I recently had a brief Twitter conversation with a fellow scribe at Crime Traveller and these gentlemen came up therein, so I thought their story might be interesting to look at in more detail. ‘The Executor of High Works’ was a grandiose title for so unrelentingly grim a profession, especially one traditionally inherited by people already considered social outcasts. Many might regard their informal title of ‘Bourreaux’ as being more appropriate.
Les Bouureaux enjoyed (or endured) two distinct phases before and after the French Revolution of 1792. The Revolution brought many changes, but one thing never altered. They were the most despised, reviled and feared men in all of France. Hardly surprising, given their occupation, but not entirely fair and gross hypocrisy as well.
In pre-Revolutionary France executioners were chosen on a regional basis. In keeping with their public image they were drawn from people already performing work regarded as distasteful, unpleasant and only for the lowest rung of France’s social ladder. Undertakers, tanners, gravediggers and saddlers often found themselves shoe-horned into a part-time job that nobody else would take, that of torturer and local executioner. If nobody else was prepared to do the job then condemned criminals were offered it, spared their own lives in return for taking those of their peers.
When ordered they hung, drew and quartered, beheaded, burnt, broke on the wheel and hanged condemned prisoners. They also cut the hands off thieves and dismembered the condemned for public display, if ordered. Before a decree in 1791 they also tortured the condemned before execution if that was the sentence.
Beheading was often reserved for members of the aristocracy who usually died by the sword as a mark of their social status. Anne Boleyn, executed wife of England’s Henry VIII, died on his native soil, her husband importing a French executioner and his sword for the occasion. The social status of ‘Les Bourreux’ wasn’t in any doubt, either. Universally feared and loathed, the executioner was also a breed apart and. While happy to watch his hand sever necks, tie nooses and light fires under heretics, most French people weren’t inclined to shake it.
As much as executions were a public spectacle, the bourreaux lived in isolation. Schools routinely refused to teach their children. Merchants wouldn’t sell them goods. Employers seldom employed them. Traditionally nicknamed for the towns where they lived and worked, executioners were frequently made to live outside them. ‘Monsieur de Rennes’ might dispense justice both in Rennes and most of Brittany, but living in Rennes itself was out of the question.
Bakers followed an old French superstition. Obliged by law to provide bourreaux with free bread they kept it on a separate shelf, turned upside-down as inverted bread apparently attracted the Devil. Executioners also had to wear some badge of office, usually an image of a gallows or sword. Marking them as pariahs, Jews, prostitutes and vagrants also suffered a similar indignity.
Socially ostracised by virtue of their profession, the Church added to their outcast status. Bourreaux were only allowed to marry into the families of other bourreaux so, by abolition in 1981, all French executioners for centuries could be traced through a handful of family trees.
The few perks of the job couldn’t have compensated for the bitter irony of crowds turning out to watch them work one day only to spit on them in the street the next. So isolated were the bourreau families that one, the legendary Sansons, supplied six consecutive generations of executioners while their extended family supplied even more.
There were perks, though, albeit largely to ensure they had the means of daily living. An executioner possessed by law the right to levy certain goods from local merchants, even those who refused to actually sell them anything. Bread, vegetables, meat, fish and others goods could be levied according to the bourreau’s ‘droit de havage,’ the appropriately named ‘right of cleaving’ or ‘right of chopping.’
An executioner could take, for free, as much of those goods as his two hands could hold. The Revolution would change much for the bourreaux, public hypocrisy didn’t. Until the execution of Eugen Weidmann in Paris in July, 1939 the French public enjoyed watching the bourreaux work while shunning them everywhere else.
From 1791 torture before execution was abolished and from then on there would be only one executioner for each French region or ‘departement.’ Assistant executioners (known as valets) were also abolished in the departements. Again Paris was the exception ‘Monsieur de Paris, required by law to reside in the city, retained several valets.
Different methods of execution were also abandoned. From then on, as both a humanitarian and social statement, every prisoner would be beheaded in the same way. Whether prince or pauper, all would face a brand-new invention regardless of social distinction;
Known variously as the ‘People’s Avenger,’ ‘National Razor,’ ‘Timbers of Justice,’ ‘Madame la Guillotine’ and ‘The Widow’ it replaced the wheel, gallows, sword, axe and burning post. The executioner’s torture tools also became museum pieces. The bourreaux did not; They were never more well-known or less unpopular than when providing vengeance-by-proxy for their proletarian public. They were never as busy, either, sometimes killing a hundred or more aristocrats a day and over 3000 in a single month. First used on highway robber Nicolas Jacques Pelletier in Paris on April 25, 1792 it wasn’t an instant success.
With Pelletier public hypocrisy reached new heights. Far from promoting the bourreaux as no longer being svages and outcasts, the spectators complained that it was too quick and humane. They even came up with a then-popular song including the words ‘Give us back our wooden allows.’ The public might have regarded those who worked such instruments as the lowest of the low for doing so, but they hated even more the idea of being deprived of the entertainment factor from seeing prisoners strangle slowly at the end of a rope or be engulfed in flames. No, the bourreaux were still unholy brutes. It was just that were no longer brutal enough.
Until 1939 the heads still rolled, the crowds still turned out and the bourreaux were still objects of public hatred. By then use of the term ‘bourreaux’ had been officially outlawed (not that anyone stopped using it) while French officialdom too sought to distance itself from those who did their dirty work. The guillotine itself was officially the property of the chief executioner, not the Ministry of Justice. The chief executioner (now only ‘Monsieur de Paris actually dropped the blade) and his remaining valets were also kept at arm’s length.
‘Monsieur de Paris’ didn’t draw a salary. He was given an annual appropriation of 180,000 Francs to cover repairs, maintenance, expenses and paying himself and his assistants. The Ministry of Justice could then keep them all at an official distance while still regularly despatching them around France, themselves to despatch the criminals thereof.
The pay was low and one chief was fired for having pawned the device to raise funds. When they found out he’d done so, shortly before a scheduled execution, the Ministry had to redeem the pawnbroker’s fee out of public funds so the execution could go ahead. In their eyes, however, nothing could redeem the bourreau who’d pawned it. He was immediately fired.
In France’s notorious penal colonies at French Guiana and New Caledonia the National Razor’s operators were equally hated, though for a different reason. The penal colonies used convict-executioners, men already serving sentences who were ready to kill their fellow criminals in return for protection and privileges. Hated by guards and inmates alike, they were the most reviled convicts in the system.
Neither guards or inmates had any time for men viewed as traitors to their criminal class. A couple were themselves executed. Isidore Hespel, known throughout Guiana’s Penal Administration as ‘The Jackal’ was himself executed for murder by the very assistant executioner he’d trained. The assistant wasn’t any more popular for having executed his hated boss.
Worse still was the grisly fate of a particularly brutal Guiana bourreau Henri Clasiot. A man of singularly vile personality, Clasiot routinely beat, cursed and insulted the convicts he executed, marching them to the guillotine with fists and invective. Abducted by some freed convicts, Clasiot found himself facing far worse than even he had inflicted. After a severe beating, his captors stripped him naked, smeared him liberally with honey and staked him out over an anthill.
The ants were carnivorous.
After Weidmann in 1939, itself watched by a young Englishman later to become Sir Christopher Lee, executions were hurriedly removed behind prison walls. Such had been the disgust at drunkenness and debauchery during Weidmann’s death, President Lebrun (an opponent of capital punishment) ordered public executions abolished. The bourreaux became increasingly obscure and secretive figures, perhaps grateful for the lowering of their public profile. The penal systems of Guiana and New Caledonia closed and, while ‘Monsieur de Paris’ and his valets still plied their grim trade, they did so increasingly rarely and entirely in private.
1949 saw France’s last female execution, that of Germaine Leloy-Godefroy. In 1953 the last prisoners returned from Guiana, the infamous colony having closed its doors in 1946 and its caps and orisons gradually shut down. A movement against capital punishment had always existed in France, but it gathered increasing momentum after World War II. Ironically considering their profession, now the bourreaux themselves were on borrowed time.
