At dawn on September 3, 1915 Sing Sing Prison’s original Death House was almost full. With only eight cells and seven condemned men occupying them it was busy by Death House standards. It wouldn’t remain so for very long.
Today was a dark day for Death House denizens. Unusual even when Sing Sing’s death chamber was among America’s busiest, five of its residents were about to die. The other two were Death House luminaries. Father Hans Schmidt, who would die on February 18, 1916, was and remains America’s only Catholic priest executed for murder. Oreste Shillitoni AKA ‘Harry Shields,’ known to New York’s public and press as ‘The Paperbox Kid’ was even more of a stand-out.
Shillitoni would die on June 30, 1916. His execution would be delayed by the feat that made him famous. Already condemned and knowing his time was short Shillitoni managed something nobody else had done or would ever do. Using a smuggled pistol he murdered Office McCarthy before escaping from the Death House. Wounded and recaptured after only a few hours, Shillitoni’s body would feel the burn, but his legend would live on.
For now, though, Schmidt and Shillitoni would only watch and wait. Their turn would come, but not yet.
It had come for Antonio Salemme, Louis Roach, Thomas Tarpey, William Perry and Pasquale Venditti. Their appeals were exhausted, their lawyers were helpless, the Governor wasn’t feeling merciful and the clock was still ticking. One thing everybody knew, their race was run.
John Hurlburt, the second of five men to bear the euphemistic title of ‘State Electrician’ was also watching and waiting. Arriving the day before from his home at Auburn in upstate New York, it was his job to throw the switch. He would be concealed in a cubicle directly behind the chair, never seen by the reporters who’d be watching him work. A man who loved anonymity and loathed journalists, that suited Hurlburt just fine. Like his predecessor Edwin Davis, the world’s first ‘electrocutioner,’ he was afraid of publicity and the revenge it might bring. After testing and checking everything was in order he too had nothing to do but wait.
William Perry, 27 years old, from Harlem and the murderer of his girlfriend, was first to go. Second in line was an oddity in the Death House. Thomas Tarpey was British, a former soldier convicted of murdering a work colleague. His was a botched job requiring no less than five jolts before he died. After he was pronounced dead a Death House guard gave him an awed tribute:
“Wow! What a man.”
Pasquale Venditti and Lewis Roach were next. Venditti hadn’t liked the price of his rent. Venditti’s landlord hadn’t liked being shot, either. Lewis Roach was a Montgomery County farmhand condemned for the murder of his employer. No judge or the Governor was prepared to intervene and so they died without further ado.
Antonio Salemme was the last of them. A Sicilian, Salemme had discovered on his wedding night that his new bride wasn’t a virgin. His honour and manliness insulted, Salemme had stewed over it. On June 12, 1914 while his wife lay asleep in their bed, Salemme slit her throat. He saw his honour restored and the supposed insult avenged. Judge, jury and state Governor saw it differently. His seat in Old Sparky was the result. As Salemme left Death Row he called his final goodbye to his fellows:
As Salemme walked his last mile, actually only a few steps through the single door between Death Row and the execution chamber, Shillitoni responded:
“Be strong, Antonio! God will provide for you! Say your prayers!”
Seated, strapped, capped and ready to die, Salemme said no more. In the cubicle directly behind him Davis got the signal. A cord was pulled, tightening round his hand, the signal to throw the switch. Another tug told him to shut off the power
Antonio Salemme was dead.
Of course, it didn’t end there. Hundreds more would die at the old Death House and the replacement opened in 1922. All told 614 prisoners would die in Sing Sing’s chair, the last being Eddie Lee Mays on August 15, 1963. They mainly died alone or in pairs although triple, quadruple and even the occasional quintuple execution would still occur. But not at the original Death House.
Situated in B Block, the execution chamber was right next to the condemned cells. During executions those whose turn was yet to come could hear everything. The fixing of the straps and electrodes, their condemned comrade’s last words, the clank of the switch, the hum of the current and the doctor pronouncing death. After the execution an autopsy was mandated by state law. The autopsy room being next to the death chamber, the prisoners could hear that as well.
With a number of prisoners going insane a new Death House was built with its execution room and morgue well out of the sight and sound of the condemned. Custom-designed by state architect Lewis Pilcher to the very specific requirements of legendary Warden Lewis Lawes, it remains operational today as a vocational centre where inmates learn a trade. Lawes, the New York death penalty’s most prolific practitioner and perhaps its fiercest opponent, would have appreciated the change.
Shillitoni’s legendary Death House escape 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. My most recent work ‘Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in Northern California‘ is also on sale now.