On This Day in 1925 – John Hurlburt performs his last execution. ‘Yellow Charleston’ has his last dance.


A few years ago I covered the story of John Hurlburt, New York’s second ‘State Electrician.’ Trained by predecessor Edwin Davis, Hurlburt executed 140 prisoners during his tenure. Hurlburt’s official debut was executing George Coyer and Giuseppe DeGoia at Auburn Prison on August 31 1914. Unofficially he had already executed prisoners under Davis’s supervision.

As Auburn’s resident electrician it was natural for Hurlburt to know Davis who visited frequently until resigning in a dispute over fees. Davis had originally been paid $250 per prisoner. When the State of New York unilaterally altered the agreement, offering $150 for a single execution and an extra $50 per prisoner for two or more at the same time, Davis was disgusted. In August 1912 he had executed seven men in one day which had paid $1750. Under the new ‘agreement’ Davis would have received only $450 with an eight cents- per mile fuel allowance for a particularly grim day’s work.

Relations between Davis and his employers had soured after that. Davis owned patents on some parts of the chair and billed the state $10000 to secure rights to use them. He also refused to train assistants, believing that his employers would quickly find an excuse to replace him. Only after much pressure did Davis grudgingly train three replacements for when he himself left the job. Hurlburt was one of them.

E.B. Currier would become executioner for Massachusetts and Robert Elliott inherited the New York job when Hurlburt abruptly resigned in January 1926. All had executed convicts under his supervision although Davis officially remained in charge. When Hurlburt left and Currier was already retired Elliott became the only viable candidate and relations between Hurlburt and Elliott had never been warm to start with.

Unlike Davis, Hurlburt didn’t quit over the money. The job was slowly destroying Hurlburt’s mental health and he too would come to a bad end. With every throw of the switch Hurlburt was destroying himself as surely as the convicts he executed, only more slowly. New York gangster Julius Miller (known locally as ‘Yellow Charleston’) would be Hurlburt’s 140th and last execution.

Miller was condemned for a double murder. While playing dice he had asked a friend to loan him fifty cents and when the friend refused Miller shot him. Fleeing the scene, Miller approached nightclub owner and gambler Barron Wilkins, owner of the Exclusive Club, demanding $100 to help him flee the city. When Wilkins refused Miller shot him as well. Arrested shortly afterward Miller was quickly convicted and condemned.

This was no surprise. Wilkins was a popular local figure and thousands had attended his funeral. He had also been politically active and very well-connected. His club had once had Duke Ellington’s band and a host of celebrity patrons including Joan Crawford and Al Jolson. Miller, in defiance of Prohibition, had been one of Wilkins’ bootlegging contacts ensuring the booze flowed as freely as it had before it was outlawed. A career criminal, the courts and Governor had no time to spare for ‘Yellow Charleston’ and his time was rapidly running out.

Miller’s legal issues were exhausted and he showed little chance of going straight even if he escaped execution. Governor Al Smith was pro-death penalty although he regularly commuted death sentences. Smith’s policy was that if even one judge from the New York Court of Criminal Appeal dissented then that was usually good enough.

Whether a three-Judge panel or the full court had turned down a prisoner’s appeal made no difference to Smith, just one dissenting voice was usually enough. Not one Judge dissented when Miller’s appeals were denied nor did any recommend clemency. Neither did Smith who, despite being generous with clemency for his time, still signed off on ninety-six executions during his time as Governor. All of them had been performed by Hurlburt.

Professional to a fault in public, privately Hurlburt was coming apart. Depression, wife Mattie’s chronic illness and the resulting medical bills had made him increasingly morose, difficult and temperamental. Executions are stressful enough without the executioner cursing, shouting and throwing equipment around during the pre-execution tests and Hurlburt had become well-known for doing so.

Hurlburt, however, had no choice. Caught between endless medical bills and his own rapidly-deteriorating mental state he had to continue in a job that was destroying him. Despite being made aware of his decline the State of New York allowed him to continue doing so. Such a situation would never be allowed today.

Like Davis, Hurlburt had been a stickler for anonymity. He had been livid when the media published his name and, despite their best efforts, he always managed to stop them taking his photograph. That hadn’t helped him in Nebraska in 1920 when he narrowly escaped a lynch mob after being hired to perform the state’s first two electrocutions, Allen Grammer and Alson Cole.

The mob was, rather ironically, a group of abolitionists who thought lynching an executioner made for a good protest. Hurlburt, presumably with less sense of irony and a strong desire to live, begged to differ. He fled the state entirely never to return. With Hurlburt having supervised the installation of the chair and the preparations before fleeing, E.B. Currier came out of retirement to throw the switch.

Hurlburt’s desire for anonymity hadn’t helped in Nebraska, but it saved his life at Sing Sing. Hours before executing John Farina and brothers Morris and Joseph Diamond on April 30 1925 Hurlburt collapsed in the death chamber. He recovered enough to execute the three men before collapsing again and spending the next week in Sing Sing’s own infirmary.

