At dawn on September 3, 1915 Sing Sing Prison’s original Death House was almost full. With only eight cells and seven condemned men occupying them it was busy by Death House standards. It wouldn’t remain so for very long.
Today was a dark day for Death House denizens. Unusual even when Sing Sing’s death chamber was among America’s busiest, five of its residents were about to die. The other two were Death House luminaries. Father Hans Schmidt, who would die on February 18, 1916, was and remains America’s only Catholic priest executed for murder. Oreste Shillitoni AKA ‘Harry Shields,’ known to New York’s public and press as ‘The Paperbox Kid’ was even more of a stand-out.
Shillitoni would die on June 30, 1916. His execution would be delayed by the feat that made him famous. Already condemned and knowing his time was short Shillitoni managed something nobody else had done or would ever do. Using a smuggled pistol he murdered Office McCarthy before escaping from the Death House. Wounded and recaptured after only a few hours, Shillitoni’s body would feel the burn, but his legend would live on.
For now, though, Schmidt and Shillitoni would only watch and wait. Their turn would come, but not yet.
It had come for Antonio Salemme, Louis Roach, Thomas Tarpey, William Perry and Pasquale Venditti. Their appeals were exhausted, their lawyers were helpless, the Governor wasn’t feeling merciful and the clock was still ticking. One thing everybody knew, their race was run.
John Hurlburt, the second of five men to bear the euphemistic title of ‘State Electrician’ was also watching and waiting. Arriving the day before from his home at Auburn in upstate New York, it was his job to throw the switch. He would be concealed in a cubicle directly behind the chair, never seen by the reporters who’d be watching him work. A man who loved anonymity and loathed journalists, that suited Hurlburt just fine. Like his predecessor Edwin Davis, the world’s first ‘electrocutioner,’ he was afraid of publicity and the revenge it might bring. After testing and checking everything was in order he too had nothing to do but wait.
William Perry, 27 years old, from Harlem and the murderer of his girlfriend, was first to go. Second in line was an oddity in the Death House. Thomas Tarpey was British, a former soldier convicted of murdering a work colleague. His was a botched job requiring no less than five jolts before he died. After he was pronounced dead a Death House guard gave him an awed tribute:
“Wow! What a man.”
Pasquale Venditti and Lewis Roach were next. Venditti hadn’t liked the price of his rent. Venditti’s landlord hadn’t liked being shot, either. Lewis Roach was a Montgomery County farmhand condemned for the murder of his employer. No judge or the Governor was prepared to intervene and so they died without further ado.
Antonio Salemme was the last of them. A Sicilian, Salemme had discovered on his wedding night that his new bride wasn’t a virgin. His honour and manliness insulted, Salemme had stewed over it. On June 12, 1914 while his wife lay asleep in their bed, Salemme slit her throat. He saw his honour restored and the supposed insult avenged. Judge, jury and state Governor saw it differently. His seat in Old Sparky was the result. As Salemme left Death Row he called his final goodbye to his fellows:
As Salemme walked his last mile, actually only a few steps through the single door between Death Row and the execution chamber, Shillitoni responded:
“Be strong, Antonio! God will provide for you! Say your prayers!”
Seated, strapped, capped and ready to die, Salemme said no more. In the cubicle directly behind him Davis got the signal. A cord was pulled, tightening round his hand, the signal to throw the switch. Another tug told him to shut off the power
Antonio Salemme was dead.
Of course, it didn’t end there. Hundreds more would die at the old Death House and the replacement opened in 1922. All told 614 prisoners would die in Sing Sing’s chair, the last being Eddie Lee Mays on August 15, 1963. They mainly died alone or in pairs although triple, quadruple and even the occasional quintuple execution would still occur. But not at the original Death House.
Situated in B Block, the execution chamber was right next to the condemned cells. During executions those whose turn was yet to come could hear everything. The fixing of the straps and electrodes, their condemned comrade’s last words, the clank of the switch, the hum of the current and the doctor pronouncing death. After the execution an autopsy was mandated by state law. The autopsy room being next to the death chamber, the prisoners could hear that as well. With a number of prisoners going insane a new Death House was built with its execution room and morgue well out of the sight and sound of the condemned. Custom-designed by state architect Lewis Pilcher to the very specific requirements of legendary Warden Lewis Lawes, it remains operational today as a vocational centre where inmates learn a trade.
Lawes, the New York death penalty’s most prolific practitioner and perhaps its fiecrest opponent, would have appreciated the change.
“This is Orson Welles speaking from London. The Black Museum, repository of death… Here, in this grim stone structure on the Thames which houses Scotland Yard, is a warehouse of homicide where everyday objects, a piece of wire, a chemist’s flask, a silver shilling, all are touched by murder…”
In today’s internet age there are a myriad of true crime podcasts. In the 1950’s there was screen legend Orson Welles (star of Citizen Kane and Waterloo among other film classics) presenting Tales from the Black Museum. First Welles, in his own inimitable style, describes the exhibit itself before narrating a dramatised version of the case its connected to.
For any true crime buff its a fascinating series of real cases with names changed to protect the innocent (and sometimes the guilty). For any podcaster it’s well worth sampling to hear a master at work. If you’re a fan of historic true crime then have fun testing your criminal knowledge by trying to identify the real cases behind the changed names.
The Black Museum, as any true crime buff knows, is a private collection of exhibits and evidence drawn from thousands of criminal cases investigated by the British police. Not open to the public, visits are by appointment and only to police officers or others its custodians consider appropriate. For anyone with a squeamish disposition its location is appropriate, sited in Room 101 at New Scotland Yard.
This was far from Welles’ first foray into radio, in fact it will always be overshadowed by his dramatisation of H G Wells’ War of the Worlds back in the late 1930’s. Originally broadcast in 1952 and syndicated for an American audience, European listeners first got to hear Tales from the Black Museum in 1953 on Radio Luxembourg. It’s since been repeated, usually a small selection of episodes instead of the full series, in the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s. The BBC finally got round to airing a few episodes as late as 1994.
Courtesy of the Old Time Radio Researchers Group, all 53 episodes are available to hear online. They’re also downloadable as MP3 files. You can pop along and find the series, in full and free to hear and download, at the following address:
When 25 witnesses, mostly reporters, gathered in the basement death chamber at Illinois’s Cook County Jail, they couldn’t have known they were gathering there for the last time. Decades down the line Illinois hacks would gather again for the same reason, but in a different place and to see someone killed by a different method.
In 1962 the event itself wasn’t unusual. Illinois had started hanging people courtesy of the Northwest Ordinance passed in 1787. It had replaced the gallows in 1928, starting with a ‘triple hitter’ at Stateville on December 15, 1928. Dominick Bressette, John Brown and Claude Clarke were that night electrocuted and, with no problems, the chair’s continued presence was assured.
Three of them, to be exact. One was sited at Stateville and another at Menard, both State prisons. The third, and the busiest, was the Cook County Jail. A rule specified that any county with a population of over a million would retain control of its own executions and Cook (including Chicago and other large population centres) qualified. Anywhere else in Illinois you’d be sent to Stateville or Menard but if you killed in Cook County you died in Cook County.
That wasn’t good news for Warden Jack Johnson who despised the death penalty while still having to carry it out. Like New York had until 1915, Illinois had three electric chairs. Also like New York, its busiest user was its most vehement critic. Like Warden Lewis Lawes at Sing Sing, Johnson had to do the job, but didn’t have to like it. He didn’t, disliking it loudly and often.
Not that it made any difference on that steamy, muggy August night in 1962. James Dukes would die that night and with him went Illinois’s electric chair. Dukes had earned a seat in Old Sparky on June 15, 1956. He’d shot two men who tried to stop him beating up his girlfriend in a church on Chicago’s notorious South Side. They were both seriously wounded, nut survived.
Cornered by two Chicago detectives Dukes murdered Detective John Blyth before his pistol jammed. Dragged out from under a nearby vehicle by Blyth’s partner Detective Daniel Rolewicz, Dukes knew his fate. Illinois had a notoriously hard line with cop killers. As the witnesses gathered in Cook County’s death chamber Rolewicz was one of them. Turning to a reporter he said;
“I’ve been waiting for this night for a long time.”
Dukes, head shaven and already dressed in his execution clothes probably hadn’t declining a last meal, he had to be forced to walk his last mile as well. Clad only in a black hood and black shorts, he was already soaked in sweat and trembling when Warden Johnson’s men came to take him on his final walk.
It may have been around 20 feet between his Death Row cell and the chair itself, but he had to be forced all the same. Whether out of fear or just a desire to be as difficult as possible a United Press international report described the scene:
‘Dukes had to be shoved firmly into the electric chair and held while being strapped in.’
Well, not strapped exactly. Cook County’s chair had few straps but more metal clamps similar to the chair in Hollywood’s version of Stephen King’s ‘The Green Mile.’ That chair was based on the one used in Ohio where inmate Charles Justice had designed metal clamps to replace the old leather straps. Ironically, paroled and released, Justice later came back to Ohio’s state prison on a murder warrant. He died inside his own restraints, perhaps feeling Justice had been ill-served.
Dukes was seated, the straps and clamps were secured after a struggle and the electrodes were applied. Warden Johnson and two anonymous volunteers each pulled one of three switches. None of them knew which was delivering the current. Their first pull delivered a huge jolt. Pulls two and three delivered smaller ones. After a brief pause allowing Dukes’s body to cool enough to be examined the prison doctor stepped forward;
“I pronounce this man dead.”
