It’s common to find ‘Peachtree Bandit’ Frank Dupre, armed robber and murderer executed on September 1, 1921 with Luke McDonald, listed as the last man to hang in Georgia. He wasn’t. That was Arthur Meyers, a murderer hanged at Augusta on June 17, 1931 for a murder committed in March, 1924. McDonald, despite dying with the notorious DuPree, seldom gets a mention in accounts of DuPree’s case.
It’s equally common for the same reports to list a ‘Howard Henson,’ electrocuted on September 13, 1924, as the first Georgian to ride the lightning. He wasn’t, his name was actually Howard Hinton. Hinton was executed for rape and robbery or, to put it more delicately, ‘assaulting a white woman.’ Hinton (1920’s Georgia being 1920’s Georgia) was an African-American.
So, with that in mind, why the confusion? The Georgia Assembly, thanks in part to Dupre’s execution, had passed a law on August 16, 1924 changing the State’s method from hanging to electrocution and removing tthe responsibility from individual counties. Anyone condemned after that was headed for the Georgia State Prison then located at Milledgeville. Only those already sentenced to hang would face the gallows operated by their resident County Sheriff.
Before Hinton walked his last mile at Milledgeville, James Satterfield and Harrison Brown still faced the rope. After Hinton, Warren Walters, Gervais Bloodworth, Willie Jones and Mack Wooten also kept their dates with the hangman. Not until Meyers was Georgia’s gallows finally consigned to history, by which time there had been 6 more hangings and 66 electrocutions.
Georgia’s method had changed. Its procedure had changed even more. Instead of County Sheriffs the Warden at Milledgeville now became Georgia’s only official executioner. Granted, County Sheriffs would occasionally still jerk their levers, but Milledgeville’s Warden would be throwing a switch.
County Sheriffs were relegated to a supporting role, escorting their condemned to Milledgeville any time between twenty and two days before their scheduled date of execution. At Milledgeville the Warden would be assisted by a qualified electrician, two doctors, a guard and two assistant executioners. The condemned could also have their lawyers, relatives, friends and religious representatives with them when their time came.
Appropriated on August 27, 1924, Georgia State Prison’s nnew death chamber cost $4760.65. The change had also been overwhelmingly endorsed by the state’s House of Representatives. They’d voted 115 to 45 in favour with 46 abstentions. It hadn’t been universally approved, though. Milledgeville is located within Baldwin County and Baldwin Representative J. Howard Ennis wasn’t happy.
Echoing the concerns raised decades later by Marvin Wiggins, Superintendent of Mississippi’s State Penitentiary in Sunflower County, Ennis decried the idea of Baldwin being known as the ‘Death County’ if executions there became a permanent feature. It did no good. Just as Wiggins was later ignored in Mississippi, Ennis’s pleas met deaf ears in Georgia. Wiggins was saddled with Mississippi’s new method, the gas chamber replacing the state’s portable electric chair. Ennis was saddled with the method Mississippi would later replace.
Like it or not, Old Sparky had come to the Peachtree State and was there to stay. As Georgia’s County Sheriffs had once plunged their inmates into eternity, Milledgeville’s Warden would offer Georgia’s condemned a new form of Southern hospitality;
A short walk and a comfortable chair.
Unlike in Mississippi, Sparky’s reign in Georgia would be long if equally inglorious, ending with murderer David Loomis Cargill on June 9, 1998. Sparky’s lair remained at Milledgeville until 1938. 14 years and 162 executions later Willie Daniels provided its farewell meal before moving to the new Georgia State Prison at Reidsville, dying in the chair on December 27, 1937.
At Reidsville business was even more brisk. 256 inmates (including the now-exonerated Lena Baker) met their ends. First was murderer Archie Haywood on May 6, 1938. The last was murderer Bernard Dye on October 16, 1964. Sparky wouldn’t be put to work again at Reidsville, moving again to the euphemistically-named Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center in Jackson in June, 1980. The original chair was pensioned off, replaced by another. Georgia would have to wait three years to christen the new chair, now on display at Reidsville.
The new chair debuted on December 15, 1983 when murderer John Eldon Smith suffered Georgia’s first execution in almost 20 years. He wasn’t far from being its last. Until May, 2001 when Georgia replaced bottled lightning with bottled poison, another 22 convicts would be seated, strapped, capped and killed. In May, 2001 Georgia’s chair finally met its end, replaced by lethal injection. In October of that year the Georgia Supreme Court finally pulled the plug. Old Sparky was now cruel and unusual punishment. By the time the chair became history it had taken 440 men and one woman with it.
It’s sobering that Arthur Meyer (last to hang) and Howard Hinton (first to be electrocuted) were both African-Americans. It’s even more sobering to consider that the majority of Georgia’s executions, regardless of method, have been non-white. It’s also an unfortunate fact that Milledgeville wasn’t just the first place in Georgia to see an electrocution, but also the first capital of the Southern Confederacy.
Jim Crow has cast a long shadow.