Thomas Tobin and Sing Sing’s Death House, the prison he built for himself.

When murderer Thomas Tobin arrived at Sing Sing’s legendary death house, the prison-within-a-prison reserved solely for New York’s condemned, an uncomfortable truth made itself absolutely clear. It’s often said the worst prisons are those we build for ourselves and Tobin was living proof, at least until his date came round.

Tobin, a career criminal, had already seen the inside of Sing Sing. When assigned to a convict crew constructing a brand-new building at the prison Tobin knew exactly what it was for. Brick by brick, day by day, Tobin had helped build what convicts called the ‘slaughterhouse.’ Warden Johnson could have skipped the traditional welcome speech when Tobin arrived, he knew it all already.

Tobin knew the building and its rules, especially what lay behind the notorious ‘little green door’ instantly visible as he entered the building. It was all that separated the cells from the execution chamber and Sing Sing’s most infamous resident ‘Old Sparky.’ As Tobin himself remarked, if he’d known he was coming back he would have built a trapdoor as well. By his final walk on 14 March 1904 Tobin probably wished he had.

Tobin’s crime had been particularly brutal and a prime example that no honour exists among thieves. Between stretches he had been working at the Empire Hotel near Broadway, a notorious and dingy little saloon with few respectable patrons. On the night of 27 September 1902 Captain James Craft had walked in flashing a large bankroll. That instantly caught Tobin’s eye. When Craft and Tobin argued over female patron Mamie Moore, Craft’s indiscretion proved fatal.

Bartender Alexander McAnerny proved an able accomplice, slipping ‘knock-out drops’ into Craft’s drink. Probably the fast-acting barbiturate chloral hydrate, the drops were intended to incapacitate Craft so Tobin could rob him and dump his somewhere away from the Empire Hotel. McAnerny, however, over-estimated the dose. Craft did not regain consciousness and Tobin, looking to ensure his silence, carried him into a backroom and decapitated him with a meat cleaver. Dumping Craft’s body into a trunk, Tobin tried to burn his victim’s head in the hotel furnace. The revolting stench almost immediately brought unwelcome attention and then the NYPD.

Within hours McAnerny and Moore had fingered Tobin as the killer. As Tobin had done the deed, they felt, Tobin should be the one to pay the ultimate penalty. That they had also been involved did not prevent them from sending Tobin to the death house he had helped build. The trunk was quickly pointed out to the police, some of Craft’s personal effects were found in Tobin’s pockets and both his accomplices testified against him. Quickly condemned, Tobin found himself standing in a building he had known very well and hoped never to see again.

Tobin’s stay was longer than average. Often mere months or even weeks stood between the condemned and the electric chair. Tobin lasted over a year between walking in through the front door and out through the green one. Others were commuted, sent to Sing Sing’s general population for years or even decades in what bank robber Willie Sutton called the worst prison he had ever been in.

Still more had gone insane, driven mad by the atmosphere in the death house and being only one door away from their impending death. Separated by only a wooden door they heard death warrants read, last words uttered, straps buckled, the switch thrown and the all-too-familiar hum of power burning the life out of one of their number.

Fate, seldom the most kindly part of human existence, had saved the cruellest ordeal for last. New York law mandated an autopsy after every unnatural death and the autopsy room directly adjoined the death chamber. In a time when double, triple and multiple executions were standard practice those waiting to die heard the bone saw slicing through those who already had. If the worst prisons are those we make for ourselves Thomas Tobin couldn’t have constructed anywhere more hideous.

The atmosphere was made even worse when Tobin and convict Albert Patrick began a bitter feud. Patrick, a disgraced lawyer condemned for his part in the murder of Texas oilman William Marsh Rice, was one of the most notorious killers of his era. He had an educated way about him and a snobby, superior attitude irritating to less-polished men like Tobin. The pair disliked each other from the start.

Hoping for mercy, Tobin had already claimed insanity once, even being transferred to Matteawan State Hospital and back to the death house when he was found legally sane. His attempt had failed, but if he could worry prison staff enough Tobin knew he might earn another examination. To get it Tobin still needed to put on a real exhibition and did so, much to Patrick’s disdain and irritation. Tobin, knowing that even if the panel found him sane the Governor might still show mercy, had kept up the act. Daily he screamed, sang, cursed, rambled, became violent and showed all the signs of insanity as it was regarded at the time.

In turn, Patrick had regularly insulted him and demanded quiet, a regular implied insult being that Tobin should “Shut up and let decent people sleep.” Everybody from Warden Johnson down to Tobin himself expected a reprieve and for Tobin to serve a life sentence at Dannemora. Guards even checked daily for the transfer order to no avail. Official confirmation didn’t arrive, but all involved believed it would. Believing it was only a matter of time, Tobin dropped his insanity act. He became calm and controlled like any other prisoner, except toward Patrick.

