February 9, 1934 – Ten men, four states, nine electrocutions and a hanging.

It’s a sad and well-documented fact that America’s death penalty has often been applied as much over race and poverty as guilt or innocence. All too often those without the capital, be it social or financial, get the punishment. Seldom has that been more obvious than on February 9, 1934. The mid-1930’s were halcyon days for America’s executioners. In most states that had capital punishment (which at the time was most states, period) their death chambers were never busier than between 1930 and 1940.

Many of those executed were poor, lacking the funds for adequate legal defence and the social or political connections (or bribe money) needed to win trials or appeals. They were often illiterate and some spoke little or no English, never mind the complicated legalese that made the difference between life and death. Most of them were also non-white, especially in the South where Jim Crow dispensed death and justice as though they were always the same thing. Effectively, lynching could happen as easily in the courts as at some roadside tree or crossroads in the dead of night. What became known as ‘legal lynching’ was all too common, especially for non-white prisoners whose alleged victims were white. Some, such as George Stinney, have since been exonerated. There are probably many more who should be.

February 9, 1934 is a case in point. On that day alone, ten men died in four states via nine electrocutions and a hanging. Nine were African-Americans, one was Chinese. All lacked money and social status. Alabama held its largest execution of the 20th century when Bennie Foster, John Thompson, Harie (or Hardie) White, Ernest Waller and Soloman Roper all sat in ‘Yellow Mama’ one after the other. Huntsville’s ‘Texas Thunderbolt’ claimed Jesse Mott and the Burkley brothers, Bluitt and Thurman. In Arkansas, killer Benny Butler also kept his date with ‘Old Sparky’. All three had only walked into Death Row on January 8, 1934 and were wheeled out after only a month. California hanged Quang Shick at San Quentin’s notorious ‘Hangman’s Hall,’ the first Chinese prisoner to hang in California in twelve years. Prejudice against non-whites, particularly the Hispanic and Oriental communities, had been endemic amongst Californian whites since before California achieved statehood in September of 1850.

All had been convicted of murder. In Alabama, Foster had beaten gas station owner Clarence McCain to death with a hammer while trying to rob him. Thompson had murdered a merchant named Henry Bloom. White had slain streetcar conductor Luther Williams during an attempted robbery. Waller had murdered girlfriend Daisy Montgomery and Roper had murdered his employer Page Brazier in a petty argument over six dollars. He would pay the debt with his life. The group spent their last day in religious mood, singin spirtuals and hymns with the African-American minister who accompanied them on thei final journey. They also ate well with fried fish, fried chicken and cake on their final menu.

In less than an hour, nervous and pale prison officials and witnesses watched silently as one by one they were marched from their cells and carried out in plainly-built pine coffins. Roper had to be given an extra jolt to make absolutely sure he was dead. In a grim custom at Alabama’s Kilby Prison, the men were strapped into the equally notorious ‘Yellow Mama,’ so called for its being painted yellow with paint from the neighbouring Highway Department depot. As each man was tightly strapped down his shoes were removed and his coffin brought out and placed in front of the chair. His shoes were tossed in, a grim preview of where the man himself would soon be. He was asked if he had any last words.

According to Foster, “I’m just an innocent man going to glory, that’s all.” He was gone minutes later. Thompson remained silent, staring into his own coffin before the head electrode was placed and the switch thrown. IWhite said little, “Ah wants y’all to know that ah’s not guilty! Just send dat news back tuh Mobile. Dat’s all ah asks!” Waller was far more forthcoming. To him, Daisy Montgomery had been “A cheating Negro woman who sure wasn’t worth hanging me about.” Last to die, Solomon Roper was almost indifferent. When the an officer tersely asked “You got anything to say, boy?” while tightening the straps Roper responded simply “Nah suh. Goodbye, Cap’n”. Within an hour all five had been and gone and Yellow Mama had had her fill, at least for a while.

Less is known of the three Texans. They had all been at Huntsville for only a month after sentencing on February 8, 1934 and newspaper reports made a point of mentioning that the Burkley brothers had been condemned for the rape and murder of a white lady, Katheryn Price. Mott, known as a big, strongly-built man, had been condemned for murdering gas station owner Jones Tatum. Reports also remarked on Jones being white and Mott being an African-American. All three died just after midnight. Eight down, two more to go.

Benny Jones may have been the first to die. Convicted of murder, Jones had died at dawn in Arkansas’s electric chair sited at the legendarily-brutal Tucker Prison Farm later immortalised in Hollywood movie ‘Brubaker.’ Whether he said anything or died in silence we do not know. Over at California’s equally-notorious San Quentin, Chinese killer Quang Shick did not. A repeat offender, Shick had been sentenced to hang for murdering another Cinese gentleman, a laundryman named Lee Wee Guo. Shick’s motive had been as paltry as Roper’s, an argument over some rice cakes. He mounted San Quentin’s gallows calmly at 10am and was prnounced dead by 10:15, accepting his fate and seemingly ready to die bravely. Shortly before the hanging San Quentin Warden James ‘Big Jim’ Holohan had asked him if he wanted to see a priest before he died. Shick’s reply perhaps sums up the feelings of many a condemned prisoner of that less enlightened era:

“It would be a very pleasing pleasure to one so lowly…”

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