Surrounded by convicts, some of whose friends and relatives had died at his hand, Hurlburt was under no illusions about what would happen if his fellow-patients knew the man they called the ‘burner’ was within stabbing distance. If recognised he would never have left the prison alive and probably died very unpleasantly. Not for nothing did the prison’s general population crow whenever a reprieve or commutation was granted, remarking cheerfully that “The burner is out of a fee.”

After surviving his extremely-dangerous ‘rest cure’ he performed only one more execution before Miller’s, that of cop-killer John Durkin on August 27 1925. Durkin, condemned for murdering Detective Timothy Connell, fell foul of an unwritten law in New York State; its courts and Governor never interfered in the cases of cop-killers.

With Durkin dead it was time for ‘Yellow Charleston’ to take centre-stage. It was ironic that he would be moved from his regular Death House cell around twelve hours before his execution, spending his remaining hours in one of the six pre-execution cells known as the ‘Dance Hall.’ When the time came Miller’s ‘last mile’ would be only around twenty steps between his cell and the chair itself.

With Miller securely in the Dance Hall under constant watch, Warden Lewis Lawes (probably the most famous abolitionist in America at the time) had to meet and greet reporters and official witnesses. While Lawes handled the social side of things Hurlburt was in the death chamber testing his equipment for the last time. It was working perfectly, more than could be said for its operator.

When the time came it was without incident. Just before 11pm Miller took his final walk accompanied by four guards and the prison Chaplain. His life and Hurlburt’s career both ended with merciful speed. In barely a minute Miller was strapped down, Hurlburt carefully positioning electrodes on his head and right leg before striding briskly to the alcove holding his control panel and switch.

Lawes asked Miller for any final words, Miller had none to offer. With that done nothing else remained except the signal and the switch. Closing his eyes as he did before every execution, Lawes turned to Hurlburt and silently gave the signal. Hurlburt, watching Miller carefully as he did so, jerked the switch and worked his controls, raising and lowering the power in a calculated cycle. Two minutes later Julius Miller was dead.

So too was Hurlburt in his own way. His next visit to Sing Sing would have been to execute Ambrose Ross and John Slattery on January 20 1926 but Miller’s execution had been the last straw. Once known as the ‘man who walks alone’ Hurlburt walked away on January 16. When asked why he quit so abruptly he remarked “I got tired of killing people.”

New York didn’t appoint Robert Elliott, the only usable candidate, until almost the end of the month. By then the death warrants for Ross and Slattery had expired. New York law at the time specified a particular week, tradition dictating that Thursdays (known as ‘Black Thursday’ for obvious reasons) were the usual day. When their warrants expired the two men found their sentences commuted. Next in line were Emil Klatt and Luigi Rapito on January 28 and they weren’t as fortunate, becoming Elliott’s official debut.

As with Hurlburt the two men were Elliott’s official debut but not his first throw of the switch. On June 13 1904 he had executed Oscar Borgstrom and Albert Koepping at Auburn under Davis’s supervision. Elliott’s career ended with his 387th execution, that of Arthur Perry on August 24 1939 a few months before Elliott himself died of illness.

Elliott had never liked Hurlburt, nor did he think him particularly skilled. Hurlburt’s career had been marred by mishaps and botches while Elliott (who had left the prison service years before) had a glowing reputation for skill, efficiency and an astonishingly-prolific career.

Working for New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont and Pennsylvania, Elliot had executed 382 men and five women including some of the most notorious felons in American history. Lindbergh kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann, Sacco and Vanzetti, Ruth Snyder and hundreds of others had died by his hand.

On January 6 1927 he set a record never likely to be repeated. Booked by Massachusetts to execute John McLaughlin, John Devereux and Edward Heinlein at Charlestown just after midnight, Elliott did so without incident. His day’s work was far from done. Returning to New York he spent a few hours with his family before driving to Sing Sing. At 11pm he executed Charles Goldson, Edgar Humes and George Williams. Six prisoners in two different states in one day.

He was also credited with perfecting electrocution using the ‘Elliott Technique,’ a method of raising and lowering the power in carefully-calculated cycle. Although now run by computer variations of his method persist in those few states stilling offering electrocution as a method.

By then fellow-protege Hurlburt was already long-dead, gone to join the ghosts of the 140 convicts he had killed. Wife Mattie had finally died in September 1925, the same month as Hurlburt’s last execution. No longer needing the money and desperate to get away from the job, Hurlburt had no further need to throw the switch.

On February 22 1929 a depressed and grief-stricken Hurlburt entered the basement of his Auburn home. In his hand was the revolver he had carried ever since becoming Auburn’s regular electrician, some time before meeting Davis and becoming his apprentice. Discovered later by his son Clarence, the former executioner had taken one last life; his own.

The Broderick-Terry duel of 1859, the last notable duel in California.


