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.
Japan, one of only two members of the G7 to retain capital punishment, the other is the US, has never liked publicity regarding its death penalty. Just as the British used to do until abolition, it’s shrouded in secrecy.
Even the condemned don’t know until shortly beforehand that their time has come. The public don’t know until after they’ve died and an official announcement is made. Until then, the condemned, the execution process and especially those who carry it out are hidden away, out of sight if not of mind.
Today’s mass execution has changed all that.
This morning Japan performed what is probably its largest mass execution since the war crimes trials after World War II. Seven members of the Aum Shinryko cult responsible for the Tokyo subway attack on March 20, 1995 were escorted from their cells one by one and dropped through the trapdoor at a Tokyo prison.
One after another cult leader Shoko Asihara, Yoshihiro Inoue, Tomomitsu Niimi, Tomomasa Nakagawa, Kiyohie Hayakawa, Seiichi Endo and Masachi Tsuchiya were taken from their cells to the trapdoor, strapped, hooded, noosed and dropped. Three prison officials pushed three buttons, only one of which released the trapdoor. Six more cult members are still awaiting the same fate.
Many, Japanese or not, would say it was justified. They’d littered Tokyo’s subway with packages of nerve agent Sarin, killing 13 people and injuring thousands. It wasn’t their first gas attack on their fellow citizens, they’d attempted a similar Sarin attack before and would try it with cyanide gas later. Even after today’s hanging of seven of them another six still remain on death row. All told, not prisoners likely to attract much, if any sympathy.
Japan has long tried to keep its executions as secret as possible. Unlike the US where such criminals would attract more publicity than the biggest celebrities (at least around their executions), the Japanese like to keep it as discreet as possible. With a case like this, though, discretion is impossible. The attack was too notorious, the resulting executions were simply too big to hide.
Until recently Japan’s condemned were given no warning at all. They’d simply be roused if they were asleep, told it was time to go and within hours they’d be dead. Even Britain’s condemned knew their date and time beforehand. But Japan’s stance has softened a little in recent years. In 2010 Keiko Chiba, then Minister of Justice and an opponent of capital punishment, decided to stimulate debate by granting the media their first access to the death chamber itself. Traditionally, it’s also the Justice Minister’s responsibility to sign the death warrant formally beginning the execution process.
As in the US, capital justice moves slowly. Technically a prisoner should be hanged within six months of sentencing. In practice, prisoners have remained on death row for decades between sentencing and execution while appeals are heard, sometimes granted and often dismissed. Once the Justice Minister puts pen to paper, however, it moves far more quickly.
For the remaining six cultists and the hundred or so other condemned inmates, every day could be their last. They just don’t know which day it will be.
On this Day in 1935; Raymond Hamilton, Depression Desperado and ‘gentleman bandit.’
Ray Hamilton, thief, armed robber, kidnapper, escape artist, murderer. He worked with Clyde Barrow as part of the infamous ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ Gang before his out-sized ego caused him to strike out on his own. By his execution in May, 1935 (at the tender age of 22) he’d racked up no less than 362 years of unserved jail time and committed armed robbery, kidnapping, car theft, burglary, prison escape, petty theft, murder and general mayhem across Kansas, Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma and Arkansas. And those are the States that we know he was active in. He wasn’t even executed for any of his several known murders. Texas being Texas, in 1935 you could be executed for being an habitual criminal which, with Ray’s rather compendious criminal history in mind, probably wasn’t the Walker County District Attorney’s biggest challenge of his career. But while Bonnie and…
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A few days ago Channel 5 screened another episode of Hidden History of Britain. Presented by former politician Michael Portillo, the episode covered Shepton Mallet Prison and the case of Leroy Henry. Shepton Mallet should be familiar to readers of Crimescribe, as should Leroy Henry who I’ve previously covered. You can watch it here.
I was consulted by programme-makers Transparent Television for this one a few months ago, one of the perks of covering crime’s odds and ends being the occasional consult or interview request. Having now watched it myself, it’s well worth looking at. It’s not Portillo’s first foray into crime documentaries, either. The BBC screened ‘How to kill a human being’ a couple of years ago and he’s a very watchable presenter.
Henry’s wasn’t the only curious case of former US Air Force Private George Edward Smith. Smith, convicted of murdering senior British diplomat Sir Eric Teichman at Honingham Hall, was hanged on May 8, 1945 by Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by Herbert Morris. While the rest of the world was going to wake up to the dawning of a new age, Smith was pondering his final hours in Shepton Mallet’s condemned cell.
