1952 was a quiet year for the Sing Sing death house. Only three prisoners walked their last mile, Edward Kelly and Wallace Ford, Jr on October 30 and before them Bernard Stein on March 6. That was pretty quiet considering 1951 saw eight inmates die including Lonely Hearts Killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck on March 8 of that year.
True to notoriety’s pecking order in which the most notorious inmates drew most attention, few people remember John King and Joseph Powers, killers of Detective Joseph Miccio and who died on the same night as Beck and Fernandez. When Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died on June 19, 1953 few people remembered that they were only two of six to die that year, although he Rosenbergs alone more than kept Sing Sing in the news.
Neither Ford or Kelly’s crimes were especially unusual which probably leaves you wondering why they appear here. While Ford’s crime was brutal, squalid and without any excuse or grounds for clemency (not unusual in the Sing Sing death house) Kelly was a rarity. While Ford had entered the death house never to leave it alive, this was Kelly’s second stint for the same crime.
There were 695 electrocutions in New York between William Kemmler (the world’s first on August 6, 1890) and Eddie Lee Mays (New York’s last on August 15, 1963). Initially New York had three electric chairs sited at Sing Sing, Auburn and Dannemora. Executions took place at all three until 194 when Sing Sing was designated the sole site for New York State, finally numbering 614 out of New York’s total.
There were anomalies, though. Around one inmate in three that entered the death house left alive via commutations to life imprisonment, successful appeals against their conviction or sentence or having been certified insane and sent to psychiatric institutions. With a successful appeal reversing their conviction some even left the death house and Sing Sing altogether, walking out into the bright light of freedom as though they’d never sat crossing dates of their calendar or come within days, hours or even minutes of death.
Edward Kelly was one of them. Originally condemned for the senseless murder of Eloise McHugh with a rifle (and then turning it on himself) Kelly arrived at Sing Sing on September 29, 1950. After winning his appeal and reversal of his conviction on July 1, 1951 Kelly walked out of Sing Sing on July 12 firmly believing he was one of that lucky third who’d never be coming back. He even left a warmly-worded letter for Warden Wilfred Denno, a man he never expected to see again. But we’ll be getting to that later
Suffice to say that Edward Kelly was wrong. Fatally so, in fact.
Kelly’s reversal was exactly that, a reversal and not an acquittal. The State of New York was thus free to try him again. That Kelly had shot McHugh was in no doubt whatsoever, but the trial judge had misdirected the jury regarding Kelly’s insanity defence. According to the judge Kelly had to understand what he was doing OR that it was a crime. New York State’s appellate judges saw it differently. To be considered legally sane, they ruled, Kelly had to understand BOTH his act and the nature thereof, not one or the other. With that in mind they reversed his conviction (and his mandatory death sentence) and out he walked.
If Kelly thought he was home free, he wasn’t. With a reversal instead of an acquittal double jeopardy didn’t apply. New York State could try him again and did so, this time winning a conviction that withstood Kelly’s lawyers and their best efforts. Having walked out of Sing Sing’s death house on July 12, 1951, he walked back in on November 28 to be reunited with Warden Wilfred Denno and the death house guards Kelly’s letter had so warmly praised. In the same week as Edward Kelly began his second stint in the death house Wallace Ford, Jr arrived to begin his first (and last).
Unlike Kelly, Ford held no particular distinction. His crime, the kidnap and murder of his sister-in-law after his marriage folded, was brutal, squalid and utterly unnecessary. Hardly a rare breed among Sing Sing’s soon-to-be-dead then or now. An argument with sister-in-law and victim Nancy Bridges over contact with his children saw Ford beat her unconscious, drive her to Genesee County. Once there he drove his car over her, reversing over her again to ensure her death. Not a man to inspire sympathy among appellate judges or the State Governor who still had the power to commute. In Ford’s case he chose not to. Convicted and condemned on November 30, 1951, he arrived at Sing Sing on December 4.
If Kelly’s case was unusual for Warden Denno it wasn’t unusual for State Electrician Joseph Francel. The fourth of five men to hold the title, Kelly and Ford would be numbers 130 and 131 of the 140 inmates he electrocuted between 1939 and 1953. After Kelly and Ford, Francel would throw the switch only nine more times before resigning in 1954.
