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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On This Day in 1964 – The Last Executions In Britain.


 Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans, the last British inmates to hang.

Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans, the last British inmates to hang.

As regular readers are aware, I cover true crime here and the death penalty is a regular feature. Being an abolitionist, it’s with some small satisfaction that we’re going to look at Britain’s last executions. To the minute, if you happen to be reading this at 8am. On August 13, 1964 Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen took their unwilling place in British penal history as the last-ever inmates to suffer the ‘dread sentence’, be taken to one of Her Majesty’s Prisons and keep their date with the hangman.

Well, hangmen, actually. Evans paid his debt to society at HMP Strangeways at the hands of Harry Allen (grandfather of comedienne Fiona Allen) assisted by Harry Robinson. Allen paid his at HMP Walton at the hands of Scottish hangman Robert Leslie Stewart (known as ‘Jock’ or ‘The Edinburgh Hangman’) assisted by Royston Rickard.

Their crime was unremarkable (not that any murder is a trivial matter) and their executions were equally standard affairs except for the fact that they were the last in British penal history. Judges would continue to don the dreaded ‘Black Cap’ and pass the ‘dread sentence’ until 1969 (the 1970’s in Northern Ireland). The death penalty was retained for  several crimes other than murder until 1998 and its final repeal under the European Human Rights Act. But the noose and scaffold had already been consigned to history and the occasional prison museum.

Never again would the prison bell toll or the black flag be hoisted just after eight or nine in the morning. No longer would crowds gather outside a prison’s gates in protest at what was happening inside.. No more would a prison warder have to brave an angry crowd to post the official announcement on a prison gate. After centuries of State-sanctioned killing ranging from the deliberately-barbaric to the scientifically-precise, ‘Jack Ketch’ had finally put away his noose and passed into history.

Not that this was any consolation whatsoever to Evans and Allen. As far as they were concerned it made no difference at all and nor did it to anyone else. They still had to sit in their Condemned Cells at Walton and Strangeways, guarded 24 hours a day by prison warders and hoping every day for a reprieve that never came. Prison staff and the hangmen still had to report for duty as instructed and ensure that everything was prepared properly down to the finest detail.

The Appeal Court judges and Home Secretary still had to discuss, debate and ponder their decision, knowing all the time that if they refused clemency then these two deaths would be as much their responsibility as that of the executioners themselves. The families and friends of the condemned had no easier time than the condemned themselves. Allen and Evans would die, but their friends and families would still have to live with that afterwards.

Their crime was brutal, their guilt undeniable. Given the evidence against them there was almost no chance of their being acquitted. To manage that would require lawyers possessed of both boundless talent and equal optimism. If they did ever stand a chance of avoiding the gallows then it was far more likely to be through a reprieve than an acquittal. Barring a reprieve or a legal blunder serious enough to impress the Court of Criminal Appeal, their  race was run. They probably knew it.

Evans and Allen were both typical, garden-variety condemned inmates. Under-educated, lower IQ’s than usual, failed to hold down any job for very long and with a string of petty criminal convictions between them. Fraud, theft, deception, the usual type of relatively low-level crimes that see a person in and out of trouble on a semi-regular basis, but nothing to suggest that either was capable of brutal, cold-blooded murder. Then again, a great many brutal, cold-blooded murderers have been described as not being ‘the type’ even though there’s no ‘type’ to watch out for. It would make the lives of honest people and detectives so much easier if there were.

Aside from not seeming the type, Allen and Evans weren’t exactly criminal masterminds either. After beating and stabbing to death Alan West in his home during a bungled robbery on July 7, 1964, Evans in particular left a trail of evidence that Hansel and Gretal would have been proud of. He left a medallion at the crime scene with his name inscribed on it. When he was dumping the stolen car used in the crime Evans dumped it at a local builder’s yard. He’d made himself so conspicuous (and, to a neighbour, highly suspicious) that it wasn’t long before he found himself in custody. Being found in possession of the victim’s gold watch probably didn’t help his case either.

Once under questioning Evans excelled himself even further. Initially he denied being involved. On realising he’d left a smoking gun with his name on it at the scene he decided to bury Peter Allen. To save himself from a charge of capital murder he’d put all the blame on his accomplice. Evans denied having a knife during the robbery and clearly blamed Allen for stabbing West to death. His ploy might have worked a great deal better  but for one small problem; Evans’s own big mouth.

Being keen to bury his crime partner and possibly save himself, Evans talked loud and often. A little too loud and often as it turned out. Evans was loudly denying his having had or used a knife to murder Alan West. It was then that police pointed out to him that they hadn’t actually mentioned a knife, nor had they released that information to the press.

