On This Day in 1932 – Francis ‘Two-Gun’ Crowley,provided inspiration for James Cagney


He was no relation to notorious Satanist Aleister Crowley, but had more than a touch of the Devil in him just the same. Born in New York City on October 31, 1912 (fitting for someone as scary as him) he lasted only 19 years before walking his last mile at Sing Sing’s death house on January 21, 1932. Some say that life can be nasty, brutish and short. Crowley’s was certainly a short life, very nasty and just as brutish.

His start in life, to be fair, had been none too promising. His biological mother, a woman of German descent, was unmarried at a time when single mothers tended to attract much worse criticism than they do today. In fact, she was so afraid of how people might react that immediately put him up for adoption.

His childhood became increasingly turbulent. As a young boy he frequently picked arguments and fights, often with bigger boys. They had to be bigger than Francis as he never grew to be more than five feet, six inches tall with little muscle to compensate for his lack of height. Like such charming characters as ‘Baby Face’ Nelson, Francis Crowley was a small man with a huge temper.

An arch-misanthrope, Crowley wasn’t keen on humans in general and police officers in particular. Whether or not his absent father was a cop (it’s been suggested at least once) has never been resolved. But, whatever he lacked in size, he more than made up for in sheer violence and a hair-trigger temper. Perhaps to compensate for his diminutive stature Crowley developed a habit of carrying several guns on him at all times. Given his violent nature it wasn’t long before he’d find an excuse to use them.

Having been saddled with limited size and a rough start in life Crowley also resented some of the nicknames he earned during his career. ‘Two-Gun’ wasn’t too bad, itmarked him out as someone to fear. Being labelled the ‘Half-Pint Killer’, ‘Puny Killer’ and ‘Half-Pint Moron’ were just insulting and infuriating.

After several years of petty crimes Crowley’s crime spree began in the Bronx on February 21, 1931 when he and two accomplices gate-crashed a dance held by the American Legion. Not taking well to loud, obnoxious gate-crashers the Legionnaires  demanded that they leave. Crowley and his friends refused. When several Legionnaires tried to eject them Crowley responded by shooting two of them.

Now he’d made the leap from petty hoodlum to big-time badman via two counts of attempted murder. On March 13 Crowley, by now in hiding, found himself cornered by police. He wasn’t cornered for long, shooting Detective Ferdinand Schaedel before escaping. Like the two Legionnaires Detective Schaedel was seriously wounded, but survived. Crowley had racked up three shootings in only a couple of weeks.

He wasn’t done yet, far from it. Four days later he racked up another felony. With four accomplices Crowley robbed a bank in New Rochelle in Westchester County, this time without shooting anybody. That made a change but didn’t dampen the NYPD’s enthusiasm. Crowley had almost killed one of their own and they wanted him behind bars or dead. In the end they managed both.

Crowley didn’t spend too long in hiding. Only a month he was back in action, this time performing a home invasion with two accomplices. They forced their way into the home of wealthy real estate broker Rudolph Adler. Adler’s dog Trixie proved more than a match for them, attacking them and standing her ground even after they’d injured her owner. In company with long-time crime partner Rudolph ‘Fats’ Duringer (so called because of his vast waistline) Crowley fled empty-handed.

April 27 saw Fats and Two Gun commit their first confirmed murder. While joyriding in a stolen car with dancehall hostess Virginia Brannen, Duringer made a pass at her. A repulsed Brannen brushed him off none too gently. It was the wrong move to make. Enraged, Duringer raped her and shot her in the head. They dumped her body outside St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Yonkers. If caught both men were both now facing a seat in ‘Old Sparky.’ Crowley didn’t seem to care, already accepting that his career couldn’t last forever and the best he could expect was life behind bars..

Crowley’s murderous rampage didn’t end there. Only two days after murdering Virginia Brannen, Crowley was again driving around the city when he was spotted by police. After a frenetic car chase and firefight he escaped, but not for long. The NYPD were not only thoroughly infuriated by crime spree, but were now determined to nail him for capital murder. Bullets extracted from the police car were matched to those found in the body of Virginia Brannen and also to several other unsolved shootings.

Enough was enough. The NYPD now made it a top priority to bring Crowley’s rampage to a permanent end. The following day Crowley’s car was found abandoned, riddled with bullet holes and also containing several bloodstains. It was obvious to police that even though Crowley had escaped either he, Duringer or both had been wounded.

The NYPD continued their hunt for Crowley. Crowley, equally determined, continued eluding them until May 6. Sitting in another stolen car with his girlfriend Helen Walsh, who was only 16 and perhaps unaware of just how bad a choice he was) Crowley was spotted by two police officers. Patrolmen Frederick Hirsch and Peter Yodice, approached the car on Long Island, instructing Crowley to identify himself. He did, fatally shooting Patrolman Hirsch and seriously wounding Patrolman Yodice.

Furious before these two shootings, the NYPD were now thoroughly enraged. Not only was Crowley embarrassing them by proving so difficult to catch, he also seemed to think that he could murder their officers whenever he felt like it. That frustration didn’t last much longer. The day after Patrolmen Hirsch and Yodice were shot their colleagues would have their revenge.

Crowley and Walsh hid out in an apartment on West 91st Street, hoping somehow to stay hidden until the storm blew over. They didn’t have too long to hide. One of the building’s other residents was a former girlfriend of Crowley’s and on seeing him with another woman spotted a chance for revenge. Promptly developing an entirely non-jealous sense of civic virtue, his ex called the police. The NYPD arrived quickly and in large numbers. The chance to kill or catch the notorious ‘Two-Gun’ was well worth the extra manpower. Crowley’s last stand, the legendary ‘Battle of 91st Street,’ was about to begin.

A total of 300 officers toting tommy guns, pistol, shotguns, rifles and tear gas guns converged and surrounded the building. Unsurprisingly this attracted spectators, by the end of the siege some 15,000 New Yorkers had turned out to see the show. They were not to be disappointed.

For over two hours Crowley shot it out against hopeless odds. NYPD officers fired over 700 rounds into the building in addition to many tear gas canisters. Crowley matched them shot for shot, also tossing several gas canisters back out into the street. It was an all-out gun battle seldom seen even during Prohibition. While Crowley did most of the shooting Duringer and Walsh helped. They constantly reloaded his pistols for him, keeping up a continuous supply until Crowley’s guns began overheating from excessive use.

But it was a forlorn hope. However violent they might be no gangster can tackle 300 heavily-armed and vengeful police officers. Surrounded with no escape and suffering four gunshot wounds, Crowley was eventually captured. Captured with him were Duringer and Walsh. True to his nickname officers found two pistols strapped to Crowley’s legs when he was finally arrested.

Helen Walsh got off lightly. She testified against Crowley and Duringer and was later released in return for her testimony. As expected Duringer and Crowley neither deserved or received mercy. Theyboth drew death sentences, Crowley for murdering Patrolman Hirsch and Duringer for murdering Virginia Brannen. They were promptly transferred to Sing Sing Prison’s dreaded ‘Death House’ to await execution.

Duringer died first on December 10, 1931. As you might have noticed, the State of New York didn’t tend to waste time when dealing with condemned inmates. Duringer, described as one of the fattest men ever to sit in the electric chair, reportedly had to be squashed down a little before being strapped in. He was dead only moments later. Soon his crime partner, who had fallen out with both Walsh and Duringer since his trial and believed both were informants, would walk his own last mile. Crowley’s end might have been a relief for prison staff who’d had to deal with him during his last few months.

Crowley was a disciplinary nightmare in the death house. He attacked officers and other inmates, was caught in possessing home-made weapons, set fire to his bedding and stuffed his clothes into the cell’s toilet and flood the cell. Warden Lawes, normally known for his kindness to the condemned, took stern action. Having been kept naked in an empty cell for several days on only bread and water Crowley finally began to calm down. He even made a friend, a wild starling which he fed and doted on. Whether he tamed it, it tamed him or possibly both was never fully ascertained.

At 11pm on January 21, 1932, ‘Two-Gun’ met his maker. Escorted down the corridor between the Dance Hall cells and Sing death chamber he remained defiant to the end. Standing in front of the chair, Warden Lawes asked Crowley if he had anything left to say.

He certainly did. First he demanded a rag to clean the chair. Duringer having died first, Crowley stated:

“I want to wipe off the chair after that rat sat in it.”

Having made this astonishing (and unfulfilled) request Crowley sat down and waited while the straps and electrodes were applied. Hand-picked officers moved in quickly, firmly buckling the leather restraints around his arms, legs, belly and chest. State Electrician Robert Elliott then applied a leather helmet containing the head electrode. As it slid down over his face Crowley managed one last, bitterly sarcastic remark:

‘Give my love to my Mother…’

Closing his eyes so he wouldn’t actually watch Crowley die, Warden Lawes gave the signal and Elliott threw the switch. For two full minutes electricity seared through Crowley’s body. Elliott watched carefully, altering the voltage to avoid burning him too much as the two-minute cycle was completed. Then he shut off the power and the prison doctor confirmed that Francis ‘Two Gun’ Crowley was finally dead.

That might have been the end of the story, but not quite. Crowley’s story had been a state-wide sensation and one follower was a certain James Cagney. AA fellow New York Irishman, Cagney later used Crowley as inspiration for Arthur ‘Cody’ Jarrett in 1949 movie ‘White Heat.’ Before that the bloody shoot-out and execution of ‘Rocky Sullivan’ in 1936 classic ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ had gone down in cinema history.

Decades later, Cagney was still being asked about Sullivan’s iconic final scene. Had Sullivan virtuously faked fear to deter the ‘Dead End Kids’ from a life of crime or had he really died a coward? Crediting his audience with some intelligence (and wise enough to keep the debate going) Cagney always said they should decide for themselves.

On This Day in 1921, George Bailey -Convicted by Britain’s first female jurors in a capital case.


In today’s more enlightened times there’s nothing unusual about women serving on juries, but it wasn’t always so. British courts didn’t see female jurors until 1920. They were still a novelty on 13 January 1921 when three women joined a jury at Aylesbury. The defendant was one George Bailey. The charge was capital murder. The penalty, should Bailey be convicted, was death by hanging.

