Sing Sing’s Death House – 1891 to 1963.

Sing Sing. The name alone implies bad conditions, violence, fear, poor food, hard labour, harder punishments, misery and death. Even the name itself suits a prison, coming from the Native American phrase ‘Sinck Sinck’ meaning ‘Stone upon stone.’ Movie fans may remember James Cagney’s ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’ where screen gangster ‘Rocky Sullivan’ (inspired by executed murderer Francis ‘Two-Gun’ Crowley) promises to die defiant only to panic and be forced into the chair, his desperate pleas silenced mid-sentence by the dynamo’s hum.

Whether  ‘Sullivan’ was really terrified or just trying to deter the ‘Dead-End Kids’ from following his lead we will never know. Cagney himself leaving viewers to decide for themselves but, be they quiet, defiant or terrified, most of Sing’s Sing’s condemned died quietly. Very few fought on their final walk although some, their nerve and legs having collapsed, did have to be carried. Poisoner Frances Creighton, the notorious ‘Lucretia Borgia of Long Island,’ was catatonic when she died and made her final journey in a wheelchair. Pablo Vargas did not. Several guards literally held him down to be strapped into the prison’s most notorious resident, the large oak chair forever known to New Yorkers and the world as ‘Old Sparky.’

Nowadays called the Ossining Correctional Institution, Sing Sing is one of the world’s most notorious prisons. One part earned more notoriety than any other. Known officially as the ‘Condemned Cells’ or ‘CC’s’ for short, the rest of the world called it the ‘Death House.’ Convicts, condemned or otherwise, named it after where livestock go after being fattened up for the kill, the ‘Slaughter House.’ Seldom did any convict go closer than they absolutely had to. Some, of course, had no choice. Only one in three condemned prisoners left alive.

New York State abolished capital punishment in 1969. Its last execution was of murderer Eddie Lee Mays on August 15, 1963. Before abolition New York hanged, shot and burned criminals at different times until, in 1889, the Empire State adopted something brand new, the electric chair. Between 1890 and 1963 614 inmates walked their ‘Last Mile, little more than twenty steps between their cell and the death chamber. Once strapped into Old Sparky they would ‘Ride the lightning.’

First used on William Kemmler at Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890, New York originally had three chairs at Auburn, Dannemora and Sing Sing. Authorities felt three chairs were needed to manage the constant influx of condemned inmates delivered by New York’s mandatory death sentence for murder. By 1915, demand proving lower than expected, only Sing Sing’s chair remained.

Sing Sing had two buildings reserved exclusively for the condemned. The original Death House opened in 1890 comprising fourteen cells, a guardroom, doctor’s room, an office for meetings and sanity hearings, kitchen and, of course, the execution chamber. One of the men who supervised its construction, Thomas Tobin, was executed there in March 1904. Its design caused significant problems.

The death chamber was so close to the cells that inmates heard executions being performed. The generator and humming electricity cables were clearly audible to them. They even heard the inmate’s last words if they said any. Worse, New York State law required an autopsy immediately after execution. The autopsy room being next to the death chamber, inmates clearly heard that too. In August 1912 a near-riot erupted when seven men were executed in one day.

Another serious problem was security. Condemned inmates are often considered the most dangerous because they have nothing to lose by attacking staff and other inmates, inciting riots and attempting escape. The best most condemned inmates can expect is a commutation to life imprisonment. Either way, most will die behind bars. They have no reason to co-operate and every reason not to. After all, what have they got to lose?

In 1916 murderer Oreste Shillitoni used a smuggled gun to escape the original Death House days before his execution date. Condemned for a triple murder, Shillitoni escaped by seriously wounding two guards and killing another. Recaptured after a few hours, he was quickly executed. With security and, to fair, some small humanity in mind, a brand-new, custom-built ‘Death House’ was called for. State Architect Lewis Pilcher designed the new facility which opened in 1922. It was unique. No other prison on Earth had a similar custom-built facility and nobody ever escaped the new Death House although some did try.

The new building had 24 cells for men and six for women. It had its own guardroom, two tiny exercise yards, kitchen, Chaplain’s room, doctor’s office, dentist’s room, an office for the State Lunacy Commission to decide whether inmates were sane enough to die and a padded cell for those who were not. Six pre-execution cells nicknamed ‘The Dancehall’ were where prisoners spent execution day near a brand-new execution chamber with adjoining autopsy room and mortuary. Pilcher’s design kept cells and execution chamber far enough apart that prisoners heard nothing.