Francel didn’t like the low pay, $150 for a single with an extra $50 per head for executing two or more prisoners in the same night. He’d also taken a dislike to the publicity surrounding his job, especially after the Rosenbergs in 1953. Kelly and Ford, however, were just another day at the office. With Ford and Kelly both out of appeals and Governor Thomas Dewey not inclined to be generous, preparations for the double event began.
12 hours before their scheduled time of 11pm Ford and Kelly were moved from their death house cells to a block of six pre-execution cells long nicknamed the Dance Hall, only 20 steps from the execution chamber itself. The execution team rehearsed, each guard knowing their particular part of the job. Francel, as was the custom, arrived in the afternoon to check the equipment and ensure it was running properly. Warden Denno had to meet and greet the official witnesses, ensuring that none had any hidden cameras as happened when Ruth Snyder was executed in 1928.
In the absence of any stays of execution, appellate rulings or executive clemency all Kelly and Ford could do was wait…
Ford had sent a letter to Judge Loughran of the New York State Court of Appeals. It did him no good, but he did cite a complaint common among condemned inmates even today;
‘My attorneys at the trial were appointed by the Genesee County Court and they also represented me on appeal before this Court. I sincerely do believe that to the limit of their knowledge, capabilities and experience, they faithfully and conscientiously did their collective best and utmost to protect my interest. However, Your Honor, they were both young men, comparatively young in the practice of law and for both my case was their first murder trial and appeal.’
It did Wallace Ford, Jr no good in 1952. It seldom does now.
As far Edward Kelly, sitting in his cell with head shaved and appeals exhausted, his own letter to Warden Denno on leaving the death house might well have come back to haunt him;
Due to the fact that I’m leaving the “Death House,” I cannot say I have any regrets, nor will I recommend it to anyone, but I can inform them that, if they are ever unfortunate enough to go to Sing Sing, they will be very well treated. I had no fault to find with anything or anybody during my stay, every reasonable request was granted. The entire staff of the prison are a credit to New York State. The officers and guards are as fine a group of men as you could find anywhere.
“Dick” and “Freddie” go about their duties as if they had a personal interest in the place, always helpful and ready with a word of cheer if needed. I enjoyed “Terry’s” homelike meals. It would certainly be a pleasure to meet everybody, including yourself, under different circumstances. I extend my best wishes to all, but I hope I never come back.
Edward H Kelly, 109-821.’
Did these words, written as Kelly walked cheerfully from death to freedom, haunt him as he made the return journey?
Execution has long been part of criminal history, society’s ultimate sanction for the very worst offenders. Less enthusiastic supporters regard it as a necessary evil and a deterrent even while acknowledging its distasteful nature. Opponents believe it no deterrent at all, that it’s applied arbitrarily and makes society as uncivilized and barbarous as the condemned themselves. It is, they argue, vengeance dressed up as justice.
We’re not discussing the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, the most humane (or least inhumane) execution methods, wrongful convictions or excessive use. Like it or not it exists and the history of crime includes the history of punishment. That said, punishment sometimes takes unusual means inflicted by unusual people.
Mississippi and Louisiana adopted an unusual means. Mississippi’s executioner was certainly one of crime’s more unusual people.
The Deep South has a checkered history of crime and punishment. Brutal prison conditions, corruption, racism and the complete absence of rehabilitation were long cornerstones of its penal policy. To many Southerners (not all by any means) prisoners were there to suffer and be punished, broken or killed, not reformed or rehabilitated.
Prison wasn’t considered punishment in itself, but suffering while there certainly was. Bad food, hard labor, brutal punishments and rampant death from disease, malnutrition, overwork and often murder weren’t aberrations, they were the norm. When inmate workers died at Angola the attitude, held since its time as a slave plantation, was simple;
When one dies, get another.
