On This Day in 1925 – John Hurlburt performs his last execution. ‘Yellow Charleston’ has his last dance.

A few years ago I covered the story of John Hurlburt, New York’s second ‘State Electrician.’ Trained by predecessor Edwin Davis, Hurlburt executed 140 prisoners during his tenure. Hurlburt’s official debut was executing George Coyer and Giuseppe DeGoia at Auburn Prison on August 31 1914. Unofficially he had already executed prisoners under Davis’s supervision.

As Auburn’s resident electrician it was natural for Hurlburt to know Davis who visited frequently until resigning in a dispute over fees. Davis had originally been paid $250 per prisoner. When the State of New York unilaterally altered the agreement, offering $150 for a single execution and an extra $50 per prisoner for two or more at the same time, Davis was disgusted. In August 1912 he had executed seven men in one day which had paid $1750. Under the new ‘agreement’ Davis would have received only $450 with an eight cents- per mile fuel allowance for a particularly grim day’s work.

Relations between Davis and his employers had soured after that. Davis owned patents on some parts of the chair and billed the state $10000 to secure rights to use them. He also refused to train assistants, believing that his employers would quickly find an excuse to replace him. Only after much pressure did Davis grudgingly train three replacements for when he himself left the job. Hurlburt was one of them.

E.B. Currier would become executioner for Massachusetts and Robert Elliott inherited the New York job when Hurlburt abruptly resigned in January 1926. All had executed convicts under his supervision although Davis officially remained in charge. When Hurlburt left and Currier was already retired Elliott became the only viable candidate and relations between Hurlburt and Elliott had never been warm to start with.

Unlike Davis, Hurlburt didn’t quit over the money. The job was slowly destroying Hurlburt’s mental health and he too would come to a bad end. With every throw of the switch Hurlburt was destroying himself as surely as the convicts he executed, only more slowly. New York gangster Julius Miller (known locally as ‘Yellow Charleston’) would be Hurlburt’s 140th and last execution.

Miller was condemned for a double murder. While playing dice he had asked a friend to loan him fifty cents and when the friend refused Miller shot him. Fleeing the scene, Miller approached nightclub owner and gambler Barron Wilkins, owner of the Exclusive Club, demanding $100 to help him flee the city. When Wilkins refused Miller shot him as well. Arrested shortly afterward Miller was quickly convicted and condemned.

This was no surprise. Wilkins was a popular local figure and thousands had attended his funeral. He had also been politically active and very well-connected. His club had once had Duke Ellington’s band and a host of celebrity patrons including Joan Crawford and Al Jolson. Miller, in defiance of Prohibition, had been one of Wilkins’ bootlegging contacts ensuring the booze flowed as freely as it had before it was outlawed. A career criminal, the courts and Governor had no time to spare for ‘Yellow Charleston’ and his time was rapidly running out.

Miller’s legal issues were exhausted and he showed little chance of going straight even if he escaped execution. Governor Al Smith was pro-death penalty although he regularly commuted death sentences. Smith’s policy was that if even one judge from the New York Court of Criminal Appeal dissented then that was usually good enough.

Whether a three-Judge panel or the full court had turned down a prisoner’s appeal made no difference to Smith, just one dissenting voice was usually enough. Not one Judge dissented when Miller’s appeals were denied nor did any recommend clemency. Neither did Smith who, despite being generous with clemency for his time, still signed off on ninety-six executions during his time as Governor. All of them had been performed by Hurlburt.

Professional to a fault in public, privately Hurlburt was coming apart. Depression, wife Mattie’s chronic illness and the resulting medical bills had made him increasingly morose, difficult and temperamental. Executions are stressful enough without the executioner cursing, shouting and throwing equipment around during the pre-execution tests and Hurlburt had become well-known for doing so.

Hurlburt, however, had no choice. Caught between endless medical bills and his own rapidly-deteriorating mental state he had to continue in a job that was destroying him. Despite being made aware of his decline the State of New York allowed him to continue doing so. Such a situation would never be allowed today.

Like Davis, Hurlburt had been a stickler for anonymity. He had been livid when the media published his name and, despite their best efforts, he always managed to stop them taking his photograph. That hadn’t helped him in Nebraska in 1920 when he narrowly escaped a lynch mob after being hired to perform the state’s first two electrocutions, Allen Grammer and Alson Cole.

The mob was, rather ironically, a group of abolitionists who thought lynching an executioner made for a good protest. Hurlburt, presumably with less sense of irony and a strong desire to live, begged to differ. He fled the state entirely never to return. With Hurlburt having supervised the installation of the chair and the preparations before fleeing, E.B. Currier came out of retirement to throw the switch.

Hurlburt’s desire for anonymity hadn’t helped in Nebraska, but it saved his life at Sing Sing. Hours before executing John Farina and brothers Morris and Joseph Diamond on April 30 1925 Hurlburt collapsed in the death chamber. He recovered enough to execute the three men before collapsing again and spending the next week in Sing Sing’s own infirmary.