The duel between US Senator David Broderick and David Terry, former Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court is a rollicking tale of friendship-turned-feud; politics, pistols, slavery and slander. Their duel on 13 September 1859 would have made a terrific historical novel or movie and still might.

Duels over political disagreements, personal enmity and often a combination of both were nothing unusual in the United States. On 11 July 1804 Vice-President Aaron Burr met former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a pistol duel outside Weehawken, New Jersey. The culmination of long-standing political and personal animosity, it cost Hamilton his life.

Hamilton, who hadn’t wanted to fight in the first place and was opposed to dueling generally, died the next day having been shot through the spine. By a bitter irony Hamilton’s son had died in a duel two years before.  Burr, knowing this, had chosen to fight his own duel in the same spot. Having killed Hamilton, Burr fled abroad to avoid prosecution and didn’t return for some time. The duel proved to be a Pyrrhic victory forever blighting Burr’s career and legacy.

Two years later on 30 May 1806 future President Andrew Jackson met lawyer and expert duelist Charles Dickinson near Adairville, Kentucky over several mutual insults. The duel was fought in Adairville, just over the state line, because dueling was outlawed in Tennessee.

A gambler might have put their money on veteran duelist Dickinson and lost. Although both men were shot in the chest and seriously wounded it was Dickinson who died. Jackson recovered, going on to serve as the seventh President of the United States from March 1829 to March 1837.

The site of Broderick and Terry’s final confrontation is now listed among California’s historical landmarks. Near today’s Lake Merced Association clubhouse lies a marker stone. Not far from the stone are two obelisks marking where Broderick and Terry fought their final battle on that warm September day in 1859. Their pistols, sold at auction in San Francisco on 25 November 1998, netted $34,500.

The Civil War began on 12 April 1861 when Confederate artillery fired on South Carolina’s Fort Sumter It lasted until the final skirmish at Palmito Ranch, Texas on 12-13 April 1865. By then some 600,000 Americans had died, the Confederacy destroyed and the nation itself changed forever.

The decade preceding Fort Sumter had seen Americans themselves divided along increasingly bitter and entrenched lines. With increased division came increased bloodshed, particularly in Kansas and Missouri even before the war had started. The splits were political, economic and all too often personal. The Broderick-Terry duel was a microcosm of the greater divide that would later lead to Americans killing each other on a scale unseen and unimagined before or since. Like its predecessor of 1776 the new United States would be birthed in blood.

Broderick and Terry had once been the firmest of friends. The issue of slavery destroyed that friendship leaving only bitterness and hate. Both active within the Democratic Party, their divide was at first a simple one. Terry was pro-slavery and Broderick wasn’t. Their political and social conflict became progressively more personal until they finally resolved it with a bullet.

California had only become a state in 1850, entering the Union as a ‘free state.’ The Gold Rush had brought both foreigners and American-born ‘49’ers’ looking to make their fortunes and the American-born contingent were sharply divided on the issue. The ‘free soil’ faction (mostly Northerners) opposed slavery and campaigned against it. The ‘Chivs’ were transplanted Southerners, many fervently believing slave states should be able to secede from the Union to preserve slavery and the Southern way of life.

Just to inflame matters further the ‘free soil’ faction included freed African-Americans prospecting on their own account and enslaved ones forced to prospect on behalf of their owners. With California entering the Union as a free state the Chivs saw it as an imposition. The ‘free soilers’ saw California’s stance on slavery as vague, unclear and not going far enough.

They might technically be free in California, but African-Americans and Native Americans weren’t allowed to testify against whites in courts of law and were still regarded as second-class citizens. The original state constitution’s vagueness also allowed conflicting interpretations of what the rules actually were. It was a classic compromise. Intended to satisfy everybody, the reality pleased nobody. It did little but increase the divisions and tension it was intended to soothe.

By 1859 the issue of slavery gripped California as much as anywhere else. Pro and anti-slavery factions divided the state’s political landscape and not always along party lines. Despite their friendship and both being Democrats, Broderick and Terry could never heal their own split on the issue. It would be the catalyst for a feud that destroyed their friendship and a duel costing Broderick his life.

As the 1850’s wore on the divide only deepened. It also became steadily more rancorous and in 1857 the Broderick-Terry feud reached new heights. As Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court the pro-slavery Terry enjoyed huge influence in the state’s legal system. Elected as a US Senator in 1856, abolitionist Broderick’s influence was equally potent.

Both were high-profile public figures. They were also bitterly divided over slavery and their feud became not only deeply personal, but highly public. Both were perfectly prepared to insult and denigrate each other in a time when calmness and moderation might have been more sensible

Terry was known for his hot temper, violent actions and willingness to harbor grudges. Elected as a Justice of California’s Supreme Court in November 1855 he held the post until September 1859. In 1856 Terry had been dispatched to San Francisco when the State of California declared the city to be in a state of insurrection.