Louisiana subjected inmates to forced labor for profit and brutal discipline, especially at Angola. Under the convict lease system of the time, inmates were expected to provide free labor under the harshest conditions making them a profitable asset. The harder they could be forced to work, the more profitable they were. It was a simple policy enforced with constant brutality, quaintly described as:
‘More lash, more cash.’
Angola being a former slave plantation, post-Civil War convicts would have barely noticed the difference. Race played a huge part in penal policy in both states. When rape was a capital crime not a single white Mississippian 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. Historically, Louisiana has always executed far more black inmates than white regardless of their crime. Even though Louisiana and Mississippi were among the first states to offer alternatives to execution for murder anyone non-white, poor or both could expect to keep a date with the hangman.
Even today, a black murderer, especially of a white victim, is far more likely to die than the other way round. According to statistics released in the 1980’s black murderers are four times more likely to receive a death sentence than white ones. Contrary to the American ideal all citizens are not equal under the law even now. They were even less equal when Old Sparky and Gruesome Gertie were doing their rounds.
Both states originally employed hanging in whichever county the crime was committed. After many bungled hangings both states adopted electrocution, a supposedly more humane alternative. The states took control, but with a uniquely Southern twist. Louisiana and Mississippi were the last US states to take their executions in-house, but the first to make them a portable affair. Both ‘Old Sparky’ and ‘Gruesome Gertie’ would make their first official appearance in 1941.
By 1940 most states used a single purpose-built facility for confining and executing inmates. Sing Sing’s infamous ‘Death House’ segregated the condemned and once they went in they seldom came out. Mississippi and Louisiana did it differently. In the 1930’s Mississippi also had the highest murder rate of any state, more executions suited the public and political mood.
There were some serious obstacles to this idea. Being Mississippi’s only maximum-security prison at the time Parchman was the obvious location. Unfortunately Parchman’s chief, Superintendant Marvin Wiggins, was firmly opposed to siting Death Row at his prison. Wiggins, a shrewd and highly-connected man was firmly opposed to executions at Parchman and he wasn’t alone.
Parchman is in Sunflower County and Sunflower residents feared it being stigmatized as the ‘death county.’ They loathed the idea of hosting both executions and condemned inmates with nothing to lose by rioting and attempting escape.
Both they and Superintendent Wiggins also feared increased unrest at Parchman, already known as one of the worst 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.’
Sunflower’s 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 was needed. Mississippi and Louisiana duly found one.
In 1940 Mississippi adopted electrocution and Louisiana followed the next year. After Louisiana only West Virginia would begin using electrocution but, in 1940, riding the lightning was the preferred option for most states. Louisiana’s last hanging was a quadruple on March 7, 1941 in Caldwell.
At Caldwell, William Heharg, William Landers, William Heard and Floyd Boyce, all escaped convicts convicted of murder (and unusually all white) climbed the scaffold’s 13 steps and dropped through its trapdoor. 13 had proved very unlucky indeed for them, but no longer for anyone else. Louisiana lightning was now the order of the day. All Gruesome Gertie needed was a victim.
Their compromise involved, for the first time in American history, a portable electric chair. It would travel from county to county in a large silver truck also carrying a generator, switchboard, cables and all the standard equipment. Supplied by a firm in Memphis, both states took the show on the road providing death on wheels.
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. It also made death more local and the message harder to ignore. At a time when many people were born, lived and died without leaving their local area an execution on the other side of the state was unlikely to make much impression.
Also, with illiteracy very common, a small squib in their local paper would likely go unnoticed, let alone feared. People seeing the truck arrive and hearing its generator from several blocks away got a message unmistakable to citizens and criminals alike. Especially if they weren’t white and wealthy;
‘This is what happens to law-breakers. Don’t forget it…’
It had never been done before. In fact, nobody had even built a portable electric chair before, let alone used one. The method, however, was infinitely less unusual than Mississippi’s new executioner.
Mississippi’s new ‘State Executioner’ was Jimmy Thompson, a strange man with a violent past. An ex-convict, ex-merchant sailor, frequent drunkard, carnival showman, stage hypnotist and ex-Marine, Thompson had only recently been pardoned in 1939 after serving time for highway robbery.
