On This Day in 1963: New York State’s Last Execution, Eddie Lee Mays.


 Eddie Lee Mays, his Death House file at Sing Sing Prison.

Eddie Lee Mays, his Death House file at Sing Sing Prison.

August 15, 1963 was an historic day in New York’s penal history, although nobody involved knew it at the time. New York’s lawmakers didn’t know it. the Warden of New York’s infamous Sing Sing Prison (now the Ossining Correctional Facility) didn’t know. Dow Hover, New York’s last ‘State Electrician’, didn’t know it. Eddie Lee Mays (armed robber and murderer of no particular note) didn’t know. He was well beyond caring by then anyway.

At 10pm Eddie Lee Mays would die. walk his last mile. He would leave his pre-execution cell in Sing Sing’s ‘death house,’ walk twenty feet with two prison officers and a prison Chaplain, take a seat in ‘Old Sparky’ and ‘ride the lightning.’ Moved from his regular Death House cell twelve hours before the scheduled time, Mays would spend his final hours in the ‘Dance Hell,’ a group of six cells nearer the death chamber.

 

When his time came Mays would be New York’s 695th inmate to do so since William Kemmler at Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890 and Sing Sing’s 614th.

He would also be the last.

Mays was 34 years old, an ex-convict from North Carolina where he’d already served a sentence for murder. He’d been lucky to avoid North Carolina’s gas chamber then, especially as North Carolina used their chamber frequently in 1940’s and 1950’s and being black wasn’t going to work in his favour.

Sing’s Sing’s electric chair would prove unavoidable. Mays himself wasn’t especially bothered by the typical Death Row inmate’s standards. With a lengthy criminal record and no future other than more prison time, Mays had already said he’d rather ‘fry’ than spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Along with two accomplices (neither of whom faced the ‘hot seat’) Mays had embarked upon a string of violent crimes during 1961. Resident in Harlem, in six weeks Mays and his gang had committed no less than fifty-two armed robberies. Having already shown in North Carolina that murder wasn’t beyond him, it’s no great surprise that he soon killed again.

On March 23, 1961 Mays and his friends entered the ‘Friendly Tavern’ at 1403 Fifth Avenue, showed their guns and demanded that the owner and his customers hand over every cent they had. One of them was Maria Marini, known to her friends as ‘Pearl.’ Maria didn’t open her purse as quickly as Mays demanded and. When she did, it was empty. Mays, enraged by her tardiness and lack of cash, bellowed:

“I’m going to kill somebody! I mean it! I’ll show you!”

Turning to Maria he then bellowed:

“I ought to kill you!”

And then he did. Mays put his .38 pistol directly against her forehead and squeezed the trigger in a totally unnecessary murder before running away with $275 in cash. It wasn’t long before Mays and his accomplices were in custody awaiting trial. Their future looked bleak at best, either life imprisonment or a very brief acquaintance with Sing Sing’s most notorious resident;

Old Sparky.

By 1962 New York had already discarded its mandatory death penalty for murder, opting for new legislation separating capital from non-capital murder. Unfortunately for Mays New York’s Felony Murder Statute defined murder during a robbery as capital murder. Given his lengthy record, previous murder conviction and the totally unnecessary murder of Maria Marini, the outcome was in no real doubt.

Convicted and condemned, it wasn’t long before Eddie Lee Mays was on the fast-track to a disinterested, if not unwilling, place in penal history. His accomplices could also have been condemned but they struck lucky. As Mays had fired the shot, the judge ruled, they escaped with lengthy prison terms and their lives. Mays wouldn’t be so fortunate.

 Dow. B. Hover, Sheriff's Deputy, electrical contractor and New York's last 'State Electrician.'

Dow. B. Hover, Sheriff’s Deputy, electrical contractor and New York’s last ‘State Electrician.’

Mays had his one mandatory appeal granted by law. Neither the State Court of Appeals or State Governor were ready to intervene. Warden Wilfred .L. Denno, appointed in December, 1950, received his latest ‘thunderbolt jockey’ and Denno knew the drill backwards. Eddie Lee Mays would be his 62nd execution since taking charge at Sing Sing. He gave the usual orders instructing Death House staff to make the usual preparations. He also sent a letter to New York’s fifth and final ‘State Electrician’ Mr. Dow Hover to set August 15, 1963 in his diary. Hover agreed, driving down from his Germantown home a few hours before the scheduled time of 10pm.

 

 

 

Dow Hover was the last of five men to hold the title of New York’s ‘State Electrician.’ The principal qualifications were being a fully-qualified electrician, being prepared to kill people for $150 an inmate (with an extra $50 per inmate for multiple executions, not unusual events at Sing Sing) and not minding the measly 8 cents a mile fuel allowance.

Edwin Davis, John Hurlburt, Robert Elliott and Joseph Francel had all pulled the switch many, many times. It was Hover who replaced Francel when Francel unexpectedly resigned in 1953 shortly after executing the atom bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Francel hadn’t liked the publicity he’d received and wasn’t satisfied with the money either, which hadn’t improved much since Davis executed William Kemmler at Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890.

Hover wasn’t bothered about the money or the work. A cold and unemotional man, he saw executions as a professional job. They were to be properly done and then forgotten about. The low pay didn’t bother him either, but any publicity did. Hover was extremely careful to avoid being publicly identified as the ‘State Electrician’, however. He’d change the number plates on his car before leaving home, changing them back on his return. He also never talked about his work with anybody and did all he could to keep out of sight.

August 15, 1963 would be the last time he drove a car with false number plates.

 Sing Sing's death chamber as it was in August, 1963.

Sing Sing’s death chamber as it was in August, 1963.

By late-afternoon, all was ready. Warden Denno had screened the official witnesses and reporters to be present that night. The prison officers had rehearsed their already well-rehearsed routine for escorting Mays on his last mile, strapping him down securely and the general running of the execution. Mays himself had consulted with the prison’s Protestant chaplain. He’d also refused a last meal, asking instead for a carton of Pall Mall cigarettes.

Under Death House rules he wasn’t allowed matches in his condemned cell. Whenever he wanted a smoke (which was increasingly often) an officer had to light it for him. His head was shaved, his leg was shaved for the second electrode and he was given the traditional execution clothes.

These were specially made with a slit right trouser leg and wooden buttons that wouldn’t catch fire, glow or melt when the switch was thrown. Instead of shoes or boots Mays would walk his last mile in shower slippers. The Warden and witnesses gathered while Hover tested his equipment thoroughly. It was all in perfect working order. All that was left was to watch the clock and wait until 10pm when the final act would begin.

It began promptly and worked like a well-oiled machine, like clockwork. Mays gave no trouble as he walked his last mile. Before a small audience of prison staff and a few disinterested reporters he quickly seated himself without making any final statement.

Officers swiftly applied thick, heavy leather straps rounds his wrists, ankles, waist and chest. Hover attached the electrode to Mays’s right calf muscle, firmly sliding the leather helmet containing the head electrode down over Mays’s head. A thick leather strap with a hole exposing his nose went over Mays’s face, buckled tightly round the back of the chair. Mays was strapped down tight, the electrodes were firmly attached, the generator was running properly. All was set.

Warden Denno gave the signal, his 62nd since assuming command of Sing Sing in 1950 and the last in New York’s history. Like Hover, Denno was no stranger to the grim ritual. In the thirteen years since taking over he’d stood in front of ‘Old Sparky’ on sixty-one previous occasions involving some of New York State’s most notorious criminals.

In 1951 it had been the ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’ Raymond Fernandez and Martha Jule Beck. In 1953 it had been Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, their publicity had caused Joseph Francel to quit and Dow Hover to be throwing the switch that night. In 1954 it had been German immigrant, armed robber, murderer and resident of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, Gerhard Puff, for murdering FBI Special Agent Joseph Brock.

In 1958 it was notorious hitman Elmer ‘Trigger’ Burke (for murdering bar-owner Edward ‘Poochy’ Walsh) and Angelo LaMarca (for the kidnap-murder of Peter Weinberger). Then in 1960 Henry ‘Snow’ Flakes had died in front of him. A former heavyweight boxing contender, Flakes had fallen on hard times, developed a drug problem and killed a store-owner during a robbery. Like Mays, Flakes died without leaving a final statement, although he did have an enormous last meal.

And in between the ones anybody remembered, assuming they’d heard of them at all, were dozens of others. Nameless, faceless and then lifeless, their deaths hadn’t rated so much as a paragraph in their local paper. Not for them the banner headlines of the Rosenbergs or Martha Beck.

When Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez died on March 8, 1951 their deaths made headlines nationwide. Those of John King and Richard Powers, executed the same night for murdering Detective Joseph Miccio, were barely acknowledged then or now. The likes of Powers, King and hundreds of others might as well have been phantoms.

Their deaths though, when they came, were real enough.

Warden Denno gave the signal, Hover worked the controls in a pre-determined cycle perfected by his predecessor Robert Elliott. 2000 volts for three seconds, then 500 volts for fifty-seven seconds, then 2000 again for three seconds, 500 for fifty-four seconds and 2000 again for the last few seconds. Hover shut off his controls, Denno signaled to the prison physician to make his checks and all waited quietly for the outcome.

