later exonerated. Even today Trump continues to maintain their guilt regardless of legal decisions or, it seems, obvious facts.

Individual states have seen support for executions decline and executions themselves become gradually more infrequent. Days like 12 August 1912 when Sing Sing electrocuted seven men in one day are long gone and such grim records are likely never to be seen or even rivalled again. Even more hawkish states like Texas, Virginia, Florida and Missouri are finding it harder to execute their prisoners. The Federal death penalty, once the rarest death warant in the American penal system, might be bucking that trend.

Incidentally, the story of Miran Thompson, Sam Shockley and the Battle of Alcatraz can be found in my book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Northern California‘ due out on August 28. It can be pre-ordered now.

On This Day in 1959 – The curious case of Ralph Dawkins.


When Ralph Dawkins and Jackson Turner became the 602nd and 603rd prisoners executed at Sing Sing it was probably to Dawkins’ immense surprise. Condemned by Judge McGrattan at the Queens County Court of robbery-murder on December 27 1957, Dawkins at least had some small shred of hope. Or so he thought.

Convicted beside Dawkins were Turner (who would die with him), William Wynn (who didn’t die) and the appropriately-named Thomas Frye (who also didn’t). Frye and Wynn had been spared execution while Turner and Dawkins had not. While Turner had nothing to bank on but the Governor commuting his sentence Dawkins thought he still had an ace left to play, an apeal tot eh US Supreme Court. As it turned out Dawkins’ was really a busted flush.

The four defendants had been fighting execution with stay after stay and failed appeal after failed appeal. Dawkins had filed another with the US Supreme Court asking that they reconsider a previous appeal. Had he been a lawyer himself he would have known to specifically request a stay of execution until the Court could rule on his petition.

Unfortunately for 22-year-old Dawkins wasn’t a lawyer, his petition didn’t request a stay and the Court didn’t even know he had died. They ruled on his case on 19 October 1959. Dawkins had gone to he electric chair on 16 July of that year. Faced with its usual a huge number of writs and a lack of communication between the Court and Sing Sing Prison, the Court heard and denied a petition from a petitioner who was already dead. As the next day’s New York Herald Tribune put it:

“Ralph Dawkins, already executed, was the loser today in a Supreme Court order that didn’t matter to him. Convicted of killing a South Ozone Park, Queens, N.Y., grocer in a 1957 holdup, Dawkins appoealed tot eh high court and was turned down last April. He asked reconsideration but failed to request a stay of execution and was put to death July 16. There was no official notification to the Supreme COurt that the case had been disposed of with such finality when today it denied his request for a rehearing.”

It must have been news to Dawkins as well. He probably thought merely requesting a rehearing in a capital case automatically secured more time to actually do that and it didn’t. Having already lost his one madatory appeal in New York State’s courts no other court was obliged to issue a stay he hadn’t asked for, nor did some branches of the judiciary have any authority to do so.

Dawkins and Jackson were also notable for being SIng SIng’s penultimate double execution, the last double being Henry Flakes and Walter Green on 19 May 1960. When once singles and doubles had been the norm, triples frequent, quadruple and quintuples occasional, now New York’s fifth and final State Electrician found himself in decreasing demand.In August 1912 there had even been seven men executed in the same day. Deputy Sheriff Dow Hover made only rare visits to the death chamber, executing fewer men in the average year than some of his predeceessors had in a single day.

Just as time had run out for so many residents of SIng Sing’s purpose-built ‘Death House’ capital punishment was facing the end in New York State as well. After Flakes and Green only six more would walk the last mile, the last being Eddie Lee Mays on 15 August 1963. Mays would be Old Sparky’s 695th and final victim. .

I ran across Dawkins’ case while researching my first book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York.‘ My second volume ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Northern California,’ is out on August 28 and can be pre-ordered now.

On This Day in 1913 – Jacob Oppenheimer, California’s ‘Human Tiger.’


“The sooner I can cash in my chips the better, as it will save me a lot of trouble and unhappiness.”

Jacob Oppenheimer after receiving his death sentence.

Caged tigers are solitary, predatory creatures. Constantly pacing their cages, they can inflict violence, disfigurement and death in a split second without as much as a second’s remorse. They can’t feel guilt or remorse, it’s just not in their nature. It wasn’t in Oppenheimer’s nature, either.

Spending a total of eighteen years behind bars, Oppenheimer spent around sixteen of those years in solitary confinement. Deprived of decent food, fresh air, exercise and even light (he was confined in darkened cells with solid doors) the only thing darker than his cell was Oppenheimer’s mind. In almost every sense he was truly a creature of the night.

Even by the standards of Folsom Prison, as grim a prison as America has ever had, its resident predator showed no guilt whatsoever for his laundry list of violent crimes. His response to a death sentence showed no regard for human life, including his own. If anything Oppenheimer seemed to accept his own death as willingly as he inflicted it on others.

From his first robbery in 1892 until he mounted Folsom’s gallows in 1913 Oppenheimer’s life was an epic saga of violence, rebellion and murder. His crimes were so serious the State of California even changed its Penal Code specifically to deal with prisoners like him. Just as Oppenheimer seems to have declared a one-man war on society’s laws and institutions, the State decided he and his kind should be legally eliminated.

The Human Tiger struck so often and so viciously that the California Legislature added an extra paragraph to its Penal Code. Section 4500 allowed for the execution of any life-term prisoner convicted of assault if they intended to inflict serious injury. Because of Oppenheimer the victim didn’t have to die, but their attacker could. Oppenheimer was one of those who did.

Folsom’s gallows claimed ninety-three convicts between the first in 1895 and last in 1937. Aside from Robert Harmon in 1960 Oppenheimer remains the only one to die for assault and one of very few California convicts to be condemned for it. It was a rule used very sparingly, only a few inmates went to San Quentin’s ‘Condemned Row’ as a result. Some of them died for assaults that would have otherwise earned only an extra few years.