1977 saw France’s last execution, that of Hamida Djandoubi in Marseille’s notorious Baumettes prison. In 1981 the Natonal Assembly finally abolished the death penalty. Djandoubi was the last prisoner beheaded in both France and Western Europe. France was the last in Western Europe to abolish beheading as a method. The days of ‘les bourreaux’ were over.
Until abolition French judges still passed death sentences, but all were commuted. Seeing the way the political wind was blowing President Francois Mitterand (another death penalty opponent) reprieved every death sentence passed between his election and final abolition. No longer would the residents of what the French called ‘Death Alley’ count off the days they had left and wonder how many actually remained.
French condemned prisoners were never given their exact date and time of execution until it actually happened, when at the traditional time of dawn their cell doors opened and their final walk began. They knew when there was an execution scheduled for the next morning, but whose? They spent every dawn hoping the door that opened wouldn’t be theirs.
No longer would they hear guards talking in the evenings and tremble until after the dawn, having heard the dreaded words ‘Monsieur de Paris est ici…’
It’s been quite some time since I last posted ere, but I have been extremely busy with paid work and earning a living. Part of that has been writing my first book.
Criminal Curiosities is a collection of crooks, all with something about their crime, trial or punishment that is singular to them. The first prisoner to face the guillotine, the first to commit a robbery using a landmine, the first case in which the murder victim’s actual body had a starring role in reconstructing the crime for the jury trying his killer and so on.
So, if you’re curious as to who was really America’s first Public Enemy Number One, ever wondered who was first to take a seat in the electric chair or perhaps you’ve never heard of the art forger brave enough to bilk Hermann Goering out of sixty million dollars (at today’s prices) feel free to…
Born on April 6, 1937 in Oildale, California, Merle Haggard’s troubles started early. His father died which in 1945 affected him greatly. From then until 1960, he was in and out of trouble. Mostly in it.
School truancy, theft, burglary, robbery, passing bad checks, escapes, attempted robbery and attempted escape saw him mired firmly in trouble of one sort or another. In February, 1958 he was in Bakersfield Jail charged with attempted robbery, from which he escaped. Recaptured, he went to California’s legendary San Quentin for a 3-15-year stretch.
San Quentin was (and still is) a terrifying, rough, brutal place. The bad news is that it offers little but misery and hard time. The good news? They never run short of it. Assault, murder and rape are seen as everyday events because, in San Quentin, they are. Haggard described his arrival bluntly:
“We pulled up in a bus late at night and the walls are like 70 feet high and there’s armed guards everywhere and, if you’re not scared, there’s something wrong with you. It’s a bad place to go.”
Nobody acquainted with the prison’s entirely grim history and reputation could argue with that. San Quentin was and still is the location of California’s infamous ‘Condemned Row.’
The Row in 1958 was on the top floor of North Block backing on to the solitary confinement cells. Seeing as the solitary unit (known as ‘The Shelf’) was one where inmates weren’t allowed to talk, they could always hear the condemned talking just the other side of an internal wall. Haggard recounted ‘Red Light Bandit’ Caryl Chessman (executed on May 2, 1960) laughing as he received the offer of a life insurance policy in the mail. He’d probably have preferred a stay of execution or a commutation instead.
While at San Quentin, Haggard was a trouble-maker, regularly being given prison jobs and equally regularly being fired from them. He was also running a gambling and beer-making operation until he was caught having dipped once too often (and possibly a little too deeply) into his own supply. As a result he spent his 21st birthday, when Americans are legally old enough to drink, in solitary for doing exactly that:
“They caught me drinking some of my own beer, and I fell in the restroom and they figured I was drunk, so they took me and locked me up in jail inside of San Quentin. And that was where I decided to change directions in my life.”
It was just as well that he did. He faced a lengthy sentence with the likelihood of spending his life in and out of California’s penal system, hearing the chatter of condemned inmates only feet away (and presumably noticing the somber silences and hearing their goodbyes as they were led away to the gas chamber). All things considered it was a good time to ask himself exactly where his life was headed and whether he could direct it somewhere he actually wanted to go.
Inspiration came from several sources. Johnny Cash (who Haggard came to know well) played his first gig concert at San Quentin on New Year’s Day, 1959. It was a rousing success, both for Cash and for the inmates who very seldom got to see outside performers. Haggard was known in the prison as a guitarist and singer and, with Cash’s recent visit in mind, soon found himself besieged by other inmates wanting to learn guitar. As Haggard described Cash’s visit:
“He had the right attitude. He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards – He did everything the prisoners wanted to do.”
Darker and equally potent inspiration came from an unlikely source, fellow con James ‘Rabbit’ Kendrick. Kendrick had an escape plan and, inviting Haggard to come with him, also cautioned him against it. So did several other prisoners. According to Haggard, Kendrick told him that, if cornered, he’d fight rather than surrender. Impressed by Haggard’s musical ability Kendrick told him to stick with it and serve his time:
“You can sing and write songs and play guitar real good. You can be somebody someday.”
Kendrick was right about Haggard, both were right about Haggard’s decision not to escape. Kendrick duly escaped, shipping out of San Quentin in a packing crate. His period of liberty lasted only two weeks before he shot California Highway Patrolman Richard Duvall and was recaptured. In fact, Kendrick did what he’d sworn not to do. Cornered and with no hope of escape, he surrendered.
Quickly convicted and condemned Kendrick soon returned to San Quentin as a resident of ‘Condemned Row.’ Like all prisoners Haggard learned to spot condemned prisoners when he saw them. Confined within the Row as much as possible, he seldom saw them anyway. When he did, usually headed for a court appearance or a final visit, they were always escorted by two guards. Haggard later described Kendrick’s last walk through the prison:
“Even though the crime was brutal and the guy was an incorrigible criminal, it’s a feeling you never forget, when see someone you know make that last walk. They bring him through the yard, and there’s a guard in front and a guard behind – That’s how you spot a death prisoner.”
James ‘Rabbit’ Kendrick walked his last mile at 10am on November 3, 1961, one of eight prisoners executed that year. But he hadn’t just inspired Haggard to try turning his life around. Unwittingly, Kendrick provided creative inspiration as well. Haggard wrote a moving ballad about seeing a condemned prisoner led to their death. One of several songs he wrote about prison life, it became a hallmark of his;
Haggard took to redeeming himself. He earned his high school equivalency at San Quentin, playing in a prison band. On November 3, 1960, exactly a year before Kendrick died, he was paroled having been offered a job by his brother. $80 a week digging ditches wasn’t ideal, but he played bars and clubs as he had before San Quentin. Provided he kept on the right side of the law and his parole officer (he did he was free to attempt the music career that ‘Rabbit’ had urged him to pursue.
He pursued it with immense success, though not always without controversy. Haggard was unafraid to speak his mind even when his words weren’t always popular. He pioneered the ‘Bakersfield sound,’ a rougher, tougher, harder-edged antidote to more commercial country peddled in and around Nashville.
The less mainstream country artists banded together into a movement of which Haggard was an integral part, ‘outlaw country.’ In 1972 then-California Governor and future President Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full pardon, sealing his place as a redeemed member of society and proving that Haggard had survived and thrived far beyond everybody’s expectations possibly including his own.
Always an outsider, often controversial, immensely influential, never afraid to speak his mind even when it cost him and now an icon of country music, Haggard’s career went from strength to strength. His health, however, declined in his later years. After years of suffering various illnesses he passed away on April 6, 2016, his 79th birthday.
1952 was a quiet year for the Sing Sing death house. Only three prisoners walked their last mile, Edward Kelly and Wallace Ford, Jr on October 30 and before them Bernard Stein on March 6. That was pretty quiet considering 1951 saw eight inmates die including Lonely Hearts Killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck on March 8 of that year.