I covered Smith’s case a couple of years ago, in a guest post for Executed Today, a fascinating site rich in criminal history and thought it was worth remembering. So here it is.
Bye for now.
When Frederick Parker and Albert Probert mounted the gallows at Wandsworth Prison, they died never knowing they’d taken a singular place in Britain’s chronicles of crime. Theirs would be last execution in British prison to be witnessed by a gentleman (or lady) of the press.
Until the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868 executions were performed in public. Anyone, be they prince, pauper, journalist or ordinary member of the public, could watch a felon pay the ultimate penalty. After 1868 executions were performed entirely behind prison walls, although reporters were still permitted to be present. Both hangmen and prison governors alike came to prefer it if they weren’t.
Prison staff came to loathe many reporters who witnessed executions, believing them to fabricate reports of doomed men struggling to the last and kicking and screaming their way to their deaths. This, as a rule, very rarely actually happened. In the eyes of warders, governors and hangmen alike, it appeared in the next day’s newspapers far too often. As former assistant hangman Syd Dernley described it in his memoir ‘The Hangman’s Tale’;
“In the absence of genuine information, the wildest stories were heard and believed. Gruesome reports circulated of nightmare scenes in which condemned people had to be dragged kicking, screaming and pleading to the trap, where the rope had to be forced round their necks and they were dropped to strangle, moving and twitching for minutes on end.”
Reporters weren’t officially banned to avoid accusations of censorship and officialdom muzzling the press. In practice, though, prison governors were able to say yes or no. Increasingly, they said no. By the time of Probert and Parker, Associated Press reporter W G Finch was very much the exception to a firm though unwritten rule. He would also be the last of his kind to receive such a privilege.
Finch was one of the doyens of British crime reporting. A member of a group known in the profession as the ‘Murder Gang,’ Finch made it his business to report murders, sometimes arriving at crime scenes before police officers. Like his fellow ‘Murder Gang’ members, he was as much tolerated as accepted by the police of the time. They couldn’t freeze out crime reporters, so they had to (sometimes grudgingly) tolerate their existence.
Parker and Probert themselves were otherwise unexceptional criminals. They’d assaulted shopkeeper Joseph Bedford while trying to rob his store on November 13, 1933. Severely beaten, Bedford died of his injuries the next day. Arrested a few days after the crime, Parker and Probert now faced trial for murder, then carrying a mandatory death sentence.
They were tried before Mr Justice Roche, legendary pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury testified for the prosecution which was led by the equally legendary Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett, KC (King’s Counsel). Against such heavyweight opposition the pair could only blame each other. This, of course, made no difference. They had gone to rob together, had killed together and so, in the eyes of the law, would be tried, convicted and hanged together.
Convicted on March 16, 1934, they stood before Mr Justice Roche as he donned the traditional Black Cap to pass what reporters often called ‘the dread sentence’;
“Frederick Parker and Albert Probert, you stand 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 then to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that afterwards your bodies be 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 souls…”
Their appeals proved fruitless and were denied on April 18, 1934. With that in mind, chief hangman Thomas Pierrepoint was booked to hang the pair. Uncle and nephew would work together so frequently they became known as ‘the firm of Uncle Thomas and Our Albert.’ With him were his assistant and nephew Albert (undoubtedly needing no introduction) and two additional assistants, Stanley Cross and Tom Phillips. Cross was an experienced assistant and Phillips even more so. Albert, however, was the relative novice that day.
Parker and Probert were only the sixth and seventh notches on Albert’s rope. Beginning with Patrick McDermott at Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail on December 29, 1932 (assisting his uncle Thomas), Albert had only assisted at four hangings since then. His uncle, meanwhile, had been involved in almost 200 executions by that point. He would continue until hanging cop killer John Caldwell at Barlinnie Gaol in Glasgow on August 10, 1946. Caldwell would be Thomas’s 296th and final victim.
Parker and Probert died quietly and quickly at 9am, without trouble, dropping simultaneously was the fashion. As they had murdered and been tried together, so they dropped side-by-side. The presence of W G Finch, though causing no problems whatsoever with the hanging itself, was frowned on by higher authority. The customary placing of official notices on the prison gate, announcing the executions had been carried out, was undoubtedly the death knell for Parker and Probert.
It was also the end of media access to a British gallows. Executions would continue until August 13, 1964 when two inmates, Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen died simultaneously at Strangeways and Walton Prisons respectively. Like Parker and Probert thirty years previously, Allen and Evans had committed murder during a robbery. With their deaths the Black Cap, ‘dread sentence’ and the death penalty itself became part of penal history.