Given Terry’s temper he was an odd choice as a negotiator. When captured by armed insurrectionists Terry promptly stabbed one of them. He was never charged for knifing Sterling Hopkins, a member of San Francisco’s Committee of Vigilance.

That didn’t see him removed from the Supreme Court. Regarded as  having acted in self-defense, Terry wasn’t even charged. In 1857 he’d moved higher up the bench, becoming Chief Justice. He was far from happy when the Democrats shifted their nomination on 25 June 1859, opting to back Warner Cope as candidate for Chief Justice over the incumbent Terry.

Always quick to anger, Terry blamed Broderick. It was Broderick’s agitating against the Democrats’ pro-slavery faction that caused the party to refuse him the re-nomination,. Broderick’s voting against the adoption of the Lecompton Constitution in Kansas (a pro-slavery constitution that would have made Kansas effectively a slave state) also enraged the ardently pro-slavery Terry.

Broderick in turn saw Terry as an ingrate, a man Broderick had supported even when few others would. Just as Terry blamed Broderick for not being re-nominated as Chief Justice, Broderick saw Terry as committing a personal betrayal. Neither was prepared to moderate their political dispute or their increasing personal loathing for the other. Both were prepared to inflame things still further, knowing the possible consequences.

At a Democrat convention in Sacramento in June 1859 Terry (skilled at fiery rhetoric but not always prudently using it) made an inflammatory speech. In it he directly accused Broderick of engineering his loss. According to Terry, convention delegates opposing the Lecompton Constitution were doing so on Broderick’s orders. They were:

“The personal followers of one man, the personal chattels of a single individual whom they are ashamed of. They belong heart and soul, body and breeches, to Senator David S. Broderick. They are yet ashamed to acknowledge their masters, and are calling themselves, forsooth, Douglas Democrats… Perhaps they do sail under the flag of Douglas, but it is the banner of the black Douglas whose name is Frederick not Stephen.”

Terry’s use of the word ‘master’ was at best inflammatory, implying that the ardently anti-slavery Broderick didn’t mind cracking his own whip when it suited him. There was also a tacit suggestion that Broderick’s position might instill not fairness, but black supremacy. By suggesting that Broderick and his supporters were secret supporters of African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglas instead of white Senator Stephen Douglas (chief opponent of the Lecompton Constitution) he was also questioning Broderick’s integrity and honesty. It didn’t help that Terry, who was there to secure re-nomination to the post of Chief Justice, was still passed over.   

It was far from the first insult Terry had thrown Broderick’s way. Broderick promptly responded in kind, again calling Terry an ingrate and questioning Terry’s own honesty and integrity. At the Intercontinental Hotel on 26 April Broderick raged in front of a group of bystanders over Terry’s speech. According to D. W. Perley, a friend of Terry’s who was present at the time, Broderick fumed:

“The damned miserable wretch, after being kicked out of the convention, went down there and made a speech abusing me. I have defended him at times when all others deserted him. I paid and supported three newspapers to defend him during the Vigilance Committee days and this is all the gratitude I get from the damned miserable wretch for the favors I have conferred on him.”

Still enraged, Broderick went even further according to Perley:

“I have hitherto spoken of him as an honest man – as the only honest man on the bench of a miserably corrupt court – but now I find I was mistaken. I take it all back. He’s just as bad as the others.”

When Perley related Broderick’s remarks to Terry himself, Terry was outraged. The hot-tempered former Chief Justice found this latest insult intolerable. He simply couldn’t tolerate taking insults despite being prepared to offer them.

Unable to swallow Broderick’s latest insult, Terry decided only one solution remained. If he was to preserve his name as a gentleman he would have to challenge Broderick to fight a duel. If Broderick wanted to preserve his own name and reputation he would have to accept.

Terry was hot-tempered and known to harbor grudges. He was also a Southern gentleman and familiar with dueling. Descended from the medieval custom of trial by combat in which a defendant’s guilt or innocence was decided by fighting their accuser, dueling still occurred in Europe.

Its customs and rules had been brought from Europe by colonists and dueling itself was an established custom even before the United States existed as an independent nation. Though less common in the North and East, dueling wasn’t confined to the South by any means. The duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, for instance, was fought in New Jersey. By 1859 it was Southern gentlemen who dueled and died most often.

Born in Russelville, Kentucky in 1823, Terry was a transplanted Southerner. Like many Southerners he brought Southern customs with him, dueling and a commitment to slavery being two of them. To many Southern gentlemen being insulted or having their morals questioned was cause to issue a challenge. It was expected that no self-respecting gentleman would refuse to duel no matter what the circumstances. Terry made the challenge believing that Broderick, as a gentleman and public figure, had no choice but to fight him.