Eddie Lee Mays was dead.

 As it stands today, now avocational training centre for inmates to learn a trade.

As it stands today, now avocational training centre for inmates to learn a trade.

New York abolished the death penalty almost entirely in 1965. The only exceptions were prison inmates who committed murder while already serving a life sentence and anybody murdering a police officer or prison officer. ‘Old Sparky’ was uprooted and transferred to the maximum-security Green Haven Correctional Facility in 1969. The last Death Row inmate in New York condemned prior to abolition had their sentence commuted in 1972 when the US Supreme Court struck down all existing State death penalty laws in its historic ruling Furman vs Georgia.

New York did reinstate capital punishment in 1995 when then-Governor George Pataki signed the new law using the pen of a murdered police officer (and made sure the media knew who the pen had previously belonged to). But New York’s State Courts struck down his law, ruling it unconstitutional. There were no executions in New York during its brief existence.

Even the infamous Sing Sing ‘Death House’ star of so many books, movies, radio dramas, TV documentaries and now blog posts, has lost its grim purpose. Today it’s known simply as Unit 17, a vocational training centre used by inmates wanting to learn a trade. Warden Lewis Lawes, at one time America’s most-frequent practitioner of the death penalty and its most high-profile opponent, might have seen that as a sign of progress. Whether any of its hundreds of residents still haunt the former Death House is unknown.

The last word on New York’s last execution goes to Warden Denno, who remained in charge at Sing Sing until 1967. In 1965 he went over to the Death House with the best news its few remaining residents could have dreamt of. New York’s lawmakers had abolished the death penalty except for the murder of police or prison officers.

Aside from cop killers Anthony Portelli and Jerry Rosenberg (both later commuted) all the condemned were now lifers, no longer dead men walking. Denno arrived with the good news during a baseball match, commenting afterward:

“It may sound incredible, but they seemed more interested in the ball game.”

If the death penalty is a deterrent intended to strike dread into the hearts of the criminally-inclined, that wasn’t quite the reaction he’d expected.

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The Last Meal.


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A couple of days ago I had the pleasure of talking to BBC West Midlands Radio on the subject of the last meal. Their interest resulted from a Daily Mail article showing that, like the condemned themselves, the majority of people asked wanted comfort food for their final feast. It’s an odd tradition and so I thought my original post merited reposting, so here it is.

 

Study media reports of executions, recent or decades-old, and you’ll probably find mention of the prisoner’s last meal. Most prisoners spend their entire sentences eating whatever the prison kitchen provides and have no choice. Condemned inmates are traditionally allowed to choose their final meal. Before British reporters were barred from witnessing hangings in the early 20th century their reports usually mentioned whether a prisoner enjoyed their final breakfast. Today, American reporters often mention what prisoners have for their last meal, although prison authorities often call it a ‘special meal’, deferring to the prisoner’s feelings about their upcoming death.

The last meal is usually a tradition, not a rule. No law automatically entitles prisoners to anything other than standard prison meals so it’s a privilege, not a right. It’s also far more significant than being merely a kind gesture. It’s an important part of the execution ritual and has been for centuries. Barring last-minute legal action a prisoner’s last meal is usually their last chance to control anything that happens in their final hours. Modern executions are usually conducted according to strict timetables and rigid rules with minimal deviation therefrom. In the US, a prisoner might wait over twenty years between sentencing and execution so their last freedom of choice can be very important to them.

Execution is a grim ritual. The last meal is a part of that ritual and a ritual in itself. In medieval Europe it had religious significance dating back to when religion played a far greater role in daily life than it does today. A mental image of Christ’s Last Supper is often referenced as parallel to a modern convict choosing their final menu. It also symbolises a prisoner making peace with their executioners, breaking bread with them in the same way that Christ invited Judas Iscariot to the Last Supper. In modern-day Louisiana (a strongly-religious Southern state) Warden Burl Cain routinely invites condemned prisoners to eat their last meal with him and invited guests, offering the condemned Christian fellowship. Cain still supervises their execution, but he extends the invitation regardless. Naturally, the inmate isn’t obliged to accept.

Religion aside, superstition once played its part. In medieval Europe many believed that well-fed prisoners could be executed without fear of their returning as ghosts or revenants. The quality of their final meal was also believed to influence the likelihood of their doing so. If the food and drink were of the best quality it was believed less likely that prisoners would haunt their executioners. If the meals were poor many believed prisoners would return as malevolent spirits bent on tormenting those involved in their deaths.

What prisoners are permitted varies according to their location. In Texas, the last meal was introduced in 1924, the same year that Texas replaced the gallows with the electric chair and the State took over executions from individual counties. With one single Death Row located at Huntsville, the State of Texas centralised and standardised custody of condemned inmates which included granting them a last meal. Today, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice no longer allows last meals. Condemned inmates get the standard meal before execution.

gonnerman7.jpg mays file
Eddie Lee Mays, his Death House file at Sing Sing Prison.

Other US States have widely-differing policies. Florida is comparatively generous, allowing a budget of $40. Oklahoma budgets only $15. New York performed its last execution in 1963 (abolishing capital punishment in the early 1970’s) but was especially generous to its condemned. An inmate at Sing Sing Prison’s notorious ‘Death House’ could order both a last dinner and last supper. For example, murderer Henry Flakes was executed on May 19, 1960. His dinner consisted of barbecue chicken with sauce, French fires, salad, bread rolls, butter, strawberry shortcake with whipped cream, 4 packs of cigarettes, coffee, milk and sugar. Supper was equally generous: Lobster, salad, butter and bread rolls, ice cream, a box of chocolate candy, 4 cigars, 2 glasses of cola, coffee, milk and sugar. Unlike many prisons today, Sing Sing’s condemned could include tobacco products like snuff, cigars, chewing tobacco and cigarettes.

In 1930’s Indiana, the State Prison at Michigan City was equally generous with last meal requests. Like Burl Cain today, on May 31, 1938 Deputy Warden Lorenz Schmuhl dined with murderer John Dee Smith at sundown and electrocuted him just after midnight.

Prisoners have often been offered alcohol just before execution. Prisoners facing firing squads have long been offered the traditional last cigarette. Both are partly a compassionate gesture, but also calm an inmate’s nerves in their final moments and make them more co-operative. In 1925 Patrick Murphy was executed at Sing Sing having pleaded with Warden Lewis Lawes for one final drink. In 1925 Prohibition was in force throughout the US so whiskey was forbidden for every citizen, incarcerated or otherwise. Lawes, a firm opponent of capital punishment and well-known to enjoy a pre-dinner Scotch throughout Prohibition, made a compassionate-yet-illegal decision. He broke both prison rules and Federal law, slipping Murphy a small bottle of bourbon an hour before his execution. Murphy took the bottle, looked at Lawes (who loathed executions) and died having returned the bottle to Lawes saying ‘You look like you need it more than I do, Warden.’

British hangman John Ellis often recommended prisoners were offered a cup of brandy minutes before their execution. At California’s San Quentin Prison inmates were once allowed a little whiskey immediately before they entered the gas chamber. Nowadays American prisons allow no alcohol of any kind and, unlike 1960’s New York, few prisons allow tobacco products as part of a prisoner’s final meal. When the state of Utah used the firing squad prisoners were allowed a last cigarette but were escorted into the exercise yard to smoke it. Under Utah state law, smoking indoors in public buildings (including prisons) is forbidden because it’s a health hazard. Doubtless Utah’s condemned inmates thought that rule really mattered at that point.

There are other lesser-known rituals associated with the last meal. Between 1924 and 1964 Texas electrocuted 361 inmates at Huntsville. As part of their last meal Texan inmates often ordered as many portions of dessert as there were condemned inmates. If a prisoner wanted ice cream and there were 5 other condemned inmates on Death Row, then the prisoner would ask for six portions of ice cream so that no condemned inmate endured an execution night without a parting gift to raise their spirits. In New York, a number of Sing Sing’s condemned either shared their last meal with another inmate (as Francis ‘Two Gun’ Crowley shared his with John Resko in 1931) or split their meal with all the other condemned (as did Raymond Fernandez, hours before his execution in 1951). Like the last meal itself, sharing food was a tradition rather than a right, but it often kept inmates more settled when one of them was about to die.

It’s not unusual for a prisoner’s final choice to reveal something about them. Some decline a last meal to demonstrate contempt for prison authorities or simply because fear has left them unable to face food. Others opt for old favourites, food they probably haven’t had since their arrest, perhaps as a consolation and reminder of happier times. Some order huge meals, some order small ones, some order food they’ve never tried before out of curiosity. A few inmates make choices that seem bizarre to others, but make sense to them such as Victor Feguer, hanged in 1963. Feguer requested a single olive, asking that the olive pit be placed in his shirt pocket before he was buried. A strange request unless you know an olive pit is a symbol of rebirth.