Security was as strict as humanly possible. Nobody entered without an FBI background check. Guards were hand-picked and sometimes reassigned when the stress became too much. Former guard Samuel Seager later became one of Eliott Ness’s ‘Untouchables’ after leaving Sing Sing. All visitors underwent the FBI check and were searched on arrival. Complaints or refusals meant they were refused admission. Nobody came in and, most importantly, left without approval.

Visits were held with a wire screen between inmates and visitors supervised by Death House guards. For their final visit before execution prisoners could spend longer than usual with their guests, albeit under the same maximum security rules. When the guards decided it was time to end a visit, they stepped in. Visitors were politely, but firmly told to leave.

Cells were searched at random. Prisoners were forbidden their own matches or lighters so, if they wanted to smoke, they had to ask a guard for a light. Food was served with crockery and cutlery made from thin aluminium, each item  being individually counted in and out to prevent prisoners making home-made weapons. All incoming and outgoing mail was routinely opened, read, copied and censored. Anything considered potentially suspect wasn’t delivered. Even a prisoner’s last letters, a Death Row tradition, received the standard checks. None were delivered in time for the inmate to receive a reply.

The concept was simple. Once you went in, you were unlikely to come out alive and given as few chances as possible to go outside. Occasionally prisoners left for court hearings or hospital visits assuming they were too ill for the prison infirmary. The prison physician was often disliked by the condemned; they knew he was a part of their impending executions.

Prisoners ate, slept, exercised, wrote letters, filed appeals, consulted lawyers and counted days until their execution all within the building. Those hoping for courts or the State Governor to save them were frequently disappointed. Only one-third of Death House inmates secured reprieves or commutations. Some, like Edward Kelly, were fortunate enough to win an appeal for a new trial only to be re-convicted, re-sentenced and electrocuted.

Many people today think of America’s death penalty as the preserve of Southern states like Virginia (which recently abolished capital punishment), Florida and Texas. During the 1920’s and 1930’s when business was most brisk, Sing Sing routinely performed more executions than any other American prison. Single executions were standard, doubles were frequent, triples happened sometimes and multiples, though rare, also featured. For multiple executions four or five inmates would die consecutively in one night. Sing Sing’s largest multiple execution was in August 1912, seven inmates dying one after another.

They didn’t all die like Rocky Sullivan. In fact, images of inmates being dragged to their deaths are largely myth. The vast majority of Sing Sing’s condemned went quietly. They simply walked their Last Mile’ from Dancehall to death chamber, said their last words if they had any, sat down, were strapped in, the switch was thrown and they were certified dead. Some, like tuberculosis patient Leo Jankowski, actually welcomed death. Jankowski, executed with Walter Levandowski  in May 1920, had suffered so badly that he cried with joy and kissed the chair, declaring before astonished witnesses that he’d never been so happy to see anything.

Another popular myth was of lights dimming during executions. The chair had its own generator separate from the main prison power supply so, barring a serious malfunction or a lightning strike, nothing disturbed the prion’s main electrical system. Sing Sing had learned from States like North Carolina that standard prison electrical networks simply couldn’t handle the extra power needed for electrocutions. The only lightning strikes at Sing Sing were entirely man-made and invariably lethal.

Nor did most of them die with a roomful of reporters although New York required all executions to be witnessed by journalists. Like all visitors they underwent the FBI check and were only admitted with a written invitation from the Warden. No invitation, no entry. Media attention depended on the notoriety (or lack thereof) of the inmates. Many, especially from ethnic minorities, died with only a local reporter or two in attendance. They received only a line or two in local newspapers if that. At the other end of the scale cannibal Albert Fish, racketeer Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter, ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’ Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck and atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg attracted so many reporters that the Warden refused more journalists than he admitted.

This is in total contrast to British executions where only prison staff, executioners, occasional invited observers and the condemned were allowed. New York’s newspaper readers had detailed (if not always entirely accurate) reports of executions. British readers were denied most details other than official notices posted on prison gates after a hanging. British executions were shrouded in official secrecy. New York’s were openly reported so Justice could be seen to be served.

Executions were traditionally performed on Thursdays, known as ‘Black Thursday.’ New York’s death warrants didn’t specify a particular date, only a particular week. When courts granted stays of execution then executions were postponed. If the appeal failed the prisoner was brought into court and resentenced by their trial judge. Court hearings were one of the very few reasons condemned inmates left the Death House. For most it was a brief view of the outside world under armed escort to have their appeals denied and their sentences reaffirmed.