The rule outlived Oppenheimer himself, but that so harsh a measure existed at all was down to the Human Tiger. It would have been extremely unhealthy to call him that, though. Just as nobody called Al Capone ‘Scarface’ or addressed Benny Siegel as ‘Bugsy,’ nobody risked their life calling Jacob Oppenheimer the ‘Human Tiger.’ Oppenheimer killed over far less.

His first known offence was, fittingly, a serious crime of violence. Since 1889 Oppenheimer had been working as a messenger boy for San Francisco’s American District Company. The company itself regularly sent him delivering cash and telegrams to brothels and opium dens, but their doing so cut little ice when Oppenheimer began patronizing both on a regular basis. He later blamed his crimes on repeated exposure to such places at so tender an age.

The last straw was when a female cashier (also the manager’s sister) accused him of making crude remarks about her. Oppenheimer denied doing so, claimed another employee had made them and refused to apologise for remarks he’d already denied making. Manager Frank Wehe promptly fired him and, finding deductions made from his final paycheck, Oppenheimer sought revenge. Attempted murder wasn’t a revenge the courts approved of. Oppenheimer drew eighteen months in the House of Correction as a result. If a short, sharp shock was intended to curb his aggression it failed completely. He was just getting started.

1 May 1892 saw another entry in Oppenheimer’s burgeoning criminal record. The armed robbery of a telegraph office saw clerk John Monahan threatened with pistols and instant death if he didn’t immediately open the safe. The safe was opened, its contents taken and Oppenheimer and his accomplice fled the area. Monahan, though severely shaken, was otherwise unhurt. Appropriately for a man like Oppenheimer his accomplice was named Lawless. The telegraph office was on a San Francisco street with an equally ironic name, Sutter and Leavenworth.

Oppenheimer might have fled the scene of the crime, but not the area. 11 June 1895 saw the crime that first sent Oppenheimer to a maximum-security prison. John McIntosh kept a saloon on McAllister and Leavenworth and wasn’t expecting Oppenheimer and his accomplices, two brothers named Walter and Charles Ross. The trio didn’t take a huge haul, but Charles Ross did earn himself fifteen years in San Quentin. He was the only one convicted.

It wasn’t long before brother Walter joined him in California’s penal system. In September 1895 Walter’s sometime girlfriend had threatened to leave him and he took the threat very badly. He choked her unconscious, almost killing her in the process. Not satisfied with that he then stole her bag, jewelry and $150 in cash. Quickly caught, Walter drew twenty-five years, but not in San Quentin. He was sent to the dreaded Folsom, a prison so brutal and miserable convicts once called it ‘the end of the world.’ Jacob Oppenheimer would soon be joining him and the two were on very bad terms. Just how bad Oppenheimer would soon make lethally clear.

Oppenheimer arrived at Folsom in August 1895 to serve fifty years for a violent robbery committed in Oakland in May of that year. Together with his accomplice Berry Harland (serving life for the same robbery) the pair had only one thing in their future, hard time and lots of it. Folsom had opened in 1880, possessing what was then the largest single cellblock of any prison in the nation. Another Folsom first was being the only prison the country to have its own electricity supply.

By 1895 it had also developed a dreadful reputation for violence, cruelty, bloodshed and death. Its numerous executions had already been augmented by numerous murders, violent escape attempts and inmates shot while trying to break out. Discipline was brutal even by the standards of the time. Few Californians really knew just how harsh it really was, even fewer cared. The attitude of many was that criminals deserved whatever they got.

The diet was revolting. Inmates routinely ate beans from metal plates nailed to the tables with buckets of water infrequently thrown over them. The cells were tiny and cramped, only four feet by eight, with little access to fresh air and solid doors with a small flap for observation purposes. In winter they were damp and cold. In summer even ordinary cells became sweatboxes.

Discipline was brutal. Corporal punishment remained in California prisons into the 1940’s. Clubs and rubber hoses were the weapons of choice. Use of the actual sweatboxes, even tinier cells in which inmates could barely breathe let alone move, was standard. More refined forms of brutality involved stringing up prisoners by their thumbs or shackling their arms behind their back and pulling their arms up on a chain so their feet barely touched the floor. They were often left in this excruciating position for some time. The luckier ones were only left dangling. Those less fortunate might be beaten while dangling defenseless.

Most unpleasant of all, especially unruly prisoners would be confined in tight straitjackets and force-fed large amounts of laxatives. Now unable to control their bodily functions, they would be left in dark cells to spend days, week or even months lying in their own filth.

Ordinary solitary confinement was almost as bad. Cramped, cold and damp, the solitary cells resembled refrigerators in winter and ovens in summer. Left without blankets, beds and chairs, solitary cells were also lacking much fresh air. Worst of all were the solid steel doors that blocked out virtually all light. With no artificial light inmates could serve their entire time in solitary in near-total darkness.

Federal law later mandated a maximum of nineteen consecutive days in solitary and Warden James Johnston (later first Warden of Alcatraz) did a great deal to drag Folsom out of the Dark Ages, but neither had reached Folsom when Oppenheimer arrived. Johnston didn’t take over until June 1912, remaining until he took over San Quentin in 1913.

Given the conditions and regime at Folsom then it’s entirely understandable that they’d want to be somewhere else. Oppenheimer, knowing he was in the same prison as Walter Ross, was looking for another form of release; Revenge.

Oppenheimer believed the Ross brothers had betrayed him. That may or may not explain Oppenheimer’s fifty years and Charles Ross’s comparatively lenient fifteen. Whether or not they actually had betrayed him made no difference to Oppenheimer. Never sated for long, the Human Tiger went hunting.