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New York’s last execution was of Eddie Lee Mays on August 15, 1963. Mays wanted no food or drink, only a packet of cigarettes and a box of matches. Matches were forbidden for condemned inmates so Mays received his cigarettes, but had to ask guards to light them for him. At San Quentin, one Jewish inmate ordered an elaborate kosher meal then requested his first ham sandwich. San Quentin inmate Wilson De la Roi turned his final meal into a joke. When asked for his choice he wanted a packet of indigestion tablets. Asked why, he chuckled, remarking that he might have gas on his stomach.

All in all, the last meal is many things to many people. To some it’s a kind gesture that should be retained as a final compassionate act. To others it’s not only unnecessary but the prisoners don’t deserve one. To prisoners themselves it can be a gesture of defiance, a chance for one final joke, a last chance to try something new, something to look forward to as the clock ticks down or simply not worth bothering with. It’s certainly far more than simply ordering from a menu.

Wild West – The ‘Gunslinger’ Myth


The stylised version of a Wild West gunfight. These almost never happened.
The stylised version of a Wild West gunfight. These almost never happened.

The Wild West, home of many colourful (often disreputable) characters. Native Americans, gold prospectors, gamblers, cattle ranchers, miners and immigrants scrambled to extend the new frontier. They spread further West in search of their fortunes. With law-abiding, hard-working citizens came criminals. The most notorious were gunslingers, hired guns who’d rob a bank one month, protect a cattle baron the next and then be hired as a town Marshal the month after that. Being a gunslinger didn’t automatically make a man a criminal, some of the best-known were both law enforcers and lawbreakers at different times.

Gunslingers in popular culture.

The popular image of gunslingers comes from cheap novels and films and it’s far more fiction than fact. Hollywood would have us believe that hired guns were either all good (like Gary Cooper’s portrayal in the classic film ‘High Noon’) or all bad (like Michael Biehn’s portrayal of Johnny Ringo in ‘Tombstone’). This black-and-white idea doesn’t reflect reality. Pop culture’s image is often a slow-talking, fast-drawing lone gunman riding into town, taking on several men at once while wearing one or two pistols in low-slung hip holsters and, naturally, letting them draw first before instantly killing all of them. He’ll probably indulge in a drawn-out, climactic gunfight, standing opposite his opponent in the middle of a street for several minutes, each waiting for the other to make the first move. The ‘good guy’ lets the ‘bad guy’ draw first but still wins, naturally.

This portrayal is, frankly, rubbish. Gunslingers weren’t even called gunslingers during the ‘Wild West’ period. They didn’t wear the standard ‘gunfighter’s rig’ of a low-slung hip holster tied to their thigh for a faster draw Many didn’t favour the pistol as their primary weapon. Drawn-out standoffs were almost non-existent, as were single gunslingers choosing to fight multiple opponents single-handed unless they absolutely had to. Few made public show of their skills with trick shooting or fancy pistol-twirling in saloons or on street corners (notable exceptions were ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok and the infamous John Wesley Hardin). They were seldom always lawmen or outlaws and frequently both at different points in their careers (some even managed to hold public office as sheriffs or marshals while operating as vigilantes, assassins, extortioners and general criminals). Pop culture’s version of the gunslinger hasn’t made them more interesting, its dumbed down who these men were, what they did and how they did it while ignoring the more complex aspects.

‘Shootists’ – The reality.

According to etymologist Barry Popik the word ‘gunslinger’ didn’t come into use until the 1920 movie ‘Drag Harlan’ and then in the novels of famed Western author Zane Grey who first used it in his 1928 novel ‘Nevada.’ The word ‘gunfighter’ first appeared in the 1870’s. Wild West gunmen were more commonly known as ‘shootists’, ‘badmen’, ‘pistoleers’ or ‘pistoleros’ (a Spanish word for ‘gunman’). Granted, the word ‘gunslinger’ sounds good, but it first appeared long after gunslingers themselves ceased to exist. Feared gunman Clay Allison is believed to have coined the most popular term of the period when asked about his occupation by replying “I’m a shootist.”

The commonly-accepted gunfighter's rig. They didn't wear these, either.
The commonly-accepted gunfighter’s rig. They didn’t wear these, either.

Pop culture would also have us believe that gunmen wore customised gunbelts and holsters, the standard ‘gunfighter’s rig.’ They didn’t. The stereotypical ‘gunfighter’s rig’ beloved of movie directors the world over didn’t exist during the period. It came into being in the 1950’s when ‘quick draw’ contests with blank-firing revolvers became a competitive sport. The low-slung holster tied down to a man’s thigh simply didn’t exist.

Also almost non-existent was the idea of two fighters walking out into a street, facing each other and then fighting a ‘quick draw’ duel. If a real gunfighter drew quickly it was usually because an opponent had tried to ambush them. Most one-on-one gunfights resulted from personal disputes such as over women or during card games where insults were exchanged and guns drawn immediately. The idea of Wild West gunfights having any resemblance to European duelling is best left in dime novels and movie theaters where it belongs. Only two such face-to-face duels are on record as having actually happened, between ‘Wild Bill’ and Davis Tutt in Deadwood, South Dakota (Hickok killed Tutt with a remarkable single pistol shot at a range of over fifty meters) and between Jim Courtright and Luke Short (Short killed Courtright with a volley of four bullets, not a surgically-delivered single shot. Gunfights like those in the ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ directed by Sergio Leone are wonderful viewing, but bear almost no relation to reality.

Gunfighters of the time were also far more sensible than to tackle multiple opponents single-handed unless they absolutely had to. One extremely rare example was the notorious ‘Four dead in five seconds’ gunfight in Austin, Texas. Gunfighter Dallas Stoudenmire (employed as town Marshal at the time) used his two pistols to kill four men, three of whom  had ambushed him. Unfortunately the fourth was an innocent bystander already running for cover when the shooting started.

Tools of the trade.

A 'coach gun' used by stagecoach guards. Many gunslingers preferred these over revolvers including John 'Doc' Holliday and William Bonney AKA 'Billy the Kid.'
A ‘coach gun’ used by stagecoach guards. Many gunslingers preferred these over revolvers including John ‘Doc’ Holliday and William Bonney AKA ‘Billy the Kid.’

Another myth is that gunfighters all preferred revolvers. In films they draw one or two pistols, empty them without seeming to aim and, naturally, kill every opponent without missing or accidentally shooting anybody else. Any pistol marksman will tell you that holding a revolver with one hand and fanning the hammer with the other is the worst way to shoot accurately. In reality, most gunmen favoured the ‘coach gun’ (a short-barrelled shotgun used by stagecoach guards, hence the phrase ‘riding shotgun’) or rifles like the 1873 Winchester. Legendary gunman Ben Thompson was a firm devotee of the shotgun, as was John ‘Doc’ Holliday’ of OK Corall fame. Billy the Kid always preferred a Winchester rifle. The reason was simple. Shotguns and rifles are more accurate than pistols so killing with the first shot was more likely. It was pointless drawing a pistol quickly if you couldn’t hit your target before they hit you. As Wyatt Earp once put it “Fast is fine. Accurate is final.”

Some gunfighters bucked that trend. Clay Allison, Dallas Stoudenmire and Frank and Jesse James all preferred pistols, but they were exceptions. Small pistols like the Derringer were tiny, often firing only one or two shots instead of the six rounds in a typical revolver. They were easily-concealed ‘hideout guns’ often hidden in waistcoat pocket or boot by gamblers for use at a poker table. Similar guns were  made for women and nicknamed ‘muff pistols’ because they were often carried in the fur-lined hand-warmers fashionable among women of the time. Whether picking a fight over a poker game or trying to rob a female stagecoach passenger, these small guns often fired large-calibre bullets, much to the distress of many an outlaw.

As time went on single-shot, muzzle-loading weapons were replaced by ‘repeating’ guns like the revolver, shotgun and breech-loading rifles such as the 1873 Winchester. Gunfighters now had weapons enabling them to deliver greater firepower with less time spent reloading their weapons. Samuel Colt’s ‘Peacemaker’ revolver was accurate, powerful and instantly outdated other evolvers by being the first to use all-inclusive metal cartridges. The new cartridges rendered old-school ‘cap and ball’ revolvers obsolete almost overnight. These need the user to fill each individual chamber with gunpowder, add a lead pistol ball and some wadding, ram the ball, powder and wadding into each chamber using a lever under the barrel and then fit a percussion cap over each chamber. Only then is a ‘cap and ball’ revolver fully loaded. The ‘Peacemaker’ could be reloaded simply by shaking out the spent metal cartridges and replacing them. Improved weapons meant increased firepower. Increased firepower was essential in the evolution of the gunslinger.

Rise of the hired gun.

 

Legendary gunslinger ‘Wild Bill’ Hickock.