The Death House held some of America’s most notable criminals. In 1899 Martha Place, condemned for murdering her step-daughter, made criminal history as the first woman to be electrocuted. It was also the first time, and the least for over twenty years, that a female reporter would enter Sing Sing’s death chamber. Kate Starr cover Place’s execution. Not until pioneering female journalist Nellie Bly attended that of murderer Gordon Hamby in in January 1920 would another female reporter be admitted. Cannibal Albert Fish (executed in 1936) looked forward to his execution, stating openly that:

“The electric chair will be the supreme thrill, and the only one I haven’t tried.”

Ruth Snyder, executed in 1928, attracted huge media coverage. Condemned with lover Judd Gray for murdering her husband Albert, their case was immortalised in classic movie ‘Double Indemnity’ and the play ‘Machinal.’ Whether Snyder deserves the sympathy or sentiment portrayals is more debatable. Rackets czar Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter, executed in March 1944 with accomplices Louis Capone (no relation) and Emmanuel ‘Mendy’ Weiss, remains the only top-level American gangster to have been legally executed.

‘Lonely Hearts Killers’ Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck died in 1951 for a string of murders. Fernandez lured wealthy women via lonely hearts adverts. They then murdered and robbed them before concealing their bodies. Illustrating the media hierarchy among New York’s condemned, Beck and Fernandez were only two of four inmates executed that night. John King and Richard Powers, convicted of murdering a detective, barely rated mentions in accounts grimly describing Fernandez being helped into the chair having almost collapsed in terror. New York’s scribes further excelled themselves with detailed descriptions of the morbidly-obese Martha having to be squeezed into the chair before she could be strapped down.  

The Death House was an equal-opportunities institution, accepting and killing its inmates regardless of social demographic. 10% of executed inmates were juveniles under 21-years old. Some were were only 17 when they died having been tried as adults. The oldest was 66. Three quarters of executed inmates were white. Black inmates formed another quarter with Asian, Filipino, Native American and Hispanic inmates completing the total. Nor were they all born in the USA. Many were foreigners or immigrants.

Like many condemned inmates today, two things common to almost all of them were being working-class and poor, unable to afford top-class lawyers. New York has never admitted executing an innocent inmate but, with this in mind, most observers have their doubts. Cases such as Charles Sberna (executed in 1939) and Hans Schmidt (executed in 1916 and the only Catholic priest executed in the USA) raise serious doubts about New York’s officially ‘perfect’ record.

‘Black Thursday’ was as strictly regulated as every other day. In the morning the inmate was moved from their regular cell to the ‘Dancehall.’ They waited for a commutation or stay, neither of which was likely by that point. Another myth is that of the phone ringing with only minutes or seconds to spare. It happened and still does, but very rarely. Their lawyers visited, usually to commiserate and say goodbye.

Sing Sing had a generous policy on the traditional last meal so they could order both a last dinner and last supper. Aside from alcohol, they could have anything within reason and ate in their cell. Guards sat outside the cell on permanent guard against suicide attempts. If the prisoner wanted religious support Sing Sing had Protestant and Catholic Chaplains and a Rabbi for Jewish inmates. Subject to security they could receive their last visitors who were permitted to stay longer than usual on the final day.

There were other, grimmer, parts of the ritual. Inmates had to take a hot shower or bath as dirt might cause a fire hazard when the switch was thrown. Their hair was trimmed by the Death House barber for the same reason. Often during the shower and shave their fate finally sank in, if it hadn’t already. Very occasionally inmates panicked, mistaking the barber’s chair for ‘Old Sparky’ and the barber for the State Electrician. To avoid distressing their final visitors the shower and shave happened after they had already left.

Perhaps the hardest part, after their last visit, was their last letter. They didn’t always send one, but many did. Like their last words, last letters varied from apologetic to philosophical to bitter, angry and defiant. Some claimed innocence. Some blamed incompetent lawyers, corrupt police, biased judges or perjured witnesses. They varied from eloquent to barely literate but all told something about their writers. With time short and the end near, many inmates dropped whatever front they might have been hiding behind. 

Some Wardens  like Wilfred Denno avoided visiting condemned inmates on execution day, not wanting to offer false hope of  last-minute stays or commutations. In January 1928, Ruth Snyder was incorrectly told of a stay of execution, only to be told later that she would die that night. She did along with her much calmer lover Henry Judd Gray. Others, like Lewis Lawes, always visited inmates on their final day. On one memorable occasion in 1925 Patrick Murphy broke the rules by asking Lawes for a final drink. Lawes, who loathed executions and himself always drank Scotch before dinner, brought Murphy two ounces of rye whiskey. Murphy, knowing Lawes’s feelings on what was about to happen, handed back the bottle saying:

“Warden, you look like you need this more than I do.”