There are no secrets in prison including Oppenheimer’s open hatred of Walter Ross. Today Folsom’s officers would be well aware of feuds among their inmates and one of them would probably have been transferred elsewhere. That didn’t apply in 1898. Confined in the same prison it was only a matter of time before the two ran into each other. On 30 September the Human Tiger finally cornered his prey while waiting to enter the dining room. Walter Ross didn’t get to eat his last meal.

As the inmates lined up outside the dining room door Oppenheimer produced an improvised dagger known to inmates as a ‘shank’ or ‘shiv.’ Fashioned out of a metal file probably stolen from the prison’s workshops, Oppenheimer lunged at Ross, wrapped one arm tight around his neck and stabbed him repeatedly. Ross, mortally wounded, died within an hour of the attack. Prison authorities regarded murder committed within their prison as seriously as on the outside. Already serving fifty years it looked as though Folsom’s gallows would claim another victim.

Eventually it would, but not yet and not for the murder of Walter Ross. Convicted, Oppenheimer was lucky enough to draw a life sentence instead of the noose. He was transferred to San Quentin to serve it on top of the remainder of his fifty years for robbery. Just as one judge had thought eighteen months would curb Oppenheimer’s baser instincts another thought an additional life sentence might work. Neither was right and more men would die as a result. In April Moore’s excellent ‘Folsom’s 93: The Lives and Crimes of Folsom’s Executed Men’ Warden Johnston is quoted on Oppenheimer’s aptitude for aggression:

“He made many murderous attacks on prison officers and fellow inmates. His killings and assaults terrorized. His keepers were puzzled he had demonstrated uncanny ability to improvise weapons and get at his victims despite confinement, surveillance and restraint.”

Transferred to San Quentin, it didn’t take long for the Human Tiger to bite again, this time attacking one of his keepers. On 15 May 1899 Oppenheimer was working in San Quentin’s Jute Mill, by far the work most hated by the prison’s inmates. Opened in 1882 as a means to offset the cost of running the prison it produced thousands of sacks every year. In its first year alone the mill’s products alone recouped half the prison’s annual costs. It burned to the ground in 1909 and convict S.J. Frowman died fighting the fire.

Working in the jute mill was a frequent cause of illness among inmates and so being there was unlikely to put a convict like Oppenheimer in anything other than a foul, antisocial mood to begin with. When, on 15 May, Guard James McDonald reported him to the mill’s chief W.D. Leahy for breaking prison rules that didn’t improve matters. When McDonald reported him again the very next day, Oppenheimer reacted in his usual fashion.

McDonald’s mistake may have been grabbing Oppenheimer by the arm, intending to physically haul him in front of Leahy. Oppenheimer may have seen McDonald’s rousting him twice in two days as the beginning of a personal vendetta and being manhandled only provoked him further. By the time other officers had dragged Oppenheimer off him McDonald had suffered seven stab wounds from another of Oppenheimer’s improvised knives.

McDonald almost died from his injuries. Already serving life plus fifty years there was nothing San Quentin’s authorities could do but throw Oppenheimer into solitary. In time he also received another life sentence. Oppenheimer didn’t seem to care what he’d done to McDonald, but there were influential people who were and they came up with a solution tailored specifically for Jacob Oppenheimer; Section 4500 of the California Penal Code.

Oppenheimer’s name and infamy had spread beyond California’s penal system and as far as its legislators. His record of violent crime and murder, they felt, made it only a matter of time before he killed again. Believing they should be prepared for when, not if, he killed another inmate or prison officer, they did something few legislators have ever done, they added a new section to the Penal Code expressly with one inmate in mind.

Section 4500 is still on the books today and, while very seldom used, has also barely been reformed. It wasn’t even amended until 1959. Its terms were and remain very simple. According to today’s rule any life-term prisoner who uses a lethal weapon to commit a premeditated assault with intent to cause serious injury can receive either life imprisonment or a death sentence. If their victim doesn’t die within one year and one day of the assault they can still face life without parole or life with a minimum nine years before being eligible for parole.

In Oppenheimer’s time Section 4500 was worded rather more simply. Any inmate committing assault with the intention of causing serious injury could face only one punishment;  Death by hanging.

For the attempted murder of James McDonald solitary was made particularly unpleasant for Oppenheimer. Just as convicts have a ‘them and us’ attitude to prison officers, officers have the same approach to convicts. Especially convicts who try to murder them. Oppenheimer responded in kind.

On one occasion he set fire to his mattress, later admitting he’d hoped the solitary cells would be unlocked so he could murder a guard. In 1903 Oppenheimer somehow secured some black pepper, probably smuggled from the nearby prison kitchen. A guard noticed Oppenheimer’s contraband when it was thrown into his eyes. Somehow Oppenheimer also obtained a file only to be caught trying to cut through the metal roof of his cell. He attacked another guard, having to be violently subdued while trying to strangle him.

Oppenheimer was kept in San Quentin’s strictest solitary confinement. His books, magazines, mattress and bedding were confiscated and he was frequently chained to the wall of his dark cell. He found himself regularly placed in a straitjacket (for 110 hours on one occasion), hung up by his wrists and deliberately exposed to quicklime fumes that burned his eyes and lungs, causing intense pain. He received clean clothes once every three weeks, only two meals a day, only thirty minutes daily exercise (indoors only) and his cell was kept permanently cold, only a few degrees above freezing.

San Quentin’s staff had done their best to create Oppenheimer his own private hell. As far as they were concerned he could stay there. Courtesy of cleverness, patience and a sack needle probably pilfered from the jute mill, he didn’t. Oppenheimer spent months enduring solitary, grinding the needle until it became a usable saw. This done, he used it to cut six bars. Each bar being one-half inch wide and a half-inch thick and with guards keeping him under close watch, this took enormous patience, skill and guile.