When heroin-loving gangsters Morris ‘Whitey’ Diamond and his brother Joey teamed up with John Farina for an armed robbery and murder, they surely knew they had a fair chance of joining him in Sing Sing’s Death House and Old Sparky as well. The 1920’s and 30’s were halcyon days for New York’s ‘State Electrician’ and his infamous contraption, after all.
What they would never live to know (and executioner John Hurlburt came to know all too well) was that Hurlburt very nearly joined them in Sing Sing’s morgue. Hurlburt’s story is no great secret (you can find my account of it here) but less is reported of the night he found himself almost as dead as any of his 140 ‘customers.’
The Diamonds and Farina found themselves awaiting death for an armed robbery committed in 1924. They stole over $43,000 from bank messenger William Barlow and guard William McLaughlin. In the process they shot Barlow (a retired NYPD officer) three times in the back. McLaughlin (a US Army veteran) managed to fire a few shots before dying.
It might have gone better if the Diamonds hadn’t been using heroin before the job. It might have gone better still if Whitey hadn’t left a blood-stained finger print in the getaway car, hadn’t left a false licence plate where it was easily found and hadn’t falsely registered it under the name ‘Joe Samuels.’ It probably didn’t help that the address on the false registration was also where Whitey habitually collected his mail.
Further bad news came via bank clerk Antony Pantano, the gang’s inside man. For a lowly clerk, his colleagues thought, he had an unusual interest in the bank’s security \arrangements, especially those involving cash deliveries and collections. When their colleagues were ambushed and left dying in the street, they immediately pointed the finger at Pantano.
Grilled by NYPD officers furious at Barlow’s murder and no doubt wanting to avoid a seat in Old Sparky, Pantano cracked. He named the Diamonds and Farina as the shooters and Nicky ‘Cheeks’ Luciano and George Desaro as driving the two getaway cars. Luciano, no relation, takes no great role in the story. Desaro was later arrested in his native Italy, which agreed to prosecute him and gave him 30 years for his role. He was luckier than Farina and the Diamonds, but not Pantano.
Pantano also found himself going ‘up the river’ to await ‘Black Thursday,’ but his sentence was commuted. Those of the Diamonds and Farina, however, weren’t. New York’s courts had an unwritten rule of never interfering in the cases of condemned cop killers and that Barlow had been retired made no difference. The Whitey, Joey and Farina would die on the same night, April 30, 1925, one after another.
New York’s death warrants only specified a particular week for a prisoner’s electrocution. With that in mind, executions were traditionally conducted on Thursdays (barring last-minute legal appeals, stays of execution, temporary reprieves or commutations.
As Pantano left the Death House for Sing Sing’s general population, it must have occurred to him that he’d had a very narrow escape. During its tenure, Sing Sing’s Old Sparky (New York once had three of them) claimed 614 of the State’s 695 electrocutions. For every three inmates who walked in, two were wheeled out.
New York wasn’t a State noted for its generosity to the condemned. Pantano’s information and his being a first offender had undoubtedly saved him. As career criminals the Diamond brothers and Farina knew the rules of the game. They must also have known they’d gambled their lives, and lost. John Hurlburt pencilled a lucrative date in his diary, as much as he’d come to hate the work.
Hurlburt’s contract with New York was the same as his predecessor Edwin Davis. For single executions he was paid $150 and travel expenses. For doubles or more, which weren’t unusual, he got $150 for the first inmate and an extra per head thereafter. He would leave Sing Sing with $250 for his night’s work, more than some people earned in a year. Hurlburt, however, was cracking up.
Hurlburt had taken over from Davis when Davis retired in 1912, Davis having trained both Hurlburt and another assistant, Robert Greene Elliott. Initially a believer in capital punishment, he now found himself doing the job only for the money. With his wife Mattie chronically-ill he had no other way to pay the medical bills.
In the months before his date with Farina and the Diamonds he’d become withdrawn, sullen, temperamental, aggressive and depressed. Tantrums were regular, Hurlburt throwing items of equipment around the death chamber and cursing at guards while preparing for an execution.
This time, hours before he was due to earn his fee, Hurlburt suffered a nervous collapse. Prison officials were facing a crisis. Under New York law only a State Electrician could perform an electrocution and Hurlburt was the only one they had. No electrician, no electrocution. After much soft-soaping, gentle persuasion and cajoling, Hurlburt recovered enough to do the job, but only just.