Only three minutes and forty seconds had elapsed since Dukes had been forced into the room. Now James Dukes was gone. Illinois’s electric chair, unknown to the world, had gone with him. After the current had been shut off an era had ended. No more would witnesses hear the sound of switches clanking and the current humming through a prisoner. No more would an extractor fan remove the smoke and stench of burned meat from a lifeless corpse.
James Dukes had had his day. So had the chair that killed him.
Dukes died without saying any final words, he was too busy struggling to do that, but he wasn’t about to go without a final statement of a kind. When guards went to clear his cell after the execution they found a copy of philosopher Plato’s ‘Dialogues.’ On the pages left open was circled a particular remark:
‘The hour of departure has arrived and we go our ways. I to die and you to live. Which is better God only knows.’
It was done. Illinois wouldn’t have another execution for 28 years. On September 12, 1990 it lethally injected murderer Charles Walker. The next was that of notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy on May 10, 1994. The prison was Stateville (site of Illinois’s first electrocution), the method was lethal injection. Illinois later abolished its death penalty on July 1, 2011, Gacy having been the second of twelve executions in the post-Furman vs Georgia era.
Unlike the more philosophically-inclined Dukes, Gacy’s final comment to the world was reportedly cruder and more defiant. Declining to say anything when strapped onto the stretcher securing him for his lethal injection Gacy said little before entering Stateville’s death chamber. Rather than indulge in any Dukes-like profundity he resorted to profanity instead. Gacy’s last words were reportedly;
“Kiss my ass.”
“The Bagne is a charnel house, a mass grave, running from syphilis to tuberculosis, with all the tropical diseases one can imagine (carrying malaria, ankylosis, amoebic dysentery, leprosy, etc.), all destined to work hand in hand with an Administration whose task it is to diminish the number of prisoners consigned to its care. The fiercest proponents of ‘elimination’ can rest satisfied. In Guyane, prisoners survive on the average five years – no more.” –
Doctor Louis Rouuseau, former chief prison doctor.
They called it ‘Le Bagne,’ simply ‘the jail.’ They called themselves ‘bagnards,’ simply ‘convicts.’ Inmates of probably the worst convict prison in history, some 70,000 made their way to Guiana from France. Only around 5000 survived to finish their sentences. Only around 2000 ever made the return trip. Only one in four lasted five years before dying there. On August 22, 1953 the last survivors finally returned. Some of them, like Paul Roussenq, would come to wish they hadn’t.
As the steamer San Mateo docked in Bordeaux harbour it was a day of contrasts. On August 22, 1934 legendary gangster Al Capone had arrived at Alcatraz, fan island prison from which there was supposedly no escape. On the same day in 1953, 666 inmates were returning from Devil’s Island.
There wasn’t supposed to be any escape from the Penal Administration’s clutches, either. While France had adopted the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity there was little equality or fraternity for ‘Les Bagnards.’. As for liberty, former inmate Paul Roussenq summed up what liberty came to mean for many sent to Guiana. However uncertain the future for the returnees, one thing was at least certain.
The dreaded ‘Bagne,’ site of so much cruelty, horror and death, was no more.
Their return was a break with tradition in itself. Right up until the last transport left France in 1938 convicts were gathered at Saint Martin-de-re near La Rochelle before leaving for the Green Hell on the twice-yearly voyage. Searched, kitted out, their heads shaven, over 600 convicts at a time walked through the streets. Most of them were seeing their native land for the last time.
Henri Charriere, also known as ‘Papillon,’ described his own departure back in 1933:
“Neither prisoners, guards or public broke in on this poignant moment. Everyone understood that these men were leaving normal life behind forever.”
In 1953 Saint Martin-de-re was (and remains) an active prison. Fully occupied, those inmates aboard the San Mateo with unexpired time would be dispersed among prisons within France itself. There would be no early release for them. Even after surviving at least 15 years in history’s worst penal system France still demanded its pound of flesh. They still had time to serve and their debt to society to repay. Repay it they would.
After a century of horrors unrivalled almost anywhere the ‘Penal Administration, French Guiana’ was finally shut down. Opened in 1852 under Emperor Napoleon III, the penal colony had long been a stain on the name of France both at home and abroad. Exposed by journalist Albert Londres, the scandal of the Dreyfus Affair and memoirs from former inmates like Rene Belbenoit, the shame had finally become too much to ignore.
Dreyfus, falsely convicted of treason and the victim of rampant anti-semitism, spent five years on Devil’s Island itself. Only international publicity, the campaigning of his wife and the support of luminaries like writer Emile Zola saved him from permanent incarceration. Zola’s legendary polemic ‘J’Accuse!’ still ranks among literature’s finest.
The ‘Ile Diable,’ though often used to describe the entire penal system, was reserved solely for political prisoners like Dreyfus. Ordinary criminals like Papillon (despite his claims to the contrary) were never sent there. Only fifty or so occupied it during the colony’s 100-year history, never more than a dozen at one time.
Isolated from all the other prisoners, Dreyfus could only ponder his past in almost total isolation while day-dreaming of exoneration, freedom and his honour being one day restored. His suffering was inflicted through permanent solitude and endless boredom, not physical brutality:
“My days, my hours, slip by monotonously in this agonising, enervating waiting for the discovery of truth…”
Albert Londres had visited the colony in 1923, ironically welcomed by staff thinking he would be supportive. Instead his series of articles caused increased embarrassment after the Dreyfus Affair. As Londres described life in the colony;
“During this month I have seen hundreds of spectacles from Hell, and now it is the bagnards who stare back at me… Each and every day, I dream of them staring at me, imploring me…”
The appalling conditions of the colony were no secret even to those who hadn’t yet seen them. Rene Belbenoit arrived in 1933, recalling in classic memoir ‘Dry Guillotine’ his peers seeing it for the first time. As Belbenoit walked through the main gate it finally sank in:
‘”It’s the Bagne,” said the man behind me in a voice that was devoid of all hope. “So this is where I’ll live. Until I die…”‘
Officially closed by decree on July 17, 1938 the Penal Administration remained operational for another 15 years. On November 22, 1938 despite the closure being announced the last transport of convicts left France, most of them forever. When war broke out and France fell under Nazi occupation in 1940 it wasn’t until 1946 that the closing-down actually began.
From 1946 the Penal Administration was slowly wound down. The prisons, jails and dreaded jungle camps were closed one by one. By 1953 Saint-Laurent, for a century the Penal Administration’s nerve centre, was almost a ghost town. The jungle camps like Charvein, Godebert, Crique Rouge, Cascade and others, sites of unimaginable cruelty, misery and death, were no more.
Make-work on the jungle roads nicknamed ‘Route Zero’ (it never went anywhere) and ‘Kilometre 42’ (its total length without ever reaching a destination) was over. Route Zero and Kilo 42 weren’t even meant to go anywhere, they were simply hard labour for its own sake. Guiana’s ghosts, some of them anyway, could now haunt the roadsides undisturbed. Decades later they probably know more peace in death than in life.
No more would whips crack across inmates slowly dying from forced labour, disease, malnutrition and barely any medical care. No longer would escapers die in the jungle or on the sea. No more would a bell toll as convicts were buried at sea, only to be torn apart by sharks before they reached the bottom, the sharks themselves being caught and fed to the convicts. Never again would a convict-executioner, surrounded by fellow inmates forced to kneel and watch, raise a dripping head from the guillotine’s basket and hold it high, proclaiming:
“Justice has been done in the name of the people of France!”
In 1933 Salvation Army Captain Charles Pean was sent out to organise relief efforts for the ‘liberes.’ Liberes were freed convicts still struggling to survive outside prison walls. Often too sick and weak to find work (employers preferring to rent fit, healthy convicts from the Penal Administration) they existed as best they could.
Few could afford a passage to France at their own expense. Many more were bound by penal policy. Under the hated policy of ‘doublage’ any inmate serving less than eight years had to stay in Guiana for a time equal to their original sentence. Any prisoner serving eight years or more had to stay in Guiana forever, never again allowed to set foot on their native soil. Doublage had long been abolished for new arrivals, but for those sentenced before its abolition it still applied.
As efforts to close the penal colony had gathered steam the Salvation Army had joined the fight. Even many French administrators and officials wanted to see the Penal Administration closed down. It was too expensive to run, the costs vastly exceeded the returns and the international embarrassment had become too great. Gaston Monnerville, Guiana’s deputy in the French Parliament, was at the forefront of efforts to close the colony down. As one former penal administrator described it:
“Transportation is economically an absurdity, from the colonial point of view it is a scandal, and morally it is a crime.”
Rene Belbenoit was equally damning:
‘If the bagne I knew no longer exists, it most certainly exists elsewhere. The injustices and atrocities I saw are being duplicated at this moment in prisons everywhere. It is important to understand this because a prison is a prison, whether it is located in Saint Laurent or in Paris, on Devil’s Island or in anyplace else in the world.’
Some 300 convicts nicknamed the ‘Old Whites’ chose to stay in Guiana. Their time served, they could have boarded a repatriation ship but declined. There since 1938 at the very least, they didn’t see returning to a France they no longer recognised as going home. They’d been in Guiana so long that it had become their home.