Bailey was charged with poisoning his wife Kate at their home in late-September, 1920. An accompanying charge of trying to rape female lodge Lillian Marks on the night of September 29 was dropped. It was then standard practice that defendants facing multiple charges including murder would face only a single murder charge. The crime was so serious (and the penalty so severe) that it was considered unfair to inflict multiple charges on the same defendant. Besides, with a mandatory death sentence for murder lesser sentences were largely academic.

The crime wasn’t an unusual one in itself. A disillusioned husband poisoning his wife to give him easier access to younger women isn’t, unfortunately, rare. It’s squalid, cruel and often brutal, but not unusual. Bailey’s case stands out not for the crime, but for the trial and the social and legal landmark it came to be.

Bailey was a milkman by trade, known locally as the ‘Musical Milkman.’ A keen musician and amateur composer, Bailey had even developed his own system of musical composition. He was also a man with serious psychological defects, psychiatric issues and a lengthy criminal record. Seemingly a career crook if not a competent one, Bailey was known variously as George Bailey, George Arthur Cox, Ronald Gilbert Treherne and Ronald Gilbert Tremayne depending on where and when people met him.

His personal history made it all too easy for a jury (male, female or mixed) to believe him capable of murder. He’d already been convicted of theft, forgery, fraud, embezzlement, giving false information deserting the army during the First World War and attempted suicide (then illegal). He was a man of disturbed mind, bad character and what we’d nowadays call a sexual predator.

The most disturbing thing about Bailey aside from his unseemly interest in young, possibly naïve women, was his fondness for poisons. Poisons had been a recurring theme during his adult life. He’d attempted suicide using aconite and morphia on different occasions and been arrested in possession of prussic acid, the same poison that later killed his wife.

At his trial Bailey claimed that she had committed suicide (albeit using prussic acid that he had purchased). The Bailey home at Barn Cottage in Little Marlow, Oxfordshire also contained numerous toxins and drugs in addition to Kate Bailey’s body. Kate Bailey had also been eight months pregnant.

Police were drawn to the cottage by complains from lodger Lillian Marks, who said the night of 29 September trying to keep Bailey from raping her. There’s no reason to disbelieve her and, worse still, he had done so while his wife’s body lay in the bedroom. Daughter Hollie had spent the night lying next to her mother’s body while her father tried repeatedly to enter Lillian Marks’ bedroom.

All told it was a thoroughly appalling night. It left many believing society deserved permanent protection from Bailey and that Bailey deserved a date with the hangman. As a result of the publicity his trial was held in Buckinghamshire, not Oxfordshire.

By the time Inspector West and Superintendent Kirby climbed through a window on 2 October 1920 Bailey and daughter Hollie were gone. Leaving Hollie with relatives, Bailey was arrested by Constable Henry Poole and Detective Sergeant Oliver Purdy near Reading railway station the next day. A suicide note was found on him detailing his intent to kill his wife, daughter and himself. The note was accompanied by four different poisons, one being prussic acid,

Not surprisingly given the severity of the crime and a capital case involving women, the case drew considerable attention from the press and public. Opinions were very different then and the idea of female jurors generally was a hot topic. Female jurors helping render a life-or-death verdict only forced the issue further into the public mind. Amid heated debate and much public scrutiny Maud Stevenson, Annie White and Matilda Tack would enter legal history, even making a brief appearance in cinema newsreels.

In the run-up to the trial newspaper letter-writers had a field day. They rendered very different and often passionate opinions on either side bringing greater attention to the case and probably fuelling newspaper circulation figures in the process. The papers, naturally, went along for the ride. It was immaterial to them whether Bailey took the fall provided circulation figures didn’t.

Oddly some of those objecting were women (or purporting to be). One wrote:

“We ask at least to have all compulsion done away with, and we appeal to men to do this for is. All down the ages we have looked to men to protect us; surely they will not fail us now.”

Another begged to differ, writing:

“To have the vote, to act on juries, to enter the Bar – all this is only of value if it is to be the means to one end, and that is a purer life – a more healthy because a more moral country.”

To give some context to the trial and the fuss it caused we must consider a few facts. Not until 1950 did a woman appear as lead counsel. That was Rose Heilbron whose client George Kelly was executed in 1950 only to be exonerated decades later. It wasn’t until 1962 that the first female judge appeared, Elizabeth Lane joining the County Court. It took until 1972 for a female judge to preside at the Old Bailey in London, Rose Heilbron again blazing the trail. Bailey and his case are scarcely remembered today, but are legal landmarks nonetheless.

The trial began at Aylesbury on 13 January 1920 with Justice Sir Henry McCardie presiding. Bailey was never likely to win it. His defence was implausible, his previous record made him almost impossible to believe and his treatment of Lillian Marks and daughter Hollie did him no favours. Nor did the note proving his intent to commit double murder and suicide.

Bailey’s lawyer Samuel Johnston was also young, inexperienced and facing veteran barrister Hugo Young, a lawyer with over fifty years experience. Whatever hopes Bailey might have had were dashed over the next few days. His best realistic hope was a death sentence and then a reprieve. He had no idea that a reprieve was a forlorn hope even before he’d been convicted.

Convicted he duly was. Maud Stevenson, Annie White and Matilda Tack performed their duties as well as the other jurors, firmly nailing the myth that women are simply too delicate flowers to be troubled with life’s more sordid criminal realities as some then believed. Such a belief seems utterly ridiculous now but was commonly-held at the time. It’s probably news both to female murderers and their victims, who might beg to differ if they were alive to speak.

For days the press and public had lapped up the real-life courtroom drama. The press box had even been emptied to accommodate more trial-watchers, jostling with their readers for the best remaining places. With the jury’s duty done all that remained was for Justice McCardie to supply the denouement. Before a packed and silent courtroom he did so in florid, yet sinister, language:

“George Arthur Bailey. The jury have found you guilty of wilful murder. I agree with their verdict. It is my duty to pass sentence upon you according to the law. The sentence of the Court is that you be taken from hence to the place from whence you came and then to a place of lawful execution, and that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be afterwards buried within the precincts of the prison in which you last have been confined after your conviction. And may the Lord have mercy on your soul…”  

The ‘place from whence you came’ was Oxford Prison. The ‘place of lawful execution’ was the gallows room. The date would be 2 March 1921. It was as set in stone as Bailey’s headstone would have been, if he’d had one. Traditionally hanged prisoners were buried in unmarked graves in un-consecrated ground without a gravestone. Legally still considered ‘property of the Crown,’ Bailey wouldn’t leave Oxford Prison alive or dead. Dead was also a forgone conclusion. With his guilt manifest Bailey’s appeal was quickly denied. Justice MCcardie’s handling of the high-profile trial had been far and the death sentence mandatory. With his appeal rejected Bailey could only throw himself on the mercy of the Home Secretary. Unfortunately for Bailey that put him squarely in the sights of an unwritten rule within the Home Office. That rule has never been officially admitted and was reserved for poisoners in particular;

Wherever possible, clemency was denied.

Bailey never stood a chance. In capital cases the law guaranteed only three Sundays between sentencing and execution. Bailey lasted a little longer than usual, By the standards of the time the law dragged its feet, delaying his execution until the morning of 2 March 1921, but it was still inevitable. Letters had gone to the executioners before Bailey had even lost his appeal. It made no difference whether or not Bailey was ready to do his part, the hangmen always were.  

As usual Ellis prepared meticulously for his morning’s work. Ellis had looked at Bailey through the cell door’s spyhole the day before. While Bailey was elsewhere Ellis and Taylor prepared a sandbag weighing the same as their prisoner, testing the mechanism while Bailey was having his daily exercise. That done, they reset the mechanism and Ellis fixed the rope for exactly the drop he wanted.

If all went well Bailey’s neck would snap the instant he reached the end of the rope. He would also be knocked unconscious, dying painlessly and almost instantly. Bailey’s physical suffering would be far less than that of his wife. His mental suffering would probably be less than that of his daughter. The days of slow strangulation before a jeering, usually drunken were long over. Like many of his colleagues Ellis prided himself on killing as quickly and cleanly as possible.

At 8am that cold January morning chief executioner John Ellis and assistant Edward Taylor escorted Bailey from the condemned cell. It was a short walk, only around fifteen yards between Bailey and the scaffold. Ellis and Taylor strapped Bailey’s arms firmly behind his back. Bailey walked without trouble or resistance, just as he had when Justice McCardie had passed the death sentence.

Less than a minute later he stood on a T-shaped chalk mark, Taylor strapping his legs while Ellis carefully applied the hood and noose. Taking a quick look to ensure nobody else was on the trapdoor Ellis sprang to one side and shoved the lever in a single movement. Within minutes of leaving his cell George Bailey was dead. That carefully-calculated drop (seven feet and one inch exactly) had done its job perfectly, silencing the ‘Musical Milkman’ forever.  

Bailey’s legacy has long out-lived the Musical Milkman himself. Located in the town of Little Marlow, Barn Cottage became Old Barn Cottage. Little Marlow has since been used as a location for popular detective dramas The Inspector Lynley Mysteries and Midsomer Murders. In fact, Old Barn Cottage has been used to shoot a scene or two. The case has also been the subject of ‘The Musical Milkman Murder,’ an excellent work by Quentin Falk.

On This Day in 1958 – Elmer ‘Trigger’ Burke.




Elmer Francis Burke to be exact, AKA ‘Trigger’ or ‘Machine Gun Burke’ due to his fondness for the Tommy gun. He was also fond of the double-barrelled shotgun, habitually carrying a .45 automatic as well. An extortionist and freelance hitman-for-hire, Burke had an extensive record even before joining the US Army Rangers to get early parole in 1941. In return the army had made him an expert with a Tommy gun, Burke having seen action numerous times.

Instead of giving him discipline and sense of responsibility to others Burke’s war service only broadened his criminal repertoire. Once just another garden-variety thug extorting Manhattan shop-keepers, Burke branched out into murder-for-hire and robbery. His military training and combat experience proved as much a problem on the Eastern Seaboard as it had been an asset in wartime Europe. A veteran crook even before the war, Burke once remarked the only reason he didn’t rob police stations was that they paid by cheque.

Born in New York in 1917 he was mostly raised by his older brother Charlie. By his teens he was already in regular trouble and that didn’t improve when Charlie was murdered. At the time Burke was serving two years at Sing Sing for robbery, but prison time dulled neither his lawless nature or desire for revenge. Charlie’s killer George Goll found that out the hard way. Arrested and later released for Charlie Burke’s killing Goll soon ran into Elmer and was killed himself. Burke was 27 years old.