 Bottom right: Harry Allen and Robert Leslie Stewart, their executioners.

Bottom right: Harry Allen and Robert Leslie Stewart, their executioners.

Allen was now also in custody and being questioned. Both killers were under lock and key within 48 hours of committing their crime, a pretty fast resolution to a murder investigation. By modern American standards, their road from trial to execution would certainly seem faster still. One of the principle complaints of America’s pro-execution lobby is that the appeals process takes far too long. There are too many levels of court, too many technicalities, too many bleeding-heart pro-bono lawyers, too many soft judges and State Governors who refuse to allow what a judge and jury have already decided to hand down.

While it’s still groused about in the US, it was never the case in Britain. A condemned inmate was granted a minimum of only 3 Sundays between sentencing and execution. That didn’t mean an execution always happened 3 weeks after a sentence due to appeals, finding new evidence, court schedules, sanity hearings and so on, but 3 Sundays was all you could expect as of right. Miles Giffard, hanged at Bristol in 1953, spent only 18 days between sentencing and execution.

After sentencing the judge would send a private report including their opinion on whether a prisoner should be reprieved. Their reports weren’t always heeded, but they had more influence than any other factor in deciding whether prisoners lived or died.

Avenues for appeal were both smaller in number and moved a great deal faster than their American counterparts. After sentencing the first stop was the Court of Criminal Appeal. Appeals against conviction and sentencing were heard by a panel of 3 judges, often including the Lord Chief Justice unless he’d presided at your trial. If they rejected the appeal the next stop was the Home Secretary (nowadays the Minister of Justice). If the Home Secretary refused clemency the case file would be annotated with a single phrase;

‘The Law must take its course.’

Prisoners could still appeal to the King or Queen, but this was effectively pointless. By one of the many unwritten rules so beloved of British officialdom, the Monarch didn’t grant appeals except on the private advice of the Home Secretary. A Home Secretary (also a Member of Parliament so an elected official) might want to obey or defy public opinion by granting a reprieve while risking their job if they were seen to do so.

The Monarch, on the other hand, not having to consider their approval rating, could grant an appeal thereby saving a prisoner without causing problems for the elected officials concerned. But, regardless of whether a prisoner appealed directly to a Monarch, without a Home Secretary’s advice there would be no reprieve. Nobody involved felt merciful towards Evans and Allen.

Their trial began at Manchester Assizes on June 23, 1964 with Mr. Justice Ashworth presiding. Leading for the prosecution was was Joseph Cantley, QC (Queen’s Counsel, a senior lawyer) while Allen was defended by lawyers F.J. Nance and R.G. Hamilton. Evans was represented by Griffith Guthrie-Jones, QC. It didn’t take very long. Even the best of defenders couldn’t have won a verdict of not guilty. With Evans’s many and varied blunders he was effectively doomed from the start. Allen’s wife was the star prosecution witness, testifying that she’d seen Evans dispose of the knife and that Allen had made incriminating remarks in her presence

Not surprisingly both were convicted. As their murder was committed during a robbery it qualified as capital murder under the 1957 Homicide Act. This Act, brought in after the 1955 execution of Ruth Ellis, drastically altered capital punishment in Britain. It clearly defined the difference between capital and non-capital murder, dispensing with a mandatory death sentence and allowing judges, prosecutors and juries some discretion.

Before the 1957 Homicide Act jurors in particular were quite limited in their options. They could acquit a defendant, find them guilty but insane (avoiding a death sentence), guilty with a recommendation for mercy or simply guilty as charged. For non-capital murder life imprisonment was the sentence. If convicted of capital murder the sentence remained death.

The Act also enshrined diminished responsibility into English law for the first time, largely a response to the Ellis case. This wasn’t done to limit the number of executions per year, but to ease the minds of jurors in particular that a death sentence, when imposed, had been the correct decision. In practice, a jury’s recommendation for mercy carried far less weight than the trial judge’s  confidential report.

With Evans and Allen convicted of capital murder Justice Ashworth then took his own place in British penal history, becoming the last British judge in a British courtroom to don the dreaded ‘Black Cap’ (a square of black silk placed atop a judge’s wig as a gesture of mourning for the newly-condemned and recite the modified death sentence. Incidentally the Black Cap remains part of a judge’s ceremonial regalia even today.