Fellow inmate Jack O’Neil was also in solitary during Oppenheimer’s stay. Oppenheimer believed it was O’Neil who tipped off guards that Oppenheimer was up to something without knowing exactly what. Without warning Oppenheimer found himself repeatedly moved from cell to cell in solitary. Had guards discovered the damaged bars then Oppenheimer wouldn’t have found himself back in his original cell long enough to finish cutting them. They didn’t find the damaged bars and Oppenheimer had time to finish his handiwork. He also nursed an overwhelming desire to finish Jack O’Neil as well.

On 14 August 1907 the Human Tiger was ready to pounce. Guard Manuel Silviera had stepped away from the cell door to wash his hands when Oppenheimer struck. Kicking the cut bars aside he dashed past Silviera headed for the prison kitchen. When he encountered inmate George Wilson, busily cutting bread at the time, Oppenheimer grabbed Wilson’s knife and stabbed him twice before being overpowered by guards. Wilson survived the attack. Oppenheimer wouldn’t survive much longer. Section 4500 was about to claim its first victim.

Oppenheimer hadn’t murdered anyone but under the terms of Section 4500 he didn’t have to. Wilson had been stabbed in the arm and hand, probably while trying to fend off Oppenheimer. Not only had Oppenheimer committed assault with intent to cause serious injury on Wilson, he’d admitted doing so in order to murder Jack O’Neil. With Oppenheimer’s record and Section 4500 having been tailored specifically for him it was an open-and-shut case.

Oppenheimer having no funds meant he represented himself in court, not that it would have made any difference. California’s authorities were intent on seeing him hang and had every reason to do so. Quickly convicted and condemned in October 1907, Oppenheimer showed as much disregard for his own life as he had for anyone else’s. Asked if he had anything to say for the court record before sentencing he responded simply:

“The sooner I can cash in my chips the better, as it will save me a lot of trouble and unhappiness.”

The State of California was in full agreement and so were the California courts. Enter lawyer Gus Ringolsky. Keen and prepared to work for free, Ringolsky worked hard to save Oppenheimer, but to no avail. The State of California wanted Oppenheimer dead. Heard in January 1909, his appeal was quickly denied.

Ringolsky’s second appeal would very likely have failed as well. His own client certainly ensured that in characteristically violent fashion. Returned to Folsom’s Condemned Row to await the gallows Oppenheimer found yet another human being he felt like killing. This time condemned inmate Francisco Quijada was to feel the Tiger’s bite and on Condemned Row itself.

Quijada and another condemned inmate had been using Oppenheimer’s personally-devised ‘tap code,’ similar to Morse code, to devise an escape from Condemned Row. Their plan was discovered and Quijada made two fatal mistakes. First he blamed Oppenheimer for the plot’s failure and then Quijada attacked him. Oppenheimer promptly stabbed him through the heart with a length of sharpened wire. The escape plan had failed, Oppenheimer’s new appeal was now doomed and with it the Human Tiger.

His appeal was heard and quickly denied. California State Governor Hiram Johnson declined to intervene in June 1913 and Oppenheimer was scheduled to hang on 12 July. The State of California had been hunting the Human Tiger for a long time and the hunt was almost over. The only thing between Jacob Oppenheimer and Folsom’s gallows was time and time was rapidly running out.

Ironically the Warden at the time was James Johnston. Johnston was Warden between June 1912 and November 1913. Hand-picked by Governor Johnson to drag Folsom kicking and screaming into the 20th century, he did so well that he went straight to San Quentin and was Warden there until 1924. In 1934 he took the Warden’s job at a third prison, Alcatraz.

Johnston is credited with having done more than any other Warden to improve conditions and eradicate brutality at Folsom. He banned corporal punishment, the use of the straitjacket-and-laxatives, prisoners being hung in chains by their wrists or thumbs and being hung up with their arms behind their backs. Food was improved and officers were disciplined and told firmly that the old ways were gone. In response many quit or were fired. One punishment Johnston couldn’t remove was the gallows and Oppenheimer was doomed to face it.

Oppenheimer remained true to his word to the bitter end. He’d told the sentencing judge that death would solve all his problems and perhaps it did. He would have been thoroughly familiar with the peculiar ritual of Condemned Row. The death cells were within feet of the gallows itself and inmates awaiting execution could hear their predecessors drop to their deaths on the gallows at the end of the tier.

New York’s second death house at Sing Sing had been custom-built precisely to avoid inmates hearing the final moments of their fellow-condemned. They’d discovered what with hindsight seems blindingly obvious, that it often drove condemned inmates mad. Oppenheimer wasn’t even bothered. The twenty-eighth man to hang at Folsom, he spent his final night smoking cigars and enjoying good food sent to him by well-wishers. He also had a farewell concert. Until 9pm on his last night he listened to music, particularly the works of John Phillip Sousa. At 9pm ‘Taps’ was played, the last tune he would ever hear. With that h simply put a handkerchief over his face and fell asleep.

Oppenheimer declined a final breakfast but not from fear. He’d just overindulged on the cigars and treats the night before. Still showing a sullen indifference to his fate he was dressed in a suit supplied by the prison. It was the same suit worn by other condemned men only washed, pressed and kept for the next man to wear. When his time came at dawn on 12 July 1913 he walked his last mile, actually only a few steps between his cell and the gallows. Asked by prison staff if he had any final words, Oppenheimer remained as indifferent as ever. Society was through with him and he with it. According to ‘Folsom’s 93’ he also made a brief speech expressing his opposition to capital punishment:

“Calmly leaving myself of out the question, I want to say that capital punishment is a relic of the barbaric age. It ought not be tolerated. I hope that in every country the time will soon come when it will be abolished . . . I will not be the last to go before this practice is abolished but I will be a martyr to the cause.”

According to witnesses he finished his speech by suggesting the gallows had no deterrent effect, at least not for him personally:

“You know, this is no punishment for me. This is nothin’. I have suffered a thousand deaths in the prisons. This is just nothin’.”