Burke’s violent streak was as wide as his criminal record was long. He was even roused to brutality by his own nickname. A Prohibition-era gangland killer, Fred Burke, had used the nickname ‘Killer’ and Elmer hated being called that. ‘Trigger’ was much more to his liking. It prevented his being mistaken for (and overshadowed by) his murderous namesake’s alleged role in the most famous Prohibition-era crime of all, Chicago’s legendary St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929.   

Assaults, extortion, robberies and at last six contract killings (probably more) left him with a lengthy file at NYPD headquarters. Ironically it was a bungled murder that really brought him to the most attention. Joseph ‘Specs’ O’Keefe had been involved the legendary Brinks robbery in Massachusetts on 17 January 1950.

$2.775 million had been taken, remaining the largest heist in US history until 1984.Claiming to have never received his cut from the robbery O’Keefe had abducted fellow Brinks robber Vincent Costa, demanding his cut as a ransom. Another gang member, Anthony Pino, paid a smaller ransom, using some of the rest to hire Burke. Burke accepted the contract.

Burke wasn’t a sophisticated killer. He liked to keep things simple; a Tommy gun or double-barrelled shotgun behind the victim’s ear being his preference. Not exactly The Day of the Jackal, granted, but a reliable murderer provided things didn’t get too complicated. The botched attempt to kill Joseph O’Keefe complicated everything.

Burke stalked O’Keefe for a while, catching up with him in Boston and botching the job as spectacularly as anyone could. He chased his intended victim for over thirty minutes, firing dozens of shots that missed before finally hitting O’Keefe in the leg. Instead of administering the hitman’s traditional ‘be-sure’ shot to O’Keefe’s head Burke, believing the job was done, stayed in Boston for some sight-seeing. It proved another disastrous move when Burke was arrested eight days later. The gang’s worst fears had arrived; While recovering in hospital O’Keefe swore out a complaint against Burke and betrayed the rest of the Brinks gang to the FBI.  Two died before their trial, another eight drew life sentences and O’Keefe himself drew four years. By then Burke was facing something far worse.

Burke should have travelled far and laid low. Not only were the police after him, his employers were also none-too-happy. They’d paid for a simple murder, not a failed attempt that only made matters worse. Instead of laying low somewhere far away Burke was recognised and arrested in Back Bay near Boston only eight days after the O’Keefe shooting. Incarcerated at Charles Street Jail, Burke promptly escaped and this time lay low for a year. It did him no good, he was again recognised while hiding out in Charlestown, Massachusetts and arrested again.    

Burke returned to New York and it was another act of violence that proved his undoing. Two years earlier Burke had been dating the sister of bartender and small-time thug Edward ‘Poochy’ Walsh. Another bartender was paying Walsh for protection and when had Burke tried to shake him down on 23 July 1952 it was Walsh who (very temporarily) solved the problem.

Objecting to Burke’s trying to take one of his ‘clients’ and also to Burke continually kicking the man in the head, Walsh broke up the altercation and threw Burke out of his bar. When Burke returned shortly afterward he shot Walsh in the face in front of a roomful of witnesses. Burke had quickly fled but the law hadn’t forgotten him. Arrested again in Folly Beach, South Carolina he was brought to New York to stand trial for murder. If convicted the penalty was death unless the jury jury recommended mercy. They didn’t. Convicted and condemned, Burke was quickly on his way to Sing Sing’s death house and and a date with State Electrician Dow Hover.

Appeals proved fruitless and Governor Averell Harriman had no interest in a killer with Burke’s record. With the date set for 9 January 1958 all that remained was for Burke to sit waiting. Hover had already been booked for the job, arriving a few hours before the traditional 11pm start time on ‘Black Thursday.’ New York’s death warrants specified a particular week, not a particular day. By 1958 it was an established tradition that whenever possible Thursday was the chosen day. Occasionally a last-minute stay or temporary reprieve might see things delayed by hours or even days, but that was very rare. Thursday was Sing Sing’s preferred day for almost every condemned convict. Burke would be no exception.

By 1958 State Electrician Dow Hover was an increasingly-rare visitor to Sing Sing. His career had begun with a triple (William Draper, Maurice O’Dell and Walter Griffin on 1 July 1954) but jobs were increasingly rare as time went on. He still received invites on a regular basis but with public attitudes changing and the courts increasingly responsive to appeals, he seldom received anything else but cancellations. For a single he could expect $150 and singles were the order of the day, plus a measly eight cents per mile fuel allowance. Very occasionally he did a double, receiving an extra $50 per convict after the first one. ‘Trigger’ Burke would be one of Hover’s and New York’s last notable executions.  

While Hover might have been concerned about his falling fees Burke, the star of the show, seemed anything but. He sat calmly in his cell, showing no concern as he was moved to one of the pre-execution cells in the ‘Dance Hall’ only twenty steps from the chair itself. Once lodged in the Dance Hall he would see nobody but his guards and perhaps a final visit from Warden Wilfred Denno, although Denno avoided final visits believing they only raised false hope of mercy. Like Hover, Denno was an old hand, having supervised dozens of executions before Burke’s.

All went as quietly as could be expected. Once in the Dance Hall his last meal was delivered. Burke had chosen steak and ate well, finishing off with six cigars before Denno arrived to escort him on his last mile. As the notorious ‘green door’ opened Burke entered the room smiling. He sat down as calmly as any of Sing Sing’s condemned ever had at Sing Sing, waving to reporters as the straps and electrodes were secured.

Burke liked reporters especially when they fed his considerable ego. While in the Dance Hall Burke had even spent his final hours reading and re-reading newspaper clippings compiled about himself. Now his final headline was at hand and Burke, as indifferent to his own death as he’d been to anyone else’s seemed the least nervous person there.With a slight nod Warden Denno signalled Hover and two minutes later Burke was dead. True to form Hover, always the professional, had done his job well.  

O’Keefe survived Burke’s attack. After serving his time he headed West, reportedly finding work as chauffeur to Cary Grant. He died in California in 1976 aged only sixty-seven. Wilfred Denno, appointed Sing Sing’s Warden in 1950 having already served twenty-four years in the penal system, retired at the end of 1966. During his tenure Denno had supervised over sixty executions and seen the end of New York’s death penalty. He died in 2001 aged ninety-seven. Hover, long retired as State Electrician, took his own life in 1990.



On This Day in 1927 – Robert Greene Elliott executes six men in two US States on the same day


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Robert Greene Elliott, ‘Agent of Death’ for six US States.

Meet Robert Greene Elliott. Family man, devout Methodist, Sunday school superintendent, electrical contractor and pipe smoker. He also personally executed 387 people (including 5 women) working as a freelance executioner for six US States. Elliott was (and remains) the most experienced ‘State Electrician’ in penal history.

He became notorious Statewide, easily as well-known in New York as any of his victims and considerably better-known than most of them. Here we look at his busiest day in a 13-year career when American executioners were at their busiest, at a time when business was so brisk that Elliott himself executed six men in two different States on the same day.

On the morning of January 6, 1927 Elliot performed the first triple electrocution at the Massachusetts State Prison in Charlestown. Afterward he took a train down to New York City, spending a few hours with his family before taking another train to New York’s notorious Sing Sing Prison. At 11pm three men were taken from their cells in Sing Sing’s purpose-built ‘Death House’ and escorted one-by-one along their ‘Last Mile.’ Elliott, promptly and professionally as usual, electrocuted them all.  His standard fee was $150 for executing one inmate. With double, triple and multiple executions then still common Elliott an extra $50 per head for executing two or more, earning himself $500 that day alone.

In his native New York, Elliott was as familiar a name as Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, Bruno Hauptmann, Sacco and Vanzetti, Albert Fish or Francis ‘Two Gun’ Crowley. The Snyder case spawned the famous play ‘Machinal’ and film classic ‘Double Indemnity.’ Bruno Hauptmann was convicted of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Sacco and Vanzetti are still discussed as a miscarriage of justice. Albert Fish was a serial killer and cannibal and Francis Crowley inspired James Cagney’s most infamous screen villain ‘Rocky’ Sullivan in the crime classic ‘Angel with Dirty Faces.’

Elliott also claimed to be opposed to capital punishment and that it served no useful purpose. Odd really, considering his achieving notoriety in New York and 5 other States as their ‘Electrocutioner.’ It would probably have been curious to the 387 people he killed.

Elliot took the job in 1926 when predecessor John Hurlburt suddenly resigned after 140 executions. Both Hurlburt and Elliott had been trained by Edwin Davis, the world’s first State Electrician. Elliott held it until 1939 when he resigned and was replaced by Joseph P. Francel. Elliott died on 10 October 1939 (shortly after publishing his memoir ‘Agent of Death’) and Francel was announed as his replacement only two days later. Elliot’s memoir, long out of print and increasingly hard to find, covers some of his most notorious victims, the technical aspects of electrocution and his personal musings on both condemned inmates and capital punishment itself.

Original copies are both very expensive and equally hard to find, but it’s not as unusual as you might think for executioners to publish memoirs. Albert Pierrepoint, John Ellis, James Berry and Syd Dernley all left memoirs of their time working Britain’s gallows. In the US former Warden Don Cabana’s ‘Death at Midnight: Confessions of an Executioner’ is compelling if difficult reading. Mississippi’s ‘travelling executioner’ Jimmy Thompson never tired of interviews and photo opportunities involving his portable electric chair.

Generally speaking, executioners tend more to keep their lives and careers to themselves, shunning publicity in the same way that many people might shun executioners. They might applaud the executioner’s hand throwing a switch or pressing a button, but that doesn’t mean they always want to shake it in public.

Davis had been extremely touchy about being identified, once scolding Elliott at length just for using his surname in public. He even struck a deal with the railroad company running between his hmetown of Corning and Ossining (the nearest station to Sing Sing) to pick him up and drop him off at an isolated spot instead of an actual station. Hurlburt had been almost-paranoid, permitting no photogrpahs and loathing it when his name appeared in the press.

