As regular readers know, I do like crime’s more unusual case, the firsts, lasts and onlys. Minnesota’s George Sitts is certainly one of those. Born in Leroy, Minnesota on October 29, 1913, he was a serial felon, escape artist and double cop-killer. He was also the first, last and only inmate to sit in South Dakota’s electric chair. So, the appropriately-named Sitts did indeed sit on April 8, 1947. Once and very briefly.
Sitts had escaped from the Hennequin County Jail in his native Minnesota where he was awaiting transfer to Stillwater State Prison for murdering liquor store clerk Erik Jhansson during a robbery on December 12, 1945. A life sentence at Stillwater didn’t appeal to him so, with three other inmates, he broke out. This was very bad news for several people.
By January 24, 1946 he’d got as far as South Dakota, leaving a trail of gas stations without actually paying for his gas. Near the town of Spearfish he was confronted by Butte County Sheriff Dave Malcolm and State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Tom Matthews. Sitts murdered both of them, reportedly shooting one of them as his victim lay wounded on the ground.
Sitts had gone from being a garden-variety escaped felon to the target of a multi-State manhunt. Already wanted by Minnesota he was wanted in Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska as well. The double killing in South Dakota could see him electrocuted if he was caught. Caught he eventually was.
On January 28 he arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota. Deadwood was no stranger to fugitives and violent gunmen. At one time the legendary ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok had been its resident lawman and compared to Hickok’s enemies Sitts was one of Deadwood’s more minor criminals. Either out of sheer bravado or, more likely, not knowing whose house it was, he broke into the home of former Deadwood police chief Ross Dunn. He lived secretly in Dunn’s basement, living off canned food and seemingly invisible to law enforcement.
By now local newspaper the Rapid City Journal had started a fundraising drive for a reward assisted by the Black Hills and Badlands Association. On January 31 (the same day the fund drive started) Butte County Sheriff Dave Malcolm was buried and a successor appointed. On February 4 Sitts crept out of Deadwood.
The same day he flagged down motorist Leonard Ronneburg and abducted him at gunpoint, forced Ronneburg to drive him across the State line into Beulah, Wyoming and left him there. Sitts, having relieved Ronneburg of his car, kept going until he drew near the town of Lysite. There, mistaking a posse for a group of ranchers, he was arrested and returned to South Dakota to be tried for murdering Agent Matthews.
The trial was both brief and a foregone conclusion. It began on March 18, Sitts was convicted on March 22 and Judge Charles Hayes sentenced him to death on March 30. SItts, the fourth man condemned to South Dakota’s chair, would be the first, last and only man to sit in it.
When South Dakota condemned its first inmate to electrocution (Clifford Hayes for murdering Grant County Sheriff Melbourne Lewis in 1939) they didn’t actually have an electric chair. As the law offered only electrocution as a method the State had to borrow one from Illinois and have inmates make a replica. Illinois had adopted electrocution in 1928 and had three chairs at Menard, Cook County Jail and Stateville Prison, so lending South Dakota one of theirs wasn’t a problem.
Connected, wired and tested, the replica sat in the jute mill at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, still awaiting its first occupant. When inmates two and three had their sentences commuted Sitts, South Dakota’s fourth candidate for the dubious distinction of being its first victim, found his number was up. Despite a brief problem with obtaining a head electrode (someone bought and modified a football helmet for the occasion) Sitts was doomed. As a double cop killer, escape artist and serial felon he could hardly have been surprised.
At 12:15 on April 8, 1947, the fateful time finally came. After a last meal of chicken chow mein, Sitts, his head and leg shaved, was escorted from his cell to the jute mill. 41 witnesses were there for this first in South Dakota history. As he was strapped into the chair, Sitts was asked for any final words. Defiant to the end, he replied;
“This is the first time authorities helped me escape prison.”
Minutes later, the switch was thrown. Four jolts of around 2000 volts each seared through Sitts’ body. The switch was said to have been thrown by SCI Agent Floyd Short, a personal friend of murder victim Agent Tom Matthews. The preparations may well have been overseen by a professional executioner hired in for the occasion. That wasn’t unusual, New York executioner John Hurlburt had narrowly escaped lynching when hired for Nebraska’s first electrocutions, being hurriedly replaced by retired Massachusettts executioner E.B. Currier. Oklahoma executioner Ricch Owens was brought in to run New Mexico’s first use of the electric chair. As the current was turned off and the generator wound down, Sitts was pronounced dead.
South Dakota wouldn’t have another execution for 60 years, until Elijah Page died by lethal injection on July 11, 2011. Page was from Lawrence County, scene of the Sitts trial in 1946. He’d also committed his crime near the town of Spearfish, where Sitts had earned his place in criminal history.