The signal was given and the trapdoor dropped. The Human Tiger would prowl no longer

His story didn’t end there. Section 4500, albeit modified, remains in California’s Penal Code. Oppenheimer, for whom it was personally intended, was the third prisoner condemned under its provision. Other inmates like Robert Wells and Robert Harmon were sentenced. Harmon went to San Quentin’s gas chamber on 9 August 1960. Wells was reprieved.

Many might think Jacob Oppenheimer was a brute, an unthinking thug capable of only murder and mayhem. He wasn’t, he was also an intelligent thinker, ingenious and sometimes thoughtful and reflective. The Human Tiger had a brain as well as teeth and claws. Decades before Carl Panzram, Caryl Chessman and Mumia Abu-Jamal, Oppenheimer was also a writer and poet of some talent. His essays, books and poetry are interesting reading.

Today Jacob Oppenheimer is often forgotten and overlooked. Had he been in prison today he would have been handled very differently, though never without the highest security precautions. He was cunning, violent, homicidal and extremely dangerous man, but also might have had something more to offer. When he dropped through Folsom’s gallows it only served to prove one thing;

Both he and the State of California could now rest in peace.

The story of the Human Tiger and his keepers can be found in my forthcoming book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Northern California,’ published on August 28 2020. My previous book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York‘ is currently available.

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On This Day in 1851 – Josefa ‘Juanita’ Segovia, rough justice or legal lynching?


 

Present-day California is often seen as the most liberal, tolerant state in the Union. It‘s sold with images of sunshine, surfing, and hippies; a relaxed, easy-going kind of place where, within reason, anything goes. This is a fallacy. While 1967 might have been California’s ‘Summer of Love’ July of 1851 wasn’t. Certainly not for a Mexican lady known as ‘Juanita’ and certainly not from the population of Downieville, then a mining camp. She was the first woman to hang since California achieved Statehood, one of only four women executed in the state since 1850.

Her story is one of intolerance, injustice, sexism, ignorance and outright bigotry. That said, a modern trial might well have convicted her of murder based on the evidence given. She admitted stabbing Frederick Cannon, and declared openly that she’d do the same again under similar circumstances. As much as her trial might seem like a travesty and her punishment swift and brutal her own testimony wasn’t likely to inspire sympathy or clemency.

Known variously as ‘Juanita,’ ‘Josefa Segovia’ and ‘Josefa Loaiza’ she was to end her days at the end of a rope accused of murder, the first woman to hang in what had only recently become the State of California. Today’s Golden State was anything but golden for Mexicans at the time. Early statehood remains a particularly uncomfortable period in California’s history.

To give her story context it’s necessary to consider the attitudes and circumstances of the era which are very different from today. Doubtless many present-day Californians would look at the behavior of their forefathers and be appalled by it, especially the free use of ‘miner’s law’ in place of the rule of law as we now know it. The standards of today can’t be applied to California as it was in 1850.

The Mexican War began in 1846, ending in defeat for Mexico and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. For many Mexicans the treaty’s terms had added insult to injury. A huge swathe of what had been Mexican territory. Some 525000 square miles became part of the United States overnight. This included part or all of present-day California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

The treaty also resolved the issue of the border between Mexico and the US. In addition to giving up all claims to Texas (formerly northern Mexico) the Rio Grande became the border between the two recently-warring nations. It was a huge blow to Mexican pride and prestige. Worse was to follow for the Mexican population of the region

It would be fair to say that Mexicans were regarded as lesser beings by many whites or ‘Anglos’ as they were often known. At best, many regarded Mexicans as second-class citizens. At worst they were regarded as a lower form of life altogether. Josefa Segovia was one of many who suffered as a result

Following the treaty, life for Mexicans was changed completely. They lost any status, property, titles and political power, even their nationality changed almost overnight. Regardless of what they had been before California became part of the US they were seen as nothing after it. Even the culture and traditions they’d grown up with were seen by many Anglos as worthless and of no value.

Attitudes only worsened with the start of the Gold Rush in 1849. When gold was first found near Sutter’s Mill only locals knew of it. Only around 5000 prospectors, mostly locals with some Americans and foreigners, were working the goldfields by the end of 1849. A year later fortune-hunters were arriving in their tens of thousands from all over the world. By the end of 1850 there were more than 80000 Anglos in California either prospecting or in gold-related businesses. The inconceivable began to happen; too many prospectors and not enough gold.

With enormous speed the gold rush created a huge melting-pot of different cultures and traditions without creating anything resembling racial harmony. In fact, as competition increased and gold became steadily more scarce, racial disharmony, ill-feeling and outright violence became widespread and then endemic. Some, for political and commercial reasons, stoked the fire.

At first prospectors were highly egalitarian for their time. They were too busy trying to make their own fortunes to be overly prejudiced. Gold was also remarkably thick on the ground, literally. It wasn’t as simple a matter as walking round picking up fat nuggets off the ground, but there was certainly enough for everybody in the early days.

Even those whose dreams hadn’t come true often made their fortunes supplying food, tools, explosives, timber and anything else prospectors wanted. Prospectors became used to vastly inflated prices and vendors took full advantage. If mining didn’t pay off then ‘mining the miners’ still could.

El Dorado County was named after a mythical city of gold for a reason. As the initial deposits were scooped up and prospector numbers increased things became progressively harder. Attitudes began to change toward Mexicans and not for the better.

By the spring of 1850 the miners were often already divided by nationality. Anglos lived and worked with Anglos, Mexicans with Mexicans and so on. Gold was still plentiful but not as much as it had been and the Anglos had already started grumbling. Some, notably a group of several thousand Americans from the Oregon Territory, started posting notices ordering non-Anglos off their claims within twenty-four hours.

Accompanied by a large group of armed men these notices threatened violence, even death, to any non-Anglo who didn’t leave immediately. Driven by racial prejudice and nationalist sentiment these Anglos began forcing those they regarded as foreigners off their claims. American gold, they said, was for Americans especially white ones. Foreigners, even those who’d been born in California, had no right to even be there let alone profit from the gold they sought.