Besides, the France they’d watched disappear over the horizon so many years before had vanished forever. Time and the war had seen to that. Rather than be strangers in their own land they opted to stick with what had become their norm, where life was familiar and made sense.
Doctor Roger Pradinaut was assigned to Guiana in 1965, 12 years after the penal colony finally closed its gates. He knew many of those who stayed on, finding them a curious mix of personalities:
“The spirit of the old prisoners varied. There were some who were jokesters, others who were raconteurs telling stories about their lives. But others were much more discreet about themselves and didn’t speak much. I remember one man who was always staring into space and from time to time he cried, tears running down his face. And you could see that this was someone who had been deeply traumatised, someone who had suffered a lot, but didn’t talk about it.”
They were probably right. Many of those who did drifted into insanity, alcoholism, drug abuse and crime. France was alien to them in 1953 as Guiana had been in 1938 or before then. One of the most notorious, Paul Roussenq, whose defiance of the Penal Administration had earned him 11 years in solitary confinement and countless extra years on his original sentence, was one of them.
Roussenq, among the earliest returnees in 1946, survived only briefly. The ‘Jailbird of St. Gilles’ drowned himself in the Adour River in 1949 leaving a note for a friend;
‘My dear Elisee, I am at the end. At Bayonne there is a great and beautiful river and this evening I will go in search of the great remedy for all suffering: Death’
‘Les Bagnards,’ mostly sent out to die, were coming home.
If you’re a fan of Clint Eastwood then 1974’s ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’ distributed by United Artists, is probably in your DVD collection. Not one of his better-known movies and perhaps not one of his best, but well worth watching all the same.
The movie, made largely because Eastwood felt like doing a road movie, also starred George Kennedy, Geoffrey Lewis and a young Jeff Bridges. It was written and directed by Michael Cimino, later to make The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate. Centred round the titular ‘Thunderbolt’ (Eastwood), a criminal who attacks bank vaults using a 20-millimetre cannon.
This isn’t as outlandish as it sounds. On the weekend of October 22-23, 1965 Montreal crook Joel Singer did exactly that. 33 20-millimetre cannon shells blasted a man-sized hole in the vault of a Brinks office in Syracuse, New York. Once inside, Singer and his crew walked away with $430,000 in cash and non-negotiable securities. It was one of the bigger robberies of the era, the only one ever committed using a 20-millimetre cannon and should have been the score of Singer’s career.
Instead, it did him no favours whatsoever.
Singer, who’d cut his criminal teeth with Montreal’s West End Gang, had set up the job with his uncle Jack Franck. It was Franck who, using Singer’s money, bought two Finnish made Lahti 39 20-millimetre cannons and 200 rounds of armour-piercing ammunition. The Lahti, nicknamed the ‘Elephant Gun’ or the ‘Finnish Boombeast,’ was originally made for destroying light armoured vehicles and later used for counter-sniping and as an anti-aircraft weapon.
It was indeed a beast. It weighed 109 pounds and was, although theoretically portable, very difficult to actually carry anywhere. It also a type of 20-millimetre round that made the Oerlikon cannon in Eastwood’s movie look like a potato gun by comparison. Franck ordered the cannon from a Virginia gun dealer.
Singer, wanting to alibi himself, stole it from the delivery warehouse in Plattsburgh on the night of April 5, rather than sign for it. Hopefully, he thought, nobody would trace back to him a weapon stolen by persons unknown. Unknown to career felon Singer, the FBI were already taking an interest in his rather unusual taste in firearms. They believed the weapons were stolen by Canadian separatists from Quebec, not ordinary thieves.
Once all was set, Singer and his accomplices broke into the Brinks armoured car headquarters in Syracuse, New York. Using the cannon to blast through the vault wall, finishing the job by cutting the steel reinforcing bars in the concrete, they walked out with around $430,000. When the theft was discovered the guns were missing, but a home-made cannon stand, torches and numerous other tolls were discovered. The cannon would be found later, although over 30 spent 20-millimetre shell cases littered the floor
Singer’s crew had walked out with some $430,000. Panicking at the thought of being caught, Uncle Jack walked straight into the welcoming arms of the FBI.
Franck was prepared to talk and testify in return for full immunity from prosecution. His nephew, meanwhile, had become the 221st name to be added to the FBI’s legendary ‘Ten Most Wanted’ list. Federal convictions usually mean hard time, something Uncle Jack was determined to avoid even if it meant giving up his own nephew.
Hard time was exactly what Jack Franck wanted to avoid. It was exactly what nephew Joel Singer received. With Franck’s help the FBI recovered the cannon and Franck testified at Joel Singer’s trial. Singer, convicted of third-degree burglary and first-degree grand larceny on January 31, 1967, was sentenced to 5-10 years in Attica. True to the criminal code, Singer declined leniency and refused to name any of his accomplices.
He was there during the notorious Attica riot of 1971 when 43 inmates died and, according to those who knew him, was deeply traumatised by it. Paroled in 1972, having spent the final months of his sentence in a psychiatric unit after suffering a breakdown, he returned to Montreal. It was there that on February 6, 1973 Joel Singer took his own life with a dose of cyanide. He was only 31 years old.
It was Stan Kamen of New York’s William Morris agency who came up with the idea for ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.’ Filmed in America’s Mid-West from July to September of 1973 and released in 1974, it did well with reviewers and audiences alike.
It’s inspiration, however, never lived to see it.
August 15, 1963 was an historic day in New York’s penal history, although nobody involved knew it at the time. New York’s lawmakers didn’t know it. the Warden of New York’s infamous Sing Sing Prison (now the Ossining Correctional Facility) didn’t know. Dow Hover, New York’s last ‘State Electrician’, didn’t know it. Eddie Lee Mays (armed robber and murderer of no particular note) didn’t know. He was well beyond caring by then anyway.
At 10pm Eddie Lee Mays would die. walk his last mile. He would leave his pre-execution cell in Sing Sing’s ‘death house,’ walk twenty feet with two prison officers and a prison Chaplain, take a seat in ‘Old Sparky’ and ‘ride the lightning.’ Moved from his regular Death House cell twelve hours before the scheduled time, Mays would spend his final hours in the ‘Dance Hell,’ a group of six cells nearer the death chamber.
When his time came Mays would be New York’s 695th inmate to do so since William Kemmler at Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890 and Sing Sing’s 614th.
He would also be the last.
Mays was 34 years old, an ex-convict from North Carolina where he’d already served a sentence for murder. He’d been lucky to avoid North Carolina’s gas chamber then, especially as North Carolina used their chamber frequently in 1940’s and 1950’s and being black wasn’t going to work in his favour.
Sing’s Sing’s electric chair would prove unavoidable. Mays himself wasn’t especially bothered by the typical Death Row inmate’s standards. With a lengthy criminal record and no future other than more prison time, Mays had already said he’d rather ‘fry’ than spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Along with two accomplices (neither of whom faced the ‘hot seat’) Mays had embarked upon a string of violent crimes during 1961. Resident in Harlem, in six weeks Mays and his gang had committed no less than fifty-two armed robberies. Having already shown in North Carolina that murder wasn’t beyond him, it’s no great surprise that he soon killed again.
On March 23, 1961 Mays and his friends entered the ‘Friendly Tavern’ at 1403 Fifth Avenue, showed their guns and demanded that the owner and his customers hand over every cent they had. One of them was Maria Marini, known to her friends as ‘Pearl.’ Maria didn’t open her purse as quickly as Mays demanded and. When she did, it was empty. Mays, enraged by her tardiness and lack of cash, bellowed:
“I’m going to kill somebody! I mean it! I’ll show you!”
Turning to Maria he then bellowed:
“I ought to kill you!”
And then he did. Mays put his .38 pistol directly against her forehead and squeezed the trigger in a totally unnecessary murder before running away with $275 in cash. It wasn’t long before Mays and his accomplices were in custody awaiting trial. Their future looked bleak at best, either life imprisonment or a very brief acquaintance with Sing Sing’s most notorious resident;
By 1962 New York had already discarded its mandatory death penalty for murder, opting for new legislation separating capital from non-capital murder. Unfortunately for Mays New York’s Felony Murder Statute defined murder during a robbery as capital murder. Given his lengthy record, previous murder conviction and the totally unnecessary murder of Maria Marini, the outcome was in no real doubt.
Convicted and condemned, it wasn’t long before Eddie Lee Mays was on the fast-track to a disinterested, if not unwilling, place in penal history. His accomplices could also have been condemned but they struck lucky. As Mays had fired the shot, the judge ruled, they escaped with lengthy prison terms and their lives. Mays wouldn’t be so fortunate.
Mays had his one mandatory appeal granted by law. Neither the State Court of Appeals or State Governor were ready to intervene. Warden Wilfred .L. Denno, appointed in December, 1950, received his latest ‘thunderbolt jockey’ and Denno knew the drill backwards. Eddie Lee Mays would be his 62nd execution since taking charge at Sing Sing. He gave the usual orders instructing Death House staff to make the usual preparations. He also sent a letter to New York’s fifth and final ‘State Electrician’ Mr. Dow Hover to set August 15, 1963 in his diary. Hover agreed, driving down from his Germantown home a few hours before the scheduled time of 10pm.
Dow Hover was the last of five men to hold the title of New York’s ‘State Electrician.’ The principal qualifications were being a fully-qualified electrician, being prepared to kill people for $150 an inmate (with an extra $50 per inmate for multiple executions, not unusual events at Sing Sing) and not minding the measly 8 cents a mile fuel allowance.