Ironically his inexplicably-sudden return to sanity had caused another delay and a second assessment. Knowing the panel could rule either way Patrick, as cold, spiteful and manipulative a criminal as Sing Sing ever had, did everything he could to convince them Tobin was faking. The panel examined Tobin and spoke to both death house employees and other prisoners. Patrick described in detail Tobin’s alleged shamming and the panel unanimously believed he was doing exactly that. To be fair to Patrick and the panel, Tobin probably was faking. Even if they were considering mercy Patrick’s intervention sealed their view and Tobin’s fate.

Tobin was incensed, bellowing “You poisoner. You’ll knock me over with the doctors, will you?! I’ll kill you if i ever get a chance at you!” His unrestrained hatred only made life worse. Death Row can be a pressure cooker at the best of times. Just as Patrick’s spite had sped Tobin’s path to the electric chair Tobin vowed to take Patrick with him. Patrick made no secret of his own intentions, the pair resembling two snakes looking for a chance to strike. Both were running out of time to find one. If Tobin was almost certainly going to die he wanted nothing more than to take Patrick with him.

Acting on the second panel’s findings Governor Benjamin Odell finally made the decision that all concerned had thought a mere formality. It was not what anybody had first expected. Instead of going to Dannemora for the rest of his life. Tobin would remain at Sing Sing for the rest of his life. Instead of mercy and a life sentence Tobin would die in the electric chair on March 14, 1904. The smart money had all been on Tobin escaping the clutches of State Electrician Davis. To Tobin’s horror and everybody else’s surprise that had been a bad bet.

Tobin’s respite was over and so was everybody else’s. His feud with Patrick and disruptive behaviour reached new heights, death house guards having to be especially vigilant to keep the pair separated. With the Governor’s decision a letter went to State Electrician Edwin Davis finally confirmed March 14 in his already-busy diary. Thomas Tobin now had mere days to live.

When the time came Tobin was resolute, determined to die calmly and without fuss. Already knowing exactly where to go he stepped from his cell, walking unaided through the chamber of horrors he himself had helped create. Standing before the chair itself his words to Warden Johnson the night before had been brief and to the point. “I’m a bad man and I ought to have been killed a good many years ago, but I didn’t use the cleaver on Crafts…”

Tobin’s accomplices had testified against him, the judge and jury had agreed, two panels had ruled he was mentally unsound but legally sane. They thought him mentally-damaged, certainly, but he had known what he was doing and that it was illegal. All the denials in the world would not save Tobin and Tobin, now literally staring death in the face, knew it. A smug and cruelly-amused Patrick had won their feud. The final act was mercifully brief.

Tobin’s very last words were a simple prayer taught him by his mother, “Jesus, be with me when I am gone. Mary, help me in my hour of death.” Quckly seated, he was swiftly strapped down by guards as Davis carefully positioned the electrodes on his head and leg. Atop a rough semi-circle of stools and chairs the witnesses were within feet of him when Davis did his work.

At a silent signal from Warden Johnson the switch was thrown. 1750 volts seared Tobin’s body, burning through his central nervous system, stopping his heart and locking every muscle. Watching and carefully working his controls, raising and lowering the power in a two-minute cycle, veteran executioner Davis did his job well. Four jolts and four minutes later Thomas Tobin was pronounced dead. His parents later claimed his body.

Afterward, Warden Johnson praised Davis for his efficiency. He remarked to reporters that “It was the most successful execution ever held at Sing Sing. Tobin was dead after the first shock and thereby surprised us, as we expected more trouble with him on account of his slight physique.”

With Tobin dead the next executions were not until 13 June 1904, a deadly debut for Robert Greene Elliott. Elliott, one of three assistants trained by Davis, would go on to become the most prolific American executioner, turning the switch on 387 convicts in a career spanning from 1926 to 1939. As Davis’s apprentice he executed Albert Koepping and Oscar Bergstrom without incident, although he did almost turn the switch for another jolt while Koepping was being examined by the prison doctor. Davis stopped him just in time.

Elliott left the prison service soon afterward, returning as New York’s third State Electrician in 1926. Davis’s other apprentices also continued in the business. John Hurlburt inherited the job when Davis resigned in 1914 and was replaced by Elliott after 140 executions. Hurlburt was destroyed by the job. Resigning in 1926 he took his own life in 1929. E B Currier was chief electrician at the Massachusetts State Prison and also its executioner.

In his cell Albert Patrick had won his battle with Tobin. He later won his war with New York State. After twenty-six months in the death house Patrick’s sentence was commuted by Governor Frank Higgins in 1906. To use a stock phrase among Sing Sing convicts when a commutation arrived “The burner was out of a fee.”

In 1912 Governor John Alden Dix went even further, pardoning the lethal lawyer. Patrick was released, left New York and disappeared into obscurity. He died in Tulsa, Oklahoma in February 1940. His victim William Rice lives on in spirit, part of his fortune founding the respected Rice University in Texas. By then, of course, Patrick’s nemesis Thomas Tobin had long been forgotten.

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