Small wonder that one reporter christened him ‘the man who walks alone’ although Hurburt did so for very good reason. Engaged to execute Alson Cole and Allen Grammer in 1920 (Nebraska’s first electrocutions) He’d been run out of town by local abolitionists and threatened with lynching if he ever returned. Cole and Grammer instead died at the hands of former Massachusetts executioner E.B. Currier, also trained by Davis and coaxed out of retirement for the occasion.

Hurlburt’s woes hadn’t ended with near-lynching in Nebraska either. Confined to Sing Sing’s infirmary after collapsing before and after a triple execution in 1925, Hurlburt spent his so-called rest cure terrified of what the hospitalised convicts might do if they even suspected his identity. The ‘burner’ (as Sing Sing inmates called him) knew just what to expect if they had.

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Sing Sing’s most famous inmate, the dreaded ‘Old Sparky.’

In Massachusetts Elliott ‘burned’ John McLaughlin, John Deveraux and Edward Heinlein for murdering nightwatchman James Ferneaux during an attempted robbery in October, 1925. The then-infamous ‘Waltham Car Barn murder’ attracted great publicity at the time, not least because only Deveraux had fired the shot.

Despite this all three were convicted of the murder as they’d committed the robbery together. Legal concepts of ‘common purpose’ meant that if one member of a criminal group committed murder during some other crime (such as bank robbery, burglary or kidnapping for instance) then all involved were guilty. The fact that Ferneaux hadn’t died from the gunshot wound, but was finished off by being pistol-whipped made their appeals a formality.

At 7am Charlestown Prison, normally as rowdy and loud as any prison at breakfast time, was silent. Inmates and staff alike knew that this was the first time the State of Massachusetts had executed three men at once. Staff were worried about potential technical problems at the execution or unrest among the general population.

Inmates sat in their cells, silently watching the clock tick down to 7am. At the appointed time the three men died one after another without a hitch. Elliott had just made Massachusetts history, earning himself $250 ($150 for the first inmate and $50 each for the next two). His first job that day had run perfectly well. Three down, three to go.

According to one report Elliott simply returned to New York City and spent the next few hours with his family. They had dinner and saw a movie before Elliott headed for the railroad station. At Sing Sing executions were traditionally performed on Thursdays at 11pm, a grim tradition known to staff and inmates alike as ‘Black Thursday.’ Elliott reported to Sing Sing’s infamous ‘Death House’ (then one of the few purpose-built Death Rows in the country at the time) and prepared ‘Old Sparky’ for a ‘triple-hitter.’ He was ready to double his money.

Charles Goldson, Edgar Humes and George Williams were all condemned for joint involvement in a 1926 robbery and murder. While robbing a silk warehouse they murdered nightwatchman William Young. Goldson and Humes were only 22, Williams wasn’t much older at 26. Being over 21 they were still adults and liable for the death penalty, although at that time even juveniles could be executed and sometimes were.. Nothing really separated their crime from Elliott’s victims early that morning and neither New York’s appellate judges or State Governor thought them worth saving.

Like Charlestown, Sing Sing was quiet and not because it was late at night. Prisoners tend not to enjoy being near executions any more than most people. Executions often make prison staff uncomfortable as well. Inmates might riot in sympathy and not every prison officer supports the death penalty. Elliott arrived in mid-evening, inspected and tested the equipment and at 11pm did his job as professionally as at Charlestown.

Three more down, six in total, job done. Elliott earned himself $500 that day plus travel expenses. As a private contractor he had agreements with New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Connecticut. With six States and little sympathy for the condemned among judges and Governors, his tenure was a busy one.

Elliott was also technically skilled and is credited with perfecting the technique of judicial electrocution. His way became standard in numerous states and known as the ‘Elliott Technique.’ He routinely shocked a prisoner with 2000 volts for 3 seconds, 500 volts for the remainder of the first minute, up the voltage to 2000 for 3 more seconds and then another 57 seconds at 500 volts before a final 3-second burst at 2000. Such was his skill that a single two-minute cycle was usually enough. That was hardly surprising. Elliott was a consummate professional and had electrocuted his first man, Albert Koepping and Oscar Borgstrom, under Davis’s supervision in 1904. By 1927 he was a veteran.

Today’s executioners simply push a button and a computer-controlled process raises and lowers the voltage automatically. In Elliott’s time the equipment was manually operated. Elliott had to stand at his controls and turn the dials by hand, carefully watching the prisoner die while doing his job. If the voltage was excessive the inmate burnt alive. If it was insufficient they were slowly cooked so a skilled, experienced executioner was essential to avoid nightmarish mishaps. For doing that 6 times in one day $500 doesn’t seem like much.

A pretty curious abolitionist, really.

1958 – Elmer ‘Trigger’ Burke, hitman for hire..


Elmer Francis Burke to be exact, AKA ‘Trigger’ or ‘Machine Gun Burke’ due to his fondness for the Tommy gun. He was also fond of the double-barrelled shotgun, habitually carrying a .45 automatic as well. An extortionist and freelance hitman-for-hire, Burke had an extensive record even before joining the US Army Rangers to get early parole in 1941. In return the army had made him an expert with a Tommy gun, Burke having seen action numerous times.

Instead of giving him discipline and sense of responsibility to others Burke’s war service only broadened his criminal repertoire. Once just another garden-variety thug extorting Manhattan shop-keepers, Burke branched out into murder-for-hire and robbery. His military training and combat experience proved as much a problem on the Eastern Seaboard as it had been an asset in wartime Europe. A veteran crook even before the war, Burke once remarked the only reason he didn’t rob police stations was that they paid by cheque.

Born in New York in 1917 he was mostly raised by his older brother Charlie. By his teens he was already in regular trouble and that didn’t improve when Charlie was murdered. At the time Burke was serving two years at Sing Sing for robbery, but prison time dulled neither his lawless nature or desire for revenge. Charlie’s killer George Goll found that out the hard way. Arrested and later released for Charlie Burke’s killing Goll soon ran into Elmer and was killed himself. Burke was 27 years old.

Burke’s violent streak was as wide as his criminal record was long. He was even roused to brutality by his own nickname. A Prohibition-era gangland killer, Fred Burke, had used the nickname ‘Killer’ and Elmer hated being called that. ‘Trigger’ was much more to his liking. It prevented his being mistaken for (and overshadowed by) his murderous namesake’s alleged role in the most famous Prohibition-era crime of all, Chicago’s legendary St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929.   

Assaults, extortion, robberies and at last six contract killings (probably more) left him with a lengthy file at NYPD headquarters. Ironically it was a bungled murder that really brought him to the most attention. Joseph ‘Specs’ O’Keefe had been involved the legendary Brinks robbery in Massachusetts on 17 January 1950.

$2.775 million had been taken, remaining the largest heist in US history until 1984.Claiming to have never received his cut from the robbery O’Keefe had abducted fellow Brinks robber Vincent Costa, demanding his cut as a ransom. Another gang member, Anthony Pino, paid a smaller ransom, using some of the rest to hire Burke. Burke accepted the contract.

Burke wasn’t a sophisticated killer. He liked to keep things simple; a Tommy gun or double-barrelled shotgun behind the victim’s ear being his preference. Not exactly The Day of the Jackal, granted, but a reliable murderer provided things didn’t get too complicated. The botched attempt to kill Joseph O’Keefe complicated everything.

Burke stalked O’Keefe for a while, catching up with him in Boston and botching the job as spectacularly as anyone could. He chased his intended victim for over thirty minutes, firing dozens of shots that missed before finally hitting O’Keefe in the leg. Instead of administering the hitman’s traditional ‘be-sure’ shot to O’Keefe’s head Burke, believing the job was done, stayed in Boston for some sight-seeing. It proved another disastrous move when Burke was arrested eight days later. The gang’s worst fears had arrived; While recovering in hospital O’Keefe swore out a complaint against Burke and betrayed the rest of the Brinks gang to the FBI.  Two died before their trial, another eight drew life sentences and O’Keefe himself drew four years. By then Burke was facing something far worse.

Burke should have travelled far and laid low. Not only were the police after him, his employers were also none-too-happy. They’d paid for a simple murder, not a failed attempt that only made matters worse. Instead of laying low somewhere far away Burke was recognised and arrested in Back Bay near Boston only eight days after the O’Keefe shooting. Incarcerated at Charles Street Jail, Burke promptly escaped and this time lay low for a year. It did him no good, he was again recognised while hiding out in Charlestown, Massachusetts and arrested again.    

Burke returned to New York and it was another act of violence that proved his undoing. Two years earlier Burke had been dating the sister of bartender and small-time thug Edward ‘Poochy’ Walsh. Another bartender was paying Walsh for protection and when had Burke tried to shake him down on 23 July 1952 it was Walsh who (very temporarily) solved the problem.

Objecting to Burke’s trying to take one of his ‘clients’ and also to Burke continually kicking the man in the head, Walsh broke up the altercation and threw Burke out of his bar. When Burke returned shortly afterward he shot Walsh in the face in front of a roomful of witnesses. Burke had quickly fled but the law hadn’t forgotten him. Arrested again in Folly Beach, South Carolina he was brought to New York to stand trial for murder. If convicted the penalty was death unless the jury jury recommended mercy. They didn’t. Convicted and condemned, Burke was quickly on his way to Sing Sing’s death house and and a date with State Electrician Dow Hover.

Appeals proved fruitless and Governor Averell Harriman had no interest in a killer with Burke’s record. With the date set for 9 January 1958 all that remained was for Burke to sit waiting. Hover had already been booked for the job, arriving a few hours before the traditional 11pm start time on ‘Black Thursday.’ New York’s death warrants specified a particular week, not a particular day. By 1958 it was an established tradition that whenever possible Thursday was the chosen day. Occasionally a last-minute stay or temporary reprieve might see things delayed by hours or even days, but that was very rare. Thursday was Sing Sing’s preferred day for almost every condemned convict. Burke would be no exception.

By 1958 State Electrician Dow Hover was an increasingly-rare visitor to Sing Sing. His career had begun with a triple (William Draper, Maurice O’Dell and Walter Griffin on 1 July 1954) but jobs were increasingly rare as time went on. He still received invites on a regular basis but with public attitudes changing and the courts increasingly responsive to appeals, he seldom received anything else but cancellations. For a single he could expect $150 and singles were the order of the day, plus a measly eight cents per mile fuel allowance. Very occasionally he did a double, receiving an extra $50 per convict after the first one. ‘Trigger’ Burke would be one of Hover’s and New York’s last notable executions.  