Dueling had its own strict rules and traditions governing how duels should be arranged and fought, beginning with how a challenge should be issued. Imported from Europe where there were a multitude of rulebooks such as the ‘Codo Duello,’ these rules were strictly enforced. They dictated that a challenge should be verbal or preferably in writing. Terry sent Broderick a letter dated 8 September 1859. Referring to Broderick’s remarks as related by Mr. Perley, Terry insisted Broderick’s remarks were sufficiently offensive to warrant a duel and demanded Broderick retract them:

‘Oakland, September 8, 1859.

Hon. D. C. Broderick—Sir: Some two months since, at the public table of the International Hotel, in San Francisco, you saw fit to indulge in certain remarks concerning me, which were offensive in their nature. Before I had heard of the circumstance, your note of 20th of June, addressed to Mr. D. W. Perley, in which you declared that you would not respond to any call of a personal character during the political canvass just concluded, had been published.

I have, therefore, not been permitted to take any notice of those remarks until the expiration of the limit fixed by yourself. I now take the earliest opportunity to require of you a retraction of those remarks. This note will be handed to you by my friend, Calhoun Benham, Esq., who is acquainted with its contents, and will receive your reply. D. S. Terry.’

Broderick in turn refused, disingenuously demanding clarification of exactly what Terry had found so offensive. He doubtless knew perfectly well what had enraged Terry, the two men having known each other and been friends for so long. With that in mind Broderick may have been stalling, hoping the notoriously hot-headed Terry would calm down. This was highly unlikely, retracting a challenge being almost as frowned upon as refusing one.

Terry did nothing of the kind. He refused to let the insults drop and didn’t retract his challenge, either. Knowing a duel was now virtually inevitable Broderick suggested that it was for Terry to decide whether the remarks were sufficiently offensive to warrant a duel. When Terry insisted they were there was no going back. The Broderick-Terry duel was on.

The feud between the two had been public knowledge for some time and neither had made any secret of it. Their duel was no more discreet. It was so public a matter that the San Francisco Morning Call reported on it days beforehand:

“It is generally understood that Judge Terry is a first-rate shot, but is doubtful whether he is as unerring with the pistol as Senator Broderick. This gentleman, recently, in practicing in a gallery, fired two hundred shots at the usual distance, and plumped the mark every time. As he is also a man of firmer nerve than his opponent, we may look this morning for unpleasant news.”

The city of San Francisco had outlawed duels by a city ordinance, stopping the first duel before it even started. Despite Broderick and Terry agreeing a time and place between themselves a large group of spectators had gathered. So had San Francisco’s police with orders to prevent Broderick and Terry from fighting. With that in mind and knowing it wasn’t illegal outside city limits, Broderick and Terry agreed another date and place. The date would be 13 September, the place a ravine near Lake Merced just outside San Francisco’s southern boundary.

Traditionally duels required both combatants to have a ‘second.’ Usually a friend, seconds provided moral support and acted as go-betweens arranging the time, place and manner of duel to be fought. They might try to calm a situation and secure a peaceful resolution leading to a duel being called off. If one combatant broke the rules his opponent’s seconds might protest or even fight themselves. Though rare, it wasn’t unknown for duelists and their seconds to fight en masse especially in sword duels.

Being a matter of honour duels were usually fought with an umpire on hand to arbitrate disputes and see that everyone present kept to the agreed rules. Their role sometimes required more than just a polite reminder. If a combatant broke the rules the umpire might remind them first, but might also kill them if their breach was enough to warrant it. Dueling was certainly a dangerous business for those actually fighting, but it could be equally dangerous for anyone else involved.

In European duels the challenged combatant traditionally had the choice of weapons, usually long-bladed knives, swords or pistols. The Broderick-Terry duel’s weapons were decided by the toss of a coin. Winning the coin toss Terry chose his pair of .58-caliber pistols with hair triggers.

Though both men were expert shots Broderick was unfamiliar with the chosen pistols. He also had little time to get acquainted with them. Broderick’s unfamiliarity cost him his life. An account of the duel published by Munsey’s Magazine in August 1905 also noted a difference between the two pistols giving Terry a decisive and, many might think, unfair advantage:

‘Both pistols had hair triggers, but Broderick’s was more delicately set than Terry’s, so much so that a jar might discharge it. Broderick’s seconds were inexperienced men, and no-one realized the importance of this difference.”

It’s since been suggested that Terry chose the pair of pistols brought by his own second knowing the difference between the two triggers. It’s never been proved, but suggestions have been made that the pistols were marked so Terry knew not to take the more sensitive of the two. If so, Terry and his seconds committed one of the gravest possible breaches of dueling etiquette. It would mean their affair of honor had been decided in a most dishonorable way.

Compared to standard pistols of the time dueling pistols were a different weapon entirely. Usually custom-made and supplied in boxed pairs, dueling pistols were designed both for accuracy and with far lighter triggers than their standard counterparts. They were also more expensive than the pistols normally used by officers or gentlemen for everyday uses like combat or target shooting.