So what created the gunslinger? Why was there a need for hired guns rather than the police forces we know today? In a word, necessity. Law enforcement was at best basic. Individual US Marshals could find their territory extended over hundreds of square miles. County Sheriff had the same problem. There was simply too much ground containing too many people for such limited law enforcement to deal with. Outlaws could easily evade even the most persistent Marshals and Sheriffs simply by crossing State lines, putting themselves beyond the legal jurisdiction of their pursuers. The court system on the frontier consisted largely of ‘Circuit Judges’ (a term still used today). Individual judges were allotted a ‘circuit’ of towns and rode round and round conducting trials and any other legal business that had amassed since their last visit. Jails were insecure and their staff often corrupt, so even when criminals were arrested they often easily escaped. Authorities could also offer rewards for wanted outlaws on a ‘dead or alive’ basis, encouraging many gunslingers to work as bounty hunters. With rewards offered ‘dead or alive’ many bounty hunters found it safer to simply kill wanted outlaws, deliver their bodies and collect their reward. It was safer than the additional risks associated with delivering live outlaws into custody for the same amount of money. Bounty hunters of the time were sometimes referred to as ‘bounty killers’ because, to them, fugitives were worth the same alive or dead.

The gunfighter – Hero or villain?

With the vastly inadequate official systems available, many towns hired their own sheriffs and marshals. Naturally, the job required men who were expert with guns and bold enough to fight when necessary. Not every expert marksman was also prepared to face ruthless criminals for a sheriff’s wage. So townsfolk often turned to whoever was prepared to do the job, often hiring gunfighters based on their fearsome reputation rather than their regard for the law. Notorious outlaws ‘Curly Bill’ Brocius (later killed by Wyatt Earp) and William Bonney (known as ‘Billy the Kid’) were also sheriff’s deputies at one time. Even the infamous John ‘Doc’ Holliday, one of the most feared gunmen of the Wild West, was also deputised by his long-time friend and Deputy US Marshal Wyatt Earp after the famed ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ in Tombstone, Arizona. Equally notorious killer Ben Thompson served as Chief of Police in Austin, Texas, despite having previously served a sentence for murder.

Businessmen also hired groups of gunslingers to protect their lives and their interests. Famed cattle baron John Chisum once employed ‘Billy the Kid’ as a gunman and to protect his livestock against cattle rustlers. Mining companies often employed notorious gunmen such as Butch Cassidy to escort shipments of newly-minted bullion and payrolls, ensuring their safe arrival by hiring gunmen who might otherwise try robbing those very shipments. In the absence of adequate official law enforcement many people sought their own version by employing as sheriffs and marshals exactly the kind of people they hoped to be protected from. Famed marksman Tom Horn (later hanged for murder) was a sheriff’s deputy and a Pinkerton detective while performing contract murders at the same time. Jim Courtright was a town marshal when he fought his famous duel with Luke Short. Being town marshal hadn’t stopped Courtright from trying to extort Short. It didn’t stop Courtright killing him, either. Wyatt Earp was heavily involved in gambling (and, some say, pimping) while also serving as a Deputy US Marshal.

Men of dubious reputations weren’t everybody’s first choice as law enforcers, but then they were often the only men available to do the job. The frontier territories, with their cattle ranches, mining towns, railroads and various other lucrative businesses and limited law enforcement, offered rich pickings for outlaws prepared to rob, extort and kill anybody opposing them. Law-abiding citizens had to hire their own gunmen and sometimes resort to vigilante justice through lynch mobs. Until the law was fully established the gun took precedence.

One last thought on the gunslinger myth is that pop culture isn’t entirely to blame. To develop and keep their credibility gunmen had to be regarded as people to both respect and fear. The more feared they were, the fewer challenges they were likely to face. With that in mind, many gunfighters built myths around themselves, made themselves seem as skilled (and therefore deadly) as they could get away with. John Wesley Hardin was a notorious braggart. Clay Allison was the same. If gunfighters are so badly misrepresented in the modern world then they are also to blame.

Death on Wheels – Mississippi’s Travelling Executioner.


The retribution roadshow
The retribution roadshow

Execution has long been part of criminal history. Its more hawkish supporters consider it society’s ultimate sanction for the very worst offenders. Less enthusiastic supporters regard it as a necessary evil and a deterrent to other criminals even while acknowledging its distasteful nature. Opponents believe it’s no deterrent at all, is applied on an arbitrary basis and makes society as uncivilised and barbarous as the inmates executed.

We’re not discussing the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, the most humane (or least inhumane) execution methods, wrongful convictions or excessive use of the death sentence. Like it or not it exists and the history of crime is incomplete without the history of punishment. It has to be said that punishment is sometimes delivered by unusual means and unusual people. The State of Mississippi adopted an especially unusual means. Its executioner was certainly one of criminal history’s more unusual people.

Mississippi has a somewhat chequered history regarding crime and punishment. Brutal prison conditions, corruption, racism and an almost-complete absence of rehabilitation were long cornerstones of its penal policy. When rape was a capital crime not a single white Mississipian was executed, although many were convicted. Black rapists, on the other hand, especially those whose victim was white, knew that conviction meant almost certain death. It was only slightly less biased regarding murder. Records show that since Mississippi achieved statehood the vast majority of inmates executed have been black. Even today, a black murderer, especially of a white victim, is far more likely to die than a white murderer whose victim was black. According to statistics released in the 1980’s black murderers are four times more likely to receive a death sentence than white ones, a discrepancy reflecting poorly on the American ideal of all citizens being equal under the law.

How it used to be.
How it used to be.

Mississippi originally employed hanging as its means of execution. Responsibility for executions was left to the county where the crime was committed. During the 1930’s Mississippi had a number of bungled hangings, especially that of murderer Gary Fairley in 1932. These created a strong desire in some quarters for a centralised system where the State took control, with a single purpose-built facility for confining and executing inmates and a newer, supposedly more humane execution method. In the 1930’s Mississippi also had the highest murder rate of any US State, so retaining capital punishment rather than abolition was the prevailing public and political mood.

There were some serious obstacles to this idea. Being Mississippi’s only maximum-security prison at the time the Mississippi State Penitentiary (also known as ‘Parchman Farm’ or simply ‘Parchman’) was the obvious location. Unfortunately Parchman’s chief, Superintendant Marvin Wiggins, was firmly opposed to locating Death Row at his prison. Wiggins was firmly opposed to executions at Parchman, was a shrewd political operator and had friends in high places. He wasn’t alone. Parchman is in Sunflower County and local residents firmly opposed having their county associated with executions. They feared Sunflower would be stigmatized as the ‘death county.’ They loathed the idea of playing host to executions and dreaded an influx of condemned inmates with nothing to lose by rioting and attempting escape. They and Superintendent Wiggins also feared increased unrest at Parchman, already one of the most notorious prisons in the US. According to author David Oshinsky in his book ‘Worse than Slavery’ one local politician stated: ‘Place that thing at Parchman and you’ll have riots and a wholesale breakout to descend hundreds of criminals down upon our people.’ Parchman has long been notorious for the brutality and harshness of its regime and for the high levels of violence by inmates and staff alike. Bad enough that Sunflower was already known for Parchman, but even worse if it became known as the ‘death county’ as well. Residents weren’t alone in that. No other county wanted to be known mainly for executions, either.

Tradition also played its part. Hangings had always been conducted under county jurisdiction. If a prisoner was condemned in a particular county then that was where they also died. Many believed that public hangings performed locally reassured law-abiding communities and intimidated their criminals. Local executions also made punishment more relevant to local communities and less remote than if done in one place alone. If change was to be made, then the State needed to take control of executions while retaining their visibility, avoiding stigmatizing any one county and providing a less inhumane method than regularly-bungled hangings. A compromise solution was needed and Mississippi authorities found one.

In 1940 the change was made. Electrocution replaced hanging as Mississippi’s method of execution. But it didn’t involve a purpose-built facility like the infamous ‘Death House’ at New York’s notorious Sing Sing Prison. It involved, for the first time in American history, a portable electric chair. The chair would be taken from county to county in a large silver truck also carrying a generator, switchboard, cables and all the standard equipment for performing electrocutions that any other prison might use. Mississippi was literally taking its show on the road and providing death on wheels. The equipment for his new job was purpose built. A firm in Memphis constructed a portable generator, 600 feet of high tension cables and the chair itself including electrodes and straps according to the usual specifications adopted by other States. A large silver truck capable of hauling the equipment from county to county was purchased. The equipment and its transporter were far cheaper than a purpose-built ‘death house’ like Sing Sing’s which appealed to politicians and taxpayers alike.

If the method seems curious then that’s because it had never been done before. In fact, nobody had even built a portable electric chair, let alone used one. The State of Louisiana adopted a similar arrangement and the US Army also adopted it, although the Army retained professional hangmen as a second option. The method, however, was infinitely less unusual than the new executioner.

The new ‘State Executioner’ was Jimmy Thompson, an ex-convict, ex-merchant sailor, frequent drunkard, carnival showman, stage hypnotist and ex-Marine only recently pardoned in 1939 after serving time at Parchman for armed robbery. He also had a violent past. During the 1920’s Thompson had shot a neighbour for insulting his mother, escaping prosecution only via an unwritten law of Southern life that said a man was allowed to shoot another man to defend a woman’s body or personal reputation. Needless to say this law only extended to white men and certainly didn’t extend to black men shooting white men on similar grounds.