While Hover might have been concerned about his falling fees Burke, the star of the show, seemed anything but. He sat calmly in his cell, showing no concern as he was moved to one of the pre-execution cells in the ‘Dance Hall’ only twenty steps from the chair itself. Once lodged in the Dance Hall he would see nobody but his guards and perhaps a final visit from Warden Wilfred Denno, although Denno avoided final visits believing they only raised false hope of mercy. Like Hover, Denno was an old hand, having supervised dozens of executions before Burke’s.

All went as quietly as could be expected. Once in the Dance Hall his last meal was delivered. Burke had chosen steak and ate well, finishing off with six cigars before Denno arrived to escort him on his last mile. As the notorious ‘green door’ opened Burke entered the room smiling. He sat down as calmly as any of Sing Sing’s condemned ever had at Sing Sing, waving to reporters as the straps and electrodes were secured.

Burke liked reporters especially when they fed his considerable ego. While in the Dance Hall Burke had even spent his final hours reading and re-reading newspaper clippings compiled about himself. Now his final headline was at hand and Burke, as indifferent to his own death as he’d been to anyone else’s seemed the least nervous person there.With a slight nod Warden Denno signalled Hover and two minutes later Burke was dead. True to form Hover, always the professional, had done his job well.  

O’Keefe survived Burke’s attack. After serving his time he headed West, reportedly finding work as chauffeur to Cary Grant. He died in California in 1976 aged only sixty-seven. Wilfred Denno, appointed Sing Sing’s Warden in 1950 having already served twenty-four years in the penal system, retired at the end of 1966. During his tenure Denno had supervised over sixty executions and seen the end of New York’s death penalty. He died in 2001 aged ninety-seven. Hover, long retired as State Electrician, took his own life in 1990.

A New Year’s Eve special – The President and the hangman.


Well, seeing as it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m feeling generous, here’s something especially unusual. It’s not often that a President and an executioner meet, especially on a professional basis. US President Grover Cleveland was a notable exception, although he performed his two hangings while Sheriff of Erie County long before entering the White House.

Greek gunman, politician, journalist and publisher Nicos Sampson (later to become President of Cyprus for only eight days) almost met British chief executioner Harry Allen on a professional basis, but not quite A particularly vicious member of independence group EOKA, Sampson was reprieved only minutes before meeting Allen atop the scaffold at Nicosia Central Jail in 1958. Had their meeting gone as planned Sampson wouldn’t have been around to for the abortive military coup of 1974.

Before independence in 1960 Cyprus was a hot-bed of anti-colonial and anti-British feeling. It was also a hot-bed of violence and Nicosia’s Ledra Street was the epicentre. So many British soldiers, police officers and citizens died there that it became known as the ‘Murder Mile’ and the ‘Executioner of Murder Mile’ was the would-be President Nicos Sampson.

Sampson was known to have committed at least fifteen murders and probably many more. He openly boasted of his handiwork, including crimes of which he’d been acquitted. In 1958 he’d been tried for his part in the murders of three police officers (a crime he later boasted of being involved in). Managing to convince the trial judge that his confession had been extracted by torture, he was acquitted. A month later he found himself facing another possible death sentence and this time he wasn’t so fortunate.

The Colonial Governor of Cyprus was Field-Marshal Sir John Harding. A veteran of the both world wars and the Malayan Emergency, Harding was a tough-minded man with a hard line on those he regarded as terrorists. For Harding EOKA were a problem and the gallows at Nicosia Central was a permanent cure.

In line with his tough stance Harding had introduced broad emergency powers, including the death sentence for crimes other than murder. When the notorious Sampson was again arrested, this time on a charge of illegally carrying arms, that was a capital offence and Sampson could easily hang. It would certainly have suited the British authorities (and might have better served Cyprus itself) if he had.

Harry Allen was no stranger to Cyprus or Nicosia Central’s scaffold, having hanged nine men there already. On 10 March 1956 EOKA members Michalis Karaoilis and Andreas Dimitrou had made their final walk. On 9 August he’d returned, leaving behind him the empty cells of Iakovos Patasos, Andreas Zakos and Harilados Michael. Michael Koutsoftos, Stelios Mauromattis and Andreas Pangidis had kept their date with the hangman on the night of September 21 and Evagoras Pallikandis followed them on 14 March 1957.   

Allen probably wasn’t surprised to receive a letter from the colonial authorities in Cyprus asking again for his services. On 31 December 1957 one duly arrived and Allen, a veteran hangman with no qualms about his profession, duly accepted. Had it gone ahead his next ‘job’ in Cyprus would probably have been Sampson.

Sampson found himself confined in Nicosia Central’s Ward Seven, the Cypriot equivalent of Death Row. He wasn’t alone, but he was under observation every minute of every day. Ward Seven’s cells were small with only a bucket for his natural needs. He only got one hour’s exercise a day and even cigarettes had to be handed to him by his British jailers.

Ward Seven wasn’t by any standards a fun place to be, but it was distinctly better than Ward Eight only a few steps away. Ward Eight contained only two cells assigned to condemned prisoners for their last two days of life. Only three metres away from those cells was Nicosia Central’s gallows, a short walk to the long drop.

There was little for Sampson to do but wait and wait and wait. As it turned out what should have been his last moments on Earth probably felt like the longest of his life. As usual he was moved to Ward Eight on 8 September 1958 away from his fellow prisoners and friends. Neither he nor they expected to ever see him again.

While future-President Sampson watched the clock tick relentlessly down Harry Allen and assistant executioner Harry Smith arrived. After taking a covert look at Sampson during his exercise time they worked out their intended drop based on his height, weight and physique. That done, they tested and reset the gallows while Sampson was elsewhere.

With the tests being vital and the gallows so close to Sampson’s cell they didn’t want to distress him any more than they had to. Sampson showed no sign of knowing they were nearby, but when he was weighed he must have realised the colonial authorities were serious. Nicos Sampson was going to hang and he knew it. Except he wasn’t.

British prisons usually performed executions at either eight or nine in the morning. Nicosia Central was different, performing them shortly after midnight or in the early hours of the morning much as America’s prisons do today. It’s an old saying that the darkest hour is the one just before the dawn, but not for Sampson. As far as he knew he’d seen his last dawn. He’d be seeing the next one from inside a coffin.

Cyprus hangings were small affairs, deliberately so. No journalists were admitted. Only the two hangmen, prison governor and prison doctor attended with a couple of prison officers in case a prisoner resisted. Not forgetting the prisoner, naturally. The gallows, though still able to hang three prisoners at the same time, was in a small room with no room at all for outsiders.

As the hours passed and midnight neared Allen and Smith waited silently outside Sampson’s cell door. The gallows was ready, the drop set and all that was needed was a silent nod from the prison governor. When the clock started to chime the governor would nod, Allen and Smith would enter the cell. Sampson would be dead before the clock finished chiming.

Only the prison governor wasn’t there and neither Sampson or his executioners knew where he was. One thing the hangmen did know was that without his signal Sampson remained alive. Allen and Smith waited. The prison doctor waited. Sampson, knowing he was literally at death’s door and the men outside were there to drop him through it, waited, and waited, and waited.

What, he wondered, was going on? The hour had come and gone and he was still alive. Was there still hope even at the last second? Normally prisoners never got a last-minute reprieve, usually knowing their fate a day or two beforehand at the least. Sampson was still alive when he should have been dead. Why? For Sampson the next fifteen minutes probably seemed like fifteen lifetimes.

It was then that the prison governor finally did arrive bearing a message from Governor Harding. The job was off, Harding had granted a most unusual reprieve and Sampson would live. The next morning Allen and Smith returned to England and Sampson followed them to serve his time in an English prison. That time would be shorter than anyone, including Sampson, expected.

To quote one witness:

“The hangman and his assistant arrived at the condemned cell on the stroke of midnight. All they needed was confirmation from the prison governor to go ahead. They stood there for what must have seemed a very long fifteen minutes. Then the governor arrived with a message from the Governor of Cyprus, Sir John Harding, to say it was all off. That was a close thing.”

In 1960 the former colony was granted its independence and Sampson returned home to a hero’s welcome. The warm welcome wasn’t to last long. A Greek Cypriot, Sampson had adopted a virulent attitude toward the Turkish Cypriot community. Openly advocating violence against them Sampson went further, joining a paramilitary group and pursuing a terror campaign against his enemies. The independence deal reached with the British had left many dissatisfied with its conditions and Sampson, fanatical to a fault, took full advantage. In 1974 his fervour went one step too far.

When a military junta sought to take power they enlisted Sampson as their political figurehead. With President Makarios deposed, the former ‘Executioner of Murder Mile’ became the new President of Cyprus, going from Nicosia Central’s condemned cells to the President’s office. The coup, though, didn’t last and neither did Sampson’s ‘Presidency’. After only eight days the Turkish Army entered Cyprus to protect the Turkish-Cypriot community and Cyprus found itself partitioned between the two groups.

With Makarios reinstated ‘President’ Sampson again found himself again at Nicosia Central, this time charged with usurping the Presidency. Sentenced in August 1976 he drew twenty years, not tasting freedom again until 1991. By then many Greek-Cypriots reviled the former national hero for the outcome of the coup. Loathing his virulent bigotry and fearing his violence many Turkish-Cypriots already hated him anyway. He spent his later years as a newspaper publisher, still spouting his hatred for the Turkish-Cypriots and the British before dying of cancer on 9 May 2001.

Sampson wasn’t the only one making a return to Cyprus. The death penalty had remained even after the British departed and Allen, known to the new government of Cyprus, was still available. On 13 June 1962 Allen (assisted by John Underhill) returned to Nicosia Central for the last time. Behind him were left the bodies of murderers Hambis Zacharia, Michael Hiletikos and Lazarus Demetriou. Nobody knew it at the time, but it was Allen’s last visit.

With the suspension of hanging in 1964 Allen had no ‘jobs’ left to do. His 49th and last was one of Britain’s two simultaneous last executions on 13 August 1964. While Allen was hanging Gwynne Owen Evans at Strangeways prison in Manchester, Robert Leslie Stewart was hanging Evans’ accomplice Peter Allen at Liverpool’s Walton Prison. After that the gallows doors never dropped again, most of them being dismantled in the years that followed. Allen, now Britain’s former chief executioner, was out of a job. He died on 14 August 1992.