Previously, the judge would have recited a long, drawn-out set script which usually did little to help a prisoner keep their composure. It was this:

“Prisoner at the Bar, you have been convicted of the crime of wilful murder. The sentence of this Court is that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison, and thence to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And that your body be afterwards cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul. Remove the prisoner…”

Ashworth’s version was edited for brevity and out of compassion for the prisoners hearing it:

‘”Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans, you have been convicted of murder and shall suffer the sentence prescribed by law.”

Shorter, certainly. Any sweeter? Probably not. Their one mandatory appeal was heard by Lord Chief Justice Parker, Justice Winn and Justice Widgery on July 20, 1964. It was denied the next day. The executioners were engaged and a date set. Evans and Allen would die at HMP Strangeways and HMP Walton respectively. Harry Allen and Harry Robinson would execute Evans, Robert Leslie Stewart and Royston Rickard would execute Allen. Both men dying at the same time meant that no one hangman could ever claim to Britain’s last executioner.

 Their final destination: The standard British gallows, never to be used again.

Their final destination: The standard British gallows, never to be used again.

At 8am on August 13, 1964 Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans, quickly and without incident, passed through the gallows trapdoors and into penal history. With them went the hangmen themselves, never to be called upon again. So also went centuries of State-sanctioned killings ranging from the deliberately-barbaric to the scientifically-precise. Britain’s hangmen had reached the end of their rope.

Execution for murder was finally abolished in 1969 after a five-year moratorium on hangings. It remained for several civilian and military crimes until 1998 when it was finally outlawed under the European Human Rights Act of that year. Of assistant executioners Royston Rickard and Harry Robinson we know almost nothing. Perhaps they preferred to slip into anonymity as did Robert Leslie Stewart who emigrated to South Africa.

Harry Allen found obscurity a little more difficult to achieve. He had to move at least once to escape the publicity of being incorrectly-labelled ‘Britain’s Last Hangman’ and died in 1992, one month after his friend, colleague and mentor Albert Pierrepoint.

I wrote a book.


pbackcover.png

 

It’s been quite some time since I last posted ere, but I have been extremely busy with paid work and earning a living. Part of that has been writing my first book.

Criminal Curiosities is a collection of crooks, all with something about their crime, trial or punishment that is singular to them. The first prisoner to face the guillotine, the first to commit a robbery using a landmine, the first case in which the murder victim’s actual body had a starring role in reconstructing the crime for the jury trying his killer and so on.

So, if you’re curious as to who was really America’s first Public Enemy Number One, ever wondered who was first to take a seat in the electric chair or perhaps you’ve never heard of the art forger brave enough to bilk Hermann Goering out of sixty million dollars (at today’s prices) feel free to pick up a copy and please do leave a review.

You can do that here:

 

The Etymology Of Crime – Tyburn.


a8496-gallows

It’s been a while since I last posted due to work and other commitments, so I’ll be offering a series of shorter posts dedicated to the etyomology of crime in general, interspersed with the occasional longer post about other things. It’s always been curious to me how many words and phrases have crept into common usage courtesy of the underworld. A great many of them are used by that perfectly honest, law-abiding people who probably haven’t the slightest idea of their original meaning. So, for openers, I’ll start off with the dreaded Tyburn, Tyburn being roughly where Marble Arch now stands and once the site of London’s premier public entertainment. That entertainment being public executions.

Condemned prisoners were held at the old Newgate Prison, now long-demolished and where the Central Criminal Court (AKA the ‘Old Bailey’) now stands. Prisoners were held in the ‘Condemned Hold’ at Newgate, where their legal status was of being, technically speaking, neither alive nor yet dead. Hence, according to the jargon of the time, they were ‘In Limbo.’

Having been taken from ‘Limbo’ they would be shackled and the hangman’s rope placed around their necks. They were then transported aboard a cart also containing their own coffins which they often used to sit on. Along the way it was customary for them to stop at a tavern or two for a final drink, known in the trade as ‘One for the road.’

Having had their ‘One for the road’ they were put back on the cart and continued on to Tyburn. Now, having taken the last drink they’d ever be having, they were officially ‘On the wagon.’ Tyburn (Marble Arch nowadays) was West of Newgate Prison, so any inmate executed there had, in convict jargon, ‘Gone West.’

Tyburn had it’s own gallows, a purpose-built triangular contraption capable of hanging up to 24 inmates at once (it never actually did, by the way) and it was known as the Triple Tree. In the days before purpose-built gallows it was common for a condemned prisoner to be placed on a ladder resting against a tree and the ladder would then be turned so they fell and slowly strangled. Hence, a condemned inmate in those days would be thoroughly justified in feeling somewhat ‘Turned off.’ which is also the origin of the old wive’s tale that it’s unlucky to walk under a ladder.