Thompson was a curious character to put it mildly. He’d scratched a living on the carnival circuit as a stage hypnotist performing under the aliases ‘Doctor Zogg’, ‘Doctor Alzedi Yogi’ and, appropriately, ‘Doctor Stingaree.’ Like many former sailors and soldiers he was heavily tattooed. He was a natural performer and exhibitionist. He loved to entertain friends and acquaintances with hypnosis, often while sharing copious amounts of illegal moonshine. He secured the job through political patronage as it was awarded by then-State Governor Paul Johnson. Thompson and Johnson were old friends and often went shooting together so it was no great surprise that Thompson was chosen from six applicants, five of whom didn’t know Governor Johnson personally.

By September, 1940 the equipment was ready for its public unveiling in the State capital at Jackson. Thompson arrived, set up his grim equipment, fired up the generator and worked the controls, cycling the voltage up and down to the deafening sound of the generator and unnerving whine as the current wound up and down . According to an article in Life magazine dated October 7, 1940: ‘Crowds saw a big silver truck, a portable generator and a sturdy chair complete with helmet straps and electrodes. Beside it stood Mississippi’s new executioner, Jimmy Thompson, ex-sailor, marine, carnival man and high tension expert. No less proud of his chair than of the black cat, snakes and strawberries tattooed on his velvety skin, he explained that he and his volts would travel from county to county as business required’

Other press reports were far less favourable. The Memphis Commercial Appeal bitterly criticized the exhibition as barbaric and tasteless, stating: ‘The only thing lacking at Thursday’s formal and public exhibition of the State’s new electric chair was a victim.’ At $100 per execution plus expenses Thompson was as keen to start work as the State was to demonstrate its new concept. It wasn’t long before both would be satisfied.

Thompson's first 'customer.' Note Thompson's hand working the switch,.
Thompson’s first ‘customer.’ Note Thompson’s hand working the switch,.

Like most of Mississippi’s condemned Willie Mae Bragg was black. He’d been convicted of murdering his ex-wife in Lucedale . With the State keen to demonstrate its new method and Bragg inspiring no sympathy in appellate judges it was no great surprise that he was first in line. His date of execution was October 11, 1940. Bragg fully expected to die, but didn’t know he was about to make State and penal history. He would be the first convict to die in a portable electric chair. Another black Mississipian, Hilton Fortenberry, was executed on the same day in Jackson. Hortenberry was the last Mississipian to hang. As a black murderer of a white retired police officer, Hortenberry knew full well his appeal was only a formality. While Fortenberry hanged in Jackson, Bragg ‘burned’ in Lucedale. It was an historic day for Mississippi. Out with the old, in with the new.

With his appeal denied, Bragg’s execution was assured. Thompson arrived at Lucedale Courthouse on October 10 to set up what he nicknamed ‘My killing machine.’ After some fairly basic tests to ensure all was ready, ‘Dr. Stingaree’ and Willie Mae Bragg were all set to make history. Press interest was considerable both within and outside Mississippi. Electrocutions themselves were nothing new and Bragg was a typical Death Row inmate, but a portable electric chair was a world first. If all went well Mississippi could trumpet the effectiveness and reliability of its new invention. If things went badly then the press would have an even bigger story. Either way, Jimmy Thompson would be centre stage and nobody involved was especially concerned about Willie Mae Bragg.

It’s also highly unlikely that anybody considered the dreadful fate of William Kemmler at New York’s Auburn Prison in August, 1889. The world’s first judicial electrocution had been a nightmarish exhibition of just how badly wrong untested methods can go. Whether the portable version would be equally appalling remained to be seen. By this point Hilton Fortenberry was largely ignored. Journalists were far more interested in this latest innovation whether it worked properly or not. Death on wheels was far more newsworthy than yet another hanging. So newsworthy, in fact, that a photographer from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger was on hand throughout, taking a series of pictures while standing only feet away from the chair itself.

The potential for horrendous problems was large. Granted, judicial electrocution had been considerably refined since William Kemmler, but that had been done using permanently-sited and largely-standardised equipment operated by experienced professionals. Furthermore, New York and many other States using electrocution insisted on employing only executioners who were already qualified, experienced electricians. Many ‘State Electricians’ worked in the electricity industry prior to their appointment as executioners. Mississippi on the other hand was about to test a generator, switchboard, cables and electrodes that had been bounced around in a truck for hundreds of miles before its first use. They were also employing an executioner with no electrical repair or maintenance skills who, as far as we know, had never performed an execution. Electrocution was a familiar concept, but this way of using it was anything but familiar.

It was totally untested, nobody knew if it would work. The generator, cables, switchboard and electrodes could malfunction. If any of the equipment malfunctioned Bragg might receive no current, receive too much (and be burnt to death) or receive too little (and be slowly cooked alive). Thompson himself claimed that both he and his assistant had been trained by experienced ‘electrocutioners’ but he’d never actually electrocuted anybody and had a reputation for excessive drinking. Even if the equipment functioned perfectly, the man operating it might not. Anybody worried about potential problems had ample reason to be.

As it was their worries were unfounded. Thompson did his job, the equipment worked perfectly and Bragg died as quickly and cleanly as he could have done. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger thoughtfully provided explicit captions with its photographs. As Bragg was being prepared the caption read: ‘At the left Bragg sits in the chair and watches as guards strap his arms.’ Accompanying a photograph taken while the current was switched on another caption read: ‘The picture at the right was made as the first flash of electricity surged through his body. Note Bragg’s hands gripping the chair and his neck bulging in death’s throes.’ Thompson, always ready to supply a grim, attention-grabbing comment, stated that Bragg had died: ‘With tears in his eyes for the efficient care I took to give him a good, clean burning.’ It wasn’t until the remarkable failed electrocution of Willie Francis in Louisiana in 1946 that the technical pitfalls of portable electrocution would be shown in horrifying fashion.

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger had its banner headline and exclusive photographs, Thompson had his first fee and the new method had been proved sound. The Clarion-Ledger also managed something very rare in criminal history by photographing the execution. Previously, the only live image of an electrocution had been taken secretly at New York’s Sing Sing Prison in January, 1928 by newspaper photographer Tom Howard. His secretly-snapped image of Ruth Snyder, taken only seconds after executioner Robert Elliott threw the switch, clearly shows Snyder as 2000 volts flowed through her body and is still one of the most famous images in media history. After the Snyder execution, prison officials in many states thoroughly searched witnesses before executions and even today it’s strictly forbidden to  photograph or film an execution in any US State.

Thompson himself was effusive about his successful debut and subsequent ‘fry parties’ as he charmingly called them. True to form, an interview given to Craddock Gains (writing for the American Mercury) Thompson supplied some choice comments. Thompson seemed to think condemned inmates were grateful for his apparent skill at killing them, stating that he told each of them: ‘Brother, I sure appreciate your trade. I’m going to show my appreciation by giving you a nice clean job. I’m going to give you the prettiest death a guy can have.’

Describing how he thought inmates regarded him Thompson delivered a curious response. Mississippi had several inmates already condemned to hang when electrocution replaced the gallows. These inmates were given a choice between being hanged or electrocuted and, according to Thompson, it was a measure of their faith in his ability that all those with a choice chose electrocution. He even believed that the condemned were grateful to die at the hands of so skilled an executioner, stating: ‘You can’t imagine how much that helps a poor peckerwood in the death chamber unless you have seen the grateful eyes these men turn upon me when they place themselves in my hands. I guess I just have a talent for this sort of thing. Condemned men seem to trust me, and I never let ’em down.’

Mississippi authorities were far more co-operative with the press than elsewhere in the country.. The angle, distance and clarity of the pictures prove the photographer was only feet away from the chair and obviously photographing quite openly. They not only co-operated but actively encouraged the photographer in his work. The images, unpleasant though they are, are valuable in their rarity. Thompson, being a natural showman, seems utterly unaffected by his grim work and to positively revel in the notoriety he attracted. Future events showed that those in authority had no problem with his professional skill, but were probably far less enthused by his self-publicising antics between executions.

Thompson continued as ‘travelling executioner’ for several more years, but his lucrative notoriety didn’t last. In December, 1944 a new State Governor was elected, replacing his close friend and original employer Paul Johnson. Governor Thomas Bailey lost no time in finding a replacement, although his reasons remain unclear. No official records exist of Thompson’s being hired and fired but in December, 1946 a report appeared in the Jackson Daily News detailing a shooting accident in which Thompson was slightly wounded. The report also describes him as the ‘former State executioner.’ Thompson could have been replaced for several reasons. Political patronage was an important factor in being employed by the State and, without a patron, finding or keeping State employment was difficult. The new Governor might have employed a friend or acquaintance as his predecessor had done. Thompson’s heavy drinking and perpetual exhibitionism could have been distasteful enough that Bailey wanted somebody less bizarre and more discreet or Thompson himself may have simply decided to move on. We’ll probably never know whether Thompson resigned or was fired, nor of who replaced him. There are no official records of either his appointment or his departure. The most likely replacement would have been his assistant (whose name has never been revealed) or possibly an executioner from another State.