At 11pm, Morris was first in line. He walked in, sat down and died. As his body was wheeled away in came his brother Joey. When Joey had been pronounced dead John Farina rounded out Hurlburt’s triple-hitter. Hurlburt, a broken man by then, promptly suffered another nervous collapse. He spent the next week in hospital before recovering enough to leave. Unfortunately for Hurlburt, who desperately needed relaxing, calm and above all safe surroundings, he was taken to the nearest available medical facility;
The infirmary at Sing Sing Prison.
Luckily for Hurlburt, he’d been a firm adherent to Edwin Davis’s approach to anonymity. The press had his name, but they never got a picture or any other personal details. His desire for anonymity and the safety thereof was about to save his life.
Some people just aren’t popular in prisons. Informers, ex-cops, ex-guards and sex offenders usually top the list of people considered fair game. Anyone wanting to make them suffer and possibly kill them has virtually free rein to do so if they can get away with it. Seldom, however, will you find anyone convicts hate more than an executioner.
Hurlburt must have been terrified. He couldn’t have avoided the fact (and fear) that, if anyone blew his cover, Hurlburt would be a dead man. He’d immediately be headed for the same morgue as the 140 or so inmates on whom he’d inflicted the ‘hot seat.’ If they even thought he might have been involved with Old Sparky, they’d kill him.
All in all, not what the doctor ordered. With the Diamonds and Farina dead, Hurlburt himself didn’t last much longer. He performed only two more executions, John Durkin on August 27 and Julius Miller on September 19, then resigned only hours before he was due to executed John Slattery and Ambrose Miller. on January 16, 1926. Slattery and Miller were delighted, their executions were postponed and subsequent legal action saw them commuted. Their accomplices Luigi Rapito and Emil Klatt were less fortunate.
By their date on January 29 New York had appointed the other of Davis’s two proteges, the legendary ‘Agent of Death’ Robert Greene Elliott. Another accomplice, Frank Daley, followed them on June 24. Daley played it tough until the bitter end, cursing Slattery and Ross for implicating him until the switch was thrown.
As it turned out Hurlburt, in failing health himself, his nerves broken and grieving after Mattie’s death in September, 1928, wasn’t long in joining them. On the afternoon of February 22, 1929 he walked into the basement of his home near Auburn Prison where he’d worked as both electrician and performed his very first executions. In his hand was the revolver he always carried when visiting a prison.
He didn’t walk out.
The case of George Lamson, a once-promising doctor before becoming a drug addict and murderer, is a prime example of writer H.L. Mencken’s maxim on murder:
‘The easiest murder case to break is the one somebody tried to get very cute with.’
Lamson did indeed try to get very cute and, ultimately, it made no difference. Today in 1882 was the day he paid the price. By the time he was helped to gallows at London’s infamous Wandsworth Prison his nerve, tested by years of bad debts, hounding from creditors, rampant drug addiction and outright fear, had deserted him. He spent his final seconds begging the prison chaplain to stay the hangman’s hand for just one final prayer.
All in all, a sorry fate for a man who'[d once shown such promise.
Lamson was an American citizen, serving with distinction in the Balkan War and Franco-Prussian War. In the process the young doctor had been decorated, earning France’s Legion of Honour. While acquiring his decoration and military experience, however, he’d also acquired a habit that would come to rule his life and then destroy it;
By the autumn of 1881 Lamson, still not thirty years old, was a hopeless drug addict with a lengthy reputation for swindling patients, friends and family in order to fund his rampant drug habit. Creditors were hounding him and he’d moved to several different places to escape their demands. Unfortunately, however, their demands followed him. In desperate need of something to pay off his creditors and still sustain his addiction, his drug-addled mind turned to his wife and her cousin Percy John.
Percy’s youth had been spoiled by a crippling spinal disorder that denied him many of like’s simple pleasures. Should he die, the £1500 held in trust for him would be inherited by his wife. Lamson, naturally, intended that the money should come to him and thence to his creditors and the nearest available source of morphine. With that in mind, our medical murderer looked for a way to murder his brother-in-law while setting a false trail to protect himself if he were accused of Percy’s murder.
Capsules were then a new fad and, Lamson decided, would play a crucial part of both his murder scheme and emergency alibi. If he could induce Percy to take capsules obviously not laden with poison while delivering it in some other way then Percy would die, Lamson’s wife would inherit and Lamson would pocket the cash. In December, 1881 his scheme went into effect when he visited Percy at his boarding school.