With purpose-built scaffolds there were often thirteen steps between the ground and the scaffold itself and thirteen turns of the rope made up the original hangman’s knot. Hence, thirteen has historically proven extremely ‘Unlucky for some.’

One atop the ‘scaffold’ (yes, this is where the word for today’s builder’s scaffolding comes from) the hangman was, in those days, publicly nicknamed ‘Jack Ketch’ after a particularly notorious, clumsy, wretched executioner. ‘Jack Ketch’ is also the hangman who appears in puppet show ‘Punch and Judy.’

Ever had the feeling that people were ‘Pulling your leg’? Not in it’s original sense, you haven’t. Modern judicial hanging involves a precise ‘drop’ calculated using the inmate’s height, weight, physical condition and build. This didn’t appear until the 1870’s so, at Tyburn, death was by a standard drop for every prisoner. In order to avoid seeing a prisoner suffer unduly from slow strangulation a prisoner’s friends (or perhaps ‘Jack Ketch’ himself) would grab their ankles and pull, tightening the noose and either strangling them faster or breaking their neck. Hence, if somebody’s ‘Pulling your leg’, what they’ve said or done might seem spiteful but it’s meant in the nicest of ways.

Not much consolation, really.

Edith Cavell – Hand-wringing propaganda is not enough. Nor does it do her any service.


633227342 cavell

“I am glad to die for my country.” – The last words of Edith Cavell.

Edith Cavell was shot by a German firing squad at the Tir National rifle range near Brussels on October 12, 1915, having been convicted by a German military court of aiding the enemy by helping Allied soldiers and escaped prisoners through Belgium into neutral Holland. Her death brought international condemnation for Germany, aided to the maximum by British propaganda seeking to take full advantage of her death. But, despite their publicly-stated desire to see her reprieved, how much could the British have done to save her? Did they do all they could? And, as a martyr to the British cause, was Edith Cavell worth more to them dead than alive?

The British propaganda machine certainly exploited her execution to the absolute maximum. Published accounts of her death range from the mildly-exaggerated to the blatantly dishonest and don’t tend to coincide with the eyewitness accounts of those whose grim task it was to actually watch her die. One then-popular account states that she completely lost her nerve at her execution and, far from facing her death in the stereotypically heroic fashion, fainted. Having fainted, according to this rather creative version of events, the officer in charge simply walked over to her prone figure and calmly shot her in the head with his service pistol.

Looking at it from a propaganda perspective, Edith Cavell was worth more to the British dead than alive. Having already been captured her work helping escaping Allied soldiers was over so her purpose as an active agent was already served. Even if she had been reprieved which, with bitter irony, would have aided the German cause far more than that of the British, she would certainly have spent the rest of the war in prison and thus of no further value to the British. After being shot, on the other hand, she became a far more damaging British weapon than running an escape line. She became a martyr instead.

The facts of the case were fairly straightforward. Cavell admitted under questioning that she’d helped over 200 Allied fugitives escape through Belgium into neutral Holland. She was proved to have given them shelter and supplied them with food, money and false identity papers to help them across the border. In short, she admitted committing capital crimes under German military law at the time, and it was under German military law that she was tried, convicted and condemned.

Whether or not she at any time involved herself with active espionage as well is debatable. Noted espionage expert Nigel West is positive that she did and that she did so knowing the risks if she was caught. M.R.D Foot, a distinguished military historian and former intelligence officer who also served with the SAS during the Normandy campaign, is absolutely positive that Cavell was originally engaged by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) to assist with a spy ring, but turned her back on espionage to instead assist Allied fugitives. Beyond West and Foot’s accounts, however, there’s so far no evidence that she engaged in active espionage. According to archive evidence studied by former MI5 Director Dame Stella Rimington, Cavell knew at least something about information being passed back to England via her network.

It would have made no difference anyway as she was never tried for espionage, but for aiding the enemy and neither Cavell nor the British ever denied that she did do so.

Another, rather distasteful, speculation concerns her brief time under a death sentence. The British don’t seem to have done all that much to save her. but what could they have done? That she was guilty is undoubted and the Germans were hardly likely to grant any clemency request coming from the British, especially as the British shot eleven prisoners during the First World War convicted of espionage on behalf of the Germans. It does seem as though, in the absence of any meaningful options to stop her execution, British propagandists made the best use possible of an execution their superiors could do little or nothing to prevent.