This wouldn’t be unusual. Executioners at the time were often private contractors employed by multiple States. Most of New York’s executioners did brisk business with neighboring States like New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Connecticut. Robert Elliott was employed by all those States at the same time. Elliott was so busy that on January 6, 1928 he executed six men in two different States on the same day. Elliott performed three electrocutions at the Massachusetts State Prison that morning before taking a train to New York and another triple execution that night. We don’t know whether Thompson resigned or was fired. What we do know is that his being replaced coincided almost exactly with Bailey’s election and Johnson’s departure.

Jimmy Thompson was gone. His ‘killing machine’ wasn’t. During its 15-year tenure the chair executed 73 inmates. 56 black men, 16 white men and 1 black woman died in courthouses and county jails all over Mississippi. Nearly a dozen were still juveniles aged under 21. Willie McGee, convicted of rape in what many still consider a blatant injustice, achieved international attention. His case went to the US Supreme Court 3 times during his eight years awaiting execution. Celebrities such as William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker spoke out against his execution and President Harry Truman came under international pressure to commute McGee’s sentence. Even Soviet spy Julius Rosenberg, himself awaiting execution in Sing Sing Prison for espionage, publicly condemned McGee’s case as a demonstration of all that was wrong with American society.

McGee was executed at the Laurel County Courthouse on May 8, 1951 in the same courtroom in which he’d been convicted in 1945. True to form, the Mississippi media made an impression. There were no photographs this time, but a local radio station broadcast a commentary that was syndicated nationwide. The recording of McGee’s final half-hour is available online for those who can stomach listening to the generator noise rising and falling at the moment of McGee’s death while locals cheer and shout the Civil War-era ‘Rebel Yell’ in the background. It’s not easy listening but, like the Willie Mae Bragg photographs, is still an important part of the historical record.

Jimmy Thompson died in a traffic accident on October 12, 1952. He was a passenger in a pick-up truck when it crashed and Thompson was thrown from the vehicle, suffering fatal injuries. He was 56 years old when he died. He left a sister and five brothers, but no children of his own. His life and work later formed the basis for the movie ‘The Travelling Executioner’ starring Stacy Keach as Jonas Candide, a very-thinly veiled version of Thompson himself. Released in 1970 it performed poorly at the box office, being widely considered as simply too unusual to be a mainstream hit. Nor was it an entirely accurate portrayal of Jimmy Thompson and his occupation. That said, Thompson himself would have been highly gratified to be portrayed by so famous an actor and the dialogue makes it absolutely clear that Thompson’s life and work inspired the movie.

Mississippi's first 'gassee' Gerald Gallego Senior. Gerald Junior also ended up on Death Row.
Mississippi’s first ‘gassee’ Gerald Gallego Senior. Gerald Junior also ended up on Death Row.

Mississippi continued using the portable electric chair until James Johnson was executed on November 10, 1954. In 1955 it was replaced by what Superintendent Wiggins and the residents of Sunflower County had always feared. A gas chamber was installed at Parchman and a unit of the prison set aside to house only condemned inmates. The first Mississippi convict to die by gassing was Gerald Gallego, a double-murderer and escaped convict. Unlike the portable electric chair, Mississippi’s gas chamber had a nightmarish debut and Gallego suffered for over 45 minutes before dying. Despite this disaster Mississippi continued using the gas chamber until 1989 when the method changed again to lethal injection. Prisoners condemned prior to the change were given the option of choosing gas or injection and today lethal injection is the sole method used in Mississippi. The location was still Parchman. Death Row had finally come to Sunflower County and business was still reasonably brisk.

The then-new gas chamber at Parchman.
The then-new gas chamber at Parchman.

Local residents and even prison staff at Parchman still adhere to a curious tradition reflecting the long battle to keep executions out of Sunflower County. Mississippi’s condemned are housed at what prison staff call the ‘Maximum Security Unit’ or ‘MSU.’ Even today, despite executions and their location being public knowledge, Parchman still doesn’t officially have a Death Row If you visit, you’ll probably be told they don’t have one and be directed to the ‘MSU’ instead. Even today the ghosts of long-dead Mississipians, local residents and condemned inmates alike, still dispute one of the darkest aspects of Mississippi’s history.

Famous (and not so famous) Last Words.


A person’s last words are often revealing, telling us something about them and their outlook on the life. Coming, as they do, right before that person’s death, it often doesn’t really matter to that person what they say or how it’s interpreted afterwards. From the intentionally funny (gangster George Appel), to the philosophical (spy Mata Hari), to the steely and courageous (Marshal Michel Ney), to the defiant (Australian soldier William ‘Breaker’ Morant), all usually tell us something, even if it’s only what they were thinking or feeling at their final moment.

download mata hari

Supposed superspy Mata Hari, for example, is quoted as saying in her final letter before the firing squad in 1917 ‘Everything is an illusion.’ A philosophical remark, you might say but, given that she was less a master spy and more an expendable dupe served up on a plate to appease French ‘spy fever rampant in 1917, could just as easily have been a comment on her entire existence. She was never a Balinese exotic dancer, her alias ‘Mata Hari (meaning Eye of the Dawn’ in Javanese) should have been ‘Eye of the Storm’ as she merrily blundered her way around war-torn Europe, bouncing from one scrape to another until her own naivete finally sealed her doom.

Queen Elizabeth I was equally philosophical, summing up the feeling, perhaps, of many a dying person who knows the end is near:

“All my possessions for one moment of time.”

New York gangster George Appel opted for humour, albeit of a distinctly tasteless variety. In 1927 he’d been convicted of capital murder. In 1928 he’d just walked his ‘last mile’ between the ‘death house’ cells and execution chamber at the notorious Sing Sing Prison and was standing right in front of the electric chair when he made one final statement to the reporters and officials who’d come to watch him sit in the infamous ‘hot seat’ and ‘ride the lightning.’ His final words?:

“Well, folks. You’ll shortly be seeing a baked Appel.”

In 1966, Oklahoma murderer James French, the last Oklahoman to be electrocuted before that State switched (no pun intended) to lethal injection, opted for similarly-tasteless food-based wittery. His response to reporters talking to him hours before his execution was blunt and to the point:

“Hey fellas! How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s papers? ‘French Fries.'”

One of the most famous, unintentional and wildly inaccurate final statements comes from the American Civil War and General John Sedgwick. During the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864 Sedgwick, wanting to inspire by example some nervy staff officers, stood up to his full height in spite of Confederate gunfire and loudly declaimed:

‘They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist-“

Unfortunately for the suddenly-late General Sedgwick, they could. And they just had.

Douglas Fairbanks was equally off-the-mark. Shortly before suffering a fatal heart attack in 1939 he rose up in his bed (having had a previous heart attack only hours before) and uttered a remark that proved far more immortal than its originator:

“I’ve never felt better…”

Oops, Dougie. You might have been wrong on that one.

Repentance for past sins is a hardy perennial when choosing one’s final, parting words. Former Continental Army General Benedict Arnold, who had betrayed his American comrades to the British and spent his final years in exile, departed his rather sad and depressing existence thus:

“Let me die in the old uniform in which I fought my battles for freedom. May God forgive me for putting on another…”

Decidedly less repentant was New Mexico outlaw Tom ‘Black Jack’ Ketchum in 1901. Complaining bitterly about being hanged at dawn, and being denied a final breakfast in the process, he loudly declaimed:

“I’ll be in Hell before you start breakfast! Ler her rip, boys!”

They did. The length of drop was too long for a man Ketchum’s burly height and weight and the noose neatly (and messily) beheaded him when he reached the end of the rope. Still, at least he wasn’t hungry for too long.

The last word on, well, last words, rightly goes to Napoleon’s favourite general after the disastrous Battle of Waterloo in 1915. Marshal Michel Ney was legendary for his courage, known in fact as ‘The bravest of the brave’ for his seemingly total fearlessness on battlefields all across Europe. Originally sent to capture Napoleon after his escape from exile on the island of Elba, Ney instead threw in his lot with his former Emperor and turned traitor in the process. On being captured, tried and condemned for treason, Ney was asked the night before his execution if he had any last requests and he did. Remarkably, he wanted to command his own firing squad. And the authorities let him. His final words to his executioners were:

“I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her. Soldiers… Fire!”

Whatever you may think of his turning his coat, Marshal Michel Nay’s courage is not in question.

On Crime And Conversation – Criminal Slang In Everyday Use.