True to notoriety’s pecking order in which the most notorious inmates drew most attention, few people remember John King and Joseph Powers, killers of Detective Joseph Miccio and who died on the same night as Beck and Fernandez. When Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died on June 19, 1953 few people remembered that they were only two of six to die that year, although he Rosenbergs alone more than kept Sing Sing in the news.
Neither Ford or Kelly’s crimes were especially unusual which probably leaves you wondering why they appear here. While Ford’s crime was brutal, squalid and without any excuse or grounds for clemency (not unusual in the Sing Sing death house) Kelly was a rarity. While Ford had entered the death house never to leave it alive, this was Kelly’s second stint for the same crime.
There were 695 electrocutions in New York between William Kemmler (the world’s first on August 6, 1890) and Eddie Lee Mays (New York’s last on August 15, 1963). Initially New York had three electric chairs sited at Sing Sing, Auburn and Dannemora. Executions took place at all three until 194 when Sing Sing was designated the sole site for New York State, finally numbering 614 out of New York’s total.
There were anomalies, though. Around one inmate in three that entered the death house left alive via commutations to life imprisonment, successful appeals against their conviction or sentence or having been certified insane and sent to psychiatric institutions. With a successful appeal reversing their conviction some even left the death house and Sing Sing altogether, walking out into the bright light of freedom as though they’d never sat crossing dates of their calendar or come within days, hours or even minutes of death.
Edward Kelly was one of them. Originally condemned for the senseless murder of Eloise McHugh with a rifle (and then turning it on himself) Kelly arrived at Sing Sing on September 29, 1950. After winning his appeal and reversal of his conviction on July 1, 1951 Kelly walked out of Sing Sing on July 12 firmly believing he was one of that lucky third who’d never be coming back. He even left a warmly-worded letter for Warden Wilfred Denno, a man he never expected to see again. But we’ll be getting to that later
Suffice to say that Edward Kelly was wrong. Fatally so, in fact.
Kelly’s reversal was exactly that, a reversal and not an acquittal. The State of New York was thus free to try him again. That Kelly had shot McHugh was in no doubt whatsoever, but the trial judge had misdirected the jury regarding Kelly’s insanity defence. According to the judge Kelly had to understand what he was doing OR that it was a crime. New York State’s appellate judges saw it differently. To be considered legally sane, they ruled, Kelly had to understand BOTH his act and the nature thereof, not one or the other. With that in mind they reversed his conviction (and his mandatory death sentence) and out he walked.
If Kelly thought he was home free, he wasn’t. With a reversal instead of an acquittal double jeopardy didn’t apply. New York State could try him again and did so, this time winning a conviction that withstood Kelly’s lawyers and their best efforts. Having walked out of Sing Sing’s death house on July 12, 1951, he walked back in on November 28 to be reunited with Warden Wilfred Denno and the death house guards Kelly’s letter had so warmly praised. In the same week as Edward Kelly began his second stint in the death house Wallace Ford, Jr arrived to begin his first (and last).
Unlike Kelly, Ford held no particular distinction. His crime, the kidnap and murder of his sister-in-law after his marriage folded, was brutal, squalid and utterly unnecessary. Hardly a rare breed among Sing Sing’s soon-to-be-dead then or now. An argument with sister-in-law and victim Nancy Bridges over contact with his children saw Ford beat her unconscious, drive her to Genesee County. Once there he drove his car over her, reversing over her again to ensure her death. Not a man to inspire sympathy among appellate judges or the State Governor who still had the power to commute. In Ford’s case he chose not to. Convicted and condemned on November 30, 1951, he arrived at Sing Sing on December 4.
If Kelly’s case was unusual for Warden Denno it wasn’t unusual for State Electrician Joseph Francel. The fourth of five men to hold the title, Kelly and Ford would be numbers 130 and 131 of the 140 inmates he electrocuted between 1939 and 1953. After Kelly and Ford, Francel would throw the switch only nine more times before resigning in 1954.
Francel didn’t like the low pay, $150 for a single with an extra $50 per head for executing two or more prisoners in the same night. He’d also taken a dislike to the publicity surrounding his job, especially after the Rosenbergs in 1953. Kelly and Ford, however, were just another day at the office. With Ford and Kelly both out of appeals and Governor Thomas Dewey not inclined to be generous, preparations for the double event began.
12 hours before their scheduled time of 11pm Ford and Kelly were moved from their death house cells to a block of six pre-execution cells long nicknamed the Dance Hall, only 20 steps from the execution chamber itself. The execution team rehearsed, each guard knowing their particular part of the job. Francel, as was the custom, arrived in the afternoon to check the equipment and ensure it was running properly. Warden Denno had to meet and greet the official witnesses, ensuring that none had any hidden cameras as happened when Ruth Snyder was executed in 1928.
In the absence of any stays of execution, appellate rulings or executive clemency all Kelly and Ford could do was wait…
Ford had sent a letter to Judge Loughran of the New York State Court of Appeals. It did him no good, but he did cite a complaint common among condemned inmates even today;
‘My attorneys at the trial were appointed by the Genesee County Court and they also represented me on appeal before this Court. I sincerely do believe that to the limit of their knowledge, capabilities and experience, they faithfully and conscientiously did their collective best and utmost to protect my interest. However, Your Honor, they were both young men, comparatively young in the practice of law and for both my case was their first murder trial and appeal.’
It did Wallace Ford, Jr no good in 1952. It seldom does now.
As far Edward Kelly, sitting in his cell with head shaved and appeals exhausted, his own letter to Warden Denno on leaving the death house might well have come back to haunt him;
Due to the fact that I’m leaving the “Death House,” I cannot say I have any regrets, nor will I recommend it to anyone, but I can inform them that, if they are ever unfortunate enough to go to Sing Sing, they will be very well treated. I had no fault to find with anything or anybody during my stay, every reasonable request was granted. The entire staff of the prison are a credit to New York State. The officers and guards are as fine a group of men as you could find anywhere.
“Dick” and “Freddie” go about their duties as if they had a personal interest in the place, always helpful and ready with a word of cheer if needed. I enjoyed “Terry’s” homelike meals. It would certainly be a pleasure to meet everybody, including yourself, under different circumstances. I extend my best wishes to all, but I hope I never come back.
Edward H Kelly, 109-821.’
Did these words, written as Kelly walked cheerfully from death to freedom, haunt him as he made the return journey?
Execution has long been part of criminal history, society’s ultimate sanction for the very worst offenders. Less enthusiastic supporters regard it as a necessary evil and a deterrent even while acknowledging its distasteful nature. Opponents believe it no deterrent at all, that it’s applied arbitrarily and makes society as uncivilized and barbarous as the condemned themselves. It is, they argue, vengeance dressed up as justice.
We’re not discussing the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, the most humane (or least inhumane) execution methods, wrongful convictions or excessive use. Like it or not it exists and the history of crime includes the history of punishment. That said, punishment sometimes takes unusual means inflicted by unusual people.
Mississippi and Louisiana adopted an unusual means. Mississippi’s executioner was certainly one of crime’s more unusual people.
The Deep South has a checkered history of crime and punishment. Brutal prison conditions, corruption, racism and the complete absence of rehabilitation were long cornerstones of its penal policy. To many Southerners (not all by any means) prisoners were there to suffer and be punished, broken or killed, not reformed or rehabilitated.
Prison wasn’t considered punishment in itself, but suffering while there certainly was. Bad food, hard labor, brutal punishments and rampant death from disease, malnutrition, overwork and often murder weren’t aberrations, they were the norm. When inmate workers died at Angola the attitude, held since its time as a slave plantation, was simple;
When one dies, get another.
Louisiana subjected inmates to forced labor for profit and brutal discipline, especially at Angola. Under the convict lease system of the time, inmates were expected to provide free labor under the harshest conditions making them a profitable asset. The harder they could be forced to work, the more profitable they were. It was a simple policy enforced with constant brutality, quaintly described as:
‘More lash, more cash.’
