August 15, 1963 was an historic day in New York’s penal history, although nobody involved knew it at the time. New York’s lawmakers didn’t know it. the Warden of New York’s infamous Sing Sing Prison (now the Ossining Correctional Facility) didn’t know either. Dow Hover (New York’s last ‘State Electrician’) was also unaware, it was just another date in his increasingly-bare diary. Eddie Lee Mays (armed robber and murderer of no particular note) didn’t know. He was well beyond caring by then anyway.
At 10pm Eddie Lee Mays would walk his last mile, sit down and die. He would leave his pre-execution cell in Sing Sing’s ‘death house,’ walk twenty feet with two prison officers and a prison Chaplain, take a seat in ‘Old Sparky’ and ride the lightning. Moved from his regular Death House cell twelve hours before the scheduled time,
Mays would spend his final hours in the ‘Dance Hall,’ a group of six cells nearer the death chamber. Since William Kemmler on August 6 1890 694 men and women had made their last walk, mostly at Sing Sing but also at Dannemora and Auburn. Mays, though, would be the 695th and last time a State Electrician pulled his switch and turned his dials.
Mays was 34 years old, an ex-convict from North Carolina where he’d already served a sentence for murder. He’d been especially lucky to avoid North Carolina’s gas chamber twenty years earlier. North Carolina’s chamber did brisk business in the 1940’s and 1950’s and being African-American wasn’t going to work in his favour.
Sing’s Sing’s electric chair would prove unavoidable. Mays himself wasn’t especially bothered by the typical Death Row inmate’s standards. With a lengthy criminal record and no future other than more prison time, Mays had already said he’d rather ‘fry’ than spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Along with two accomplices (neither of whom faced the ‘hot seat’) Mays had embarked upon a string of violent crimes during 1961. Resident in Harlem after leaving North Carolina’s penal system Mays had hit the ground running. In only six weeks Mays and his gang claimed to have committed at least fifty-two armed robberies. Having already shown North Carolina that murder wasn’t beyond him, it’s no great surprise that Mays quickly killed again in New York.
On March 23, 1961 Mays and his friends entered the ‘Friendly Tavern’ at 1403 Fifth Avenue and showed their guns, demanding the owner and his customers hand over every cent they had. One of them was Maria Marini, known to her friends as ‘Pearl.’ Maria didn’t open her purse as quickly as Mays demanded and when she did, it was empty. Mays, enraged by her tardiness and lack of cash, bellowed:
“I’m going to kill somebody! I mean it! I’ll show you!”
Turning to Maria he then bellowed:
“I ought to kill you!”
And then he did. Mays put his .38 pistol directly against her forehead and squeezed the trigger in a totally unnecessary murder before running away with $275 in cash. Before long Mays and his accomplices were in custody awaiting trial. Their future looked bleak at best, either life imprisonment or a very brief acquaintance with Sing Sing’s most notorious resident;
By 1962 New York had already discarded its mandatory death penalty for murder, opting for new legislation separating capital from non-capital murder. Unfortunately for Mays, New York’s Felony Murder Statute defined murder during a robbery as capital murder. Given his lengthy record, previous murder conviction and the totally unnecessary murder of Maria Marini, the outcome was in no real doubt.
Quickly convicted and condemned it wasn’t long before Eddie Lee Mays was on the fast-track to a disinterested (if not unwilling) place in New York’s penal history. His accomplices could also have been condemned but they struck lucky. As Mays had fired the shot, the judge ruled, they escaped with lengthy prison terms and their lives. As the shooter Mays wouldn’t be so fortunate.
Mays had his one mandatory appeal granted by law. Neither the State Court of Appeals or State Governor were ready to intervene. Warden Wilfred .L. Denno (appointed in December 1950) received his latest ‘thunderbolt jockey’ and Denno already knew the drill backwards. Mays would be one of dozens Denno walked to their deaths.
Following the decades-old routine, he gave the usual orders. Death House staff made the usual preparations. Denno also sent a letter asking ‘State Electrician’ Mr. Dow Hover to set August 15, 1963 in his diary. Hover agreed, driving down from his Germantown home a few hours before the scheduled time of 10pm.
Hover was the last of five men to hold the title of New York’s ‘State Electrician.’ The principal qualifications were being a fully-qualified electrician, being prepared to kill people for $150 an inmate (with an extra $50 per inmate for multiple executions, not unusual events at Sing Sing) and not minding the measly 8 cents a mile fuel allowance.
Edwin Davis, John Hurlburt, Robert Elliott and Joseph Francel had all pulled the switch over 640 times between them. It was Hover who replaced Francel when Francel unexpectedly resigned in 1954 shortly after executing murderer William Draper. A private man by nature, Francel had found publicity surrounding atom bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg both intrusive and intimidating. The death threats, inevitable for most executioners, hadn’t helped either.
Francel was also deeply satisfied with the money which hadn’t improved much since Davis executed William Kemmler at Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890.If anything it had grown worse. The State had shorted Davis by reducing his pay from $250 per convict to $150 for a single with an extra $50 per head for double or multiple executions.
That may have pleased New York’s accountants but not its first State Electrician. Davis, thoroughly unhappy with being cheated (as he saw it) had abruptly resigned. With decades of inflation and a steadily-declining number of executions Francel too had quit at short notice. Hover wasn’t concerned about the money provided he remained anonymous.
Hover seldom seemed bothered the work. A cold and unemotional man, he saw executions as a professional job to be properly done and then forgotten about. The low pay didn’t bother him either, but any publicity did. Hover was extremely careful to avoid being publicly identified. He’d change the number plates on his car before leaving home, changing them back on his return. He also never talked about his work with anybody and did all he could to keep out of sight.
August 15, 1963 would be the last time he drove a car with false number plates.