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Crime, it’s a part of human existence. It’s in our culture, our art, our literature, our entertainment. For some of us it’s in our blood. It’s also crossed over into our language. Seemingly normal everyday phrases, the kind most people use without even thinking about their origin, can often have the darkest, most disturbing meanings. So here are some choice examples of criminal slang that even the most law-abiding citizens use all the time:

 

In the clink: This one’s obviously slang for going to prison. It’s an English phrase dating back to the time when all convicts were permanently shackled in manacles or made to wear the ball and chain. Think Magwitch in Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations or ‘I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang’ for this one. Being ‘in clink’ was a reference to constant noise made by convicts as their shackles, balls and chains rattled every time they so much as moved. Go into pretty much any prison museum and you’ll see examples of the manacles, the shackles and the ball-and-chain alongside the old-style convict uniforms with either stripes or arrows all over them. Metal restraints didn’t just restrict a convict’s mobility. The constant rattling and clinking as they moved made it impossible for them to move quietly, important in a time when prisons weren’t always as secure as they are now.

 The third degree: This is American criminal slang, used by cops and robbers alike. Nowadays you’ll hear anybody who’s been on the wrong end of a conversation that seemed overly aggressive and confrontational saying they’ve been given the third degree. Originally, the third degree was a police interrogation involving violence or threats thereof, usually aimed at either getting a prisoner to confess to something, to provide information about their accomplices on a particular crime or otherwise make an unco-operative prisoner rediscover their sense of civic duty. Threats to see that a prisoner fell down the stairs on their way to the cells, to ensure that if they didn’t co-operate or confess their sentence would be far heavier than if they did and officers giving them a good hiding then saying they started the ruckus was standard practice, hence some American police officers nicknaming the baseball bat the ‘Alabama lie-detector.’. The ultimate in the third degree was officers demanding a confession if the prisoner didn’t want to be shot while trying to escape.

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Bootleg:  Anybody familiar with Prohibition, Al Capone, the Untouchables and crime in general will have heard and used the word ‘bootleg.’ If you’re into music then you’ll certainly have heard of ‘bootleg recordings’ and might even own a few. Originally it refers to the trade between the early European settlers and Native Americans. Native Americans were forbidden access to alcohol and in Puritan settlements even those living there weren’t supposed to imbibe the demon drink. To do business with the Native Americans some European settlers would meet them and bring illegal whiskey, gin, rum and many other spirits to trade, hiding them in the legs of their high boots. It’s surprising how many fifths of Scotch you can hide in a high boot even while you’re wearing it, hence the trade was often lucrative and hard to stamp out. Prohibition existed long before the dark days when Chicago became a warzone. So did bootleggers.

 Bobby: Another one from Merrie Old England, this. Every Brit and most foreigners will have heard of British beat cops being called ‘Bobbies.’ In London the tourist traps and souvenir stalls often sell plastic police helmets and miniature truncheons. But even a lot of us Brits don’t know why we call them ‘Bobbies’ even though it’s a common nickname. It’s simple. In the days before policing as we know it today, London was rife with crime until the beginnings of what we now call the Metropolitan Police. Before the Met existed there were only a few constables employed by the local magistrates and no formal police force until the arrival of the ‘Bow Street Runners.’ The Runners were founded and led by Sir Robert Peel, a senior political figure of his time and even after the Runners were replaced by the Met, the nickname stuck. Brits call British police ‘Bobbies and the Irish often call police officers ‘Peelers’ for the same reason.

On the spot: We’ve all said it, heard it or thought it. When somebody else has said or done something that’s put us in a difficult situation then it’ll be ‘They really put me on the spot’ or something similar. This is an American phrase and it does indeed refer to being put in a difficult position. In America’s gangland to put somebody ‘On the spot’ was to set them up at a particular time and place so they could be murdered. Nowadays people might complain of being put on the spot if they were blamed for somebody else’s misbehaviour or otherwise caught the rough end of a situation they maybe knew nothing about until they were angrily being blamed for something they had nothing to do with. Take heart, unjustly-maligned people everywhere, at least there wasn’t a flashily-dressed psychopath with a scarred face, bad attitude and sawn-off shotgun waiting for you when you got there.

13, Unlucky for some: This one’s so common I can’t imagine many people having never heard it before. So, why is the number 13 unlucky for some and not for others? Simple. London’s criminals knew full well that, at one time in British history, there were over 200 different crimes that could mean a trip to the gallows. Under the notorious ‘Bloody Code’ you could hang for sheep rustling or something as minor as theft of anything worth more than five shillings. While we’re on the subject of crime and punishment, London’s underworld also knew that there are traditionally 13 steps to the top of a scaffold or gallows and the traditional hangman’s knot has 13 turns of the rope. Of course, not every crook sentenced to die actually did and a lot of them managed to escape being caught at all. Hence, 13 was always only unlucky for some.

 Sing Sing's death chamber as it was in August, 1963.

Sing Sing’s ‘hot seat.’

In the hot seat: From Merrie Olde England to the United States once more with this one. Americans being Americans, they’ve always been keen on progress, on new ideas and technologies. That even extends to their use of various weird (and not-so-wonderful) methods of execution. Disdaining the old-fashioned European concept of simply hanging people (not that judicial hanging is actually that simple a simple job) they found something far more modern and progressive. The electric chair AKA ‘The hot seat.’ Nowadays people refer to uncomfortable and difficult situations as being put ‘In the hot seat.’  Over 4000 American convicts might look at people complaining about a difficult job interview or press conference and think ‘My heart bleeds.’ Still, while those convicts were fried like bacon at least they can rest easy that they provided endless fodder for dime novelists and film-makers. After all, an American prison movie wouldn’t be an American prison movie without somebody being dragged from their cell through the ominous green-painted, seldom-opened door at the end of the cellblock, never to return unless, in true Hollywood fashion, the phone rings just as a black-gloved hand is reaching for a large switch.

In Limbo: When people are either describing a situation where they don’t know what’s going to happen they’ll often say things are ‘In Limbo.’ ‘Limbo’ was a nickname for the condemned cells at Newgate Prison (where the Central Criminal Court, the famous ‘Old Bailey,’ stands today. Newgate was also one of London’s ‘hanging jails’ with its own gallows. That gallows was used regularly and often for multiple inmates at a time. At the time, British law meant that condemned inmates were neither legally alive or legally dead. They weren’t legally alive after being condemned, but they weren’t legally dead because they hadn’t been hanged yet. ‘Limbo’, being a slang term for Purgatory (the transitional phase between life and death) became the nickname for the condemned cells and Newgate’s dead men walking were described as ‘In Limbo’ until they were either reprieved or taken to Tyburn to perform an entirely different form of Limbo dance.

Turned off: Nowadays when we describe something as a ‘turn off’ or say ‘I was completely turned off’ we mean that something is off-putting, unpleasant, unenjoyable, distasteful and generally something we’d rather not experience again unless we had to. All of which apply perfectly to the original form of ‘turn off.’ In the days when hanging existed, but conventional gallows hadn’t been designed yet, our ancestors had to find ways to hang people without a proper scaffold. They did, in an improvised kind of way. The prisoner would be taken to a conveniently-sited tree with a noose already tied and waiting. Then the prisoner was forced to climb a ladder before having the noose applied. At a signal, the ladder would be twisted violently so that the prisoner was literally ‘turned off’ and left to slowly choke to death. It wasn’t or another couple of centuries that anything resembling a gallows we would recognise it today was even invented. Lovely.

James Wilson, one of the early 'Poms.'
James Wilson, one of the early ‘Poms.’

Pom: Australians often refer to British folk as ‘Poms’ or Pommies.’ More impolite Australians might refer to ‘whinging Poms’ if they should hear one of us complaining about something. Why do they call us ‘Poms’ or ‘Pommies’? Simple, really. The answer dates back to when Australia was a part of the British Empire and not the independent nation it is today. At the time Australia was initially used as a penal colony where Britain simply exported its convicts and left them there to live or die as best they could. To identify them as convicts (and therefore British government property) they were branded with a set of initials. Yes, that’s right, branded. With a hot iron. Forever burned into their skin were the letters ‘POHM’ short for ‘Prisoner of Her Majesty.’ Hence, today’s Australians have always referred to residents of the mother country as ‘Poms.’ Useful tip if you’re ever visiting, though, is to avoid answering any immigration officer who asks if you’ve any criminal conviction by saying ‘Didn’t know they were still compulsory.’ Just a thought.

So, there you have it. A regular Rogue’s Gallery of phrases that perfectly honest, decent law-abiding folk use every day while having no idea of their criminal origins. At least society’s low-lives have managed to contribute something to human existence, albeit unwittingly and, in some cases, terminally.

 

 

 

Irene Schroeder – Pennsylvania ‘Trigger Woman.’


 Irene Schroeder and Glenn Dague.

Irene Schroeder and Glenn Dague.

 We’re back in Pennsylvania for our latest criminal curiosity. Irene Schroeder, AKA ‘Triiger Woman’, ‘The Blonde Bandit’, ‘Tiger Woman’ and ‘Iron Irene’, was the first woman to be electrocuted in Pennsylvania. Executioner Robert Elliott said that, of all the 387 convicts he executed, that she was the most composed and fearless inmate he ever executed.