Angola being a former slave plantation, post-Civil War convicts would have barely noticed the difference. Race played a huge part in penal policy in both states. When rape was a capital crime not a single white Mississippian was executed, although many were convicted. Black rapists, on the other hand, especially those whose victim was white, knew that conviction meant almost certain death.
It was only slightly less biased regarding murder. Records show that since Mississippi achieved statehood the vast majority of inmates executed have been black. Historically, Louisiana has always executed far more black inmates than white regardless of their crime. Even though Louisiana and Mississippi were among the first states to offer alternatives to execution for murder anyone non-white, poor or both could expect to keep a date with the hangman.
Even today, a black murderer, especially of a white victim, is far more likely to die than the other way round. According to statistics released in the 1980’s black murderers are four times more likely to receive a death sentence than white ones. Contrary to the American ideal all citizens are not equal under the law even now. They were even less equal when Old Sparky and Gruesome Gertie were doing their rounds.
Both states originally employed hanging in whichever county the crime was committed. After many bungled hangings both states adopted electrocution, a supposedly more humane alternative. The states took control, but with a uniquely Southern twist. Louisiana and Mississippi were the last US states to take their executions in-house, but the first to make them a portable affair. Both ‘Old Sparky’ and ‘Gruesome Gertie’ would make their first official appearance in 1941.
By 1940 most states used a single purpose-built facility for confining and executing inmates. Sing Sing’s infamous ‘Death House’ segregated the condemned and once they went in they seldom came out. Mississippi and Louisiana did it differently. In the 1930’s Mississippi also had the highest murder rate of any state, more executions suited the public and political mood.
There were some serious obstacles to this idea. Being Mississippi’s only maximum-security prison at the time Parchman was the obvious location. Unfortunately Parchman’s chief, Superintendant Marvin Wiggins, was firmly opposed to siting Death Row at his prison. Wiggins, a shrewd and highly-connected man was firmly opposed to executions at Parchman and he wasn’t alone.
Parchman is in Sunflower County and Sunflower residents feared it being stigmatized as the ‘death county.’ They loathed the idea of hosting both executions and condemned inmates with nothing to lose by rioting and attempting escape.
Both they and Superintendent Wiggins also feared increased unrest at Parchman, already known as one of the worst prisons in the US. According to author David Oshinsky in his book ‘Worse than Slavery’ one local politician stated: ‘Place that thing at Parchman and you’ll have riots and a wholesale breakout to descend hundreds of criminals down upon our people.’
Sunflower’s residents weren’t alone in that. No other county wanted to be known mainly for executions, either.
Tradition also played its part. Hangings had always been conducted under county jurisdiction. If a prisoner was condemned in a particular county then that was where they also died. Many believed that public hangings performed locally reassured law-abiding communities and intimidated their criminals. Local executions also made punishment more relevant to local communities and less remote than if done in one place alone.
If change was to be made, then the State needed to take control of executions while retaining their visibility, avoiding stigmatizing any one county and providing a less inhumane method than regularly-bungled hangings. A compromise was needed. Mississippi and Louisiana duly found one.
In 1940 Mississippi adopted electrocution and Louisiana followed the next year. After Louisiana only West Virginia would begin using electrocution but, in 1940, riding the lightning was the preferred option for most states. Louisiana’s last hanging was a quadruple on March 7, 1941 in Caldwell.
At Caldwell, William Heharg, William Landers, William Heard and Floyd Boyce, all escaped convicts convicted of murder (and unusually all white) climbed the scaffold’s 13 steps and dropped through its trapdoor. 13 had proved very unlucky indeed for them, but no longer for anyone else. Louisiana lightning was now the order of the day. All Gruesome Gertie needed was a victim.
Their compromise involved, for the first time in American history, a portable electric chair. It would travel from county to county in a large silver truck also carrying a generator, switchboard, cables and all the standard equipment. Supplied by a firm in Memphis, both states took the show on the road providing death on wheels.
The equipment and its transporter were far cheaper than a purpose-built ‘death house’ like Sing Sing’s which appealed to politicians and taxpayers alike. It also made death more local and the message harder to ignore. At a time when many people were born, lived and died without leaving their local area an execution on the other side of the state was unlikely to make much impression.
Also, with illiteracy very common, a small squib in their local paper would likely go unnoticed, let alone feared. People seeing the truck arrive and hearing its generator from several blocks away got a message unmistakable to citizens and criminals alike. Especially if they weren’t white and wealthy;
‘This is what happens to law-breakers. Don’t forget it…’
It had never been done before. In fact, nobody had even built a portable electric chair before, let alone used one. The method, however, was infinitely less unusual than Mississippi’s new executioner.
Mississippi’s new ‘State Executioner’ was Jimmy Thompson, a strange man with a violent past. An ex-convict, ex-merchant sailor, frequent drunkard, carnival showman, stage hypnotist and ex-Marine, Thompson had only recently been pardoned in 1939 after serving time for highway robbery.
During the 1920’s Thompson had also shot a neighbor for insulting his mother, escaping prosecution via an unwritten law of Southern life. At that time a man was allowed to shoot another man to defend a woman’s body or personal reputation. Needless to say this law only extended to white men, certainly not black men shooting whites on similar grounds.
Thompson was a curious character to put it mildly. He’d scratched a living on the carnival circuit as a stage hypnotist performing as ‘Doctor Zogg’, ‘Doctor Alzedi Yogi’ and, appropriately, ‘Doctor Stingaree.’ He was heavily tattooed, a natural performer and exhibitionist. He loved entertaining with hypnosis and jugs of illegal moonshine.
Thompson secured the job via State Governor Paul Johnson. Thompson and Johnson were old friends so it was no great surprise that Thompson beat five other applicants, none of whom knew Johnson personally. Whether he was in any way an appropriate person for such a task is altogether more debatable.
In September, 1940 the equipment was ready for its public unveiling in the State capital Jackson. Thompson arrived, set up, started the generator and worked the controls. While a crowd followed his every move, the carnival showman cycled the voltage up and down while the generator roared and the current whined. According to an article in Life magazine dated October 7, 1940:
‘Crowds saw a big silver truck, a portable generator and a sturdy chair complete with helmet straps and electrodes. Beside it stood Mississippi’s new executioner, Jimmy Thompson, ex-sailor, marine, carnival man and high tension expert. No less proud of his chair than of the black cat, snakes and strawberries tattooed on his velvety skin, he explained that he and his volts would travel from county to county as business required’
Other press reports were far less favourable. The Memphis Commercial Appeal bitterly criticized the exhibition as barbaric and tasteless, stating:
‘The only thing lacking at Thursday’s formal and public exhibition of the State’s new electric chair was a victim.’
At $100 per execution plus expenses Thompson was as keen to start work as Mississippi was to demonstrate its new concept. Mississippi wanted to show off its latest innovation. Thompson was keen to start making regular visits to the drunk tank after every execution, spending as much on fines for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct as he did on booze. It wasn’t long before both would be satisfied.
Like most of Mississippi’s condemned Willie Mae Bragg was black. He’d been convicted of murdering his ex-wife in Lucedale. With the State keen to demonstrate its new method and Bragg inspiring no sympathy in appellate judges he was first in line.
His date of execution was October 11, 1940. Bragg fully expected to die, but didn’t know he was about to make State and penal history. He would be the first convict to die in a portable electric chair. Another black Mississipian, Hilton Fortenberry, was executed on the same day in Jackson.
Hortenberry was the last Mississipian to hang. As a black murderer of a white retired police officer, Hortenberry knew full well he would keep his date with the hangman. While Fortenberry hanged in Jackson, Bragg burned in Lucedale. It was an historic day for Mississippi. Out with the old, in with the new.