Percy admired and trusted his dashing, outwardly respectable brother-in-law. He also trusted him, as did the school headmaster specially invited by Lamson as an unwitting alibi witness. In the event of Lamson being accused and trid for murder, he would point to the capsules and deny everything. He also hoped the prosecution might accuse him of using the capsules when a lethal dose of aconitine (a drug he believed untracable) was actually in the raisins of a Dundee cake.
That evening he made a point of describing the new way for Percy to take his medicine, making sure the headmaster saw him filling the capsule with harmless sugar. Making his excuses (he had a train to catch, Lamson left, purposely leaving behind two packets of empty capsules to strengthen his alibi.
Before Lamson even caught his train to Paris, Percy John was already dead.
Suspicion, as Lamson expected, immediately pointed the finger at him. With that in mind Chief Inspector Butcher of Scotland Yard was summoned to investigate and apprehend his prime suspect. London’s newspapers, sensing a classic murder to get their teeth into, helped in the hunt and, before long, Lamson was arrested. The charge was wilful murder, then carrying a mandatory date with the hangman.
The trial, at London’s legendary Old Bailey with Mr Justice Hawkins presiding, didn’t go as Lamson had planned…
Chief Inspector Butcher had been as diligent as you’d expect from a Scotland Yard detective. He’d found a pharmacist who identified Lamson as buying aconitine while signing a false name in the pharmacist’s Poisons Register. He had evidence of both Lamson’s many debts and that his wife was to inherit Percy’s trust fund. He could place Lamson as being one of the last people to see the victim alive before suddenly and hastily leaving. Lamson’s one shot at an acquittal lay in the prosecution building their case around the capsules. In that there lay one small kink in Lamson’s plan…
Lamson’s drug-addled mind had failed to account for a very important factor; The jury didn’t need to be convinced of exactly how he’d poisoned Percy, only that he’d done so. And convinced they duly were. After a six-day trial garnering a great deal of publicity (destroying what remained of Lamson’s personal and professional reputation) the jury foreman rose to deliver the verdict;
Guilty as charged, with no recommendation for mercy.
With that Mr Justice Hawkins had only one duty left to perform before a packed and silent courtroom. Donning the dreaded ‘Black Cap,’ a traditional gesture of mourning for the soon-to-be-departed, Hawkins read the final lines of this rather rather sorry drama;
“George Henry Lamson, you stand convicted of the crime of 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 afterward your body be 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.”
Lamson was immediately transferred to Wandsworth Prison and the Condemned Cell. The ‘CC’ was only a short walk to the end of ‘A’ Wing where Lamson would end his days in what Wandsworth inmates called the ‘cold meat shed.’ But first, surprisingly under the circumstances, there was a powerful campaign to see his death sentence overturned and Lamson reprieved.
Lamson soon found himself watching his lawyers before a three-judge panel at the Court of Criminal Appeal. Barred by law from speaking in his own defence, he could only watch as his barristers trampled the remnants of his personal and professional reputation in a failed effort to overturn his conviction and sentence.
It was here that his ploy with the capsules came back to bite him. He’d intended for the prosecution to accuse him of spiking the capsules and for the defence to easily destroy their case and win his acquittal. Unfortunately for Lamson, the prosecution hadn’t taken the bait. Without it, the defence couldn’t spring the trap. Moreover, appeals at the time were based entirely on evidence used at the trial, ruling out any chance for them to do so before the appellate judges. It must have loomed large in whatever remained of the good doctor’s drug-ravaged mind that, if the defence couldn’t spring their trap, the public hangman certainly could.
And was probably going to…
Lamson’s court appeal having failed, petitions were arranged, personal appeals were made, a public meeting was organised by other Americans living in London. Even the US Ambassador tried to persuade the Home Secretary to reprieve Lamson after requests from Lamson’s family in the US. All were to no avail. Lamson was unaware of something else, an unwritten rule that a Home Secretary didn’t reprieve poisoners unless they absolutely had to. Chief public executioner William Marwood was instructed to make a date in his diary.
After a brief postponement from April 2, the fatal day finally dawned on April 28, 1882. At dawn Lamson was awoken in the Condemned Cell. He declined a final breakfast and, when his time came, had to be helped along his last mile between the ‘CC’ and the ‘Cold Meat Shed.’ Unable even to stand on his own two feet, the ravages of fear and morphine withdrawal taking their toll, he had to supported on the trap as the hangman went about his business. William Marwood (pioneer of ‘long drop’ hanging) worked as quickly as possible to bring this once-promising young man’s suffering to an end.
George Henry Lamson was dead.