Their quality and price made them accessible only to the wealthy, prosperous gentleman duelist who had need of them. Standard pistols were relatively blunt instruments by comparison, dueling pistols were custom-made killing weapons serving no other purpose. Ownership of dueling pistols was both a sign of a gentleman’s social status and a tacit warning. It said to other gentlemen:

‘Be warned. Provoke me or those close to me and I’ll challenge you. Then I’ll kill you.’

David Broderick was about to find that out and pay dearly for the knowledge. Frustrated in their first attempt by a city ordinance, spectators and police, the former friends would meet again near Lake Merced on 13 September for the last time.

What has been called America’s last notable duel was about to be fought.

Frustrated on 12 September the two agreed to meet again the next day. It probably hadn’t escaped Broderick’s notice that he was fighting a duel on the unluckiest day of the month. Granted, 13 September 1859 was a Tuesday rather than a Friday, but it probably did nothing to settle his nerves. That there were approximately eighty witnesses probably didn’t help either.

As the duelists and their seconds arrived it was obvious that Broderick was feeling the strain. Pensive and uptight, he paced around unable to keep still. Terry, on the other hand, was very calm considering the risk he was taking. Whether he was calm because he had an unfair advantage and knew it will never be known.

The Broderick-Terry duel broke with tradition by not having an umpire. Instead David Colton was in charge. Colton, a friend of Broderick’s, was also his second. It was Colton who checked Broderick’s pistol and Colton who called both men to their marks. For less serious disputes pistol duels could be fought at distances of as much as thirty or even forty paces. If combatants preferred to observe tradition rather than actually fight they might even aim to miss, preserving honour without causing bloodshed. So bitter was their enmity that Broderick and Terry decided to fight at closer quarters.

Both intent on dueling to the death they would fire at only ten paces.

With their weapons chosen and checked, the pair answered Colton’s call. Another coin toss had been won by Broderick allowing him the right to choose positions. Broderick chose to stand with his back to the sun. If he thought it gave him an edge Broderick was to be fatally disappointed. Taking the spots now marked by the two obelisks they waited for permission to fire. There was no going back.

Colton, as agreed by both men, made the final call.

“Gentlemen, are you ready?”

Both were ready, although Broderick was by far he more nervous. Colton began the count.

“One…”

Both grasped their weapons, preparing to raise them. At the agreed count of three both men would aim and fire in their own time. If both men missed then they would either reload and fire again or declare the duel over.

‘BANG!”

Broderick’s pistol, by far the more sensitive of the two, discharged harmlessly into the ground in front of Terry. According to the rules of dueling and a gentleman’s code of honor Broderick had no choice but to stand absolutely still while Terry returned fire. If Terry missed Broderick then he might still live.

A .58-caliber lead ball at only ten paces would be fatal if it hit Broderick’s head or torso. If it hit an arm or leg then amputation was the most likely option, assuming Broderick didn’t die of blood loss, shock or gangrene. Standing still, Broderick could only watch as Terry raised his pistol, took careful aim and fired.

‘BANG!’

Broderick stumbled then slumped onto his back, the ball having ripped into his right lung. As Broderick lay in the arms of his second Terry looked on convinced his opponent wasn’t seriously hurt. Broderick, in fact, was dying. As he lay coughing blood and unable to stand Broderick remarked simply:

“The blood blinded me.”

Broderick died three days later and immediately became a martyr to America’s abolitionist movement. He was only thirty-nine years old. Some 25000 people attended his funeral in Portsmouth Square. Terry walked away from the duel unharmed and seemingly unconcerned. He was later acquitted of murder.

The duel and acquittal did nothing to calm Terry’s temper, something that later caused his own downfall. While Broderick became a martyr for the abolitionist movement Terry became even more determined to preserve slavery. Leaving California for Texas he joined the 8th Texas cavalry raised by his brother Benjamin. He later became Colonel of the 37th Texas Cavalry and left for Mexico after the Civil War ended.

Returning to California in 1870 Terry re-entered state politics only to find his notoriety still worked against him. Marrying Sarah Hill in 1886 Terry was embroiled in a lawsuit against his wife’s alleged ex-husband, former US Senator William Sharon. Sharon denied ever having married her and she lost both the case and the appeal. The appeal was decided by a former friend of Broderick’s, US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field.

When the ruling went against them both Terry and Hill went berserk. When Marshal Franks tried to restrain Hill her husband Terry intervened and a brawl ensued. One spectator, David Neagle, helped strip Terry of the Bowie knife he habitually carried before the pair were jailed. They spent much of their time in jail threatening the Marshal and when Field next visited California he arrived with a bodyguard appointed by US Attorney-General William Miller.

On 14 August 1889 Terry, aggressive to the end, bumped into Justice Field on a train near Lathrop, California. Terry, still harboring a grudge, first berated Field and then slapped him across the face. If Terry was hoping to force another duel he was to be very disappointed and almost immediately dead.