Field-Marshal Sir John Harding, last colonial Governor of Cyprus, fared rather better. A Knight of the Realm, Field-Marshal and former Chief of the Imperial Defence Staff, On his retirement Harding returned from Cyprus to become Baron Harding of Petherton in 1958. He died on 20 January 1989.

Having gone from national hero to national pariah, Sampson hadn’t done well in later life. It may have been some small satisfaction that he outlived both his executioner and the man who (perhaps unwisely) had helped him cheat the hangman. Today Nicosia Central’s Wards Seven and Eight are a museum dedicated to the men who died there during the fight for Cypriot independence. Thirteen men (nine hanged, one killed in a firefight and three who died of wounds) lie in the ‘Imprisoned Graves’ section of the old prison. The gallows too remains having outlived all those who saw it used.

On This Day in 1939 – Anton Myslevic, Theodore Maselkiewicz and Everett McDonald make their exit. Executioner Joseph Francel makes his entrance.


Not a tale of Christmas cheer, granted, but worth noticing all the same. Not only the debut of New York’s fourth and penultimate State Electrician, but Francel also arrived with what was known as a ‘triple hitter.’ That night three men would die at his hand, and for Francel it was only the beginning.

On 24 August that year predecessor Robert Greene Elliott performed his 387th and last execution. Old, frail and perhaps knowing that his time too was almost up, Elliott had turned the switch on Arthur Perry. A typical death house resident, Perry was 24 years old, African-American and convicted of murder during a robbery and he died quietly. Elliott himself died on 10 October, Francel’s appointment being announced only two days later. McDonald, Myslevic and Maselkiewicz, meanwhile, already had an appointment of their own.

Myslevic had committed a typical crime of passion. His lover’s husband William Dobitz had been in the way. Myslevic had put out of the way, ambushing Dobitz with a shotgun blast after dark. His treachery had given Dobitz no chance of escaping his fate. The jury, appeals judges and Governor Thomas Dewey hadn’t given Myslevic any, either.

Everett McDonald’s crime was one of murder by incompetence. He’d actually been aiming his gun at two other men when he fired and missed. Unfortunately his bullets didn’t, hitting another man by mistake. That wasn’t much of a defence to put before a judge and jury and like Myslevic he was given short shrift by the courts and Governor.

Last of the trio was Theodore Maskeliewicz. Maskeliewicz had begged to be shown mercy, it was near to Christmas and he’d hoped the Governor might be in the holiday mood. Governor Dewey wasn’t in the holiday mood, showing as much mercy for Maselkiewicz as he’d shown his estranged wife on Christmas Eve of 1938. She hadn’t wanted to return to their less-than-happy home and Maselkiewicz, upset and angry at her non-compliance, had cut her throat with a razor. 1939 would be his second miserable holiday season. It was also his last.

As was standard, Francel had arrived at Sing Sing several hours beforehand. An electrical contractor living in Cairo, New York but originally from Minnesota, 42-year-old war veteran Francel made a discreet arrival and headed straight for the death house. Being his debut, he wanted to thoroughly test his equipment and ensure that nothing would go wrong. If anything did it would be his first and probably last time at the switch.

While Francel made his final checks Warden Lewis Lawes was meeting and greeting the newsmen and witnesses, probably while hoping the trio would be reprieved. Despite being America’s leading practitioner of capital punishment at the time Lawes was also its leading opponent. He made no secret of hating the death penalty and dreading his regular trips to the custom-made death house, the prison-within-a-prison warehousing those the Empire State had marked for death.

The event attracted little media attention despite being both a triple-hitter and Francel’s debut. Press reports consisted largely of postcard-sized pieces in the New York papers and that was about it. None of the three had committed the kind of media-friendly murder that would have garnered banner headlines and the Second World War was underway. Only a week earlier its first major battle had been fought, the Battle of the River Plate. With war news taking greater precedence and executions being seen as rather mundane affairs by then, the only way it would have gained more attention would have been if something had gone wrong. Francel, a thoroughly professional executioner if still a debutante, ensured that nothing did. Despite the pressure he was under Francel remained calm. McDonald, Myslevic and Maskeliewicz went one after the other quietly, quickly and professionally. Until his sudden resignation in August 1953 they were the first of 137 to die at his hand in New York not counting those in other states.

His ‘clients’ included some of America’s most notorious felons. Seven members of notorious underworld death squad Murder Incorporated, double child-killer Edward Haight (only 17 when he died), waterfront gangsters Johnny ‘Cockeye’ Dunn and Martin ‘Squint’ Sheridan, and ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’ Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck all paid their price with Francel throwing the switch. And, of course, a multitude of others whose names and crimes went barely-reported. This nameless, faceless parade of the damned added up to over 140 tombstones and a considerable amount of money, but it also had its downsides.

The careers of New York’s five State Electricians all seem to have ended badly. After 240 electrocutions including William Kemmler (the world’s first) Edwin Davis quit in a pay dispute in 1914. His standard $250 fee per convict was cut to $150 with an extra $50-per-head for executing more than one at a time. Offended by the pay cut for so specialised a job, Davis walked off it. John Hurlburt succeeded Davis in 1914. In 1926 he abruptly resigned, suffering from depression after 140 executions. In 1929 he shot himself. Hurlburt had been succeeded by Elliott and Elliott by Francel.

Francel too came to dislike the job, claiming to receive too many threats, too much publicity and too little pay. The pay hadn’t changed since Davis’s time and, with New York executing progressively fewer prisoners, Francel became progressively more dissatisfied with the money on offer. He didn’t like having his life repeatedly threatened, either, especially when his name and profession became public knowledge.

The publicity from executing Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on 19 June 1953 was the last straw. After executing escapee and child-killer Donald Hugh Snyder on July 16 he turned in his resignation. After 14 years and over 140 executions Francel had finally had enough. He would be replaced by electrician and deputy sheriff Dow Hover who scrupulously avoided the publicity that plagued his predecessors.

Hover also began his career with a triple-hitter, executing William Draper, Maurice ‘Digger’ O’Dell and Walter Griffin on 1 July 1954. Between then and New York’s last execution (Eddie Lee Mays on 15 August 1963) Hover executed over 40 convicts including Mays, Gerhard Puff (New York’s last Federal execution on 12 August 1954), notorious hitman-for-hire Elmer ‘Trigger’ Burke on 9 January 1958 and Angelo LaMarca on 7 August 1958.

Puff had been something of a death house luminary. An armed robber, killer and resident of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, Puff had been cornered by the FBI at the Congress Hotel. While escaping the trap Puff shot Special Agent Joseph Brock in the back, stealing Brock’s gun before being shot, wounded and captured by other agents.

Elmer Burke had been a notorious if conventional contract killer. A World War II veteran and expert with a Tommy gun, Burke tended to use either that or a double-barrelled shotgun. After at least six contract killings he was condemned for shooting Edward Walsh after Walsh stopped him murdering a customer at Walsh’s tavern. Burke’s other career highlights included at least one successful escape and unsuccessfully attempting to  murder Joseph ‘Specs’ O’Keefe, the informant who betrayed the gang responsible for the 1951 Brinks robbery.

Angelo LaMarca’s crime had been kidnapping baby Peter Weinberger. Heavily in debt, a desperate LaMarca kidnapped the baby and demanded a ransom. When he abandoned the child during a bungled ransom drop Peter Weinberger died. In turn so did Angelo LaMarca. LaMarca’s case partly inspired Robert de Niro’s 2002 feature film ‘City By The Sea.’

By 1965 almost no condemned occupied the once-legendary death house and Francel was long gone. In 1969 so was New York’s death penalty, abolished by the state’s law-makers. With its inmates gone the death house lay unused until it was converted into a vocational centre. Old Sparky had already left, removed to another death chamber at Green Haven maximum-security prison it lay in wait in case executions should one day resume. They never did.

After resigning in 1953 Francel drifted quietly (and perhaps gratefully) back into the anonymity he so preferred. His name still cropped up in articles, books and documentaries, but he lived quietly and as inconspicuously as possible, slowly sinking into the obscurity he’d enjoyed before his appointment in 1939. He died on 25 January 1981, still living in Cairo.

The careers of Joseph Francel and New York’s four other State Electricians are covered more fully in my new book Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York  published on November 25 2019.  

On This Day 1920 – Alson Cole and Allen Grammer, Nebraska’s first electrocutions (and almost executioner John Hurlburt).


Nebraska isn’t a particularly hard-line state for capital punishment. Since achieving statehood in 1867 it has executed only 48 people; 14 by hanging, 23 by electrocution and one by lethal injection. Today we’re going to look at murderers Alson Cole and Allen Grammer, Nebraska’s first to be electrocuted and the only double execution since Nebraska became a state. What make this one particularly interesting is that the event almost cost the life of a third man, New York’s State Electrician John Hurlburt.

An executioner since 1912, Hurlburt was a veteran of the death chamber having performed dozens at New York’s Sing Sing, Auburn and Dannemora prisons, just the man Nebraska needed for the job. He could supervise the preparation and even perform the execution to ensure all went as planned. With that in mind Nebraska State Penitentiary Warden W.T. Fenton promptly engaged his services, an unusual out-of-state job for Hurlburt. Had things run to plan he probably would have but, for Hurlburt anyway, they didn’t. He would leave Nebraska never to return and lucky to still be alive.

Noe every Nebraskan supported capital punishment. Fewer still supported replacing the old gallows with the new-fangled electric chair, either. Hurlburt, already in Nebraska to supervise its debut, soon had this made abundantly clear and in brutally ironic fashion. He was warned of plans to halt the executions and that one group of abolitionists had a particularly ironic method in mind;

Lynch the executioner.

Yes (and presumably with no sense of irony, a group of local abolitionists were preparing to protest against a legal electrocution with an entirely illegal lynching. Tipped off in advance, Hurlburt decided discretion was the better part of valour. He immediately left the state, never to return.

For Warden Fenton this was an unexpected spanner in the works. He still needed somebody to run things and experienced electrocutioners were a rare breed even in the 1920’s when Old Sparky was its busiest. Fortunately for Fenton another man was available. Enter E.B. Currier, formerly executioner for Massachusetts.