Cavell herself seems to have made much less fuss about her death than propagandists did. According to Chaplain Gahan (who made a final visit hours before her execution) she was calm, rational and accepted her fate with great dignity and fortitude (far from the image of the prostrate victim callously finished off with an officer’s service pistol as she lay catatonic on the Tir National rifle range). She went to her death composed and calm, not collapsed on the ground before her executioners. She even refused a blindfold, which hardly suggests she was unable to face her final ordeal.

There isn’t any evidence to suggest that Edith Cavell’s death was actively connived at by the British authorities. The evidence for her actively involving herself in espionage is equally debatable. But what can’t be denied is that she knew what she was doing, she knew the likely outcome if she were caught and yet she chose to do it anyway and take the risk. She gambled her life for her principles, and lost. What’s also undeniable is that, not having prevented her death, British propagandists made as big a meal of it as they possibly could. Granted, that isn’t the same as doing less than they could have to secure clemency, but it’s still thoroughly distasteful and opportunistic on a grand scale.

The German authorities, themselves conflicted about executing her, finally decided to make an example of her via the firing squad. Like the British authorities after the 1916 Easter Rising, they did make an example of Edith Cavell. Unfortunately for both governments it was seen by many as an example of their own cruelty and callousness and they couldn’t have handed their opponents a bigger propaganda victory. Instead of setting examples to avoid, they set examples to follow.

What we’d nowadays call sexism also played its part. The Germans were keen to show that being female wasn’t an ‘get out of jail free’ card for condemned prisoners. British propagandists were equally keen to exploit her gender. whining bitterly about how barbarous it was to execute a woman. Bitter irony when you consider that British women were routinely hanged for murder at the time. False reports of her collapse before the firing squad, the suggestion that she should be reprieved simply on account of her gender and the general idea that shooting a woman for aiding the enemy was an atrocity while no similar degree of attention would have been lavished on a man condemned for exactly the same acts do her memory no favours.

Was she the proverbial ‘Weak and feeble woman’? No.

Did she know what she was doing and the penalty if she were caught? Yes.

Was she also at any point actively spying as well as helping Allied fugitives into neutral territory (and then on to Britain to continue fighting the Germans)? Maybe.

Edith Cavell was a brave person who made freely the choice to risk her life. She did so knowingly. She faced her end as bravely as any man, not as some hysterical banshee unable to face the consequences of her actions. German authorities at the time may have done themselves a disservice by not commuting her sentence, but British propagandists have done far worse to her memory and her place in history.

Devil’s Island – Colony of the condemned.


‘The policy of the Administration is to kill, not to better or reclaim.’ – Rene Belbenoit.

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

It is 1852. In France, Emperor Napoleon III, increasingly worried by rising crime and insufficient colonists to consolidate France’s empire, devises a new, dreadful solution. Napoleon isn’t interested in social reform, he’s interested in social cleansing where criminals can simply be exported elsewhere and forced into servitude, preferably never to return. His brainchild will become the most infamous penal system in history. Even today it’s a taboo subject for many French people. His plan is for a system of penal colonies in French Guiana. Inmates call it ‘Le Bagne.’ Former inmate and escaper Rene Belbenoit called it the ‘Dry Guillotine’ and his 1938 book damned both the colony and the ideas behind it. The wider world still calls it ‘Devil’s Island.’

Many people today think of the Guiana colonies in that way, three small islands off the Guiana coastline (Royale, St. Joseph and Devil’s. They weren’t. Out of approximately 70,000 inmates, only 50 were incarcerated on Devil’s Island. It was also reserved for French political prisoners, not conventional criminals. 70,000 inmates went out to Guiana, only 2000 or so returned. Only around 5000 survived to finish their sentences. The rest succumbed to disease, murder, execution, failed escape attempts and deadly animals populating the Guiana jungle. Conditions were so bad that between 40% and 80% of one year’s intake would be dead before the next year’s intake arrived.

Inmates were collected from all over France, confined pending transportation at St-Martin de Re near the port of La Rochelle. Twice a year an old steamer named ‘Martiniere’ left for Guiana. The inmates were escorted from the prison to the dock under military guard. Specially-trained Senegalese colonial troops with fixed bayonets marched them through the town where their friends and families would have their last sight of ‘Les Bagnards’ as they left, mostly never to return. To quote its most famous inmate Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere; “No prisoner, no warder, no gendarme, no person in the crowd disturbed that truly heart-rending moment when everyone knew that one thousand, eight hundred men were about to vanish from ordinary life forever.”

Bagnards leaving for Guiana. For most it was their final journey.
Bagnards leaving for Guiana. For most it was their final journey.