Justice Field was travelling with a bodyguard familiar to Terry and Hill, none other than Deputy US Marshal David Neagle. Neagle, a former deputy Sheriff and town marshal in Tombstone, Arizona, had been deputized by Attorney-General Miller. He was experienced, conscientious, quick on the draw, willing to shoot if necessary and did exactly that.

As Terry continued berating Field and then struck him Neagle whipped out his revolver. A  slug immediately tore into Terry’s body. Terry’s aggressive nature and habitual disrespect for others had finally been his undoing. He was later buried at the Stockton Rural Cemetery in California.

Neagle was arrested by California authorities on a murder charge, but the Federal Government had other ideas. They challenged his arrest with a writ of habeas corpus winning Neagle’s release. Like the Broderick-Terry duel the Neagle case also had far-reaching consequences. In 1890 a Supreme Court ruling confirmed  that the US Attorney-General had the right to appoint bodyguards for Supreme Court Justices. The court also ruled that those bodyguards answered to Federal authority, not that of any state.


The story of the ‘last notable duel in California’ can be found in my second book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Northern California.’ My first book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York‘ is also currently on sale.

Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Northern California, out on August 28.


Crime Scribe

Hello there.

It’s been a while since I last posted, but I’ve been busy on the second of three books for Fonthill’s ‘America Through Time’ series. This Rogues Gallery features sixteen of Northern California’s most wanted (and most interesting). Some are famous, some are not, but all have their own particular importance.

Home to San Quentin, Folsom and the legendary Alcatraz, Northern California’s criminal history is rich, varied, tragic and often brutal. Its thousands of mugshots present a portrait of a state and city’s progression and evolution. Its more notorious names and deeds are already well known but others, no less important, are often overlooked. This is an attempt to put them back in their proper place within California’s history and the chronicles of crime.

Some of America’s most infamous criminals and outlaws lived and died in the area including local crook John Paul Chase (crime partner of Public Enemy…

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On This Day in 1993 – David Mason, the last to enter California’s gas chamber.


The gas chamber has long been America’s most controversial, debatable, complicated and expensive way to execute its condemned. Since the world’s first judicial gassing (Gee Jon in Nevada in 1924) it has been used by eleven states to execute hundreds of convicts. Serial killer David Mason was the 196th convict to enter California’s chamber and the last in the Golden State to do so.

Shortly after Mason’s death Federal Judge Marylin Hall Patel ruled on a lawsuit brought by California’s condemned citing the gas chamber as cruel and unusual punishment. After reviewing the evidence and watching video footage of the gassing of Robert Alton Harris on 21 April 1992 Judge Patel (long opposed to the gas chamber) issued an historic ruling.

Until then no specific execution method had been ruled unconstitutional despite numerous legal battles to do so. Patel’s ruling applied only within California, then one of five states still using lethal gas. It was the end of what California’s condemned called the ‘time machine, ‘coughing box, ‘smokehouse’ or ‘the little green room.’ From then on California’s condemned would die by lethal injection.

Mason and Harris had been the only gassings in California since armed robber and cop-killer Aaron Mitchell. Mitchell, gassed in 1967, had attempted suicide hours before his execution and had had to be dragged kicking and screaming for the dozen steps between his holding cells (known as the Ready Room) and the chamber. Even after he was strapped in one of the chamber’s two perforated steel chairs Mitchell was still screaming ‘I am Jesus Christ!’

The gas silenced him permanently minutes later. For years the chamber too was silenced, lying almost abandoned until Harris died on 21 April 1992. Mason’s death came while the lawsuit resulting from Harris’s execution was still awaiting a ruling. The video footage of his death did as much as anything to convince Judge Patel that the chamber had no place in American penal policy. Discarded in California, it was seldom used elsewhere after her ruling.

Mason had murdered five people before being condemned to die. A long-time criminal with a lengthy record of arrests and incarceration, he had shown little remorse if any for the murders he had committed. Four elderly victims during robberies and a cellmate in the Alameda County Jail had died at his hands. All told he was widely viewed as a poster child for the death penalty rather than its abolition.

Mason, knowing he would only die in prison if he escaped the gas chamber, had decided to drop his appeals. Known as ‘Volunteers’ in America’s penal system, convicts choosing to die are not as rare as they might seem. Armed robber and killer Eddie Lee Mays (the last to be executed in New York) had given up in 1963, openly remarking he preferred the electric chair to spending the rest of his life behind bars.

Although afraid of the gas chamber Mason was prepared to face it rather than the rest of his life behind bars. If he was only going to die in prison anyway then, like Mays and numerous others before and since, he preferred to get it over with as soon as possible. The State of California was happy to oblige. It regarded Mason as a psychopath perfectly capable of telling right from wrong but fully prepared to rob and kill on a whim. Had Mason continued fighting his case it is likely he would have escaped the chamber only to receive lethal injection.