Though having retired from that role Currier was prepared to come to Nebraska and finish what Hurlburt had started, hopefully without being lynched in his place. When not executing total strangers Currier lived on a farm near Boston. While dispensing death at Charlestown Prison he had worked, ironically, at the Massachusetts General Hospital as its chief electrician and mechanic. Whether his work colleagues or the patients knew of his side-line we don’t know.

Currier had installed the Massachusetts chair in 1898, Vermont’s in 1913 and helped install New Jersey’s in 1906. Like Hurlburt and Hurlburt’s successor Robert Elliott, Currier had apparently been an assistant of Edwin Davis (New York’s and indeed the world’s first State Electrician). When Hurlburt did his first job as State Electrician (George Coyer and Giuseppe DeGoia on 31 August 1914 at Auburn Prison in New York) it had been anticipated that Curier would replace Davis, not Hurlburt.

Davis had resigned in a fee dispute hwen his pay was cut. Originally receiving $250 per prisoner, New York mandated he should receive only $150 with an extra $50 per prisoner every time he executed more than one. Davis, who found executions a lucrative business, was unhappy and assistant Currier was unavailable, probably because he’d gone to Massachusetts to work their electric chair. With Davis and Currier gone, coyer and DeGoia died by Hurlburt’s hand, the first of his 140 executions before abruptly resignin in 1926 and taking his own life three years later.

Both a technical expert and thoroughly professional, Currier was as good a choice as anyone. With former colleague Hurlburt fleeing Nebraska for his life, Currier took the job. With the chair built and installed and somebody found to work it, all that remained was for Nebraska justice to provide somebody to sit in it. Enter Allen Grammer and Alson Cole.

Condemned for murdering Lily Vogt (who also happened to be Grammer’s mother-in-law) in 1917 Grammer and Cole had fought hard, their case taking almost three years to reach its end. With their appeals exhausted and Nebraska keen to demonstrate its new method, they were scheduled to enter state history on 20 December 1920.

It proved a busy day at the state prison. Currier having prepared thoroughly for the task in hand, he was able to make his final checks and relax as much as he could under the circumstances. The officers guarding Grammer and Cole had a rather busier time of it. Reporters came and went, keen to cover a singular event in Nebraska history. Grammer’s wife came to visit despite his having murdered her mother, being disowned by her remaining family as a result. Their lawyers came to say goodbye and Reverends McFadden, Gregory and Maxwell took care of their spiritual needs as best they could.

Hurlburt would have recommended the man most likely to cause trouble be taken first, keeping to Sing Sing’s standard practice. As both men had offered to go first and showed no sign of cracking it was down to Warden Fenton to make the choice; Grammer would go first at 3pm with Cole immediately following him. It was decided by Fenton having the pair’s defense lawyers guess the date on a coin in Fenton’s pocket. Whichever lawyer guessed the nearest year would see his client go second and Cole’s attorney won. Allen Grammer would have the dubious distinction of suffering Nebraska’s very first electrocution.

At 2:39pm the final act began. Fenton visited first Grammer and then Cole to bid them farewell. He also had to read them their death warrants while the six official witnesses took their places. Fenton allowed the pair a brief moment together for their final farewell. Thirty-five minutes later it was time for Allen Grammer to walk his last mile.

Neither man showed any fear when the time came. Grammer walked in a little after 3pm, . Currier and the five men assisting him worked quickly, having him securely strapped and capped in under a minute. At Fenton’s signal, Currie threw the switch delivering several jolts or around 2000 volts each and Grammer was dead. His final words had been simple ones to Fenton:

“Goodbye, Warden.”

Now it was Cole’s turn. He was a little more talkative than Grammer, asking whether prosecutor Charles Dobry was still present. He wasn’t. Perhaps one electrocution had been enough or more than Dobry could stomach and he’d left the death chamber after Grammer’s death. Minutes later Alson Cole joined his crime partner in the prison morgue.

Grammer was later buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in the town of Palmer in Merrick County. Cole, however, went to the Wyuka Cemetery in Lincoln County, later notorious for the killing spree of Charles Starkweather. Executed in the same chair n 1959 Starkweather too lies in Wyuka, a cemetery shared by some of his victims.

Even after the Hurlburt debacle Nebraska continued identifying its executioners long after Cole and Grammer met their ends. After Currier’s final retirement a few years later, New Jersey’s executioner took the job. Whether ‘W.S. Gilbert’ (whose namesake formed one part of theatre’s Gilbert and Sullivan partnership) was his real name or borrowed for the occasion, ‘Gilbert’ was eventually replaced by Hurlburt’s successor as New York’s executioner Robert Elliott.

In the 1940’s Nebraska finally decided (as Hurlburt had long believed) that anonymity was the best policy. Officially its executioners were no longer publicly named for their protection, the lessons of Hurlburt’s near-lynching having finally been learned. Ironically Nebraska’s electric chair, seldom used even in its heyday, outlived all the others.

Nebraska was the last remaining state to offer electrocution as its sole remaining method and there has been only one lethal injection since Old Sparky was dismantled and put into storage. Ruled unconstitutional by Nebraska’s courts in 2008, it was replaced by lethal injection the next year.

Despite requests to borrow it as a museum piece Nebraska authorities have always refused, believing it simply isn’t something they want put on display. Nor too has Nebraska’s death penalty escaped scrutiny. It has been suspended, repealed, reinstated, suspended again and reinstated again, but currently remains in force.

Since 1976 only four convicts have been executed, three by electrocution and one by lethal injection in 2018. The last electrocution was that of Robert Williams on 2 December 1997. Carey Dean Moore, Nebraska’s only lethal injection to date, died on 14 August 2018.

On This Day in 1934, Ethel Lillie Major.


Normally this time of year would be cause for celebration, a time of Christmas cheer and goodwill to all men. That wasn’t the case for Ethel Major who stood condemned for the murder of her husband Arthur. For her the previous couple of days had been spent sobbing and incoherent as she pondered her imminent date with the hangman.

Husband Arthur wasn’t, so it’s said, the most pleasant of men. A First World War veteran, truck-driver Arthur was also known to be a drinker and when he drank was particularly hard to live with. Some say his murder was the result of years of abuse and that Ethel killed him as a result.

Whatever her motive there can be almost no doubt that she took his life and at 9am on 19 December 1934 hangmen Thomas Pierrepoint would take hers. Nobody at Hull Prison knew, as the condemned cell’s lights burned brightly through the night, that it would be for the last time. Ethel would be only Hull’s tenth hanging of the 20th century and also its last. When the last prison officer to leave the cell switched off the lights they would never burn again.

It was far from the last time that Thomas Pierrepoint did his duty and it was only the beginning for his newly-appointed assistant (and nephew) Albert. Albert had only recently debuted on the scaffold, helping Tom hang Patrick McDermott in Dublin on 29 December 1932. Only his eighth ‘client,’ Ethel would also be his first time hanging a woman, a rare event even when Britain’s hangmen were at their busiest.

The ‘firm’ of ‘Uncle Tom and Our Albert’ would continue until Tom retired in 1946 and Albert would carry on the family profession until he resigned a decade later. Between them the pair would be involved in over 740 executions while Tom’s brother Henry (fired in 1910) had already added another 105. Woman or not Ethel was just another job, one of hundreds.

Ethel had married Arthur in 1918 after his return from the war and relations between them had deteriorated progressively. Ethel had had an illegitimate daughter, Auriel, before meeting him and kept it a secret, the child being raised by her parents and passed off as her younger sister. The morals of the time being what they were this wasn’t unusual and had been kept from Arthur. Arthur was furious when he finally found out and the couple lived virtually separate lives from then on.

Arthur’s difficult personality may have been the result of his wartime service during which he was severely wounded. It certainly wasn’t improved by his drinking which was regular and considerable. Ethel wasn’t popular either, being known locally as quarrelsome and cantankerous and generally disliked.

His mood darkened further when Ethel accused him of infidelity with a neighbour and produced alleged love letters that she had probably written herself. Arthur, enraged by the accusation, exploded when it emerged a letter had gone to the neighbour from a solicitor, supposedly at Arthur’s instruction, telling Rose Kettleborough to keep away from him.

It emerged that Ethel had told the lawyer Arthur wanted it done without his knowledge. Arthur’s retaliation consisted of publishing an open letter to the town’s shops and merchants declaring himself no longer responsible for her debts. In turn Ethel forged a letter to the local council, attempting to have Arthur’s name taken off their tenancy and the home be made exclusively hers. She also tried to lose him his job, telling his employers he was an habitual drunk-driver. Ethel seemingly developed quite a history of faking letters and documents when it suited her, something that did her no favours when she went on trial for murder.

By May 1934 the couple were in a state of open war. On 23 May Arthur sat down at work to eat his lunch. After only a bite or two he discarded his corned beef sandwiches complaining that they tasted bad and that his wife was trying to poison him. She certainly was, laced with strychnine the discarded sandwiches were pecked at by some birds. They died almost immediately.

Strychnine, a member of the bitter alkaloid family of poisons, is also one of the worst possible ways to die. Wracked with convulsions, uncontrollable muscle spasms, agonising pain and growing gradually more exhausted, its luckier victims die within hours. The unlucky ones suffer for days. eventually, after the poison has seized cotrol of the muscles and parts o the nervous system, they die from respiratory paralysis or sheer exhaustion. Once used for pest contril, it’s now considered so dangerous that possession is illegal in the Uk without a licence.

Arthur was already unwell by the end of the day. By the next day he was dead from what the doctor believed to be epilepsy. An easy mistake when you consider that an epileptic fit and strychnine poisoning can be very similar to look at. With unseemly and suspicious haste Ethel wanted Arthur’s funeral performed the next day, but was dissuaded. The authorities were already suspicious when the next day an anonymous letter directly accused Ethel of poisoning her husband:

“Sir, Have you ever heard of a wife poisoning her husband? Look further into the death (by heart failure) of Mr Major of Kirkby-on-Bain. Why did he complain of his food tasting nasty and throw it to a neighbour’s dog, which has since died? Ask the undertaker if he looked natural after death. Why did he stiffen so quickly? Why was he so jerky when dying? I myself have heard her threaten to poison him years ago. In the name of the law, I beg you to analyse the contents of his stomach.”