Edwin Davis, John Hurlburt, Robert Elliott and Joseph Francel had all pulled the switch many, many times. It was Hover who replaced Francel when Francel unexpectedly resigned in 1953 shortly after executing the atom bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Francel hadn’t liked the publicity he’d received and wasn’t satisfied with the money either, which hadn’t improved much since Davis executed William Kemmler at Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890.
Hover wasn’t bothered about the money or the work. A cold and unemotional man, he saw executions as a professional job. They were to be properly done and then forgotten about. The low pay didn’t bother him either, but any publicity did. Hover was extremely careful to avoid being publicly identified as the ‘State Electrician’, however. He’d change the number plates on his car before leaving home, changing them back on his return. He also never talked about his work with anybody and did all he could to keep out of sight.
August 15, 1963 would be the last time he drove a car with false number plates.
By late-afternoon, all was ready. Warden Denno had screened the official witnesses and reporters to be present that night. The prison officers had rehearsed their already well-rehearsed routine for escorting Mays on his last mile, strapping him down securely and the general running of the execution. Mays himself had consulted with the prison’s Protestant chaplain. He’d also refused a last meal, asking instead for a carton of Pall Mall cigarettes.
Under Death House rules he wasn’t allowed matches in his condemned cell. Whenever he wanted a smoke (which was increasingly often) an officer had to light it for him. His head was shaved, his leg was shaved for the second electrode and he was given the traditional execution clothes.
These were specially made with a slit right trouser leg and wooden buttons that wouldn’t catch fire, glow or melt when the switch was thrown. Instead of shoes or boots Mays would walk his last mile in shower slippers. The Warden and witnesses gathered while Hover tested his equipment thoroughly. It was all in perfect working order. All that was left was to watch the clock and wait until 10pm when the final act would begin.
It began promptly and worked like a well-oiled machine, like clockwork. Mays gave no trouble as he walked his last mile. Before a small audience of prison staff and a few disinterested reporters he quickly seated himself without making any final statement.
Officers swiftly applied thick, heavy leather straps rounds his wrists, ankles, waist and chest. Hover attached the electrode to Mays’s right calf muscle, firmly sliding the leather helmet containing the head electrode down over Mays’s head. A thick leather strap with a hole exposing his nose went over Mays’s face, buckled tightly round the back of the chair. Mays was strapped down tight, the electrodes were firmly attached, the generator was running properly. All was set.
Warden Denno gave the signal, his 62nd since assuming command of Sing Sing in 1950 and the last in New York’s history. Like Hover, Denno was no stranger to the grim ritual. In the thirteen years since taking over he’d stood in front of ‘Old Sparky’ on sixty-one previous occasions involving some of New York State’s most notorious criminals.
In 1951 it had been the ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’ Raymond Fernandez and Martha Jule Beck. In 1953 it had been Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, their publicity had caused Joseph Francel to quit and Dow Hover to be throwing the switch that night. In 1954 it had been German immigrant, armed robber, murderer and resident of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, Gerhard Puff, for murdering FBI Special Agent Joseph Brock.
In 1958 it was notorious hitman Elmer ‘Trigger’ Burke (for murdering bar-owner Edward ‘Poochy’ Walsh) and Angelo LaMarca (for the kidnap-murder of Peter Weinberger). Then in 1960 Henry ‘Snow’ Flakes had died in front of him. A former heavyweight boxing contender, Flakes had fallen on hard times, developed a drug problem and killed a store-owner during a robbery. Like Mays, Flakes died without leaving a final statement, although he did have an enormous last meal.
And in between the ones anybody remembered, assuming they’d heard of them at all, were dozens of others. Nameless, faceless and then lifeless, their deaths hadn’t rated so much as a paragraph in their local paper. Not for them the banner headlines of the Rosenbergs or Martha Beck.
When Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez died on March 8, 1951 their deaths made headlines nationwide. Those of John King and Richard Powers, executed the same night for murdering Detective Joseph Miccio, were barely acknowledged then or now. The likes of Powers, King and hundreds of others might as well have been phantoms.
Their deaths though, when they came, were real enough.
Warden Denno gave the signal, Hover worked the controls in a pre-determined cycle perfected by his predecessor Robert Elliott. 2000 volts for three seconds, then 500 volts for fifty-seven seconds, then 2000 again for three seconds, 500 for fifty-four seconds and 2000 again for the last few seconds. Hover shut off his controls, Denno signaled to the prison physician to make his checks and all waited quietly for the outcome.
Eddie Lee Mays was dead.
New York abolished the death penalty almost entirely in 1965. The only exceptions were prison inmates who committed murder while already serving a life sentence and anybody murdering a police officer or prison officer. ‘Old Sparky’ was uprooted and transferred to the maximum-security Green Haven Correctional Facility in 1969. The last Death Row inmate in New York condemned prior to abolition had their sentence commuted in 1972 when the US Supreme Court struck down all existing State death penalty laws in its historic ruling Furman vs Georgia.
New York did reinstate capital punishment in 1995 when then-Governor George Pataki signed the new law using the pen of a murdered police officer (and made sure the media knew who the pen had previously belonged to). But New York’s State Courts struck down his law, ruling it unconstitutional. There were no executions in New York during its brief existence.
Even the infamous Sing Sing ‘Death House’ star of so many books, movies, radio dramas, TV documentaries and now blog posts, has lost its grim purpose. Today it’s known simply as Unit 17, a vocational training centre used by inmates wanting to learn a trade. Warden Lewis Lawes, at one time America’s most-frequent practitioner of the death penalty and its most high-profile opponent, might have seen that as a sign of progress. Whether any of its hundreds of residents still haunt the former Death House is unknown.
The last word on New York’s last execution goes to Warden Denno, who remained in charge at Sing Sing until 1967. In 1965 he went over to the Death House with the best news its few remaining residents could have dreamt of. New York’s lawmakers had abolished the death penalty except for the murder of police or prison officers.
Aside from cop killers Anthony Portelli and Jerry Rosenberg (both later commuted) all the condemned were now lifers, no longer dead men walking. Denno arrived with the good news during a baseball match, commenting afterward:
“It may sound incredible, but they seemed more interested in the ball game.”
If the death penalty is a deterrent intended to strike dread into the hearts of the criminally-inclined, that wasn’t quite the reaction he’d expected.
As regular readers are aware, I cover true crime here and the death penalty is a regular feature. Being an abolitionist, it’s with some small satisfaction that we’re going to look at Britain’s last executions. To the minute, if you happen to be reading this at 8am. On August 13, 1964 Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen took their unwilling place in British penal history as the last-ever inmates to suffer the ‘dread sentence’, be taken to one of Her Majesty’s Prisons and keep their date with the hangman.
Well, hangmen, actually. Evans paid his debt to society at HMP Strangeways at the hands of Harry Allen (grandfather of comedienne Fiona Allen) assisted by Harry Robinson. Allen paid his at HMP Walton at the hands of Scottish hangman Robert Leslie Stewart (known as ‘Jock’ or ‘The Edinburgh Hangman’) assisted by Royston Rickard.
Their crime was unremarkable (not that any murder is a trivial matter) and their executions were equally standard affairs except for the fact that they were the last in British penal history. Judges would continue to don the dreaded ‘Black Cap’ and pass the ‘dread sentence’ until 1969 (the 1970’s in Northern Ireland). The death penalty was retained for several crimes other than murder until 1998 and its final repeal under the European Human Rights Act. But the noose and scaffold had already been consigned to history and the occasional prison museum.
Never again would the prison bell toll or the black flag be hoisted just after eight or nine in the morning. No longer would crowds gather outside a prison’s gates in protest at what was happening inside.. No more would a prison warder have to brave an angry crowd to post the official announcement on a prison gate. After centuries of State-sanctioned killing ranging from the deliberately-barbaric to the scientifically-precise, ‘Jack Ketch’ had finally put away his noose and passed into history.
Not that this was any consolation whatsoever to Evans and Allen. As far as they were concerned it made no difference at all and nor did it to anyone else. They still had to sit in their Condemned Cells at Walton and Strangeways, guarded 24 hours a day by prison warders and hoping every day for a reprieve that never came. Prison staff and the hangmen still had to report for duty as instructed and ensure that everything was prepared properly down to the finest detail.
The Appeal Court judges and Home Secretary still had to discuss, debate and ponder their decision, knowing all the time that if they refused clemency then these two deaths would be as much their responsibility as that of the executioners themselves. The families and friends of the condemned had no easier time than the condemned themselves. Allen and Evans would die, but their friends and families would still have to live with that afterwards.
Their crime was brutal, their guilt undeniable. Given the evidence against them there was almost no chance of their being acquitted. To manage that would require lawyers possessed of both boundless talent and equal optimism. If they did ever stand a chance of avoiding the gallows then it was far more likely to be through a reprieve than an acquittal. Barring a reprieve or a legal blunder serious enough to impress the Court of Criminal Appeal, their race was run. They probably knew it.