His guilt confirmed, Bragg’s execution was also assured. Whether Mississippi’s desire to demonstrate its new toy made it more certain we’ll never really know. Thompson arrived at Lucedale Courthouse on October 10 to set up what he’d already nicknamed ‘My killing machine.’ After some fairly basic tests to ensure all was ready, ‘Dr. Stingaree’ and Willie Mae Bragg were all set to make history. Press interest within Mississippi and further afield was enormous.
Electrocutions were nothing new and Bragg a typical condemned inmate, but a portable electric chair was a world first. If all went well Mississippi could trumpet its new invention. If things went badly the press would have an even bigger story. Either way, Jimmy Thompson and his ‘killing machine’ would be center-stage. Nobody involved was especially concerned about Willie Mae Bragg.
It’s also highly unlikely that anybody considered the dreadful fate of William Kemmler at New York’s Auburn Prison in August, 1889. The world’s first judicial electrocution had been a nightmarish exhibition of just how badly wrong untested methods can go. Whether the portable version would be equally appalling remained to be seen.
By this point Hilton Fortenberry was largely ignored. Journalists were far more interested in this latest innovation whether it worked properly or not. Death on wheels was far more newsworthy than yet another hanging, botched or otherwise. So newsworthy, in fact, that a photographer from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger was there to record this historic event standing only feet away from the chair.
The potential for horrendous problems was large. Granted, judicial electrocution had been considerably refined since William Kemmler. It was now done using permanently-sited, largely-standardized equipment operated by experienced professionals. Furthermore, New York and many other States insisted on employing only executioners who were also qualified electricians. Many ‘State Electricians’ worked in the electricity industry prior to their appointment as executioners.
Mississippi on the other hand was about to test a generator, switchboard, cables and electrodes that had been bounced around in a truck for hundreds of miles before its first use. They were also employing an executioner with no electrical repair or maintenance skills who, as far as we know, had never performed an execution. Electrocution was familiar, but this way of using it was anything but.
It was totally untested, nobody knew if it would work. The generator, cables, switchboard and electrodes could malfunction. If any of the equipment malfunctioned Bragg might receive no current, receive too much (and be burnt to death) or too little (and be slowly cooked alive).
Thompson himself claimed that both he and his assistant had been trained by experienced ‘electrocutioners’ but he’d never actually electrocuted anybody and had a reputation for excessive drinking. Even if the equipment functioned perfectly, Thompson might not. Anybody worried about potential problems had ample reason to be.
As it was their worries were unfounded. Thompson did his job, the equipment worked perfectly and Bragg died as quickly and cleanly as he could have done. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger thoughtfully provided explicit captions with its photographs. As Bragg was being prepared the caption read:
‘At the left Bragg sits in the chair and watches as guards strap his arms.’
Accompanying a photograph taken while the current was switched on another caption read:
‘The picture at the right was made as the first flash of electricity surged through his body. Note Bragg’s hands gripping the chair and his neck bulging in death’s throes.’
Thompson, always ready to supply an attention-grabbing soundbite, stated that Bragg had died:
‘With tears in his eyes for the efficient care I took to give him a good, clean burning.’
It wasn’t until the remarkable failed electrocution of Willie Francis in Louisiana in 1946 that the technical pitfalls of portable electrocution would be shown in horrifying fashion.
The Jackson Clarion-Ledger had its banner headline and exclusive photographs, Thompson had his first fee and the new method had been proved sound. The Clarion-Ledger also managed something very rare in criminal history by photographing the execution. Previously, the only live image of an electrocution had been taken secretly at New York’s Sing Sing Prison in January, 1928 by newspaper photographer Tom Howard.
His secret snap of Ruth Snyder, taken only seconds after executioner Robert Elliott threw the switch, clearly shows Snyder as 2000 volts flowed through her body. It’s still one of the most famous images in media history. After Snyder’s execution, prison officials in many states thoroughly searched witnesses before executions. Even today it’s strictly forbidden to photograph or film an execution in any US State.
Thompson himself was effusive about his successful debut and subsequent ‘fry parties’ as he charmingly called them. In an interview given to Craddock Gains Thompson supplied some choice comments. Thompson seemed to think condemned inmates were grateful for his apparent skill at killing them, stating that he told each of them:
Brother, I sure appreciate your trade. I’m going to show my appreciation by giving you a nice clean job. I’m going to give you the prettiest death a guy can have.’
Describing how he thought inmates regarded him Thompson delivered a curious response. Mississippi had several inmates already condemned to hang when electrocution replaced the gallows. These inmates were given a choice between hanging or electrocution. According to Thompson, it was a measure of their faith in his ability that all those with a choice chose electrocution. He even believed them grateful to die at the hands of so skilled an executioner, stating:
‘You can’t imagine how much that helps a poor peckerwood in the death chamber unless you have seen the grateful eyes these men turn upon me when they place themselves in my hands. I guess I just have a talent for this sort of thing. Condemned men seem to trust me, and I never let ’em down.’
Mississippi authorities were far more co-operative with the press than elsewhere in the country. The angle, distance and clarity of the pictures prove the photographer was only feet away, obviously photographing quite openly. They not only co-operated but actively encouraged him. The images, unpleasant though they are, are valuable in their rarity.
Thompson, being a natural showman, seemed utterly unaffected by his grim work and to positively revel in the notoriety he attracted. Future events showed that those in authority had no problem with his professional skill, but were far less impressed by his self-publicizing antics between executions.
Thompson continued as ‘travelling executioner’ for several more years, but his lucrative notoriety didn’t last. In December, 1944 a new State Governor was elected, replacing Thompson’s close friend and original employer Paul Johnson. Governor Thomas Bailey lost no time replacing Thompson with C W Watson although his reasons remain unclear.
No official records exist of Thompson’s hiring and firing but in December, 1946 a report appeared in the Jackson Daily News detailing a shooting accident in which Thompson was slightly wounded, describing him as the ‘former State executioner.’
Thompson could have been replaced for several reasons. Political patronage was an important factor in being employed by the State and, without a patron, finding or keeping State employment was difficult. The new Governor might have employed a friend or acquaintance as his predecessor had done. Thompson’s heavy drinking and perpetual exhibitionism could have been distasteful enough that Bailey wanted somebody less bizarre and more discreet. Perhaps Thompson himself may have simply decided to move on.
We’ll probably never know whether Thompson resigned or was fired, although his exhibitionism and regular arrests for post-execution drunkenness probably didn’t help him much. What we do know is that his being replaced coincided almost exactly with Bailey’s election and Johnson’s departure.
Executioners at the time were often private contractors employed by multiple States. Most of New York’s executioners did brisk business with neighboring States like New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Connecticut. Robert Elliott was employed by all those States at the same time. Elliott was so busy that on January 6, 1928 he executed six men in two different States on the same day. Elliott performed three electrocutions at the Massachusetts State Prison that morning before taking a train to New York and another triple execution that night.
Jimmy Thompson was gone. His ‘killing machine’ wasn’t, now being carted around by Watson. During its 15-year tenure the chair executed 73 inmates. 56 black men, 16 white men and 1 black woman died in courthouses and county jails all over Mississippi. Nearly a dozen were still juveniles aged under 21. Willie Mae Bragg was the first. On November 10, 1954 murderer James Johnson became the last.
Willie McGee, convicted of rape in what many still consider a blatant injustice, achieved international attention. McGee’s case went to the US Supreme Court three times during his eight years awaiting execution. Celebrities such as William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker spoke out against his execution and President Harry Truman came under international pressure to commute McGee’s sentence. Even Soviet spy Julius Rosenberg, himself awaiting execution at the time, publicly condemned McGee’s case as demonstrating all that was wrong with American society.
McGee was executed at the Laurel County Courthouse on May 8, 1951 in the same courtroom in which he’d been convicted in 1945. True to form, the Mississippi media made an impression. There were no photographs this time, but a local radio station broadcast a commentary that was syndicated nationwide.