Surrounded by convicts, some of whose friends and relatives had died at his hand, Hurlburt was under no illusions about what would happen if his fellow-patients knew the man they called the ‘burner’ was within stabbing distance. If recognised he would never have left the prison alive and probably died very unpleasantly. Not for nothing did the prison’s general population crow whenever a reprieve or commutation was granted, remarking cheerfully that “The burner is out of a fee.”

After surviving his extremely-dangerous ‘rest cure’ he performed only one more execution before Miller’s, that of cop-killer John Durkin on August 27 1925. Durkin, condemned for murdering Detective Timothy Connell, fell foul of an unwritten law in New York State; its courts and Governor never interfered in the cases of cop-killers.

With Durkin dead it was time for ‘Yellow Charleston’ to take centre-stage. It was ironic that he would be moved from his regular Death House cell around twelve hours before his execution, spending his remaining hours in one of the six pre-execution cells known as the ‘Dance Hall.’ When the time came Miller’s ‘last mile’ would be only around twenty steps between his cell and the chair itself.

With Miller securely in the Dance Hall under constant watch, Warden Lewis Lawes (probably the most famous abolitionist in America at the time) had to meet and greet reporters and official witnesses. While Lawes handled the social side of things Hurlburt was in the death chamber testing his equipment for the last time. It was working perfectly, more than could be said for its operator.

When the time came it was without incident. Just before 11pm Miller took his final walk accompanied by four guards and the prison Chaplain. His life and Hurlburt’s career both ended with merciful speed. In barely a minute Miller was strapped down, Hurlburt carefully positioning electrodes on his head and right leg before striding briskly to the alcove holding his control panel and switch.

Lawes asked Miller for any final words, Miller had none to offer. With that done nothing else remained except the signal and the switch. Closing his eyes as he did before every execution, Lawes turned to Hurlburt and silently gave the signal. Hurlburt, watching Miller carefully as he did so, jerked the switch and worked his controls, raising and lowering the power in a calculated cycle. Two minutes later Julius Miller was dead.

So too was Hurlburt in his own way. His next visit to Sing Sing would have been to execute Ambrose Ross and John Slattery on January 20 1926 but Miller’s execution had been the last straw. Once known as the ‘man who walks alone’ Hurlburt walked away on January 16. When asked why he quit so abruptly he remarked “I got tired of killing people.”

New York didn’t appoint Robert Elliott, the only usable candidate, until almost the end of the month. By then the death warrants for Ross and Slattery had expired. New York law at the time specified a particular week, tradition dictating that Thursdays (known as ‘Black Thursday’ for obvious reasons) were the usual day. When their warrants expired the two men found their sentences commuted. Next in line were Emil Klatt and Luigi Rapito on January 28 and they weren’t as fortunate, becoming Elliott’s official debut.

As with Hurlburt the two men were Elliott’s official debut but not his first throw of the switch. On June 13 1904 he had executed Oscar Borgstrom and Albert Koepping at Auburn under Davis’s supervision. Elliott’s career ended with his 387th execution, that of Arthur Perry on August 24 1939 a few months before Elliott himself died of illness.

Elliott had never liked Hurlburt, nor did he think him particularly skilled. Hurlburt’s career had been marred by mishaps and botches while Elliott (who had left the prison service years before) had a glowing reputation for skill, efficiency and an astonishingly-prolific career.

Working for New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Vermont and Pennsylvania, Elliot had executed 382 men and five women including some of the most notorious felons in American history. Lindbergh kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann, Sacco and Vanzetti, Ruth Snyder and hundreds of others had died by his hand.

On January 6 1927 he set a record never likely to be repeated. Booked by Massachusetts to execute John McLaughlin, John Devereux and Edward Heinlein at Charlestown just after midnight, Elliott did so without incident. His day’s work was far from done. Returning to New York he spent a few hours with his family before driving to Sing Sing. At 11pm he executed Charles Goldson, Edgar Humes and George Williams. Six prisoners in two different states in one day.

He was also credited with perfecting electrocution using the ‘Elliott Technique,’ a method of raising and lowering the power in carefully-calculated cycle. Although now run by computer variations of his method persist in those few states stilling offering electrocution as a method.

By then fellow-protege Hurlburt was already long-dead, gone to join the ghosts of the 140 convicts he had killed. Wife Mattie had finally died in September 1925, the same month as Hurlburt’s last execution. No longer needing the money and desperate to get away from the job, Hurlburt had no further need to throw the switch.

On February 22 1929 a depressed and grief-stricken Hurlburt entered the basement of his Auburn home. In his hand was the revolver he had carried ever since becoming Auburn’s regular electrician, some time before meeting Davis and becoming his apprentice. Discovered later by his son Clarence, the former executioner had taken one last life; his own.

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