Evans and Allen were both typical, garden-variety condemned inmates. Under-educated, lower IQ’s than usual, failed to hold down any job for very long and with a string of petty criminal convictions between them. Fraud, theft, deception, the usual type of relatively low-level crimes that see a person in and out of trouble on a semi-regular basis, but nothing to suggest that either was capable of brutal, cold-blooded murder. Then again, a great many brutal, cold-blooded murderers have been described as not being ‘the type’ even though there’s no ‘type’ to watch out for. It would make the lives of honest people and detectives so much easier if there were.
Aside from not seeming the type, Allen and Evans weren’t exactly criminal masterminds either. After beating and stabbing to death Alan West in his home during a bungled robbery on July 7, 1964, Evans in particular left a trail of evidence that Hansel and Gretal would have been proud of. He left a medallion at the crime scene with his name inscribed on it. When he was dumping the stolen car used in the crime Evans dumped it at a local builder’s yard. He’d made himself so conspicuous (and, to a neighbour, highly suspicious) that it wasn’t long before he found himself in custody. Being found in possession of the victim’s gold watch probably didn’t help his case either.
Once under questioning Evans excelled himself even further. Initially he denied being involved. On realising he’d left a smoking gun with his name on it at the scene he decided to bury Peter Allen. To save himself from a charge of capital murder he’d put all the blame on his accomplice. Evans denied having a knife during the robbery and clearly blamed Allen for stabbing West to death. His ploy might have worked a great deal better but for one small problem; Evans’s own big mouth.
Being keen to bury his crime partner and possibly save himself, Evans talked loud and often. A little too loud and often as it turned out. Evans was loudly denying his having had or used a knife to murder Alan West. It was then that police pointed out to him that they hadn’t actually mentioned a knife, nor had they released that information to the press.
Allen was now also in custody and being questioned. Both killers were under lock and key within 48 hours of committing their crime, a pretty fast resolution to a murder investigation. By modern American standards, their road from trial to execution would certainly seem faster still. One of the principle complaints of America’s pro-execution lobby is that the appeals process takes far too long. There are too many levels of court, too many technicalities, too many bleeding-heart pro-bono lawyers, too many soft judges and State Governors who refuse to allow what a judge and jury have already decided to hand down.
While it’s still groused about in the US, it was never the case in Britain. A condemned inmate was granted a minimum of only 3 Sundays between sentencing and execution. That didn’t mean an execution always happened 3 weeks after a sentence due to appeals, finding new evidence, court schedules, sanity hearings and so on, but 3 Sundays was all you could expect as of right. Miles Giffard, hanged at Bristol in 1953, spent only 18 days between sentencing and execution.
After sentencing the judge would send a private report including their opinion on whether a prisoner should be reprieved. Their reports weren’t always heeded, but they had more influence than any other factor in deciding whether prisoners lived or died.
Avenues for appeal were both smaller in number and moved a great deal faster than their American counterparts. After sentencing the first stop was the Court of Criminal Appeal. Appeals against conviction and sentencing were heard by a panel of 3 judges, often including the Lord Chief Justice unless he’d presided at your trial. If they rejected the appeal the next stop was the Home Secretary (nowadays the Minister of Justice). If the Home Secretary refused clemency the case file would be annotated with a single phrase;
‘The Law must take its course.’
Prisoners could still appeal to the King or Queen, but this was effectively pointless. By one of the many unwritten rules so beloved of British officialdom, the Monarch didn’t grant appeals except on the private advice of the Home Secretary. A Home Secretary (also a Member of Parliament so an elected official) might want to obey or defy public opinion by granting a reprieve while risking their job if they were seen to do so.
The Monarch, on the other hand, not having to consider their approval rating, could grant an appeal thereby saving a prisoner without causing problems for the elected officials concerned. But, regardless of whether a prisoner appealed directly to a Monarch, without a Home Secretary’s advice there would be no reprieve. Nobody involved felt merciful towards Evans and Allen.
Their trial began at Manchester Assizes on June 23, 1964 with Mr. Justice Ashworth presiding. Leading for the prosecution was was Joseph Cantley, QC (Queen’s Counsel, a senior lawyer) while Allen was defended by lawyers F.J. Nance and R.G. Hamilton. Evans was represented by Griffith Guthrie-Jones, QC. It didn’t take very long. Even the best of defenders couldn’t have won a verdict of not guilty. With Evans’s many and varied blunders he was effectively doomed from the start. Allen’s wife was the star prosecution witness, testifying that she’d seen Evans dispose of the knife and that Allen had made incriminating remarks in her presence
Not surprisingly both were convicted. As their murder was committed during a robbery it qualified as capital murder under the 1957 Homicide Act. This Act, brought in after the 1955 execution of Ruth Ellis, drastically altered capital punishment in Britain. It clearly defined the difference between capital and non-capital murder, dispensing with a mandatory death sentence and allowing judges, prosecutors and juries some discretion.
Before the 1957 Homicide Act jurors in particular were quite limited in their options. They could acquit a defendant, find them guilty but insane (avoiding a death sentence), guilty with a recommendation for mercy or simply guilty as charged. For non-capital murder life imprisonment was the sentence. If convicted of capital murder the sentence remained death.
The Act also enshrined diminished responsibility into English law for the first time, largely a response to the Ellis case. This wasn’t done to limit the number of executions per year, but to ease the minds of jurors in particular that a death sentence, when imposed, had been the correct decision. In practice, a jury’s recommendation for mercy carried far less weight than the trial judge’s confidential report.
With Evans and Allen convicted of capital murder Justice Ashworth then took his own place in British penal history, becoming the last British judge in a British courtroom to don the dreaded ‘Black Cap’ (a square of black silk placed atop a judge’s wig as a gesture of mourning for the newly-condemned and recite the modified death sentence. Incidentally the Black Cap remains part of a judge’s ceremonial regalia even today.
Previously, the judge would have recited a long, drawn-out set script which usually did little to help a prisoner keep their composure. It was this:
“Prisoner at the Bar, you have been convicted of the crime of wilful murder. The sentence of this Court is that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison, and thence to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And that your body be afterwards cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul. Remove the prisoner…”
Ashworth’s version was edited for brevity and out of compassion for the prisoners hearing it:
‘”Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans, you have been convicted of murder and shall suffer the sentence prescribed by law.”
Shorter, certainly. Any sweeter? Probably not. Their one mandatory appeal was heard by Lord Chief Justice Parker, Justice Winn and Justice Widgery on July 20, 1964. It was denied the next day. The executioners were engaged and a date set. Evans and Allen would die at HMP Strangeways and HMP Walton respectively. Harry Allen and Harry Robinson would execute Evans, Robert Leslie Stewart and Royston Rickard would execute Allen. Both men dying at the same time meant that no one hangman could ever claim to Britain’s last executioner.
At 8am on August 13, 1964 Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans, quickly and without incident, passed through the gallows trapdoors and into penal history. With them went the hangmen themselves, never to be called upon again. So also went centuries of State-sanctioned killings ranging from the deliberately-barbaric to the scientifically-precise. Britain’s hangmen had reached the end of their rope.
Execution for murder was finally abolished in 1969 after a five-year moratorium on hangings. It remained for several civilian and military crimes until 1998 when it was finally outlawed under the European Human Rights Act of that year. Of assistant executioners Royston Rickard and Harry Robinson we know almost nothing. Perhaps they preferred to slip into anonymity as did Robert Leslie Stewart who emigrated to South Africa.
Harry Allen found obscurity a little more difficult to achieve. He had to move at least once to escape the publicity of being incorrectly-labelled ‘Britain’s Last Hangman’ and died in 1992, one month after his friend, colleague and mentor Albert Pierrepoint.
“We are looking forward to great things from Alcatraz.” – Attorney-General Homer Cummings at the official opening in 1934.
“Alcatraz was never no good for nobody.” – Convict Frank Weatherman, Number AZ1576, the last convict admitted to The Rock, on its closure in 1963.
Alcatraz is 85 years old today. At least it’s 85 years to the day since ‘United States Penitentiary, Alcatraz’ officially opened its doors at 9:40am to the first 137 prisoners to fill its cramped, cold, often damp cells. Formerly a military prison, In its early years as a Federal prison Alcatraz became the new home for criminal legends like Al Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Capone’s nemesis George ‘Bugs’ Moran. John Paul Chase (sidekick of George ‘Baby Face’ Nelson), Alvin ‘Old Creepy’ Karpis (of Barker Gang infamy) and famous escape artist and train robber Roy Gardner also joined the Rock’s less-than-merry guest list.
Despite their huge array of crimes, none of them had the dubious distinction of being the first inmate admitted to Alcatraz. That was Frank Bolt, number AZ1 and a holdover from the military inmates. His crime? Hardly befitting so notorious a prison designed to warehouse the worst of the worst. He was in for sodomy.
Alcatraz represented, according to its supporters anyway, a new concept in American penal policy. The concept was simple, the worst criminals would be drawn from other prisons less able to handle them. Escape artists, troublemakers, inmates with a reputation for inciting riots and strikes and high-profile criminals would find themselves headed for the ‘Bastille by the Bay.’
When Alcatraz opened America was in the grip of the legendary 1930’s Crime Wave. John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde were only recent casualties of the War on Crime. Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd were still roaming, robbing and killing at will. Down in Texas Bonnie and Clyde’s former partner Ray Hamilton had recently escaped from Death Row of all places. Hamilton’s brother Floyd would, ironically, serve decades on the Rock. Something had to be, and seen to be done. Alcatraz became a showpiece for law and order.