The preparations for his death had changed little since the chamber was first used in December 1938. In 1937 the Folsom Five’ had attempted to escape Folsom Prison murdering Warden Clarence Larkin in the process. In December 1938 Robert Cannon and Albert Kessel inaugurated San Quentin’s new method on 2 December, Wesley Eudy and Fred Barnes followed them on 9 December and Ed Davis died alone on 16 December. The first week for the chamber would remain one of its busiest. Cannon and Kessel had been numbers one and two. David Mason would be number 196.

The day before his death Mason followed the time-honored routine. He was escorted to one of the two Ready Room cells only feet from the chamber. He was medically examined and issued with the standard condemned clothing of blue jeans and a white T-shirt. Defying Mason’s own wishes, lawyers were still trying to get a last-minute stay of execution. Their efforts proved fruitless. Mason, convict C80300 in San Quentin’s register, hadn’t wanted another stay anyway. Refusing a last meal or to give any final statement, Mason wanted only iced water until the time came.

Had Mason wanted to appeal both his lawyer Mike Brady and Federal District Judge Ronald M. Whyte were ready to file and consider it. Prison staff had also made it absolutely clear to Mason that he only had to file one and it would likely be granted. Mason declined, holding to his stated intent of dying on schedule.

While Mason passed the time under constant supervision (‘death watch’ in prison parlance) other guards prepared a solution of 41% sulfuric acid mixed with distilled water. Lumps of sodium cyanide were placed in a cheesecloth bag and hung carefully above the pot that would receive the diluted acid. The straps were checked and the windows tested before being sealed around their edges with Vaseline to prevent leaks in the decades-old ‘smokehouse.’

All was ready, only time stood between Mason and just after midnight on 24 August 1993. In times past convicts were gassed or hanged at 10am on the first Friday of the month, a grim tradition that spawned the phrase ‘Black Friday.’ ‘Black Friday’ had long been discarded, convicts dying as and when the courts permitted. The ‘Big Sleep’ itself was also about to be discarded. The red-painted lever outside the apple green-painted gas chamber was about to be pulled for the last time.

Just after midnight the ritual began. Mason’s life and that of the chamber also ended. By 12:05am he was securely strapped into one of the chairs and the lever was pulled at around 12:09. It took Mason over three minutes to finally fall unconscious, contrary to Warden Daniel Vasquez telling him it would take only a few seconds.

Fourteen minutes later Mason was dead, a doctor standing outside the chamber listened through a specially-extended stethoscope and when Mason’s heart stopped beating the announcement came. Aside from Harris it was the first such announcement in California since Aaron Mitchell way back in 1967.

California’s gas chamber had claimed its last victim, at least by its original method. It would be converted into a lethal injection chamber thereafter, though could have been re-converted to a gas chamber quickly and easily if another convict chose that method. When Judge Patel issued her ruling the next year those allowed a choice lost their right to choose.

Judge Patel’s ruling came from a lawsuit Mason had declined to participate in. 12 April 1992 had seen Harris, David Fierro and Alejandro Ruiz file a complaint in Federal District Court to have lethal gas declared unconstitutional, a lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and Warren George and Carolyn Reid of Los Angeles law firm McCutcheon, Doyle, Brown and Enerson.

Judge Patel had issued a restraining order barring Harris from execution, an order overruled by the US Supreme Court which had also ordered Harris receive no further stays except from the Supreme Court itself, a highly unusual legal move. The result had been double-murderer Harris being taken in and out of the chamber before finally dying at around 6am instead of just after midnight. It had been Harris’s execution that Judge Patel had ordered be videotaped, a tape that she viewed and was later destroyed.

The case was both controversial and sometimes acrimonious. The plaintiffs made a powerful case based on eyewitness testimony and San Quentin’s own execution records. Scientific evidence on the speed and effectiveness of cyanide gas further bolstered their case. The State of California offered testimony only from a US Army pharmacologist and toxicologist.

By far the most damning evidence regarded the State of California’s ties to Fred Leuchter. A self-proclaimed execution expert, Holocaust-denier and fraudulent ‘engineer’ (later found to be practising without an engineering license), Leuchter had invented a lethal injection machine and advised on electrocutions and the gas chamber for a number of US states including California. The so-called ‘Mr. Death’ had been responsible for refurbinshing San Quentin’s gas chamber.

Merely being associated with such a character as Leuchter further discredited California’s case (which had been none too strong to start with). The case began on 25 October 1993, ending on 5 November. On 4 October 1994 Judge Patel’s ruling finally shot the ‘smokehouse down.’ Patel declared California’s gas chamber cruel and unusual punishment violating the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. It was the first time a Federal court had ruled a specific method to be unconstitutional.

The ruling had an effect far outside California itself. It was upheld in 1996 by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in another unprecedented Federal court ruling. California was now unable to use its gas chamber as a gas chamber by Federal court order. It would never do so again. The chamber was converted into a lethal injection facility instead.

The stories of the Folsom Five and Aaron Mitchell 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.

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.

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