Their suffering began aboard ship. Crammed below decks like sardines with only a half-hour a day on deck for fresh air and sunlight, with hardly any hammocks leaving many inmates sleeping on steel decks, with any trouble below decks punished by the guards turning hot steam hoses on the inmates, life aboard ship was miserable. Guards could also flog inmates who disobeyed even insignificant orders. Inmates often murdered each other to settle grudges or robbed each other of whatever small possessions they had. Life in Guiana, for those who survived the three-week voyage, was immeasurably worse. All an inmate had to endure the voyage was issued prior to embarkation; a convict uniform, wooden clogs, a hat and a small secret device known to convicts as a ‘plan’ or ‘charger.’ A ‘charger’ was a small metal tube carried internally, perhaps containing money, gems, small escape tools, a map and maybe a small knife for self-protection. If an inmate was discovered carrying one, or indeed broke any other rule aboard ship deemed too serious for a mere flogging, they spent the rest of the voyage shackled in the bilges in searing heat and deafening noise, directly over the engine room and boilers.

New arrivals landed at St. Laurent, capital of the Guiana penal system. At St. Laurent most inmates would serve their sentences unless they were interned on the islands or sent straight to jungle work camps. At St.Laurent they were classified according to security risk and criminal record. Standard inmates were ‘Transportes’, transportees who’d committed more serious crimes. Lower down were ‘Relegues,’ serial petty offenders with records for crimes like shoplifting or burglary. The few surviving their sentences were listed as ‘Liberes,’ in theory freed inmates. The worst of the worst were ‘Incorrigibles’ or ‘Incos.’ ‘Inco’ went straight to the feared jungle work camps where food was short, work hard, danger significant and life expectancy seldom more than a few months. If not the jungle camps then a permanent posting to Royale was their most likely destination.

Inmates especially hated ‘Doublage. Any prisoner serving less than eight years had to spend the same amount of time in Guiana as a colonist. Anyone with more than eight years was barred from ever returning to France or leaving Guiana. A two-year sentence effectively became four, assuming the inmate survived.

Conditions were appalling. Food was barely edible and never enough for anybody performing forced labour. Medical care existed, but the prison hospital was poorly equipped and chronically under-staffed. Discipline was brutal, floggings, extended solitary confinement and the guillotine being the order of the day. In the jungle camps inmates worked to stiff daily quotas while underfed, malnourished and brutally disciplined at the slightest infraction. The camps were also breeding grounds for disease. Yellow fever, dysentery, malaria, typhus, cholera and leprosy were commonplace. The jungle was also home for deadly animals like jaguars, snakes, venomous centipedes and flesh-eating ants. The Maroni River was home to piranha and caymans. If these weren’t enough, mosquitoes, leeches and vampire bats were capable of infecting their human hosts with rabies and other blood-borne diseases.

Perhaps the worst aspect was the human factor. The Penal Administration wasn’t concerned about how staff treated inmates provided work quotas were met and the inmates kept in line. Inmates not meeting their daily quota one day would be fed a small amount of bread and water the day after. Every failed day after that meant no food at all until the inmate met a day’s quota and also cleared their backlog of unfinished work. Otherwise, they’d starve, weaken and probably die.

Discipline was harsh, usually brutal. All guards carried pistols, many also carried rifles with orders to kill any inmate attempting escape. They also carried clubs and whips. Inmates could be publicly flogged even for minor infractions. Solitary confinement was a common punishment. Sentences lasting from six months to five years with multiple sentences served consecutively were standard. First escape attempts added two years in solitary to existing sentences. Second attempts added five.

Derelict now, then it was known as the 'devourer of men.'
Derelict now, then it was known as the ‘devourer of men.’

For more serious offences, especially attacking or murdering a guard or colonist, the guillotine was freely used. It was operated by convict executioners who were the most hated inmates in the penal system. One executioner, Henri Clasiot, was so hated that other inmates tied him to a tree filled with flesh-eating ants, smeared him with honey and left him to a slow death. At St. Laurent, inmates were paraded before the ‘Merry Widow’ as the guillotine was known and forced to kneel. The execution would take place and the executioner would hold up the severed head while declaiming ‘Justice has been done in the name of the people of France.’ It was a nauseatingly brutal spectacle designed to intimidate convicts as much as possible.