During the 1920’s Thompson had also shot a neighbor for insulting his mother, escaping prosecution via an unwritten law of Southern life. At that time 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, certainly not black men shooting whites 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 as ‘Doctor Zogg’, ‘Doctor Alzedi Yogi’ and, appropriately, ‘Doctor Stingaree.’ He was heavily tattooed, a natural performer and exhibitionist. He loved entertaining with hypnosis and jugs of illegal moonshine.
Thompson secured the job via State Governor Paul Johnson. Thompson and Johnson were old friends so it was no great surprise that Thompson beat five other applicants, none of whom knew Johnson personally. Whether he was in any way an appropriate person for such a task is altogether more debatable.
In September, 1940 the equipment was ready for its public unveiling in the State capital Jackson. Thompson arrived, set up, started the generator and worked the controls. While a crowd followed his every move, the carnival showman cycled the voltage up and down while the generator roared and the current whined. 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 Mississippi was to demonstrate its new concept. Mississippi wanted to show off its latest innovation. Thompson was keen to start making regular visits to the drunk tank after every execution, spending as much on fines for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct as he did on booze. It wasn’t long before both would be satisfied.
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 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 he would keep his date with the hangman. While Fortenberry hanged in Jackson, Bragg burned in Lucedale. It was an historic day for Mississippi. Out with the old, in with the new.
His guilt confirmed, Bragg’s execution was also assured. Whether Mississippi’s desire to demonstrate its new toy made it more certain we’ll never really know. Thompson arrived at Lucedale Courthouse on October 10 to set up what he’d already 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 within Mississippi and further afield was enormous.
Electrocutions were nothing new and Bragg a typical condemned inmate, but a portable electric chair was a world first. If all went well Mississippi could trumpet its new invention. If things went badly the press would have an even bigger story. Either way, Jimmy Thompson and his ‘killing machine’ would be center-stage. 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, botched or otherwise. So newsworthy, in fact, that a photographer from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger was there to record this historic event standing only feet away from the chair.
The potential for horrendous problems was large. Granted, judicial electrocution had been considerably refined since William Kemmler. It was now done using permanently-sited, largely-standardized equipment operated by experienced professionals. Furthermore, New York and many other States insisted on employing only executioners who were also qualified 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 familiar, but this way of using it was anything but.
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 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, Thompson 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 an attention-grabbing soundbite, 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 secret snap of Ruth Snyder, taken only seconds after executioner Robert Elliott threw the switch, clearly shows Snyder as 2000 volts flowed through her body. It’s still one of the most famous images in media history. After Snyder’s execution, prison officials in many states thoroughly searched witnesses before executions. 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. In an interview given to Craddock Gains 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 hanging or electrocution. According to Thompson, it was a measure of their faith in his ability that all those with a choice chose electrocution. He even believed them 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, obviously photographing quite openly. They not only co-operated but actively encouraged him. The images, unpleasant though they are, are valuable in their rarity.
Thompson, being a natural showman, seemed 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 far less impressed by his self-publicizing 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 Thompson’s close friend and original employer Paul Johnson. Governor Thomas Bailey lost no time replacing Thompson with C W Watson although his reasons remain unclear.
No official records exist of Thompson’s hiring and firing but in December, 1946 a report appeared in the Jackson Daily News detailing a shooting accident in which Thompson was slightly wounded, describing 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. Perhaps Thompson himself may have simply decided to move on.
We’ll probably never know whether Thompson resigned or was fired, although his exhibitionism and regular arrests for post-execution drunkenness probably didn’t help him much. What we do know is that his being replaced coincided almost exactly with Bailey’s election and Johnson’s departure.
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.
Jimmy Thompson was gone. His ‘killing machine’ wasn’t, now being carted around by Watson. 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 Mae Bragg was the first. On November 10, 1954 murderer James Johnson became the last.
Willie McGee, convicted of rape in what many still consider a blatant injustice, achieved international attention. McGee’s case went to the US Supreme Court three 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 at the time, publicly condemned McGee’s case as demonstrating 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 hearing the generator noise rising and falling while locals cheer and shout the ‘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.