The recording of McGee’s final half-hour is available online for those who can stomach hearing the generator noise rising and falling while locals cheer and shout the ‘Rebel Yell’ in the background. It’s not easy listening but, like the Willie Mae Bragg photographs, is still an important part of the historical record.
Jimmy Thompson died in a traffic accident on October 12, 1952. He was a passenger in a pick-up truck when it crashed and Thompson was thrown from the vehicle, suffering fatal injuries. He was 56 years old when he died. He left a sister and five brothers, but no children of his own. His life and work later formed the basis for the movie ‘The Travelling Executioner’ starring Stacy Keach as Jonas Candide, a very-thinly veiled version of Thompson himself.
Filmed largely at Alabama’s Kilby Prison (where Samuel Hall met his singular end) and released in 1970 it performed poorly at the box office, widely considered too unusual to be a mainstream hit. Nor was it particularly accurate. That said, Thompson himself would have been highly gratified to be portrayed by so famous an actor and it’s absolutely clear Thompson’s life and work inspired the movie.
Mississippi continued using the portable electric chair James Johnson was executed on November 10, 1954. In 1955 it was replaced by what Superintendent Wiggins and residents of Sunflower County had always feared. A gas chamber was installed at Parchman and the Maximum Security Unit built to house only condemned inmates.
C W Watson and his assistant Thomas Berry Bruce would now ply their trade in one place only. Wiggins loathed only one thing more than taking charge of executions and that was the possibility of a botched one. With Mississippi’s newly-installed gas chamber would soon provide that as well.
The first Mississippi convict to die by gassing was Gerald Gallego, a murderer and escaped convict. Unlike the portable electric chair, Mississippi’s gas chamber had a nightmarish debut. Gallego walked his last mile reciting the Lord’s Prayer to the strains of eight other dead men walking singing ‘Up Above There’s A Heaven Bright.’ Seated and strapped in the chair nicknamed ‘Black Death’ Gallego suffered for over 45 minutes before dying. If he did see a heaven bright Gerald Gallego was probably wishing he’d see it a little faster.
The mixture of sodium cyanide and dilute sulfuric acid had been incorrectly brewed leading to a less-than-lethal concentration of cyanide gas. Gallego coughed, spluttered, gasped and writhed for over thirty minutes, but didn’t die. In a complicated, potentially-lethal procedure a new batch of brew had to replace the old batch hurriedly drained away from beneath the chair.
That done, the airtight door was re sealed and the cyanide and acid mixed again. This time it worked and Gerald Gallego was dead. In 1957 Watson was replaced by Bruce, Watson’s bodyguard and then deputy executioner since 1951.
In 1987, days before the execution of Edward Earl Johnson and not having gassed anyone since Tim Jackson in 1964, Bruce found himself replaced by Charles Tate Rogers and then Donald Hocutt. Despite the Gallego disaster Mississippi continued using the gas chamber until 1989 when the method changed again to lethal injection.
Prisoners condemned prior to the change were given the option of choosing gas or injection. Today lethal injection is the sole method used in Mississippi, the location is still Parchman. Death Row had finally come to Sunflower County and business was still reasonably brisk.
Local residents and even prison staff at Parchman still observe a curious tradition reflecting the long battle to keep executions out of Sunflower County. Mississippi’s condemned are housed at the ‘Maximum Security Unit’ or ‘MSU.’ Even today, despite executions and their location being public knowledge, Parchman still doesn’t officially have a Death Row.
If you visit, you’ll probably be told they don’t have one and be directed to ‘MSU’ instead. Even today the ghosts of long-dead Mississippians, local residents and condemned inmates alike, still dispute one of the darkest aspects of Mississippi’s history.
Louisiana did things slightly differently. Granted, their equipment was similar. A large truck travelled from the feared state prison at Angola (still America’s largest prison) and visited parish jails and courthouses dispensing law to the lawless. Race was also a factor, most of Louisiana’s condemned being non-white, but there were differences.
Where Mississippi followed tradition, nicknaming their chair ‘Old Sparky,’ Louisiana’s retribution roadshow was provided by ‘Gruesome Gertie.’ Now long retired, Gertie resides at the prison museum at Angola, occasionally making guest appearances in movies like Monster’s Ball.
Where Mississippi often had many witnesses in attendance, Louisiana only allowed around a dozen including the executioner, a doctor and a priest. The biggest difference was their choice of executioner. Grady Jarratt was a former lawman from Texas, who worked Gertie throughout her travels. When Gertie was permanently installed at Angola in 1957 Jarratt continued in the job until 1961.
During his 67 executions the difference between Jarratt and Thompson couldn’t have been greater. Jarratt made his debut on September 11, 1941, electrocuting Eugene Johnson in Livingston Parish for murder and robbery. His last was on June 9, 1961 when Jesse Ferguson died in St. Landry for murder and rape. Jarratt also performed Louisiana’s only female electrocution, that of murderer Toni Jo Henry in Calcasieu Parish on November 28, 1942.
Where Thompson was a born showman, reveling in the notoriety his grim profession brought him, Jarratt was actually a professional. Born in Texas in 1888 he was widely known in Louisiana, but didn’t seek publicity. A tall, burly man known for his white Stetson and cowboy boots, he was also known for his absolute professionalism when on the job, checking the chair, generator, cables, electrodes and straps thoroughly. As former Angola Warden Hilton Barber described him:
“Everything had to be right up to snuff, even the leather. He would take it in his hands and ply it. If it had a crack in it then we’d have to make a new one. He was very particular.”
For an executioner Jarratt was also a personable man. Where Thompson was obnoxiously showy, Jarratt made a point of politely meeting and greeting witnesses, trying to put them at their ease in what was undoubtedly a nervy, tense situation. He was even polite to those he was about to kill, making a point of addressing them by name. The last words his prisoners ever heard were “Goodbye, (insert name here)” right before he threw the switch.
Skilled and competent, Jarratt was the antithesis of his opposite number.
Jarratt, ever the professional, would insist on a perfect set-up and thorough testing even though Angola’s chief electrician would check everything before the chair left the prison. Unfortunately for Willie Francis, however, Jarratt was unavailable for his execution on May 2, 1946. It was a case that would make state and national history.
Captain Ephie Foster usually delivered the chair, but he’d never actually thrown the switch. Jarratt being unavailable, Foster was slated to electrocute Willie Francis in St. Martinville Parish. Foster, though he delivered the equipment, had never actually thrown the switch and his assistant, convict Vincent Venezia, hadn’t either. Venezia was assistant to Angola’s electrician E.J Usnault, but wasn’t qualified.
Both men arrived at St. Martinville the day before and both spent the night drinking heavily and inviting anyone who wanted to watch to turn up at St. Martinville’s jail. Even while setting up and testing the chair and generator they were seen, still hungover from the night before, passing a flask back and forth. The result was both appalling and unforgettable.
When Francis was seated and strapped Foster threw the switch and the current surged. There wasn’t enough current. Francis, in great pain, wasn’t merely still alive but able to speak even while Gertie did her best to silence him forever. As the generator roared, heard blocks away from the parish jail, Francis was clearly heard explaining that it wasn’t working.
The first jolt had failed. Foster shouted outside to Venezia:
“Give me some more juice down there!”
Venezia couldn’t, replying:
“I’m giving you all I’ve got now!”
At that point the most unlikely voice made itself heard. Despite being masked, restrained with heavy leather straps, the head electrode and another leather strap cinched tight under his chin, Willie Francis still managed to clarify the situation;
“I AM N-N-NOT DYING!”
With that announcement Francis, the only convict ever to walk away from his own electrocution, was taken back to his cell. After a lengthy legal battle taken to the US Supreme Court, which inexplicable felt he should be executed again, he returned to St. Martinville on May 9, 1947.
