Not a tale of Christmas cheer, granted, but worth noticing all the same. Not only the debut of New York’s fourth and penultimate State Electrician, but Francel also arrived with what was known as a ‘triple hitter.’ That night three men would die at his hand, and for Francel it was only the beginning.
On 24 August that year predecessor Robert Greene Elliott performed his 387th and last execution. Old, frail and perhaps knowing that his time too was almost up, Elliott had turned the switch on Arthur Perry. A typical death house resident, Perry was 24 years old, African-American and convicted of murder during a robbery and he died quietly. Elliott himself died on 10 October, Francel’s appointment being announced only two days later. McDonald, Myslevic and Maselkiewicz, meanwhile, already had an appointment of their own.
Myslevic had committed a typical crime of passion. His lover’s husband William Dobitz had been in the way. Myslevic had put out of the way, ambushing Dobitz with a shotgun blast after dark. His treachery had given Dobitz no chance of escaping his fate. The jury, appeals judges and Governor Thomas Dewey hadn’t given Myslevic any, either.
Everett McDonald’s crime was one of murder by incompetence. He’d actually been aiming his gun at two other men when he fired and missed. Unfortunately his bullets didn’t, hitting another man by mistake. That wasn’t much of a defence to put before a judge and jury and like Myslevic he was given short shrift by the courts and Governor.
Last of the trio was Theodore Maskeliewicz. Maskeliewicz had begged to be shown mercy, it was near to Christmas and he’d hoped the Governor might be in the holiday mood. Governor Dewey wasn’t in the holiday mood, showing as much mercy for Maselkiewicz as he’d shown his estranged wife on Christmas Eve of 1938. She hadn’t wanted to return to their less-than-happy home and Maselkiewicz, upset and angry at her non-compliance, had cut her throat with a razor. 1939 would be his second miserable holiday season. It was also his last.
As was standard, Francel had arrived at Sing Sing several hours beforehand. An electrical contractor living in Cairo, New York but originally from Minnesota, 42-year-old war veteran Francel made a discreet arrival and headed straight for the death house. Being his debut, he wanted to thoroughly test his equipment and ensure that nothing would go wrong. If anything did it would be his first and probably last time at the switch.
While Francel made his final checks Warden Lewis Lawes was meeting and greeting the newsmen and witnesses, probably while hoping the trio would be reprieved. Despite being America’s leading practitioner of capital punishment at the time Lawes was also its leading opponent. He made no secret of hating the death penalty and dreading his regular trips to the custom-made death house, the prison-within-a-prison warehousing those the Empire State had marked for death.
The event attracted little media attention despite being both a triple-hitter and Francel’s debut. Press reports consisted largely of postcard-sized pieces in the New York papers and that was about it. None of the three had committed the kind of media-friendly murder that would have garnered banner headlines and the Second World War was underway. Only a week earlier its first major battle had been fought, the Battle of the River Plate. With war news taking greater precedence and executions being seen as rather mundane affairs by then, the only way it would have gained more attention would have been if something had gone wrong. Francel, a thoroughly professional executioner if still a debutante, ensured that nothing did. Despite the pressure he was under Francel remained calm. McDonald, Myslevic and Maskeliewicz went one after the other quietly, quickly and professionally. Until his sudden resignation in August 1953 they were the first of 137 to die at his hand in New York not counting those in other states.
His ‘clients’ included some of America’s most notorious felons. Seven members of notorious underworld death squad Murder Incorporated, double child-killer Edward Haight (only 17 when he died), waterfront gangsters Johnny ‘Cockeye’ Dunn and Martin ‘Squint’ Sheridan, and ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’ Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck all paid their price with Francel throwing the switch. And, of course, a multitude of others whose names and crimes went barely-reported. This nameless, faceless parade of the damned added up to over 140 tombstones and a considerable amount of money, but it also had its downsides.
The careers of New York’s five State Electricians all seem to have ended badly. After 240 electrocutions including William Kemmler (the world’s first) Edwin Davis quit in a pay dispute in 1914. His standard $250 fee per convict was cut to $150 with an extra $50-per-head for executing more than one at a time. Offended by the pay cut for so specialised a job, Davis walked off it. John Hurlburt succeeded Davis in 1914. In 1926 he abruptly resigned, suffering from depression after 140 executions. In 1929 he shot himself. Hurlburt had been succeeded by Elliott and Elliott by Francel.
Francel too came to dislike the job, claiming to receive too many threats, too much publicity and too little pay. The pay hadn’t changed since Davis’s time and, with New York executing progressively fewer prisoners, Francel became progressively more dissatisfied with the money on offer. He didn’t like having his life repeatedly threatened, either, especially when his name and profession became public knowledge.
The publicity from executing Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on 19 June 1953 was the last straw. After executing escapee and child-killer Donald Hugh Snyder on July 16 he turned in his resignation. After 14 years and over 140 executions Francel had finally had enough. He would be replaced by electrician and deputy sheriff Dow Hover who scrupulously avoided the publicity that plagued his predecessors.
Hover also began his career with a triple-hitter, executing William Draper, Maurice ‘Digger’ O’Dell and Walter Griffin on 1 July 1954. Between then and New York’s last execution (Eddie Lee Mays on 15 August 1963) Hover executed over 40 convicts including Mays, Gerhard Puff (New York’s last Federal execution on 12 August 1954), notorious hitman-for-hire Elmer ‘Trigger’ Burke on 9 January 1958 and Angelo LaMarca on 7 August 1958.
Puff had been something of a death house luminary. An armed robber, killer and resident of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, Puff had been cornered by the FBI at the Congress Hotel. While escaping the trap Puff shot Special Agent Joseph Brock in the back, stealing Brock’s gun before being shot, wounded and captured by other agents.
Elmer Burke had been a notorious if conventional contract killer. A World War II veteran and expert with a Tommy gun, Burke tended to use either that or a double-barrelled shotgun. After at least six contract killings he was condemned for shooting Edward Walsh after Walsh stopped him murdering a customer at Walsh’s tavern. Burke’s other career highlights included at least one successful escape and unsuccessfully attempting to murder Joseph ‘Specs’ O’Keefe, the informant who betrayed the gang responsible for the 1951 Brinks robbery.
Angelo LaMarca’s crime had been kidnapping baby Peter Weinberger. Heavily in debt, a desperate LaMarca kidnapped the baby and demanded a ransom. When he abandoned the child during a bungled ransom drop Peter Weinberger died. In turn so did Angelo LaMarca. LaMarca’s case partly inspired Robert de Niro’s 2002 feature film ‘City By The Sea.’
By 1965 almost no condemned occupied the once-legendary death house and Francel was long gone. In 1969 so was New York’s death penalty, abolished by the state’s law-makers. With its inmates gone the death house lay unused until it was converted into a vocational centre. Old Sparky had already left, removed to another death chamber at Green Haven maximum-security prison it lay in wait in case executions should one day resume. They never did.
After resigning in 1953 Francel drifted quietly (and perhaps gratefully) back into the anonymity he so preferred. His name still cropped up in articles, books and documentaries, but he lived quietly and as inconspicuously as possible, slowly sinking into the obscurity he’d enjoyed before his appointment in 1939. He died on 25 January 1981, still living in Cairo.
The careers of Joseph Francel and New York’s four other State Electricians are covered more fully in my new book Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York published on November 25 2019.