22 July 1934 is usually remembered for Public Enemy Number One John Dillinger, shot dead in an alley next to Chicago’s Biograph Theater. Betrayed by brothel-keeper Ana Cumpanas alias ‘Anna Sage,’ the notorious ‘woman in red’ whose dress that night was actually orange, Dillinger’s story finally ended in the traditional fashion.
Betrayed, ambushed, cornered and armed with only a.25-calibre Colt 1908 pocket pistol, Dillinger died in a hail of bullets. As one of America’s most legendary criminals died at the hands of J. Edgar Hoover’s equally-legendary ‘G-Men,’ another event that day was thoroughly overshadowed, the Texas Death House escape of 1934.
Wherever there are condemned prisoners there are people with nothing to lose. Convicts whose appeals have failed, whose lawyers have given up (if they could afford one) and who know the Governor won’t call are among the most dangerous prisoners to keep under lock and key. Until 1934 Texas had been very good at that. After 1934 its reputation for holding and killing its condemned was permanently altered, blood and bullets had scarred it forever.
In 1934 the Death House was sited at the south-east corner of the Walls Unit in Huntsville where a different one still does regular business. Eight cells and a barber’s chair were separated from the Texas Thunderbolt only by a green door leading into the death chamber itself. Ever convict could see one of the number have his final haircut, their head shaved to avoid a fire when stepped through the green door, sat down and died.
The original Death House has long fallen into disuse. From 1924 to 1952 it held the condemned until being moved into another building. The condemned are no longer housed there, being driven from other units only for their execution. Today that involves lethal injection. In 1934 it was Old Sparky, the electric chair whose generator still resides in the Death House building today.
On 22 July that year the old Death House was almost full. Its eight cells held six men, five awaiting their date with the executioner and another for his repeated escape attempts. Eldridge Roy Johnson (alias Charley Frazier, A.W. Adams and several other names) was held there in the hope that the most secure building at Huntsville could hold him.
Frazier, the best escape artist in the Southwest, had already escaped prisons in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas including breaking out of Huntsville once already. Through a corrupt guard Frazier supplied the necessary pistols.
It would hold Frazier, but not all the others. Joe Palmer and Raymond Hamilton, both former members of the Barrow-Parker Gang, would make it outside the walls. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow had helped them escape the notorious Eastham Prison Farm (then the worst penal institution in Texas) and Palmer had murdered guard Major Joel Crowson in the process.
Blackie Thompson had been a member of the less-infamous (but equally serious) Fishing Hole Gang. Thompson faced execution for armed robbery and kidnapping, both then capital crimes in Texas. Whitey Walker, also of the Fishing Hole Gang but not facing execution, did most to plan and organise organise the escape.
Jim McKenzie and another condemned prisoner named Rector refused to leave the Death House. McKenzie did provide copies of the necessary keys both to the cell doors and the Death House door itself, but did not try to leave the prison. It may have been the last mistake Ira Rector ever made. Condemned for murder and robbery, Rector rode the lightning on 2 April 1935 aged only twenty-one.
During a prison baseball game they made their move. Leaving the Death House with a guard disarmed and locked in Hamilton’s cell they were joined by Roy Johnson, Whitey Walker and Hub Stanley. Outside the wall getaway cars waited to rush them safely out of Huntsville until it all went wrong.
Via the lower yard gate the seven escapers headed for he prison firehouse and a ladder tall enough to scale the outer wall. With another guard disarmed five of them were now carrying guns and were willing to use them. With tower guard Burneaux disarmed another tower guard spotted them and the firefight began.
Within minutes Walker was dead, Frazier had been shot six times (but survived) and Johnson and Stanley had surrendered. Thompson, Palmer and Hamilton had reached their getaway car. Not only had they escaped a maximum-security prison for the second time in seven months, they had done the previously-unthinkable. They were the first to escape from within the Death House itself.
By the time Dillinger was laid out in a Chicago alley Hamilton and Palmer were long gone, but it was DIllinger who made headlines outside Texas. Had he stayed at home that night then the Texas escape would have been the story of the next day’s papers. As it was Hamilton and Palmer may have been quite content to see their names and faces pushed further down the press running order. The less famous they were, the less likely they were to be recaptured. They had successfully escaped a seat in the Texas Thunderbolt, but not for long.
Thompson met his end not in the electric chair, but from a lawman’s bullet. He was killed by Deputy Sheriff Roy Brewer near Amarillo on 6 December 1934. By then Hamilton and Palmer had also been recaptured and returned to the Death House. Only time and the green door stood between them and the Texas Thunderbolt.