Once they were there, the idea was simple; Maximum security, minimum privileges. Regardless of their status on the outside inmates were deliberately kept as isolated from the rest of society as possible. If you went to ‘The Rock’ it became your world. As far as possible you’d be kept as clueless as possible about anything and anybody outside the island.
Alcatraz was a response to the ‘Crime Wave’ of the late 1920’s into the early 1930’s. Rackets guys’ like Capone and Moran built huge criminal organisations, some of which still exist today. They made their money through day-to-day rackets like bootlegging, protection, gambling, loansharking, pimping, drugs and union racketeering.
The ‘Yeggmen’ or ‘Yeggs’ were a different kind of gangster. Karpis, Kelly, Chase, Gardner and others made money through armed robbery of post offices, payrolls, trains and sometimes kidnapping for ransom. They might take an Indiana one morning, an Illinois bank in the afternoon and then disappear out of state. In places like Hot Springs, Arkansas or St. Paul, Minnesota fugitives paid off local politicians and cops to live virtually openly.
But, however they made their living, once on Alcatraz they were just names and numbers. Their reputations outside counted for nothing with prison staff. Capone had served time at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in relative luxury. He had meals ordered in from local restaurants, his favourite brand of cigars, a radio in his cell and served the easiest time bribery could buy. At Alcatraz he was Convict AZ85 and nothing more.
Whatever day of the week it was the routine remained the same. Unvarying, monotonous, repetitive and stupefying after a while, it also drove inmates mad. At 6am you woke up. At 6:20 you stood at the front of your cell for a head count. At 6:30 you went to the mess hall. At 6:50 if you had a job your work day started, although even performing prison labour was a privilege at Alcatraz you had to earn. At 11:20 it was lunchtime. At 4:30 you were locked up for the night. At 9:30 the lights went out.
And so on day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Aside from lawyers visits, court appearances, exercise time, doctor’s appointments and meals, the routine never, ever varied.
You could only write letters to or receive letters from an approved list of people. You could only receive visitors on the same approved list. No letters could be sent to or received from anybody then serving or having served a jail sentence. No visitors could visit without a full FBI background check. Letters were always censored and checked for invisible ink or hidden codes within the text. Letters were even copied on a typewriter and a copy given the inmate in case the paper was saturated with drugs. There were no phone calls. Even when talking to visitors or writing letter an inmate was forbidden to discuss outside events, criminal cases or the prison itself.
The rules were rigid and unbending, extending even as far as mealtimes. You could have as much deliberately-monotonous food as you wanted, but risked punishment for not finishing every scrap. First offences cost you your next meal. A second meant ten days in solitary confinement and loss of privileges.
If you were thinking of causing a mass disturbance in the dining hall then other inmates would point to large globe-like objects on the walls and ceiling; tear gas bombs. Hence the inmates nicknamed their dining hall the ‘Gas Chamber.’ If the possibility of being gassed didn’t put you off then very obvious gun ports in the walls patrolled by guards with shotguns, rifles and tommy guns were more than enough.
There were no ‘trusty’ jobs. Many prisons operate a ‘trusty’ system where inmates deemed safe enough perform tasks like clerical work. Not on The Rock. There was no inmate council to consult with staff about inmate problems or issues. According to the game plan, inmates never had the slightest choice in anything at all on the island. They were never intended to, either’
Most prisons had an 8-1 ratio of convicts to officers. At Alcatraz there were only 3 inmates per officer. The officers were hand-picked, trained in unarmed combat, marksmanship and especially to out-think inmates planning escapes or riots. There were 12 regular head counts every day, plus another 30 or so special counts in workshops, the showers, the exercise yard etc.
Most hated of all the rules was the rule of silence. From 1934 until 1937 no inmate was permitted to speak at all unless absolutely necessary. Saying more than ‘Please pass the salt’ during meals earned solitary confinement. If you spoke in a workshop except to ask for tools or to use the bathroom you risked solitary. The silence was yet another aspect of a routine expressly designed to be as dull, isolating and monotonous as humanly possible. The only times an inmate could talk were during visits, medical appointments or in the exercise yard. Anywhere else idle chat was strictly forbidden and sternly punished.
Other security precautions made Alcatraz the most secure prison on Earth. Hidden microphones were sprinkled all over the prison. Metal detectors (known to inmates as ‘Snitch Boxes’) were positioned so no inmate could walk through less than eight detectors a day, no matter what they were doing or where they were going.
The nerve centre of the prison was the Armory, run by the Armoror in a system specially designed by the prison’s first Warden, James Johnston. The Armoror controlled every electrically-operated door on the island and could lock them all with the flick of a switch. Nobody could enter or leave the main cellblock without his approval. If trouble started the Armoror could simply lock himself in his post, lock down the entire prison, summon emergency support by radio and issue weapons to as many officers as needed them. His arsenal ranged from pistols and revolvers to tear gas launchers, rifles, shotguns and tommy guns.
Even outside the buildings the security was no more relaxed. Armed guards were sited at gun towers around the island, all linked by a catwalk system. Armed guards could patrol the cellblocks in gun galleries. The galleries were separated from the inmate areas by toolproof steel bars, but officers could still turn a cellblock into a shooting gallery if needed. During the Battle of Alcatraz in May, 1946 they did exactly that. The gun towers covered the island’s roads, boat dock, exercise yard and the surrounding water. Any inmate seen running for the water could be shot on sight. Several were.
The mainland itself was 1.5 miles away from the island. Stories spread by officials about specially-trained marksmen in the gun towers weren’t true. Nor were stories about San Francisco Bay being home to man-eating sharks. But while those tall tales were exactly that, other stories were all too true. Stories about the water being barely above freezing even in summer, of currents too strong to swim against sweeping inmates out through the Golden Gate into the Pacific, about underwater currents dragging would-be escapers to watery graves.
Discipline was harsh, too. Loss of privileges was a standard punishment for minor infractions (there were precious few privileges as it was). More serious breaches meant losing time off for good behaviour as well as your day-to-day privileges. More serious offences earned a visit to the dreaded D Block, home to the solitary confinement cells and the ‘Dark Hole.’ The normal solitary cells were standard open-front cells with inmates losing their standard privileges and eating only bread and water every day. Another little irritation was a ban on tobacco for solitary inmates, annoying if you were used to a pack a day and had no books to read or anything else to pass the time.
The ‘Dark Hole’ consisted of six cells without beds, furniture, bedding, toilet or sink (the toilet consisted of a hole in the concrete floor). They had one tap dispensing only cold water and a solid steel door allowing no light at all. The cell walls were painted black, ensure absolute darkness. The maximum amount of time in the ‘Dark Hole’ was mandated by Federal law as being no more than 19 consecutive days.
This didn’t mean a maximum sentence there was 19 days, though. If you were given more than 19 days then you’d spend the 20th day in an ordinary, open-front solitary cell before returning to the ‘Dark Hole for another 19 days and so on until the end of your solitary sentence. Some inmates spent years in the ‘Dark Hole’ with light and warmth only 1 day in every 20.
Many former inmates also allege that D Block was home to rampant abuse and brutality inflicted by officers on inmates. Officers manning D Block have been accused many, many times of delivering beatings with blackjacks, brass knuckles, truncheons, nightsticks, fists, boots and rubber hoses.
Problems were rife on The Rock. Inmate murders, escape attempts, suicides, attacks on staff, inmates were regularly taken off the island having been certified insane, self-harm (especially inmates using razor blades to sever their heel tendons) was so common as to arouse little comment. All were regular fare while Alcatraz was a Federal prison.
Not for nothing was a stretch on Alcatraz described as having the “Exquisite torture of routine”, a routine that never wavered for weeks, months, years and decades of an inmate’s sentence. The self-harm wasn’t only a cry for help, it was also a calculated act of protest against the staff denying inmates their constitutional rights, especially access to the courts.
Inmates in other prisons had the right to sue the prison administration over conditions, punishments and prison regulations. They also had that right at Alcatraz, but their writs didn’t always reach the courts for a judge’s consideration. Sometimes they never left the island. This didn’t go over well with inmates, and especially not with federal judges when they found out.
By the early 1960’s the Alcatraz concept and the prison itself were crumbling. Attitudes in penology had changed. The ‘Crime Wave’ of the late 1920’s into the early 1930’s was fast receding into memory. The buildings, long subjected to permanent damp, salty air and water with icy winds, were crumbling, increasingly unsafe and increasingly vulnerable to escape.
The final nail in Alcatraz’s coffin, was its running costs. Keeping inmates there cost three times more per year, per inmate than any other American prison.The concept was discredited, the buildings were falling apart and the cost was unsustainable. Alcatraz became increasingly regarded as a symbol of outdated ideas that should be confined to history along with Devil’s Island and Botany Bay. Alcatraz would have to be replaced.
It was. After receiving 1576 inmates over 29 years the Rock was itself confined, to history. 36 inmates attempted escape of whom 5 were killed, 23 recaptured, 2 drowned and 5 are still listed as missing. After multiple murders, suicides, assaults and one enormous riot the Alcatraz experiment had ended in failure., Throughout 1962 inmates were gradually shipped out to other prisons in small numbers to avoid press speculation and public attention. When Alcatraz officially closed on March 21, 1963 only 27 inmates hid their faces from TV cameras as they were shipped to other institutions. The Rock, Hellcatraz, Isle of No Return, America’s Devil’s Island, call it what you will, had been consigned to penal history. It was replaced with a brand-new facility at Marion, Illinois (now widely regarded as one of the worst prisons in the country).