Filmed largely at Alabama’s Kilby Prison (where Samuel Hall met his singular end) and released in 1970 it performed poorly at the box office, widely considered too unusual to be a mainstream hit. Nor was it particularly accurate. That said, Thompson himself would have been highly gratified to be portrayed by so famous an actor and it’s absolutely clear Thompson’s life and work inspired the movie.
Mississippi continued using the portable electric chair James Johnson was executed on November 10, 1954. In 1955 it was replaced by what Superintendent Wiggins and residents of Sunflower County had always feared. A gas chamber was installed at Parchman and the Maximum Security Unit built to house only condemned inmates.
C W Watson and his assistant Thomas Berry Bruce would now ply their trade in one place only. Wiggins loathed only one thing more than taking charge of executions and that was the possibility of a botched one. With Mississippi’s newly-installed gas chamber would soon provide that as well.
The first Mississippi convict to die by gassing was Gerald Gallego, a murderer and escaped convict. Unlike the portable electric chair, Mississippi’s gas chamber had a nightmarish debut. Gallego walked his last mile reciting the Lord’s Prayer to the strains of eight other dead men walking singing ‘Up Above There’s A Heaven Bright.’ Seated and strapped in the chair nicknamed ‘Black Death’ Gallego suffered for over 45 minutes before dying. If he did see a heaven bright Gerald Gallego was probably wishing he’d see it a little faster.
The mixture of sodium cyanide and dilute sulfuric acid had been incorrectly brewed leading to a less-than-lethal concentration of cyanide gas. Gallego coughed, spluttered, gasped and writhed for over thirty minutes, but didn’t die. In a complicated, potentially-lethal procedure a new batch of brew had to replace the old batch hurriedly drained away from beneath the chair.
That done, the airtight door was re sealed and the cyanide and acid mixed again. This time it worked and Gerald Gallego was dead. In 1957 Watson was replaced by Bruce, Watson’s bodyguard and then deputy executioner since 1951.
In 1987, days before the execution of Edward Earl Johnson and not having gassed anyone since Tim Jackson in 1964, Bruce found himself replaced by Charles Tate Rogers and then Donald Hocutt. Despite the Gallego 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. Today lethal injection is the sole method used in Mississippi, the location is still Parchman. Death Row had finally come to Sunflower County and business was still reasonably brisk.
Local residents and even prison staff at Parchman still observe a curious tradition reflecting the long battle to keep executions out of Sunflower County. Mississippi’s condemned are housed at 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 ‘MSU’ instead. Even today the ghosts of long-dead Mississippians, local residents and condemned inmates alike, still dispute one of the darkest aspects of Mississippi’s history.
Louisiana did things slightly differently. Granted, their equipment was similar. A large truck travelled from the feared state prison at Angola (still America’s largest prison) and visited parish jails and courthouses dispensing law to the lawless. Race was also a factor, most of Louisiana’s condemned being non-white, but there were differences.
Where Mississippi followed tradition, nicknaming their chair ‘Old Sparky,’ Louisiana’s retribution roadshow was provided by ‘Gruesome Gertie.’ Now long retired, Gertie resides at the prison museum at Angola, occasionally making guest appearances in movies like Monster’s Ball.
Where Mississippi often had many witnesses in attendance, Louisiana only allowed around a dozen including the executioner, a doctor and a priest. The biggest difference was their choice of executioner. Grady Jarratt was a former lawman from Texas, who worked Gertie throughout her travels. When Gertie was permanently installed at Angola in 1957 Jarratt continued in the job until 1961.
During his 67 executions the difference between Jarratt and Thompson couldn’t have been greater. Jarratt made his debut on September 11, 1941, electrocuting Eugene Johnson in Livingston Parish for murder and robbery. His last was on June 9, 1961 when Jesse Ferguson died in St. Landry for murder and rape. Jarratt also performed Louisiana’s only female electrocution, that of murderer Toni Jo Henry in Calcasieu Parish on November 28, 1942.