It wasn’t long before the threats of violence became a grim reality. Foreigners (shorthand for non-whites of any persuasion) were routinely driven off their claims by threats and armed mobs. Those who refused to be ejected risked death; some got exactly that. Still some 4000 fortune hunters were arriving in California every month only adding to the tension.

The Anglos didn’t just resort to blatant violence. In the spring of 1850 California’s new Legislature passed the Foreign Miners Tax Act after pressure from the Anglo contingent. Officially named ‘An Act for the better regulation of the Mines and the Government of Foreign Miners’ it imposed a monthly twenty-dollar fee. In theory the tax was meant to penalize all non-Americans wanting to prospect although Native Americans were exempt.

In practice it was applied mostly to non-Anglos. Faced with protests and unrest among whites regardless of their country of origin the act was swiftly rewritten. Native Americans remained exempt and so were anyone deemed a ‘free white person’ (not a slave, in other words) or anyone who could become an American citizen.

It was an expressly racist piece of legislation in both theory and especially in practice. Within one year of the Act passing an estimated 10000 Mexican miners left California entirely. In 1851, the year Josefa Segovia killed Frederick Cannon, it was repealed in favor of a new law charging only three dollars per month. By then, of course, it had already served its purpose.

Officially touted as intended to raise tax dollars for the state, in reality it was another way of driving non-Anglos from their claims. Failure to pay this exorbitant, fraudulently-described fee for the mere chance of hitting pay dirt, however slim that chance might be, could be ruinous to non-payers.

Segovia was seen by Downieville’s Anglos as a typical Mexican woman, probably every stereotype they’d ever seen or heard. In a relationship though possibly unmarried, Segovia was said to be intelligent, pretty, vivacious and hot-tempered. While partner Jose was a gambler working at the Craycroft Saloon and Segovia worked there as a hostess. Some undoubtedly saw her as a woman of loose morals for living unmarried, especially with a gambler.

They might also have readily interpreted her being a hostess at the saloon to mean she was also a prostitute as many hostesses were. She wasn’t unpopular with the locals despite her hot temper and allegedly dubious morals. At least not until Segovia (a Mexican) killed a man named Frederick Cannon who also happened to be white.

Cannon had been celebrating Independence Day with some friends and, much the worse for drink, had behaved boorishly toward Segovia on the evening of 4 July. As people often do when intoxicated, he turned up at Segovia’s adobe house in the dead of night. Stumbling drunkenly through the door Cannon’s friends quickly dragged him away. Opinions differ as to what happened when he came back.

Some said Cannon had returned to make amends. In the manner of penitent drunks everywhere he woke up with a throbbing head and, deeply embarrassed, returned to the Segovia home intending to deliver an apology. Others said he returned still drunk and in a foul temper, kicked open the door and trespassed while shouting insults. Whether he returned to apologize or pick a fight didn’t matter as much as his being fatally stabbed by Segovia.

His second visit was even less welcome than his first. Tempers hadn’t cooled much since he’d been dragged away by his friends and they boiled over completely when he returned. As tempers flared and Cannon was alleged to have grossly insulted her, an enraged Segovia produced a knife. She was as well-known for possessing a knife and for her hot temper. Within minutes she’d fatally stabbed Cannon and fled to Craycroft’s Saloon where she was later found.

She couldn’t have picked a worse hiding place. She was well-known in the town, the Craycroft was her place of work and it also doubled as Yuba County’s Court of Sessions with Judge Rose presiding. Unfortunately for Segovia California’s law enforcement was still largely a work in progress, the rule of law existing in name more than reality. Downieville, for instance, didn’t have an actual courthouse until 1854. The stage was set for what today would be called a legal lynching.

With Cannon dead Segovia faced furious Anglos and a storm of anti-Mexican prejudice. Whether Cannon’s death was murder or manslaughter will probably never be known. He’d certainly behaved badly, but whether he’d ever posed a physical threat to Segovia, a threat that might have justified her killing him, was never defined. What happened to Segovia as a result can never really be justified. Angry and with all their inherent prejudices the local Anglos were reluctant to wait for the formalities of courts and trials. They wanted their own form of justice and lost no time in taking it.

Outside of the bigger cities and towns California’s law and justice were then as makeshift and ramshackle as the mining camps themselves. With little in what we’d nowadays call professional law enforcement the miners often exacted immediate and brutal punishment for even minor crimes. A young boy caught committing petty theft might have his ears cut off, for example. What was then called ‘miners law’ was fast, brutal and standard practice.

In addition to racial and profit-driven prejudice, crime in the goldfields was rampant. Theft, robbery and murder were almost daily occurrences in the rougher parts of the goldfields. In the eyes of many Anglos foreigners were to blame, especially those of Latin-American origin. The most notorious gold rush-era bandit, Joaquin Murieta, was Mexican. Many of the region’s most notorious bandits were also Mexican or, to many Anglos, close enough.

Prejudice against non-Anglos was so fierce that Murieta became as much a hate-figure for Anglos as he was a hero for some Mexicans. Any Mexican committing an act of violence, especially against an Anglo, could expect rough treatment or even death. Josefa Segovia was one of thousands who suffered exactly that.

Where killings were concerned lynch law was often the order of the day, what was then called ‘life for life.’ For a Mexican accused of murdering an Anglo, even a Mexican woman, many Anglos tended to want punishment there and then. Lynching wasn’t confined to foreigners, but was a regular occurrence for malefactors of all kinds. Racial prejudice made non-Anglos the most likely victims of it especially if accused of harming whites. Josefa Segovia was no exception to the rule.

There are numerous conflicting accounts of Josefa Segovia’s crime and punishment. Some regard her as a murderer receiving nothing more or less than the punishment of the day. Others question whether she was a murderer at all, considering that Cannon had made unannounced, unwelcome visits twice in twenty-four hours. Today’s courts would certainly have been more formal and probably more merciful. ‘Miners justice’ was neither.

