“The crunch. The mounting whine and snarl of the generator. The man’s lips peel back, the throat strains for a last desperate cry, the body arches against the restraining straps as the generator whines and snarls again, the features purple, steam and smoke rise from the bald spots on head and leg while he sick-sweet smell of burned flesh permeates the little room.
The generator purrs to a halt.
The Warden does not move. Neither do the guards. But the physician steps forward. He places the stethoscope against the steaming chest, listens intently. He turns to the Warden.
“I pronounce this man dead,” he says.
It is 12:08am.
The ritual has ended.”
Journalist Don Reid worked for and later edited local newspaper the Huntsville Item. During his tenure Reid regularly made the short walk from his office or home to the death chamber, watching 189 men die as he described in his unforgettable book ‘Have a seat, please.’
The title was ironic, the phrase was usually uttered by the prison Warden as a condemned prisoner stood in front of the electric chair nicknamed ‘Old Sparky’ or the ‘Texas Thunderbolt.’ Southern hospitality remained Southern hospitality even to despised criminals who were about to be executed.
Texas was one of the last States to adopt electrocution, then the most popular method in the country. In 1923 State Senator J.W. Thomas passed a bill discarding both the gallows and making the State reponsible for executions. Individual counties no longer had that grim task to perform.
Once hanged in public in their county of conviction the condemned would now die privately by a new method then regarded as more humane.First used by New York to execute murderer William Kemmler at Auburn Prison on 6 August 1890, by the 1920’s ‘Old Sparky’ was enjoying its most popular and busiest phase.
Of the 361 men electrocuted by Texas between 1924 and 1964 Reid personally watched over half of them. Some died alone, others in double, triple or even multiple executions. The first five men to ride Texas lightning (Charles Reynolds, Ewell Morris, George Washington (no relation), Mack Matthews and Melvin Johnson) all died at the same time, just after midnight on 2 August 1924.
On 30 July 1964 Old Sparky claimed another Johnson. Joseph Johnson, Jr, died for murder during a robbery. With a record of prior offences career criminal Johnson could hardly have expected mercy from a Texas court. That he was also African-American when the Civil Rights campaign was still relatively new probably didn’t help either.
Convicted of murdering Joseph Ying Chiu during a robbery in 1962, Johnson was typical of Death Row inmates. He was poor, African-American and already had a criminal record. His appeals stayed Joe Byrd’s hand until 1964, but not forever. Had he been condemned a few years later Johnson might have survived until Furman vs Georgia saw Huntsville’s death chamber closed, at least temporarily. But, just as five men had to be first sommebody had to be last and it was Johnson’s turn.
By the time the Thunderbolt struck for the last time the routine was well-established and virtually set in stone. Everybody involved, from convicts to prison staff, lawyers, friends and relatives of the condemned knew heir part and played it, though not always willingly. The condemned were and remain a breed apart in Texas even down to their prison numbers.
Every item of prison property has a number, not just the convicts. Texas made a point of assigning a special designation for condemned convicts. Dead men walking can expect to be numbered in the order they arrived on Death Row, not at the prison itself. Prefixed with ‘EX’ (short for ‘executee’) Johnson was ‘EX-453.’
After Johnson’s death the chair itself was left on a garbage dump for years before being restored and now resides at the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. Old Sparky was officially item 8573 in the prison inventory. Now it remains the star attraction at Huntsville’s museum although visitors are regularly (and sometimes firmly) reprimanded for trying to sit in it. The thought of anybody taking a selfie in a chair that killed 361 people is as distasteful to museum staff as it would be to anyone else.
Neither Johnson’s crime or execution were seen as anything out of the ordinary. Texas had been executing around eight to ten men a year for decades, the time when Texas became the most lethal State in the Union was still decades away. The only thing distinguishing Johnson’s death from the 360 before him was it would be the State’s last for nearly twenty years.
When the generator wound down after Johnson’s death it would never whine and snarl in anger again. Nobody present knew at the time they had just witnessed an important moment in Texas history. Johnson slumped in the chair after the power was cut, never to be felt again. His life and Sparky’s service ending in the same second.
Nobody would be executed in Texas for another eighteen years. In 1972 the US Supreme Court made its historic ruling in Furman vs Georgia striking down death penalty laws across the entire country. By the end of that year Texas and other States were rewriting their death penalty laws knowing that if the Supreme Court approved their death chembers would open for business. By 1973 Texas was already condemning more prisoners to die, this time by the new method of lethal injection.
Texas was among the first to adopt lethal injection, but was beaten into second-place by Oklahoma. As Texas and other States expected the Supreme Court reversed itself in 1976, its ruling in Gregg vs Georgia allowing individual States to resume executions provide their laws passed the Court’s scrutiny. They increasingly did win Court approval, being written and rewritten with the Court’s approval firmly in mind.
When executions resumed Texas returned the favour. Oklahoma had beaten Texas to installing lethal injection but Texas was first to actualy use it. On 7 December 1982 murderer Charles Brooks, Jr. died at Huntsville, earning himself an unwilling place in criminal history as the world’s first convict to die by lethal injection. He would be very far from the last.