After its closure in 1962, the native American occupation in 1969-1970 and being handed over to the National National Park Service in 1972, the Rock sat idle for years. It’s now California’s most popular tourist attraction receiving over a million visitors a year.Ironic, when you consider how desperately its first visitors wanted to leave. Even more oddly, former officers and former inmates have frequently found themselves working together guiding tour parties around their former home.
I’ll leave you with one final thought. Long before the Spanish discovered the island, the Americans turned it into a fortress, military prison and finally a convict penitentiary, there were Native Americans. Unlike the Spanish and the Americans they tended to avoid the island, refusing to approach it for centuries. Why?
They thought it a dwelling place for evil spirits.
Now here’s a real criminal curiosity, the infamous Execution Bell from London’s notorious Newgate Prison. Accounts of executions, themselves a grim British tradition until the 1960’s, often relate stories of a black flag being raised and a prison bell tolling to announce a prisoner’s death. These are true, at least after public executions ended with the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868.
Before Newgate acquired its own full-sized bell, the tradition was altogether more chilling and, many would say, unnecessarily cruel. It involved the employment of Newgate’s Execution Bell and its Bellman. A local merchant, one Robert Dove, established the tradition in 1604, donating the then-considerable sum of £40 to ensure the practice continued. Dove, a devout Christian, hoped it would encourage repentance among the condemned. To modern eyes it seems unspeakably cruel.
Before Newgate had its own prison bell the neighbouring Church of St. Sepulchre would toll its bell on every execution day, a sound even those not condemned learned to dread. Until Newgate acquired its own bell, its bellman would wait until just after midnight and, withe prisoner’s death imminent, would pace up and down outside the Condemned Hold reciting a verse while clanging the handbell.
The Bellman’s verse, recited loudly three times (in case anyone actually needed reminding of their impending execution), was this:
“All you that in the Condemned Hold do lie,
prepare you, for tomorrow you will die.
Watch all, and pray, the hour is drawing near,
That you before the Almighty must appear.
Examine well yourselves, in time repent,
that you may not to Eternal flames be sent.
And when St. Sepulchre’s bell tomorrow tolls,
the Lord have mercy on your souls…”
Possibly not the best cure for pre-hanging insomnia.
To give this ghastly ritual some context, it wasn’t intended as an act of sadism or cruelty. Just the opposite, in fact. Religion at the time dominated people’s lives to a much greater extent than it does today. Dove, Newgate’s officials and the Bellman (probably not the most popular man on Newgate’s staff) would have seen it as saving their souls, their lives already forfeit for their crimes.
It’s at best debatable whether it actually benefited the condemned all that much. Those who were already repentant didn’t need asking. Those who were unrepentant didn’t care. Everybody else, condemned to hang or not, probably didn’t appreciate the Bellman and his traditional early-morning alarm call.
Eventually this well-meaning but appalling tradition was ceased. In 1783 executions at Tyburn were ceased and Newgate acquired its own bell. From 1783 until 1868 hangings would be performed, still in public, outside Newgate Prison itself. After Michael Barratt was hanged in 1868 executions were moved inside prisons nationwide.
For decades there would still be the traditional hoisting of the black flag and tolling of the prison bell, but Newgate’s Bellman had had his day. Eventually the flag and bell ceased, replaced by a prison officer placing an official notice on a prison gate to certify a prisoner had indeed been hanged. No longer would trembling prisoners sit in filthy, dark, grimy cells, illuminated by candlelight and dim lanterns, hearing the dreaded Bellman approach. They wouldn’t hear his heavy doom-laden tread crunch his way over the thousands of lice and bugs infesting the prison. Especially pleasing, they wouldn’t hear him repeatedly reciting his traditional verse.
Newgate was finally closed and demolished at the turn of the 20th century, making room to expand the neighbouring Old Bailey (probably the world’s most famous courthouse) Its gallows equipment went to Pentonville Prison in north London where it hanged many more prisoners including Doctor Crippen.
Put yourself in a condemned prisoner’s place, just for a moment. Imagine the gloom of your cell, the stench and dirt, the fear and realisation of impending death. Consider what it would be like to lie manacled in your cell hearing the Bellman’s feet, the clanging of his bell and (in convoluted fashion) him saying;
“Ask not for whom my bell tolls…”
“It tolls for YOU…”
August 6, 1890 saw the dawn of a new age for criminal history. At Auburn Prison in upstate New York there was the execution.of one William Kemmler, condemned for murdering girlfriend Matilda Ziegler with a hatchet. There was nothing remarkable about Kemmler (an alcoholic vegetable hawker with a vicious temper) or about his crime. There wasn’t anything unusual about an execution in New York State, either., hangings being a fairly regular event.
What was unusual was the method. Americans had been hanged, shot, drowned and burned at various times, but none had ever been electrocuted. Even the word ‘electrocute’ was brand new, a buzzword for what enthusiasts had clumsily named ‘electrical execution.’ It had never been done before. After its nightmarish debut, there was much debate about whether it should ever be done again.
Of course, it was. There have been over 4000 electrocutions in American penal history since Kemmler’s. Today ‘Old Sparky’ is (rather ironically) at death’s door, replaced by the gas chamber and lethal injection. It was once by far the most popular means for America’s prisons to perform human pest control.
State after State threw away its gallows and plugged into this new innovation. They did so with varying degrees of enthusiasm. New York loved it. South Dakota used it only once. Other States varied between the enthusiastic Florida and the far less enthusiastic New Mexico. They also turned on to the new idea with varying degrees of competence (often with hideous results for all concerned, especially the condemned).
Hanging can be the least inhumane method of execution if properly performed, so there’s a bitter irony in the reason for Old Sparky’s long tenure. Which was that many American executioners would probably have found it a challenge correctly hanging curtains, let alone humans. Bungled hangings were regular events, with prisoners often beheaded or slowly strangled by bungling hangmen using faulty or unsuitable equipment.
British hangman Albert Pierrepoint was openly scathing of American hangmen and their kit, sarcastically calling the traditional hangman’s knot a ‘cowboy’s coil.’ After one horror show too many at the hanging of Roxalana Druse, New York State Governor David Hill decided to form a ‘Death Commission’ to decide which method would best replace the rope. Enter two very big names, an inventor, a dentist and, of course, William Kemmler.
The idea of electrocution came from a dentist, Alfred Southwick of Buffalo, New York. Southwick had seen a drunk die instantly from accidentally staggering up against an electrical generator. Being a staunch supporter of capital punishment, Southwick decided that the new technology would be perfect for deliberately killing people as well. Being a dentist, he thought a chair with restraining straps was the best way to convey the current to the inmate. He left the actual building of the ‘hot seat’ to Harold Brown, an electrical engineer working for a rather famous name. Enter one Thomas Edison.
Edison had been approached to oversee the creation of the electric chair but, being firmly opposed to capital punishment, had firmly refused to take part. Unfortunately, Edison became locked in the ‘War of the Currents’ with his great rival George Westinghouse. Edison championed direct current (DC) while Westinghouse was marketing an alternating current (AC) system.
Both wanted to corner the rapidly-snowballing market in electricity and related products. Westinghouse’s system was far more efficient at transmitting electricity over long distances, but required far higher voltages to do so, making it potentially far more dangerous to technical staff and consumers.
Edison saw that as an opportunity to bury Westinghouse’s new system and corner the burgeoning electrical market for himself. Putting his personal opposition to executions aside (along with many other principles), Edison made full use of AC being more dangerous to human life.
He started a publicity campaign openly touting Westinghouse’s AC as deadly and his own DC as the safe option. A series of public demonstrations (from which Edison kept himself at arm’s length) involved- electrocuting animals ranging from cats and dogs to a fully-grown elephant. Then he reconsidered his attitude to the death penalty. What better way was there to discredit George Westinghouse by harnessing both his system and his name to death?
Westinghouse had refused to sell the State of New York a generator for executions so Brown, funded by Edison, bought one under a false name, had it delivered to Brazil and then shipped back to Auburn Prison. This infuriated Westinghouse, but not nearly as much as the more personal aspect of Edison’s campaign.
The new method, in the eyes of many Americans, needed a new name. ‘Electrocution’, a combinations of ‘electricity’ and ‘execution’ caught on to replace the clumsy phrase ‘electrical execution.’ Edison quietly tried to introduce another name. If Edison had his way, inmates would be ‘Westinghoused.’
Westinghouse was unsurprisingly outraged. This wasn’t just Edison trying to ruin his business, but trying in a particularly personal and extremely unpleasant way. Before theirs had been a business and corporate rivalry. Now it developed into a full-fledged personal feud. The bitterness between these industrial titans was extreme and William Kemmler was caught right in the middle of it.
With Kemmler, a violent drunkard, securely if not comfortably ensconced on Auburn’s Death Row, Westinghouse, for reasons business and now personal, delayed things as much as possibly by funding Kemmler’s appeals. Edison in turn secured large funding from one of his investors, J.P Morgan no less, to ensure Kemmler’s appeals failed. They did.
William Kemmler was destined to take a prime (and unwilling) place in criminal history; the first inmate ever to do the ‘hot squat.’ At Auburn Prison preparations went ahead. Harold Brown enlisted one Edwin Davis to help perfect the final touches to the ‘electrocution chair.’ Davis was a qualified electrical contractor at Auburn and was also the perfect choice to become the world’s first ‘State Electrician.’