Her trial, such as it was, was nothing like what would be expected today. By modern standards due process simply didn’t exist in the goldfields. Even policing was often notional. Lawmen were often hard to find, skilled ones even harder and bribe-taking was often a fact of life. It was also the era of the ‘circuit judge.’

With so few judges and courts district judges were still often ‘circuit riders’ with a list of towns in which they presided. They rode from town to town within their district dispensing justice as they went. Even when criminals were arrested and clearly guilty circuit judges might visit a town only once every couple of months, try a long list of cases as quickly as possible and ride on.

Accounts vary of just how quickly miner’s law handled Josefa Segovia. She was tried within hours of the killing by a jury composed largely if not entirely of Cannon’s friends and acquaintances. Another account describes the ‘trial’ as having happened within a couple of hours of the alleged murder. While unthinkable today this was typical of the time. Very few people even attempted to protect or defend her. Against a furious mob, some of whose members were probably armed and perhaps intoxicated, that was understandable.

It was said that local doctor Cyrus Aiken testified that Josefa wasn’t fit to stand trial and may have been pregnant at the time. As a result Aiken was allegedly forced out of the ‘court’ and also out of Downieville entirely. A Nevada lawyer, Mr. Thayer, was also said to have tried to defend her. It was reported that he wanted to protest her execution and wanted a fair trial to decide whether or not a murder had actually been committed.

Thayer’s treatment was said to have been no better than Aiken’s. He was allegedly beaten and thrown out of the ‘trial’ for wanting to confirm whether a murder had actually been committed. The locals seem to have already decided that one had and were going to punish the murderer regardless. With nobody else willing or able to prevent miner’s justice, Josefa Segovia’s fate was sealed from the start.

Scottish writer J.D. Borthwick spent three years in the California goldfields. He spent his time meeting and getting to know people from all walks of life and his travels included arriving in Downieville a few weeks after Segovia was hanged. Though Borthwick was going by what locals told him (making what he heard less than entirely accurate) his is one of the few accounts of the incident. His memoir ‘Three Years in California 1851-1854’ takes up the story:

‘A Mexican woman one forenoon had, without provocation, stabbed a miner to the heart, killing him on the spot. The news of the murder spread rapidly up and down the river, and a vast concourse of miners immediately began to collect in the town.’

The vast concourse had certainly collected, seemingly having already decided that Josefa Segovia was a murderer.

‘The woman, an hour or two after she committed the murder, was formally tried by a jury of twelve, found guilty, and condemned to be hung that afternoon. The case was so clear that it admitted of no doubt, several men having been witnesses of the whole occurrence; and the woman was hung accordingly, on the bridge in front of the town, in presence of many thousand people.’

Borthwick was certainly going by what he’d been told. He didn’t get her name and nor did he seem overly bothered to check what he’d been told, either. In fact he then defended the practice of lynching:

‘Anyone who lived in the mines of California at that time is bound gratefully to acknowledge that the feeling of security in life and person which he there enjoyed was due in a great measure to the knowledge of the fact that this admirable institution of Lynch law was in full and active operation.’

He also found time, as did many Anglos, to blame Mexicans like Josefa Segovia for much of the crime in the goldfields:

‘Theft or robbery of any considerable amount, however, was a capital crime; and horse-stealing, to which the Mexicans more particularly devoted themselves, was invariably a hanging matter.’

Borthwick’s attitudes were typical of many Anglos in the goldfields. There was a choice between rough justice or no justice given the inefficiency of the legal system in gold rush-era California. Lynch law or no law was the order of the day and, given that Mexicans were seen as responsible for much of the crime they also took much of the punishment.

Many people also believed they had a choice between rough justice or none at all. California had only formally entered the Union in September 1850. Less than a year had passed since statehood and the state’s legal system, along with every other branch of government, still barely existed in any meaningful form outside of cities. The goldfields in particular had only notional official law enforcement so law was enforced by those who lived there unofficially and ruthlessly. As Borthwick put it:

‘Society had to protect itself the most practical and unsophisticated system of retributive justice, quick in its action, and whose operation, being totally divested of all mystery and unnecessary ceremony, was perfectly comprehensible to the meanest understanding.’

What Borthwick defended as the ‘admirable institution of Lynch law’ wasn’t the exception in California’s goldfields at the time, it was the rule. While many people might have been grateful for some law rather than no law, Segovia probably wasn’t one of them. She had been treated with little resembling either law or formal justice as we would know it.

Opinion wasn’t as uniform outside Downieville as in the camp itself. The Sacramento Time and Transcript was unequivocal in condemning the event:

‘The act for which the victims suffered was entirely justifiable under the provocation. She had stabbed a man who persisted in making a disturbance in her house and had greatly outraged her rights. The violent proceedings of an indignant and excited mob, led on by the enemies of the unfortunate woman, were a blot upon the history of the state. Had she committed a crime of really heinous character, a real American would have revolted at such a course as was pursued toward this friendless and unprotected foreigner.’

The treatment of Josefa Segovia, brutal though it was, was all too typical of the time. With a huge swathe of territory and resources only recently taken from Mexico many Anglos wanted to make their dominance absolutely clear. Racial prejudice also played a large part in Mexicans being singled out for mistreatment and harsh punishment. According to Margo Gutierrez and Matt Meier’s ‘Encyclopedia of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement’ many lynchings resulted from allegations (accurate or otherwise) of Mexicans stealing horses and livestock or raping, robbing and killing Anglos.

According to scholars William Carrigan and Clive Webb in ‘The Lynching of Persons of Mexican Origin or Descent in the United States 1848 To 1928’ lynchings of Mexicans were out of all proportion to their numbers. Between 1850 and 1895 Mexicans accounted for over one-third of American lynchings despite representing only fifteen percent of the population.