While inmates had their final meals, visits, showers and haircuts the execution team rehearsed. The State Electrician (known to convicts as ‘the burner’) tested the chair and equipment to ensure all was well. Sing Sing had five executioners between 1890 and 1963, officially titled ‘State Electricians.’ Between them Edwin Davis, John Hurlburt, Robert Elliott, Joseph Francel and Dow Hover executed 614 inmates in New York alone. Potential applicants had to be qualified electricians with no criminal record and good character references.

They earned $150 for single executions. Multiples paid $50 per additional inmate. A private contractor, New York’s executioner could also work for other States and usually did. Elliott, credited with 387 executions, was employed by New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut. On January 6, 1927 Elliott performed a triple electrocution in Massachusetts just after midnight, then visited Sing Sing for another triple execution at 11pm. He was and remains America’s only executioner to kill six people in two different States on the same day.

The warden assembled the witnesses in his office, briefing them on how to behave and what to expect. Hand-picked guards would be assigned their roles in escorting the inmate between Dancehall and death chamber. They were also briefed on securing the prisoner with heavy leather straps and applying an electrode to their shaven right leg. The head electrode was inside a specially-made helmet and always placed personally by the executioner.

At 10:55pm the ritual began. The warden, guards and a Chaplain, Rabbi or other religious figure opened the inmate’s cell and escorted them into the death chamber. Once inside, things happened quickly. Inmates were always asked for any last words. Many had none, but others had plenty. In 1928, George Appel said “Well folks, you’re shortly about to see a baked Appel.” Ruth Snyder had shrieked “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do!” In 1944, Emmanuel ‘Mendy’ Weiss claimed “I’m here on a framed-up case.” So-called ‘Playboy Poisoner’ Arthur Waite (executed in 1917) asked simply “Is this all there is to it?” New York’s penultimate executed inmate, murderer Frederick Wood, died in March, 1963 with the words “Gentlemen, you’re about to witness the effect electricity has on Wood.”

The inmate was quickly seated, heavy leather straps securing their limbs and torso. A guard fixed the leg electrode while the executioner placed the helmet, containing a natural sponge soaked in brine to aid conduction. With the head electrode secured, a leather mask went tightly across their face and around the back of the chair. It held their head steady to avoid breaking electrical contact when the current flowed. With the prisoner fully secured guards stepped away for their own safety and to afford witnesses a clear view. The executioner stood by his switchboard awaiting a silent signal from the Warden.

When it came the executioner threw the switch, carefully watching the prisoner’s body. An increasingly loud, sputtering drone began. Thin tendrils of smoke rose from the electrodes accompanied by an odour of burned hair and blistered skin odour.  The inmate’s body thrust against the straps, their shoulders hitting the chair’s backrest with an audible slap as their hands clenched against the chair’s arms.

New York’s executioners, particularly Robert Greene Elliott, evolved a cycle of shocks to kill without causing unnecessary burning. During a two-minute ‘jolt’ inmates received 2000 volts for three seconds, 500 volts for 57 seconds, 2000 volts for three seconds, 500 volts for 54 seconds and 2000 volts for the last three seconds. Then the power was shut off. Today’s electric chairs use a similar cycle run by a computer, still known as the ‘Elliott method.’

The prison doctor waited for the body to cool enough for examination. While the inmate slumped, reporters took notes although photography was entirely forbidden. This didn’t stop Ruth Snyder’s execution being photographed with a hidden camera, almost costing Lewis Lawes his job and causing compulsory body searches for all witnesses at subsequent executions. 

A stethoscope check confirmed either death or that a second ‘jolt’ was needed. The prisoner was unstrapped, put on a stretcher and wheeled into the adjoining autopsy room while witnesses were escorted from the prison. If the inmate was still alive after the first (which happened frequently) the doctor signaled for another jolt before checking again. The executioner delivered as many jolts as necessary. When Ethel Rosenberg died, Joseph Francel delivered the first two-minute cycle only for the doctor to notice she was still alive. Francel’s reaction was chillingly casual. Stepping out from the small alcove containing the switchboard, Francel asked simply “Want another..?”

Sooner or later (Ethel Rosenberg was shocked five times before she finally died) the inmate was certified dead. The Warden directed witnesses to leave after signing forms certifying they’d witnessed the execution. The prison doctor began the autopsy while guards switched off lights and locked doors. In the Death House proper, guards removed the inmate’s nametag from their cell, packaged their personal effects to send to family or friends, remade their bed and left. After the autopsy the inmate’s family claimed their body or it was sent for burial or cremation.

And then?  Another death sentence. Another inmate admitted to pass whatever time they had left. The ritual simply began and repeated itself over and over again. Whether it achieved anything is up to the individual to decide.

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