The first thought occupying many inmates at Guiana was the same as for inmates everywhere; escape. Naturally, Guiana was chosen to make escape as hard as possible. There were only two realistic ways an escaper could escape the penal colonies; through the jungle and across the sea. The jungle was swarming with hazards; deadly animals, flooded rivers, unfriendly natives, diseases, search parties from the prison and, most hated of all, the ‘Man-hunters.’ Man-hunters were liberes-turned-bounty hunters, tracking escapers through the jungle for a reward, dead or alive. Being paid regardless of their prisoner’s condition, many of them killed recaptured inmates and delivered their bodies rather than endure the extra risk and difficulty of guarding a live prisoner. Other liberes made a lucrative (if loathsome) living by offering to help escapers through the jungle before robbing and killing them. Very, very few escapers were heard from again once they entered the jungle and those who were had either successfully escaped or been recaptured.

The sea was every bit as deadly, but the hazards were different. The border between French Guiana and neighboring Dutch Guiana and British Guiana was the Maroni River, itself infested with piranha and caymans, small crocodiles who took swimmers like any other prey. A boat was the only option. Dutch Guiana also handed back escapers found within its borders, while British Guiana only gave them two weeks before either they left or were returned to St. Laurent under guard. Boats could be stolen, but inmates with money could smuggle a bribe to liberes in return for a boat, compass and provisions to last a few days. Assuming, of course, that the boat wasn’t wrecked in a storm, neighbouring countries such as Venezuela and Colombia didn’t decide to hand escapers back at their own discretion and the liberes didn’t take the bribe and still provide nothing useful. The sea wasn’t the most likely option for an escaper; it was simply the least lethal. As a former Warden once put it: “There are two eternal guardians here; the jungle and the sea.”

For the sake of example.
For the sake of example.

Recaptured escapers faced harsh punishments. If a guard or civilian was killed during an escape, the guillotine was a virtual certainly. A first failed escape added two years in the dreaded solitary confinement cells, known as the ‘Man-eater’, the ‘Devourer of men.’ on St.Joseph Island. Second failed attempts added five years more. The solitary block became known for its rule of silence, prisoners being forbidden to speak a single word unless first spoken to by a guard or other staff member. The cells were damp, mouldy and disease-ridden. They were also riddled with cockroaches, venomous centipedes and other dangerous animals and the prisoners were deliberately fed poor food only sufficient to keep them alive without keeping them healthy. As a former Warden at St.Joseph described it when Henri Charriere entered for his first two-year sentence: “Here we don’t try to make you mend your ways. We know it’s useless. But we do try to bring you to heel.” A small infraction meant an extra thirty days added to an existing sentence with longer additions for each additional infraction. Other punishments included screening a prisoner’s cell and leaving them for months in total darkness and perhaps cutting their rations by half. This in addition to potentially being guillotined for attacking a guard. Some inmates committed suicide and went unnoticed for weeks due to the rank conditions in the gloomy, disease-ridden cellblock. In short, an inmate didn’t so much live in the ‘Man-eater’ as exist until they died, took their own lives or went insane which, given the conditions, was more than likely.

The cellblock on Royale.
The cellblock on Royale.

Royale Island was the home of the ‘Incos.’ ‘Incorrgibles’, if not worked to death in jungle camps like Cascade, Charvein and Godebert or along the unfinished roads ‘Route Zero’ and Kilometre 42’ (which were never intended to be finished, existing solely as make-work for slave labourers) would be permanently interned on Royale. Some inmates and officials made a living by taking bribes to have a prisoner’s status changed, making them a regular ‘transporte’ instead of an ‘Inco’ and so seeing them shipped back to the mainland where escape was more likely. This was a confidence trick. ‘Inco’s had their status decided back in France. Even the Guiana Penal Administration couldn’t have it altered. The most notorious inmates were quartered in the ‘Crimson Barrack’ where card games ran night and day, staff were too scared to enter unarmed and unescorted and even blatant murders were regularly committed. The threat of violent death firmly discouraged informing on anybody.

Royale had its own hospital, albeit understaffed and under-resourced. It had a chapel, several workshops, was disease-free for most of its existence and was generally the least worst part of the colony except for would-be escapers. The jungle didn’t guard the island’s perimeter and the staff didn’t have to do too much, either. Instead, guard duties were left to the nine miles of open water between Royale and the mainland, the rip tides that could force swimmers and makeshift rafts out past the islands to be lost in the Atlantic and to the man-eating sharks that infested local waters. Even the sharks served the penal system, both as guards and in a deeply macabre form of waste disposal. Convicts on the islands didn’t have their own cemeteries. Deceased inmates were taken out just off the island coastline and tipped overboard at dusk to the sound of a bell tolling. The sharks learned to appear at the sound of the bell when a free meal was guaranteed. To make things even more macabre, the sharks themselves were hunted by local fishermen, sold to the island authorities and fed to the convicts, completing a rather revolting circular food chain. Inmates weren’t deemed worthy of a decent burial, nor did the island have the space to cope with a constant flow of funerals. Burials at sea became the practical, if rather gruesome, solution.