In time Davis would execute around 200 inmates and train two of his proteges, John Hurlburt and Robert Elliott. Both of whom succeeded him as executioners. Between them, these three men would execute over 700 prisoners. Elliott would be credited with perfecting electrocution as an execution method, developing what became known as the ‘Elliott Technique’ or ‘Elliott Method.’ Even today when electric chairs work on an automatic, pre-set programme, it’s based on Elliott’s earlier manual method
For now, though, Davis was in charge. Davis designed and patented the first electrodes which on early chairs were fixed to the inmate’s head and the base of their spine. After much gruesome experimentation and numerous hideous deaths, electrodes were later fixed to an inmate’s head and leg as standard. But that was in the future. For now, nobody really knew what they were about to be doing. On execution day this would become abundantly, horrifically obvious.
August 6, 1890 dawned bright and clear. The chair had been installed, linked to the prison generator (later chairs had their own separate generator) and thoroughly tested. Warden Charles Durston woke Kemmler at 5am, gave him a final breakfast and had him dressed for the occasion. At 6:30am the grim ritual began. Kemmler, his head and spine shaved and with a slit in his shirt-tails, was led into a room in front of 17 witnesses including 3 doctors and numerous reporters. He was asked for his last words which proved grimly ironic in the light of what was about to happen:
“Take it easy and do it properly, I’m in no hurry…”
Kemmler probably would have been in a hurry if he’d known what was coming. The execution team, given that they’d never actually electrocuted anyone before, certainly didn’t do it properly. About the best that could be said for the witnesses was that their misery would be less horrendous than Kemmler’s.
At 6:38am the signal was given and Davis threw the switch. 1000 volts of alternating current seared through Kemmler’s body and nervous system. After 17 seconds the power was shut off. Doctor Charles Spitzka stepped forward fully expecting to certify Kemmler dead.
Spitzka initially thought Kemmler was dead and said as much. The chair’s inventor, dentist Alfred Southwick, proudly stood before the witnesses. In front of Kemmler’s smoking body Southwick uttered the immortal words:
“Gentlemen, we live in a higher civilisation from this day.”
So, briefly, did William Kemmler who began breathing and started twisting against the straps while moaning increasingly loudly. Horrified witnesses blanched as Warden Durston and Doctor Spitzka hurriedly discussed what to do. Either the current had been too low or not applied for long enough. The obvious solution, naturally was to double the voltage and increase the duration. Spitzka spoke briefly and sharply:
“Have the current turned on again, quick. No delay!”
The current was turned on quick. It was also set far too high for far too long. For a full minute 2000 volts cooked Kemmler alive. His remaining hair smouldered. His flesh singed. Blood vessels burst under his skin causing him to bleed through his pores. Smoke and a stench of burnt meat filled the room while witnesses tried to get out and pounded on locked doors. Several fainted.and slumped around the floor.
Kemmler did at least die, but in a way that nearly made his both the first and last electrocution in criminal history. Newspapers competed to run the gaudiest, grisliest tales of his suffering, as though it needed to look any worse than it already was. Two of the doctors present, Charles Spitzka and Carlos MacDonald, feuded bitterly and publicly for years afterward over what had gone so dreadfully wrong.
Edison, whose role in the affair was now public knowledge to his lasting discomfort, refused to comment or to even speak to reporters. His great rival George Westinghouse, asked for his opinion of the execution, was far more forthcoming and brutally frank:
“They would have done better using an ax…”
Of course, the chair, its components and the overall method survived even into the early 21st century. Over time and by trial and error the process was steadily refined, though never really perfected. Davis’s apprentices Hurlburt and Elliott would develop the process and kill hundreds doing so, Although Hurlburt did commit suicide shortly after resigning as the euphemistically-titled ‘State Electrician.’
All of New York’s executioners had to be qualified electricians, paid $150 per prisoner with an extra $50 for any additional prisoner during multiple executions. Good money if you could stomach the work generally and the occasional botch in particular.
There’s a grim postscript to this story. Until recently Old Sparky had fallen into disfavour and disuse. No States retained it as their primary method, most having changed to lethal injection as their first choice. The current refusal by drug companies to supply American prisons with the drugs for lethal injection has led to experimentation with different drug combinations and, in turn, botched lethal injections such as Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma and Joseph Wood in Arizona. Wood took over two hours to die in a process that should have taken minutes.
Which is why the State of Tennessee, previously discarding their electric chair for lethal injection, have reinstated electrocution and dusted off their ‘hot seat.’ South Carolina is considering doing the same. Alabama and Oklahoma, meanwhile, are considering something new and as yet untried. The gas chamber too has been discarded, but it might make a comeback using nitrogen gas instead of cyanide. Oklahoma was also the first state to adopt lethal injection, although Texas was the first to actually use it.
It would seem the wheel is going to turn full circle. Like William Kemmler on this day in 1890, somebody is likely to take their own place in the chronicles of crime, albeit as the first to suffer death in a nitrogen (not cyanide) gas chamber. Unlike William Kemmler and some 4000 other inmates, Old Sparky might also be rising from the grave.
Kemmler’s tale can be found, among many others, in my first book ‘Criminal Curiosities’ available on Amazon Kindle:
A couple of days ago I had the pleasure of talking to BBC West Midlands Radio on the subject of the last meal. Their interest resulted from a Daily Mail article showing that, like the condemned themselves, the majority of people asked wanted comfort food for their final feast. It’s an odd tradition and so I thought my original post merited reposting, so here it is.
Study media reports of executions, recent or decades-old, and you’ll probably find mention of the prisoner’s last meal. Most prisoners spend their entire sentences eating whatever the prison kitchen provides and have no choice. Condemned inmates are traditionally allowed to choose their final meal. Before British reporters were barred from witnessing hangings in the early 20th century their reports usually mentioned whether a prisoner enjoyed their final breakfast. Today, American reporters often mention what prisoners have for their last meal, although prison authorities…
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Today it’s Friday July 13, 2018. July 13, 1928 was also a Friday, a Friday delivering the ultimate in bad luck to 11 men in three different States…
In Mississippi’s Yazoo County murderer Will Burdo nervously awaited his date with the hangman. While Burdo pondered his fate in Yazoo County Jail, over in Smith County Greene Kirk was doing the same after being convicted of robbery and murder. Mississippi wouldn’t centralise its executions until 1954 and the installation of the gs chamber at Parchman. That came after 14 years of Mississippi’s notorious travelling electric chair. Both Kirk and Burdo were entrusted to the tender mercies of hangmen they hoped would be both skilled and sober. Not that American hangmen had a great reputation for being either.
Over at the Georgia State Prison, Preddis Taylor and Sam Gower were pondering a similar fate shortly to be imposed by newer technology; the electric chair. Unlike Mississippi, Georgia had centralised its retribution, installing Old Sparky in 1924 at the old State Prison in Milledgeville. It’s doubtful that either Taylor or Gower appreciated what was then the relative novelty of being Southern-fried.
Two double executions in two different States on the same day, which wouldn’t have been a criminal curiosity had it not been for the electrical extravaganza scheduled in Kentucky. Kentucky, not the most hawkish of death penalty States, but not afraid to impose it, had no less than seven men doomed to its own electric chair. At the feared State Prison near Eddyville known as the ‘Castle on the Cumberland,’ Old Sparky was about to be fed a seven-course banquet.
In the 20th century only one other prison had executed seven inmates in one day. Sing Sing marched that number to their deaths on August 12, 1912. It had been a nightmare for all concerned. Not because of any technical hitches or other problems, but because the seven men didn’t react too well, or sanely, to being marched one after another through the death chamber door. Nor, as it happened, did those condemned inmates still waiting for their own date with death. It was a day never before seen and never repeated, even at the notoriously tough Sing Sing.
Clarence McQueen, James Howard, Willie Moore, Milford Lawson, Orlando Seymour, Hascue Dockery and Charles Mitra would meet their maker one after another and quick succession, Kentucky’s largest mass execution of the 20th century. All in all, not a good Friday 13 for anybody apart the executioners who’d profit well from the day’s work, especially in Kentucky.
While Greene and Burdo dropped to their deaths in Mississippi, Taylor and Gower were doing the hot squat in Georgia. Of the four men three were black and one white. Without exception, and as usual in capital cases, all were poor and lacked the funds for even average lawyers. In Kentucky the balance was slightly less uneven. Lawson, Seymour, Dockery and Mitra were white while McQueen, Howard and Moore were black. All of these men were poor as well.
According to reports the black prisoners held up better than their white counterparts, singing hymns and spirituals as they waited to go one-by-one to their deaths. The three whites, however, are reported as having been virtually paralysed by fear as their time came.The result, be they brave and dignified or craven and catatonic, was still the same. All seven never got to hear the phone ring at the last minute, as it so often does in Hollywood’s more stylised idea of capital punishment. There weren’t any lawyers, expensive or pro bono, to delay their walking the last mile. Taken one-by-one they stood, walked, sat down and died.
Even in those less enlightened and perhaps more racially-charged times, Friday June 13 was a rarity. Nowadays few death penalty States execute eleven convicts per year while some haven’t had eleven executions in decades.
That didn’t make this particular Friday 13 any less unlucky for some.