This time Jarratt was in charge. This time, with a competent professional checking the machinery and pulling her switch, Gruesome Gertie did her job properly. Once more Willie Francis, 15 at his first execution and only 16 at his second, was seated, strapped and capped. Jarratt, true to form, checked everything.
“Are the straps too tight?”
“Everything is just fine.”
“Is there anything you want to say?”
“Nothing at all.”
Jarratt immediately hit the switch. Willie Francis, survivor of Gruesome Gertie first time round, didn’t survive the second. Seated at 12:05pm, he was dead at 12:12.
Memories of his highly-dubious conviction, botched execution and the Supreme Court’s preferring the letter of the law over the spirit of justice still live on.
Jarratt continued as ‘electrocutioner’ until 1961. By the time Gertie found her permanent home at Angola in 1957 Jarratt had been through a divorce and begun drinking heavily. He started regularly downing a half-pint of whiskey before an execution and another half-pint afterward.
His last execution, that of Jesse Ferguson on June 9, 1961, saw Gruesome Gertie lie dormant until Robert Wayne Williams on December 14, 1983. By then Gertie had lain dormant for over 20 years, posing a significant problem.
Jarratt had died on June 1, 1973 and no American had been executed for nine years. Many states had also replaced their chairs with lethal injection in the meantime. Gruesome Gertie had spent 19 years in storage.
Jarratt’s replacement, a Baton Rouge electrician known under the alias ‘Sam Jones’ (Louisiana’s Governor when Gruesome Gertie replaced the gallows in 1940) hadn’t actually executed anyone before.
The result was a serious lack of knowledge of how to actually electrocute a prisoner, what should happen and what shouldn’t. Astounded by the brutality of Williams’s death, Angola’s Warden Ross Maggio had to consult outside sources to find out whether Williams had actually died as he was supposed to.
After this somewhat shaky start, Louisiana soon relearned by experience. After Williams another 19 inmates would ride the lightning before Gertie was finally retired. Her last victim was Andrew Lee Jones on July 22, 1991. Both Old Sparky and Gruesome Gertie had become museum pieces having long outlived their custodians.
It’s a fact that, for all their ruthlessness and guile, murderers can and do make the most idiotic mistakes. Louisa Merrifield was certainly one of them. Born in 1906, Merrifield was a liar, a fraudster, a cheat and ultimately a murderer. Today in 1953 her criminal career ended abruptly at the end of Albert Pierrepoint’s rope. She was the third-to-last woman to hang in Britain and the fourth to die at Strangeways, a prison with a long history of executions.
Her crime, the murder of her employer in 1953, was a squalid affair. She’d worked for some time (and numerous different employers) as a domestic help and housekeeper when she went to work for Sarah Louise Ricketts. Ricketts was a cantankerous, quarrelsome pensioner who happened to own her own home, a bungalow worth £3-4000. That was a considerable sum for the time. Given wartime bomb damage and post-war austerity, it was also a relative rarity. Louisa (and possibly her husband Alfred) took a homicidally-keen interest.
Merrifield was a braggart, habitual liar and social climber. Always boastful and arrogant despite her lowly station, she was also highly dishonest. When she was hired she’d been in over 20 similar jobs since 1950 and frequently been fired or quit over her poor attitude and alleged pilfering. She’d also served time for ration book fraud. Not liked or trusted by her many previous employers, it didn’t take long before her latest (and last) started sharing their opinion. Mrs Ricketts didn’t last much longer, either.
On March 12 Merrifield took the job. Within a week or two her employer was complaining bitterly. According to Ricketts (herself not much of a people person) the Merrifields weren’t feeding her enough, were spending a lot of her money on alcohol and were generally bad company.
Louisa in particular was already laying plans to be far worse than bad company. She was already boasting that Mrs Ricketts had died and left the Merrifields her home even while Ricketts herself was in perfectly good health. This wasn’t smart and, in time, would do as much as anything to put her at the end of a rope.
On April 9 events took a sinister turn. Merrifield asked her employer’s doctor, Doctor Yule, to certify that Ricketts was competent to make a new will. Not unusual in itself, Ricketts habitually changed her will depending on which beneficiary had annoyed her lately, but it came back to haunt Merrifield at her trial. Dr Yule would later clarify his own position:
‘She said the reason why she wanted me to go was that the old lady might die at any minute with a stroke or a disease and she wanted to keep herself all right with the relatives.’
On April 13 one of Yule’s partners, a Doctor Wood, was irked to be called out by Merrifield who claimed Ricketts was seriously ill. Being called out in the dead of night only to diagnose mild bronchitis annoyed Wood no end. As he later testified at Merrifield’s trial:
‘I remonstrated with Mrs. Merrifield for calling me out, as I thought, under false pretences.’
This was circumstantial, but did a great deal to imply that Merrifield was already playing to the gallery, trying to prove her employer was already on her last legs. The timing also proved highly suspicious as, the very next day, Ricketts mysteriously died.
Still playing to the gallery, Merrifield asked the local Salvation Army band to stand outside the house playing ‘Abide with Me.’
Suspicions were almost immediate. Merrifield, despite having called a doctor to a seemingly-slightly ill patient one day, now had a body on her hands the next. This time, equally suspect, she decided not to call him out. When asked about this abrupt change of heart she responded by saying there wasn’t much point in summoning a doctor for a patient who was obviously dying.
Merrifield’s final blunder was her demand for a quick cremation and that Ricketts’ family not know of her sudden death. According to funeral director George Henry Jackson Merrifield didn’t want Ricketts’:
‘Two daughters to know she was dead or have anything to do with the funeral.’
Aside from contradicting what she’d already told Doctor Yule, this looked suspicious in and of itself. A post-mortem was ordered and the funeral delayed. Ricketss hadn’t died of a stroke or a disease, she’d been poisoned with phosphorous-based rat poison sold under the name ‘Rodine.’ By a curious coincidence, Louisa Merrifield had also recently bought a can of Rodine, signing her own name in the pharmacist’s Poisons register in order to do so. Both Louisa and Alfred Merrifield were arrested and charged with murder.
Police soon discovered her purchase of a poison similar to that found in the victim. They also noticed that the can itself had vanished which was strange. Rat poison is normally something people keep in a cupboard or locked away, using a little at a time. They don’t usually buy a whole tin and then discard it almost immediately. Considering the other evidence it wasn’t finding the Rodine that was so incriminating.
It was highly incriminating that they hadn’t…
Merrifield’s boasts about her inheritance, coming as they did while the deceased was alive and in relative good health, sank her at her trial. Arrested in mid-April, Louisa and Alfred Merrifield’s trial began on July 20 with Mr Justice Glyn-Jones presiding.
Three doctors testified against her, as did several acquaintances regarding her boasts of an inheritance. One of her many previous employers, Mrs. Lowe, had received a letter stating:
‘I got a nice job nursing an old lady and she left me a lovely little bungalow and thank God for it.’
It was dated two weeks before Ricketts had actually died. Acquaintance Jessie Brewer also gave evidence. Relating one particular conversation she recounted Merrifield saying:
‘We are landed. We went to live with an old lady and she died and she’s left me a bungalow worth £4000.’
Remembering that they’d had this illuminating little chat three days before Ricketts actually died, it had been Brewer who first alerted police. Added to the proof of Merrifield buying rat poison similar to that found in the victim’s body and that poison having mysteriously disappeared, it was never a hard job for the jury. After only six hours deliberation they rendered their verdict;
Guilty, with no recommendation for mercy.
The evidence against her was overwhelming. Alfred was discharged for lack of evidence, Louisa wasn’t. Convicted of murder by poison, Mr Justice Glyn-Jones could only pass a mandatory sentence of death. Before that he had some harsh words for Louisa Merrifield, describing her crime as:
‘As wicked and cruel a murder as I ever heard tell of.’