Gordon Young’s ‘Days of ‘49’ references Segovia’s crime, trial and punishment. In the absence of an actual courtroom Young describes her trial taking place outdoors. According to Young she was:

‘Put on a pavilion in the center of the town and twelve men responded eagerly to the call for a jury.’

Lynching might have been the nearest some areas got to law and order at times, but it was also a way to intimidate and repress minority groups and consolidate power in troubled areas like 1850’s California. It didn’t seem to intimidate Segovia herself. The outcome of her trial was probably a foregone conclusion, especially when she told the court:

“I told the deceased that was no place to call me bad names come in and call me so and as he was coming in I stabbed him.”

Hardly the sort of evidence to inspire sympathy, especially when on trial for murder. It also raised a question about her self-admitted motive. Exactly who provoked who into coming within arm’s reach of a knife and did Cannon even know she was armed? Had he known she was in possession of a knife would he have been so foolish as to escalate things even further even while still intoxicated? Not that the jury needed much help deciding her case. She was caught, tried, convicted, condemned and executed in a single day. Jose was acquitted, but ordered to leave Downieville immediately.

Whatever she said to her accusers Segovia was most likely doomed and knew it. She had undeniably done the deed, she behaved defiantly toward the court (such as it was) and was a Mexican woman who had clearly killed an Anglo man. Saying she’d do the same again in similar circumstances would have probably lost her the case in a modern court. In an area run using lynch law she effectively passed her own death sentence.

That sentence was swiftly delivered. It wasn’t a long walk to the Jersey Bridge spanning the Yuba River, nor was it hard to install a wooden platform for her to step off once her noose had been tied. She showed considerable courage and bravado on the way. She was reported to have tossed her hat to the spectators while on her final walk and to have stood firmly on her makeshift gallows. With the rope secured to the bridge and around her neck all that remained was for her to step or be pushed off. To use a phrase common at the time she was about to be ‘launched into Eternity.’

Segovia maintained her defiance right to the bitter end. With perhaps several thousand in attendance (which would have been most of Downieville’s population at the time) she wasn’t about to disappoint her audience. Complaining at her arms being tied she co-operated when the hood and noose were fitted. Her final request was that she be given a proper burial.

As she stepped off the simple wooden platform some claimed she even shouted her final words to the large crowd;

“Adios Senores.” (“Goodbye, Sirs.”)

Were her last words defiance, acceptance or a sneer directed at those who tried and hanged her so quickly? Did she feel any remorse for the killing she had so recently committed? Was it murder, manslaughter or self-defense? We’ll never really know now. The only person who did hung lifeless from the Jersey Bridge.

Her case can be found in my forthcoming book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Northern California, available for pre-order now and on sale from August 28.

RIP Jerry Givens, former Virginia executioner-turned-abolitionist.


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Jerry Givens was an unlikely campaigner against the death penalty. A correctional officer at the Virginia State Penitentiary since the early 1970’s, Givens was also its resident executioner. Until going to prison himself in 1999 on perjury and money-laundering charges (charges he always denied) Givens rose through the ranks. At first supporting the death penalty, Givens became a member of the prison’s execution team, assisting at executions in the state on a regular basis. When the state executioner retired in 1982 it was Givens who replaced him.

Between 1982 and 1999 Givens personally performed 62 executions. 37 in the state’s electric chair and 25 by lethal injection. Unlike most death penalty states Virginia never paid him a fee for the job, just expected him to do it beside his regular duties. Initially this was no problem for him. It came to be an increasingly heavy burden to carry.

Givens executed some of Virginia’s most notorious felons including members of the ‘Mecklenburg Six,’ Brothers Linwood and James Briley, Lem Tuggle, Earl Clanton, Willie Jones and Derick Peterson achieved the seemingly-impossible on 31 May 1984 when they escaped Death Row at the Mecklenburg Correctional Center.

Once recaptured all six were executed by Givens. Linwood Briley died on 12 October 1984, brother James following him on 18 April 1985. Earl Clanton was next, dying on 14 April 1988.  Derick Peterson joined them 22 August 199 and Willie Jones on 11 September 1992. Last to die was Lem Tuggle on 12 December 1996.

Convict Dennis Stockton could have escaped with them but declined, believing his death sentence could be defeated in the courts. It wasn’t, Givens executed Stockton in 1995. Most of the information on the escape came from Stockton who knew the details and perhaps hoped his co-operation might secure mercy. Had he informed before the escape instead of co-operating after it mercy might have come Stockton’s way. As it was, it didn’t. On 27 September 1995 he received a lethal injection.

In 1999 Givens went from state executioner to convict. He served four years after buying a car using a friend’s money. The money came from drug-dealing, something Givens always claimed he was unaware of. Convicted of perjury and money-laundering Givens spent the next four years behind bars permanently aware of what could happen if he were identified by convicts. Had they found him out Givens would never have left the prison system alive.

Though he avoided vengeance from other convicts Givens’ past returned to haunt him in a different way. Condemned prisoner Earl Washington Jr had narrowly avoided Givens electric chair in 1985 and a lethal injection in 1994. With his death sentence commuted by Governor Douglas Wilder in 1994 Washington was fully exonerated in 2000. He had come within hours of dying for somebody else’s crime and Givens was greatly troubled by the case and capital punishment in general. Released from prison the former executioner’s faith in the death penalty had evaporated. He became a firm abolitionist instead.

Givens worked extensively with pressure groups Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Death Penalty Action for many years. Initially reluctant to go public, he was eventually persuaded to do so and with considerable success. Even many conservatives who met him or heard him speak found themselves influenced by his first-hand account of his work in Virginia’s death chamber. His book ‘Another Day Not Promised’ was a strong seller and eloquent in his opposition to the punishment he once inflicted.

Infected with COVID-19, Givens died at a Richmond hospital on 13 April 2020. He was 67 years old.

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