Unlike in Dickens’ classic novel Dwight Beard did not go to the guillotine as an act of redemption. The nobility so prized by Dickens (himself opposed to capital punishment) simply wasn’t in Beard’s nature. On 4 June 1937 he sat in the ‘Texas Thunderbolt’ at Huntsville, riding the lightning for a murder during one of his many armed robberies. Many would look at his record and believe he should have died years earlier.
Unlike Dickens’ protagonist Sydney Carton, Beard was anything but virtuous and certainly more than just a misguided rogue. He was a dedicated and full-time professional criminal, armed robber, escaper and killer. Even having narrowly escaped electrocution in North Carolina did nothing to deter him from murdering in Texas.
By the time he arrived in the Death House at Huntsville in 1934 Beard had broken laws in several states, killed in North Carolina and Texas, been charged with another murder in Georgia and had already been condemned to die once only to have his sentence commuted. The mercy shown by North Carolina was rewarded only by a successful escape from Central Prison near Ralrigh, many more robberies and at least one more murder. Texas proved decidedly less merciful.
Born in Lenoir in Caldwell County, North Carolina in 1909 Beard wasn’t the typical Death Row inmate. He’d completed school and been to North Carolina Stae College (now North Carolina State University) where he’d distignuished himself as an athlete and football star. At a time when most condemned inmates were poor, poorly-educated and often illiterate the college-educated Beard stood out.
That did nothing to stop him pursuing a career in crime, nor did it make him a particularly successful crook. Though he committed many robberies in several states Beard was only a small-timer, never connecting with the big-league outlaws of his time. His was a life of many crimes, small hauls and constantly fleeing from the law, at least until he murdered North Carolina grocer Augustus Buonos in .February 1932.
Quickly caught and condemned to North Carolina’s electric chair, Beard lost no time in arranging his own parole. First his death sentence was commuted, offering him a chance to serve his time and go straight. Beard did neither. Simply walking out of the penitentiary wearing someone else’s clothes, he strolled out through the penitentiary gates and straight back to robbing and running. His close brush with death had deterred him not one iota. After all, death for outlaws is an occupational hazard.
It was even more of a hazard down in Texas where armed robbery, murder, rape and even being an habitual criminal were still capital crimes. In 1934 Ray Hamilton and Joe Palmer (both alumni of the Bonnie & Clyde gang) had been sent to the Death House in Huntsville, Texas for murder during an escape, Hamilton had also been convicted of being an habitual criminal. After a stunning escape from the Death House in 1934 both Palmer and Hamilton were recaptured, meeting their end on 10 May 1935.
After heading for Texas where he was identified as participating in at least a dozen armed robberies, seven in Dallas and five in Fort Worth. Hee would also be charged withthe murder of a police officer in Georgia. Just as the murder of a grocer had sent him to Death Row in North Carolina a similar crime sent him to the Death House in Texas.
Gas station owner John Roberts was also a retired Dallas detective. It was natural for him to fight when Beard tried to rob his gas station on 22 December 1935. He even succeeded in wounding Beard, but Beard still killed Roberts before fleeing. Still wanted in North Carolina and Georgia (itself very fond of its electric chair) he now faced execution if he was caught in Texas.
Even if he had drawn only life in Texas Beard still faced life in North Carolina and probably death in Georgia. Georgia had introduced the electric chair in the early 1920’s and made free use of it, especially for cop killers. By the time Georgia’s chair was retired in the early 2000’s it had executed nearly 450 prisoners beginning with Howard Hinton on 13 September 1924.
When he was arrested and condemned for murdering Roberts his future (or complete lack thereof) became grimly apparent. Whether he drew life or death made no difference to Beard. Either way he would almost certainly die in prison, the only question was whether he died of old age or walked the last mile.
For a man in so deep a predicament Beard had been cocky when he was first condemned. In all fairness this was nothing unusual among crooks of the time and it wasn’t as if Beard had forgotten what a North Carolina death sentence sounded like. Besides, Beard had plans for escape. On arriving at Huntsville he remarked simply “I missed the chair in North Carolina and I will miss it here too.”
He was wrong, as wrong as anyone could be. Beard’s previous record made him a prime target for the electric chair and with no chance of clemency from the Governor. Even if he had his second death sentence commuted or was even pardoned Beard would still return to North Carolina if Georgia didn’t electrocute him first. That would likely be after he had endured and survived decades within the Texas penal system, one of the harshest and most brutal in the country. Assuming, of course, he had survived.
Increasingly desperate and with time fast running out, Beard tried to emulate Hamilton and Palmer’s escape of 1934. He failed, Texas had made their previously-secure Death House virtually impregnable. Whatever precautions had failed when Hamilton and Palmer made the first successful Death House escape in Texas history had been rectified.
With old procedures changed, new precautions taken and Huntsville staff being especially vigilant Beard had no chance of escaping either the Death House or the chair. He had some small consolation in knowing he wouldn’t walk his last mile alone. Murderer Wisie Ellison would die on the same day. About his failed escape Beard was philosophical, remarking “You can’t blame a guy for trying.”
Just after midnight on 4 June 1937 the pair met their ends. Approximately forty witnesses had crammed into Huntsville’s death chamber, mostly to see the notorious Beard pay his debt to society. Ellison, a far less notorious felon, rated barely a mention in the next day’s newspapers. He just walked in, sat down and died.
As Beard entered the chamber, its air still seasoned with a scent of burnt hair and scorched flesh, Deputy Warden and executioner Joe Byrd gave him the traditional greeting. Gesturing toward the chair he said simply “Have a seat, please.”
Once Beard was strapped, capped and ready to die Byrd asked him if he had anything left to say. Beard, lying through clenched teeth, asserted his innocence for the last time. According to him both murders had been committed by other men who he refused to name. With Beard’s final speech concluded Byrd pulled the switch and Beard died at 12:02am.
He was buried with few mourners and without fanfare at Grove Hill Memorial Park in Dallas, site of some of his earlier robberies.The college boy and one-time football star had appeared before his last crowd. He was only twenty-seven years old.
Joe Byrd would long outlive Beard and around 360 others who died atop the Texas Thunderbolt. Ironically the prison graveyard, officially the Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery and (unofficially) ‘Peckerwood Hill,’ was named after its resident executioner. In later years Byrd regularly visited the cemetery tending the graves, including those of the men he put there. Dwight Beard was one of only hundreds who died at Joe Byrd’s hand.