With that he donned the Black Cap, a square of cloth traditionally a gesture of mourning for the soon-to-be-deceased and recited the traditional sentence:
‘Louisa Merrifield, you shall be taken from this place to a lawful prison and suffer death by hanging…’
She was shipped to Strangeways Prison in Manchester to await the outcome of her appeal, which failed. Chief public hangman Albert Pierrepoint received a letter asking him to officiate. So did one of Pierrepoint’s assistants, Robert Leslie Stewart. Her final chance of avoiding her date with the hangman remained with Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe who could intercede up to the last moment. In her case he was never going to. It’s said that, unlike for virtually any other kind of murderer, the Home Office had an unwritten rule regarding condemned poisoners;
They were never to be reprieved.
Even if the jury had recommended mercy it would probably have made little difference. Juries could recommend mercy in capital cases, but plenty of prisoners with recommendations, Derek Bentley for instance, still died. Conversely, there were many reprieves granted to prisoners jurors would have wanted hanged. It’s highly likely that the option to recommend mercy was simply there to make jurors feel better about sending a prisoner to the condemned cells.
The trial judge’s private report would have carried far more weight. Made after a conviction and comprising the judge’s opinion of the trial and particularly the prisoner’s conduct, it would have been important to any Home Sceretary weighing up a possible reprieve. Given the judge’s opinion of Merrifield’s crime it’s unlikely, even without the unwritten rule, that she stood any chance of mercy.
The Condemned Cell or ‘execution suite’ at Strangeways was by now almost standard for every hanging jail. The cell itself consisted of two standard cells renovated to provide a larger single room. The lights were always on when it was occupied and an eight-person team of ‘Capital Charge Officers’ were permanently on duty guarding her 24 hours a day.
These were volunteers brought in from other prisons. Working in two-warder teams they took eight-hour shifts, night and day, week after week. There weren’t as many weeks as you might think. Justice moved rather faster in the hanging era, only three clear Sundays were permitted between sentencing and execution and some prisoners died within 18 days of sentencing. They seldom lasted longer.
When the time came two more warders, warders Merrifield had never met before, took over. It was felt unreasonable to expect warders to spend days and weeks getting to know a prisoner only to take part in their execution. Britain’s chief public executioner Albert Pierrepoint had never met her either, nor had his assistant Robert Leslie Stewart. Their acquaintance was, as usual, shatteringly brief. As the clock started chiming at 8am they went into her cell. By the time it’s last chime Louisa Merrifield was already dead. By lunchtime she would be buried, as per tradition and the law, in an unmarked grave within the prison walls.
Some say she still remains there. They claim to have seen her ghost haunting Strangeways, still walking around the area in which she spent her last weeks. If so, she’s in appropriate company. According to some former prison staff and inmates another former visitor is sometime seen floating around near the old condemned cell. Apparently it’s former chief public executioner John Ellis who resigned in 1923, taking his own life some years later.
Crime does make for strange bedfellows, after all.
As for her husband Alfred, he did well out of Mrs Ricketts’ murder and his wife’s execution. Having been discharged without a trial he could (and did) inherit a half-share of the bungalow in which he lived for some years. When he wasn’t there Alfred was a regular at Blackpool’s beachfront side-shows talking about the case. He died in 1962 aged 80.
It’s common to find ‘Peachtree Bandit’ Frank Dupre, armed robber and murderer executed on September 1, 1921 with Luke McDonald, listed as the last man to hang in Georgia. He wasn’t. That was Arthur Meyers, a murderer hanged at Augusta on June 17, 1931 for a murder committed in March, 1924.
It’s equally common for the same reports to list a ‘Howard Henson,’ electrocuted on September 13, 1924, as the first Georgian to ride the lightning. He wasn’t, his name was actually Howard Hinton. Hinton was executed for rape and robbery or, to put it more delicately, ‘assaulting a white woman. Hinton, 1920’s Georgia being 1920’s Georgia, was an African-American.
So, with that in mind, why the confusion? The Georgia Assembly, thanks in part to Dupre’s execution, had passed a law on August 16, 1924 mandating a switch (no pun intended) from the gallows to the electric chair. Anyone sentenced to die after that wouldn’t hang in whichever county they were convicted, but would be taken to the Georgia State Prison then located at Milledgeville. From then on only those already sentenced to hang would face the gallows operated by their resident County Sheriff.
Even before Hinton walked his last mile at Milledgeville James Satterfield and Harrison Brown still faced the rope. After Hinton, Warren Walters, Gervais Bloodworth, Willie Jones and Mack Wooten would also keep their date with the hangman. Not until Meyers would Georgia’s gallows find itself finally consigned to history, by which time there had been 6 more hangings and 66 electrocutions.
Georgia’s method had changed. Its procedure had changed even more. Instead of County Sheriffs the Warden at Milledgeville now became Georgia’s only official executioner. Granted, County Sheriffs would occasionally still jerk their levers, but Milledgeville’s Warden would be throwing a switch.
County Sheriffs were now relegated to a supporting role, escorting their condemned to Milledgeville any time between twenty and two days before their scheduled date of execution. At Milledgeville the Warden would be assisted by a qualified electrician, two doctors, a guard and two assistant executioners. The condemned could also have their lawyers, relatives, friends and religious representatives with them when their time came. Appropriated on August 27, 1924 the Georgia State Prison’s death chamber cost $4760.65.
The decision to change Georgia’s method and procedures had been overwhelmingly endorsed by the state’s House of Representatives. They’d voted 115 to 45 in favour with 46 abstentions. It hadn’t been universally approved, though. Milledgeville is located within Baldwin County and Baldwin Representative J. Howard Ennis wasn’t happy.
Echoing the concerns raised decades later by Marvin Wiggins, Superintendent of Mississippi’s State Penitentiary in Sunflower County, Ennis decried the idea of Baldwin being known as the ‘Death County’ if executions there became a permanent feature. It did no good. Just as Wiggins was later ignored in Mississippi, Ennis’s pleas met deaf ears in Georgia. Wiggins was saddled with Mississippi’s new method, the gas chamber replacing the state’s portable electric chair. Ennis was saddled with the method Mississippi would later replace.
Old Sparky had come to the Peachtree State. Old Sparky was there to stay. As Georgia’s County Sheriffs had once plunged their inmates into eternity, Milledgeville’s Warden would offer them Southern hospitality for law-breakers;
A short walk and a comfortable chair.
Sparky’s reign in Georgia would be long and inglorious, lasting until the electrocution of murderer David Loomis Cargill on June 9, 1998. Sparky’s lair remained at Milledgeville until 1938. 14 years and 162 executions later Willie Daniels provided its farewell meal before moving to the new Georgia State Prion at Reidsville, dying in the chair on December 27, 1937.
At Reidsville business was even more brisk. 256 inmates (including the now-exonerated Lena Baker) would meet their ends. First to walk his last mile was murderer Archie Haywood on May 6, 1938. The last was murderer Bernard Dye on October 16, 1964. Sparky wouldn’t be put to work again at Reidsville, moving again to the euphemistically-named Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center in Jackson in June, 1980. The original chair was pensioned off, replaced by another. Georgia would have to wait three years to christen the new chair.
That came on December 15, 1983 when murderer John Eldon Smith became its first victim in almost 20 years. He wasn’t far from being its last. Until May, 2001 when Georgia replaced bottled lightning with bottled poison, another 22 convicts would be seated, strapped, capped and killed. In May, 2001 Gerogia’s chair finally met its end, replaced by lethal injection. In October of that year the Georgia Supreme Court finally pulled the plug. Old Sparky was now cruel and unusual punishment. By the time the chair became history it had taken 440 men and one woman with it.
It’s a sobering thought that Arthur Meyer (last to hang) and Howard Hinton (first to be electrocuted) were both African-Americans. It’s even more sobering to consider that the majority of Georgia’s executions, regardless of method, have been non-white. It’s also an unfortunate fact that Milledgeville wasn’t just the first place in Georgia to see an electrocution, but also the first capital of the Southern Confederacy.