They had spent little time outside of Huntsville anyway. Hamilton returned to robbing banks before he was recaptured without a shot fired. On the evening of 5 April 1935 a posse caught at the Rock Island rail terminal in Fort Worth. Taken by surprise and heavily outnumbered, Hamilton had two loaded .45-caliber pistols and three spare clips, all full. He never got the chance to use them.
Palmer had only lasted until 8 August 1934. Found sleeping next to a loaded .45 automatic in Paducah, Kentucky he was arrested and refused to identify himself. If he was hoping to buy enough time tescape Paducah’s less-secure local jail Palmer was to be very disappointed. Chief of Police Bryant identified him from a detective magazine and Palmer was back at Huntsville within a week. His last ride was almost over.
The escape destroyed any chance of either a successful appeal or the Governor’s clemency. Despite their records Governor Allred did come under considerable pressure to spare them, holding firm against petitions and personal appeals for mercy. Their execution date was set for 10 May 1935 only a month after Hamilton’s recapture.
Texas was out of patience with Palmer and Hamilton. It was obvious that neither was likely to be reformed into an honest citizen and they had embarrassed the Texas penal system twice, killing a guard in doing so. If they could not or would not reform Texas wanted them dead, quickly.
When the time came Hamilton had fallen apart at least once. As their date drew closer Hamilton, once a cocky and needling gangster, became a increasingly scared and trembling inmate. Ironically it was Palmer, also scheduled to die and having vowed to have nothing to dow ith his erstwhile partner, who consoled him in his final hours. Aged only twenty-one and eleven days short of his twenty-second birthday, Hamilton had already racked up an astonishing 362 years of unserved time.
Palmer went first before a large audience. Normally the death chamber hosted only small groups of witnesses and officials. For Palmer and Hamilton over forty men crammed themselves into the small room. Palmer went calmly and quietly. He would have preferred to die in a shoot-out, feeling an execution and its attendant publicity would worsen things for his family. He didn’t get a choice.
At a silent signal the executioner threw the switch. Cycles of power ripped through Palmer, his body leaping against the leather restraints. First a jolt of 1800 volts, then 500, then 1300 and a final jolt of 500 over the course of a full minute. After being allowed to cool for a few minutes Palmer was examined and officially pronounced dead.. As Palmer’s smoking body was removed self-styled ‘Gentleman Bandit’ Raymond Hamilton was sent for.
When Hamilton was taken from his cell he asked whether Palmer had died. On being told Palmer was dead and it was his turn Hamilton braced himself for the end. By the time his cell door was opened Hamilton had recovered something of the sneering cockiness that had made him so unpopular, especially with former colleague Clyde Barrow. Almost sauntering through the green door he coolly seated himself while the straps and electrodes were applied. Asked whether had anything to say Hamilton looked around at the unusually large crowd and forced a smile and a brief farewell:
“Well, goodbye all.”
Whitey Walker had been shot dead. Hub Stanley and Roy Johnson had surrendered. Blackie Thompson had fallen to a lawman’s bullet and Hamilton and Palmer had been electrocuted. If Rector had hoped not escaping would earn mercy he had been fatally wrong.
Charley Frazier was eventually returned to Louisiana where he again tried to escape. Shot six times Frazier survived, later converting to Christianity and forgoing his criminal ways. Roy McKenzie had already been in the Death House for twelve years when the break-out happened.. After his sentence was commuted he remained there as a janitor.
Years after his life was spared cop-killer McKenzie saved a guard from a frenzied attack by condemned killer Herman ‘Humpy’ Ross. Ross had earned a vicious reputation even before arriving in the Death House. His reputation only worsened when he tried strangling Guard Rucker who had strayed too close tot bars of Ross’s cell. McKenzie had to club Ross unconscious with a heavy iron keyring to save Rucker’s life.
Ross, fighting and cursing, had to be forced into the chair just after midnight on 4 June 1952. Even to get him seated required several guards to grab him, preventing Ross from attacking reporter Don Reid. Reid, repoerter for local newspaper the Huntsville Item, author of ‘Have a Seat, Please’ and later an abolitionist, was lucky to escape injury. Minutes later Ross was dead, Reid later writing that even for violent offenders like Ross death was not the answer.
The electric chair they had been so desperate to escape outlived them all. Retired in 1964 after the execution of armed robber and killer Joseph Johnson, Jr, it lay for years on a prison rubbish dump. Reclaimed and restored, it was resurrected as the Huntsville Prison Museum’s star exhibit. When once convicts would have done anything to escape its grasp tourists have to be persuaded not to sit in it.