The last of the three island prisons was Devil’s Island, also guarded by fierce rip tides and sharks with a few staff on hand. It’s odd that the smallest and least-used part of the penal system became the totem for the entire network. During the 99 years of the penal colonies only around fifty prisoners were ever kept on Devil’s Island itself. They were all political prisoners and not felons. Devil’s Island owes its fame and symbolic status to having been the unwanted abode of Captain Dreyfus. Falsely accused of espionage, stripped of his rank and sent to Devils Island forever, Dreyfus was eventually pardoned and reinstated after a global campaign to prove both his innocence and the rampant anti-Semitism of his accusers.

Alfred Dreyfus's prison cell on Ile du Diable, Devil's Island, French Guiana.
Alfred Dreyfus’s prison cell on Ile du Diable, Devil’s Island, French Guiana.

Having spent over five years on the island, Dreyfus returned to France for a rehearing, pardon and reinstatement in the French Army, but only after heart-breaking misery at being framed and made a scapegoat by a country he loved and had served honourably throughout. A principal player in the Dreyfus campaign was famed French writer Emile Zola, whose famous essay ‘J’Accuse’ condemned the anti-Semitism in France and the cowardice of the French state in its treatment of Dreyfus while firmly supporting his claims of innocence. As a result of the Dreyfus case at the start of the 20th century the world finally began to pay attention to Emperor Napoleon’s disastrous and sadistic pet project.

Further unwelcome attention came from Rene Belbenoit and Francis LaGrange, both former inmates of the colonies. Belbenoit, a petty thief given eight years for a small-time burglary, escaped successfully at his fourth attempt and made his way to the United States. His 1938 book ‘Dry Guillotine,’ so named because the penal colonies killed as well as a guillotine only more slowly, was reprinted eight times in the first two months since its release and is a collectible to crime buffs and penal historians. LaGrange, a former art forger, also provided unwelcome publicity through sketches and drawings depicting life in the colonies and used in Belbenoit’s book. Increasing international scrutiny forced the French Government to stop sending inmates to the colonies in 1938 and their closure was scheduled until the Second World War intervened. During the war the islands were taken over by the Americans, who feared the Vichy government might try and make them an Axis base of operations. In 1946 the camps and islands began to be gradually phased out. Between 1946 and 1953 when Devil’s Island itself finally closed forever, the camps were shut one after another and the inmates repatriated. Over 300 inmates refused to leave, many staying on in St. Laurent as French Guiana remained a colonial possession. They decided that they had been too changed by their experience to fit back into French society and that Guiana was the only life they could remember. They were probably right. Of those inmates who were repatriated, a substantial number either returned to prison or were declared insane after failing to re-integrate into French society. Some even took their own lives. It was bitterly ironic that many of these men, men who had previously been cast out of French society, found it taking care of them in their last years.

Henri Charriere, AKA 'Papillon.'
Henri Charriere, AKA ‘Papillon.’

It wouldn’t be right not to give a greater mention to Henri ‘Papillon’ Charriere. Papillon’s eponymous book, first published in the 1960’s after the colonies had closed, revived unpleasant memories for the French of an episode many would rather have forgotten. Even today the Guiana penal colonies are a taboo subject for many French people. Papillon’s honesty and whether or not he merely appropriated large parts of his book from other inmates’ experiences has been hotly debated, but his storytelling skills are beyond doubt. Although French authorities claim that only around 10% of his claims are true and it’s certainly true that he never served time on Devil’s Island (he was a safecracker convicted of the manslaughter of a pimp, a charge he always denied), the 10% would still be a damning indictment of the Guiana penal system and its purpose of socially cleansing France of its underworld. It even failed to do that, eventually.

There’s another irony in the penal colony story even today, one not recognised by many people. French Guiana is the site of France’s Ariane rocket space program. The rockets are launched from near Kourou, formerly one of the dreaded jungle camps, with control equipment being sited on Devil’s Island. The space project site is constantly under the guard of the French Foreign Legion who also use Guiana for jungle warfare training. Odd really, when you consider that many of those who have joined the Legion at some point might very well have once found themselves headed for Guiana unwillingly, wearing a different type of uniform altogether.

Modern-day France is ashamed of the penal colonies. In the words of writer, ex-convict and former Foreign Legionnaire Erwin James: “France is right to be embarrassed.”

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.