By late-afternoon, all was ready. Warden Denno had screened the official witnesses and reporters who would be present that night. The prison officers had rehearsed their already well-rehearsed routine. They would have no trouble escorting Mays on his last mile, strapping him down securely and the general running of the execution. Mays himself had consulted with the prison’s Protestant chaplain. He’d also refused a last meal, asking instead for a carton of Pall Mall cigarettes.
Under Death House rules he wasn’t allowed matches in his condemned cell. Whenever he wanted a smoke (which was increasingly often) an officer had to light it for him. His head and right leg were shaved for the electrodes and he was given the traditional execution clothes.
These were specially made with a slit right trouser leg and wooden buttons that wouldn’t catch fire, glow or melt when the switch was thrown. Instead of shoes or boots Mays would walk his last mile in shower slippers. The Warden and witnesses gathered while Hover tested his equipment thoroughly. It was all in perfect working order. All that was left was to watch the clock and wait until 10pm when the final act would begin.
It began promptly and worked like a well-oiled machine, like clockwork. Mays gave no trouble as he walked his last mile. Before a small audience of prison staff and a few disinterested reporters he quickly seated himself without making any final statement.
Officers swiftly applied thick, heavy leather straps rounds his wrists, ankles, waist and chest. Hover attached the electrode to Mays’ right calf muscle, firmly sliding the leather helmet containing the head electrode down over Mays’ shaven skull. A thick leather strap with a hole exposing his nose went over Mays’s face, buckled tightly round the back of the chair. His last sight on earth would have been the cold- dispassionate eyes of Hover. With that done Mays was strapped down tight, the electrodes were firmly attached, the generator was running properly. All was set.
Warden Denno gave the signal, his 62nd since assuming command of Sing Sing in 1950 and the last in New York’s history. Like Hover, Denno was no stranger to the grim ritual. In the thirteen years since taking over he’d stood in front of ‘Old Sparky’ on sixty-one previous occasions involving some of New York State’s most notorious criminals.
In 1951 it had been the ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’ Raymond Fernandez and Martha Jule Beck. In 1953 it had been Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, their publicity had caused Joseph Francel to quit and Dow Hover to be throwing the switch that night. In 1954 it had been Gerhard Puff. A German immigrant, armed robber, murderer and resident of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, Puff died for murdering FBI Special Agent Joseph Brock.
In 1958 it was notorious hitman Elmer ‘Trigger’ Burke (for murdering bar-owner Edward ‘Poochy’ Walsh) and Angelo LaMarca (for the kidnap-murder of Peter Weinberger). Then in 1960 Henry ‘Snow’ Flakes had died in front of Denno. A former heavyweight boxing contender, Flakes had fallen on hard times, developed a drug problem and killed a store-owner during a robbery. Like Mays, Flakes died without leaving a final statement, although he did have an enormous last meal.
And in between the ones anybody remembered, assuming they’d heard of them at all, were dozens of others. Nameless, faceless and quickly lifeless, their deaths hadn’t rated so much as a paragraph in their local paper. Not for them the banner headlines of the Rosenbergs or Martha Beck.
When Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez died on March 8, 1951 their deaths made headlines nationwide. Those of John King and Richard Powers, executed the same night for murdering Detective Joseph Miccio, were barely acknowledged then or now. The likes of Powers, King and hundreds of others might as well have been phantoms. Their deaths, when they came, were real enough.
Warden Denno gave the signal, Hover worked the controls in a pre-determined cycle perfected by his predecessor Robert Elliott. 2000 volts for three seconds, 500 for fifty-seven seconds, 2000 again for three seconds, 500 for fifty-four seconds and 2000 again for the last few seconds. Hover shut off his controls, Denno signaled to the prison physician to make his checks. All waited quietly for the outcome.
Eddie Lee Mays was dead.
New York abolished the death penalty almost entirely in 1965. The only exceptions were prison inmates who committed murder while already serving a life sentence and anybody murdering a police officer or prison officer. ‘Old Sparky’ was uprooted and transferred to the maximum-security Green Haven Correctional Facility in 1969. The last Death Row inmate in New York condemned prior to abolition had their sentence commuted in 1972 when the US Supreme Court struck down all existing State death penalty laws in its historic ruling Furman vs Georgia.
New York briefly reinstated capital punishment in 1995 when then-Governor George Pataki signed the new law using the pen of a murdered police officer (having made sure the media knew about the pen’s previous owner). But New York’s State Courts struck down his law, ruling it unconstitutional. There were no executions in New York during its brief existence.
Even the infamous Sing Sing ‘Death House’ star of so many books, movies, radio dramas, TV documentaries and now blog posts, has lost its grim purpose. Today it’s known simply as Unit 17, a vocational training centre used by inmates wanting to learn a trade. Warden Lewis Lawes, at one time America’s most-frequent practitioner of the death penalty (and its most high-profile opponent) might have seen that as a sign of progress. Whether any of its hundreds of residents still haunt the former Death House is unknown.
The last word on New York’s last execution goes to Warden Denno, who remained in charge at Sing Sing until 1967. In 1965 he went over to the Death House with the best news its few remaining residents could have dreamt of. New York’s lawmakers had abolished the death penalty except for the murder of police or prison officers.
Aside from cop killers Anthony Portelli and Jerry Rosenberg (both later commuted) all the condemned were now lifers, no longer dead men walking. Denno arrived with the good news during a baseball match, commenting afterward:
“It may sound incredible, but they seemed more interested in the ball game.”
If the death penalty is a deterrent intended to strike dread into the criminally-inclined, that wasn’t quite the reaction Denno had expected.
The story of New York’s last execution and fifteen other historic New York cases can be found in my book ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York,’ published by Fonthill Media and America Through Time.