She started young, barely 20 years old, hooking up with a married insurance salesman, Sunday school teacher and Boy Scout leader named Glenn Dague. Along for the ride were her brother Tom Crawford and Tom ‘Red’ Wells, an ex-convict Schroeder and Dague picked up on the road in New Mexico. They were essentially a poor man’s Bonnie & Clyde, robbing grocery stores, diners, filling stations in small-time jobs seldom netting more than $100 a job. They also killed and wounded a number of police officers and all the gang members would pay with their lives without ever gaining anything like the lasting fame and pop culture cachet of their more infamous brethren. They were dead and buried before Bonnie & Clyde really got started and the fact that they were finished before the ‘Crime Wave’ of the early 1930’s really got underway saw them achieve only Statewide infamy. Tragic though the story is, with all the gang’s members and several police officers dead, young Donnie Schroeder’s story is the most tragic of all. But we’ll get to that later.

They were responsible for a string of car thefts, armed robberies, several non-fatal shootings, a couple of murders and the kidnap of a Sheriff’s deputy. InOhio, Pennsylvania, Arizona, West Virginia and Ohio their guns blazed and their fingers emptied wallets and cash registers. The beginning of the end came with the murder of Pennsylvania Highway Patrol Corporal Brady Paul. The final nail in their coffins came from evidence unwittingly supplied by her own son Donnie, himself having been taken along for the ride by his murderous mother. What separates this little gang from other Depression-era gangs is their being led by a woman. Bonnie Parker has often been inaccurately and unfairly portrayed as the leader of the Barrow-Parker Gang. She wasn’t. Clyde would never have tolerated anybody else being in charge, especially not a woman. Irene, on the other hand, never left anybody in any doubt as to who ran the show and that included her male accomplices.

After leaving his wife for Irene, Dague lost his job and his posts at the Boy Scouts and Sunday school. It’s highly unlikely that he would have left the straight and narrow had he not met her. That isn’t to say that he didn’t choose to live (and later die) at her side, he did. But Irene was certainly the dominant partner in their relationship. Maybe it would have been better for all involved if she hadn’t been. The other gang members, Crawford had only a minor criminal record while Wells had done time for armed robbery in New Mexico, were your typical Depression-era bottom-feeders and of no note other than their links to Irene Schroeder. Crawford and Wells would come to regret those links as much as anybody.

Their spree began in August, 1029. Schroeder, Dague and Crawford loaded up a Buick, put Donnie in the back seat and set off in search of places to rob. It wasn’t long before their did their first job. On September 1, 1929 the Meadowland Inn in Cadiz, ohio was robbed. The job went perfectly with no gun-play and convinced our terrible trio that armed robbery. Four days later they were in Moundsville, West Virginia robbing a diner and filling station belonging to Jack Cotts. Another simple, small-time job resulted in a $70 haul and, again, no gunplay. Then it all started to go wrong.

Corporal Brady Paul, one of several men who died as a result of meeting Irene Schroeder.
Corporal Brady Paul, one of several men who died as a result of meeting Irene Schroeder.

So far, their luck had been miraculous. They’d committed a string of small robberies without so much as a shot fired and evaded a large-scale dragnet in three separate States. The Moundsville robbery had even been pinned on a different couple, much to Irene Schroeder’s amusement. It was on December 27, 1929 in Butler, Pennsylvania that everything went wrong. They robbed Kroger’s grocery store in Butler. Mr. Kroger was a rarity in those days. He had a telephone, and he knew the number of the police. Fleeing their latest job unaware that they were already being targeted for arrest, they were caught at a roadblock manned by Corporal Paul and Sheriff’s Deputy Ernest Moore. Paul and Moore went down in an exchange of fire that saw the Buick left with several bullet holes, Corporal Paul dying and Deputy Moore seriously wounded. Now it was a capital murder hunt, not just small-time robberies. The gang disappeared, seemingly without trace

Having to abandon their car, they stole another at gunpoint and fled the scene. The abandoned car was traced to one Henry Crawford, Irene Schroeder’s father, In the car was a red scarf identified as belonging to the female shooter by Deputy Moore. He also identified her as Irene Schroeder. Deputy Moore was with police in Wheeling, West Virginia when they visited Henry Crawford to question him when he recognised someone else from the roadblock. It was Donnie Schroeder. Donnie, doubtless unaware he was signing his mother and uncle’s death warrants, told police:

“I saw my Mama shoot a cop! Uncle Tom shot another one in the head.” 

The gang’s fate was sealed. Pennsylvania wasn’t the most hawkish State regarding the death penalty, but cop killers could expect swift justice tempered with little mercy (Paul Jawarski, for example). If caught the gang could expect to die, even Irene if the jury didn’t recommend mercy. Always assuming, of course, that the gang themselves didn’t die in a last stand or some police officers become a little overzealous after the cold-blooded murder of Corporal Paul. Whether the gang died at the hands of police officers or the executioner made no difference. Dead is dead. On January 30, 1930 the gang finally resurfaced in Florence, Arizona (ironically now the location of ‘supermax’ prison ADX Florence). Crawford had gone solo and been replaced by Tom Wells. Dague and Schroeder were recognised by Deputy Joseph Chapman, who they promptly abducted. Snared at a roadblock (they don’t seem to have had much luck  at roadblocks) they threw Chapman from the car, seriously wounded Deputy Lee Wright with gunfire (who later died) and aso wounded Deputies Chapman and Butterfield. Another dead Deputy, in another death penalty State (Arizona had the gallows at the time). It wasn’t long before Justice would claim Schroeder, Crawford, Dague and their latest recruit Tom Wells and send them to join their victims.

 There were over 100 armed men in the posse that ran Schroeder, Dague and Wells to earth in the foothills of the Salt River Mountains. A furious firefight, remembered later as the ‘Battle of the crags’ saw no casualties on either side. It did see the trio surrounded, overpowered and arrested. Their choices were simple. If they weren’t lucky enough to spend the rest of their lives in jail then they could either dance the hangman’s hornpipe in Arizona or do the hot squat in Pennsylvania. It was that or enough 99-year sentences to see them disappear forever into the prison system. Wells was held for trial in Arizona as Deuty Wright had died from his infected wound.Tried for capital murder within a week of his arrest, he was convicted and later hanged. Tom Crawford was later shot dead during a solo bank raid in Texas, although the identification was never conclusive. Glenn Dague and Irene Schroeder would be hauled back to Pennsylvania to be tried for the murder of Corporal Paul. Their train ride from Arizona seemed more like a valedictory parade than two murderers about to meet their Maker. Irene even posed for pictures and signed dozens of autographs as ‘Irene Schroeder, Trigger Woman.’

 

 The verdict. And sentence.

The verdict. And sentence.

 The trial was practically a foregone conclusion, only the sentence was really in doubt as Pennsylvania had yet to electrocute a woman. It wouldn’t be long before Irene Schroeder would be its first. After Deputy Wright, Corporal Paul, Tom Crawford and Tom Wells, Glenn Dague would be the fifth and last person to die because he met Irene Schroeder. Schroeder was convicted and sentenced in mid-March, 1930. The jury’s verdict read simply:

‘Guilty of murder in the first degree, with the death penalty.’

Turning to her sisters in the public gallery, sobbing as the death sentence was read out, ‘Iron Irene’ showed the steel that had hallmarked her criminal career. She’d turned 21 only a fortnight before her sentencing but still tunred to her sisters and snarled:

“Shut up, you sissies. I can take it.”

In a media interview she waxed lyrical about her lover and her sentence:

 

“If I do go to the hot seat, Glenn will want to go to. We will love each other always until the end…”

‘The end’ wasn’t far away. Glenn Dague’s trial began two days after Irene’s had ended. The result as the same. Convicted of Corporal Paul’s murder, sentence of death was passed immediately. The two condemned lovers were transferred to Rockview Prison to await execution. Seeing Rockview had never had a female inmate under a death sentence, special arrangements were made for the doomed pair. Schroeder’s cell was decked out in a much more feminine manner than your typical Death House cell, although no less secure. A partition separated her cell from Dague’s, Dague being installed only feet away and both were scheduled to die on February 23, 1931.

End of the road for the poor man's Bonnie & Clyde.
End of the road for the poor man’s Bonnie & Clyde.

 They died as planned.Schroeder went first, promptly at 7am. Dague’s former Sunday school pastor, Reverend Teagarden, walked part of her last mile with her. Halfway between her cell and ‘Old Sparky’ she turned to him, saying softly:

“Please stay with Glenn. He will need you now more than I do…”

She walked into the brightly-lit, crowded room, sat down and expressed no emotion, leaving no final statement as Robert Elliott applied the straps and electrodes. At a signal the switch was thrown and Irene Schroeder died only days after her 22nd birthday. As her body was removed from the chair Glenn Dague began his final walk. He said nothing as he sat down, the smoke and stench  from Irene’s burns still hanging heavy in the air. The signal was given. The switch was thrown. Glenn Dague was dead. 

Perhaps the last word on this sorry tale rightly belongs to Donnie. Having unwittingly paved hs mother’s path along her last mile, he was very gently told of her impending execution. His response?

“I’ll bet my Mom would make an awful nice angel.”