Singed ‘Fairplay’ the letter accused her not only of poisoning her husband, but of feeding some scraps to her neighbour’s dog. Ethel, despising both the dog and the neighbour, normally chased it away instead of offering it treats. Having eaten the scraps the dog also died almost immediately. With suspicion now too strong to ignore and the doctor having made a mistake, Ethel was about to make an even bigger one. A simple slip of the tongue would pave her path to the gallows.

Chief Inspector Young was suspicious from the start. His suspicions only hardened when Ethel, unprompted, denied preparing her husband’s food and made a point of mentioning her unusually-fervent dislike of corned beef. Still unprompted, she also told him she had no idea of how strychnine could have killed her husband.

Young, having made a point of not mentioning strychnine or corned beef, was sure he had a murderer standing right in front of him. He arrested her almost immediately. Her response to his remark about strychnine was simple:

“Oh, I’m sorry. I must have made a mistake.”

Indeed she had, a most disastrous one at that. The charge laid against her was one of wilful murder by poison. The penalty was death by hanging.

When Home Office expert Roche Lynch found strychnine in Arthur’s body it was obvious that he’d been deliberately poisoned. Both the dog and some discarded corned beef were also found to contain the poison. Ethel’s position only worsened when it emerged that she’d previously threatened his life and that she had access to the poison that killed him. Her father, a gamekeeper by profession, kept a variety of poisons in a locked wooden box to which he had the only key. The other key, he told police, had been lost years before. When that missing key was found in Ethel’s possession her fate was effectively sealed. That the key had been hers for so long suggested not a sudden decision to poison her husband, but a long-held intent to do so.

She would almost certainly be convicted and condemned, the death sentence being mandatory in 1934. But, even if convicted, would she hang?  

Her guilt, clear though it already was, was left to the jury to decide. After a brief trial at Lincoln Assizes they took only an hour to do so, finding her guilty with a strong recommendation for mercy. As the jury foreman put it:

‘I also wish to express the jury’s wish that a strong recommendation for mercy should be given to the prisoner.’

After passing the death sentence on a sobbing Ethel the trial judge also strongly recommended mercy to Home Secretary Sir John Gilmour. A large petition was circulated and the Lord Mayor personally asked the King to intervene. Unlike the jury, the Lord Mayor and the people in the local area, the judge probably knew full well it would make no difference whatsoever. Normally the judge’s recommendation could have made a difference, especially with a female appellant, but for an unwritten law in the corridors of power;

The Home Office never reprieved poisoners, male or female.

The only exceptions to that grim tradition were pregnant women who by law couldn’t be hanged. Poisoners were regarded by officialdom as a particularly cold-blooded, treacherous and remorseless breed of murderer that society was invariably better off without. The public remained unaware that clemency often depended far more on a judge’s recommendation than the jury’s. Most were unaware that petitions, marches, placard-waving and crowds gathering outside prisons had no effect, either. Nor, most of all, were the public told that poisoners would almost certainly hang regardless of the circumstances.

From the moment the jury rendered their verdict Ethel Major was effectively dead.

The usual form letters went to Tom and Albert Pierrepoint offering them another morning’s work. Arriving at Hull Prison the day before, the newly-qualified Albert had asked his uncle if there was any difference between hanging men and women. Tom quickly reassured him;

‘I shall be very surprised if Mrs Major isn’t calmer than any man you’ve seen so far.’

She had in fact spent the preceding days in a state of emotional and nervous collapse. Finally realising that mercy wasn’t going to be shown she had little to do but watch the clock until the strain had become too much. By the time the Pierrepoints came for her she was beyond either consolation or even resistance, being half-carried the few steps between the condemned cell and the noose itself. Preserving his belief that women were far less likely to cause a problem, Tom only strapped her arms fairly loosely behind her back. Seconds later Ethel was gone, she probably didn’t even know she’d died.

Many years and hundreds of hangings later (including those of numerous women) Albert upheld his uncle’s belief based on his own experience. Women, he later remarked, were far less likely to be troublesome on their way to the gallows. The bravest person he ever hanged, he said, was Ruth Ellis in 1955. The last woman to hang in Britain and third-to-last for Pierrepoint before his resignation, he described her thus:

‘I have seen some brave men die, but nobody braver than her.’

On This Day in 1920: Five face the chair at Sing Sing.


Normally Sing Sing’s electric chair, the legendary Old Sparky, accommodated single or double executions. Triples were less frequent, quadruples a rarity and very seldom did five convicts die on the same day. December 9 1920 was one of those days. State Electrician John Hurlburt (in the post since 1914) was firmly established as perhaps the leading ‘electrocutioner’ in the country.

According to his standard deal, that night he would earn $350 for his services, $150 for the first prisoner and $50 per head thereafter. The State Electrician might have been a private contractor but, being paid out of the public purse, the State of New York liked to pay its servants as cheaply as possible.

That deal (agreed with the first State Electrician, Edwin Davis) remained in place until the reign of Dow Hover (the Empire State’s fifth and last). It was a lucrative enough position at the time and Hurlburt (though he came to detest the job and its effect on him) needed the money. With a chronically-ill wife and medical bills always on his doormat, he had little choice but to continue killing to order.

Hurlburt’s successor Robert Elliott earned as much as $46,000 between 1926 and 1939, performing executions in six different states. Elliott was so busy that he once carried out two triple executions in two different states on the same day. That night Hurlburt’s job was slightly easier. He only had to kill five men in cold blood in one place, one after another. It wasn’t the first time he’d done so.

The five in question were of little particular note, four members of the Milano gang and another whose death warrant happened to coincide with theirs. Not that that made Warden Lewis Lawes’ job any easier. Simultaneously America’s leading opponent and practitioner of capital punishment, Lawes hated executions with a passion. He always said he’d never actually seen one, closing his eyes just before signalling the executioner to do his job. That night he would close his eyes five times, five out of the 303 convicts who died at his command, if not to his liking.

As was standard the prisoner most likely to break down was brought in first. Milano Gang member Howard Usefof was also claiming innocence. He denied shooting subway ticket agent Otto Fialo to the end. Co-defendant Joseph Milano supported Usefof’s claim at first, issuing a written confession that had cut no ice with the authorities. Usefof died far calmer than expected, issuing only a brief final remark before taking his seat:

“You see an innocent man dying tonight. Thank you, Warden, you have been a kind man.”

Minutes later Usefof, innocent or guilty, was also dead. Hurlburt had already earned the lion’s share of his fee. One down, four to go.

Next was Joseph Milano himself. Milano’s confession might just have saved Usefof had Milano not retracted it. As he began his last mile, actually around twenty steps between his cell and the chair, he was serenaded on his way by fellow gang-member James Cassidy. As Milano left on his final walk Cassidy, himself due to die that night, sang him on his way with ‘Oh, What a Pal was Mary.’

Perhaps feeling remorse at having sealed Usefof’s fate (though probably little at having murdered Fialo) Milano went to his death denying Usefof’s guilt but not his own. His last words were simple ones:

“Usefof did not take part in this crime.”

His death was as simple as his final statement. With two of the five now gone, it was time for Charles McLaughlin to pay his debt, increasing Hurlburt’s fee in the process. When Lawes had made his final visit before the executions McLaughlin had been putting on a brave face. He’d even put his hand through the cell bars, offering it to Lawes accompanied by the words:

“Shake, put it there, shake.”

As seemingly calm and cheerful when the time came, McLaughlin maintained his buoyant attitude (or façade) right to the end:

“God bless you, boys, I got the old smile on my face.”

With that he turned sat down and was dead minutes later. Another $50 was added to Hurlburt’s fee for the night’s work. Now, having serenaded Milano to his end, it was time for James Cassidy to face his own. Cassidy, who at least one doctor admitted had the mind of a nine-year-old, had arrived at the Death House illiterate, but willing to learn. Hours before his death he had written the Remembrance on his cell wall, a breach of prison regulations. True to form Lawes overlooked it as he visited Cassidy for the last time, especially when Cassidy pointed to it, remarking:

“Isn’t it Hell, Warden, when you get so you can write words like that to have to be bumped off..?”

As he entered the death chamber Cassidy, a talkative man by nature, had a little more to say. Knowing Lawes’ hatred for executions Cassidy made a point of greeting him as he walked calmly through Sing Sing’s infamous ‘little green door.’:

“I know I’ve done wrong. I know I’m paying for it. Hello Warden, I see you back there, old-timer.”

As he sat down, still as chatty as ever, Cassidy had time for one last remark:

“Give her the gas, kid. I’m taking it with a smile.”

A silent wave of Lawes’ hand was followed by Hurlburt’s immediately jerking the switch and the conversational Cassidy was no more. Minutes later he was unstrapped, placed on a trolley and wheeled away. Four down, one to go and $300 to Hurlburt’s credit. Now only Howard Baker remained.

Baker was the only man that night who wasn’t part of the Milano Gang. Baker had been in a gang of his own beside his mother and her toy-boy lover. While robbing a clothing store the gang had been surprised by a night watchman. In turn Baker had surprised the night watchman with a fatal gunshot wound. As he left his cell Baker had bidden his fellow-condemned a simple farewell:

“Goodbye, boys.”

As he sat down Baker became a little more talkative in the few seconds left to him:

“If I’ve got to leave this good old Earth, I want to make a statement before I go. I’m feeling all right, but it’s over others I’m worrying.”

His remark was dignified, presumably showing a concern for those who’d cared for him. It also conformed to the convict tradition in the face of death; Never let them see your fear. Minutes later Baker was gone, wheeled into the adjoining morgue and autopsy room. Another $50 was owed to the State Electrician.

Hurlburt packed away his equipment and collected his unusually-large fee. Those remaining in the condemned cells could clearly hear prison doctor Amos Squire’s bone saw as he began the autopsies mandated by State law. Knowing full well those remaining could hear him at his grim task it was a sound Squire detested inflicting as much as the condemned hated to hear. The men’s few personal possessions were removed and their cells made ready for whoever would occupy them next.

No matter how many passed through the little green door, whether they walked, were dragged or had to be carried, in the 1920’s there was always somebody to take their place. Hundreds more would do so.

The careers of Warden Lewis Lawes, John Hurlburt and New York’s four other State Electricians covered more fully in my new book Murders, Mysteries and Misdemeanors in New York which, by a handy coincidence, was published in bookstores and online on November 25..  

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