Where Thompson was a born showman, reveling in the notoriety his grim profession brought him, Jarratt was actually a professional. Born in Texas in 1888 he was widely known in Louisiana, but didn’t seek publicity. A tall, burly man known for his white Stetson and cowboy boots, he was also known for his absolute professionalism when on the job, checking the chair, generator, cables, electrodes and straps thoroughly. As former Angola Warden Hilton Barber described him:
“Everything had to be right up to snuff, even the leather. He would take it in his hands and ply it. If it had a crack in it then we’d have to make a new one. He was very particular.”
For an executioner Jarratt was also a personable man. Where Thompson was obnoxiously showy, Jarratt made a point of politely meeting and greeting witnesses, trying to put them at their ease in what was undoubtedly a nervy, tense situation. He was even polite to those he was about to kill, making a point of addressing them by name. The last words his prisoners ever heard were “Goodbye, (insert name here)” right before he threw the switch.
Skilled and competent, Jarratt was the antithesis of his opposite number.
Jarratt, ever the professional, would insist on a perfect set-up and thorough testing even though Angola’s chief electrician would check everything before the chair left the prison. Unfortunately for Willie Francis, however, Jarratt was unavailable for his execution on May 2, 1946. It was a case that would make state and national history.
Captain Ephie Foster usually delivered the chair, but he’d never actually thrown the switch. Jarratt being unavailable, Foster was slated to electrocute Willie Francis in St. Martinville Parish. Foster, though he delivered the equipment, had never actually thrown the switch and his assistant, convict Vincent Venezia, hadn’t either. Venezia was assistant to Angola’s electrician E.J Usnault, but wasn’t qualified.
Both men arrived at St. Martinville the day before and both spent the night drinking heavily and inviting anyone who wanted to watch to turn up at St. Martinville’s jail. Even while setting up and testing the chair and generator they were seen, still hungover from the night before, passing a flask back and forth. The result was both appalling and unforgettable.
When Francis was seated and strapped Foster threw the switch and the current surged. There wasn’t enough current. Francis, in great pain, wasn’t merely still alive but able to speak even while Gertie did her best to silence him forever. As the generator roared, heard blocks away from the parish jail, Francis was clearly heard explaining that it wasn’t working.
The first jolt had failed. Foster shouted outside to Venezia:
“Give me some more juice down there!”
Venezia couldn’t, replying:
“I’m giving you all I’ve got now!”
At that point the most unlikely voice made itself heard. Despite being masked, restrained with heavy leather straps, the head electrode and another leather strap cinched tight under his chin, Willie Francis still managed to clarify the situation;
“I AM N-N-NOT DYING!”
With that announcement Francis, the only convict ever to walk away from his own electrocution, was taken back to his cell. After a lengthy legal battle taken to the US Supreme Court, which inexplicable felt he should be executed again, he returned to St. Martinville on May 9, 1947.
This time Jarratt was in charge. This time, with a competent professional checking the machinery and pulling her switch, Gruesome Gertie did her job properly. Once more Willie Francis, 15 at his first execution and only 16 at his second, was seated, strapped and capped. Jarratt, true to form, checked everything.
“Are the straps too tight?”
“Everything is just fine.”
“Is there anything you want to say?”
“Nothing at all.”
Jarratt immediately hit the switch. Willie Francis, survivor of Gruesome Gertie first time round, didn’t survive the second. Seated at 12:05pm, he was dead at 12:12.
Memories of his highly-dubious conviction, botched execution and the Supreme Court’s preferring the letter of the law over the spirit of justice still live on.
Jarratt continued as ‘electrocutioner’ until 1961. By the time Gertie found her permanent home at Angola in 1957 Jarratt had been through a divorce and begun drinking heavily. He started regularly downing a half-pint of whiskey before an execution and another half-pint afterward.
His last execution, that of Jesse Ferguson on June 9, 1961, saw Gruesome Gertie lie dormant until Robert Wayne Williams on December 14, 1983. By then Gertie had lain dormant for over 20 years, posing a significant problem.
Jarratt had died on June 1, 1973 and no American had been executed for nine years. Many states had also replaced their chairs with lethal injection in the meantime. Gruesome Gertie had spent 19 years in storage.
Jarratt’s replacement, a Baton Rouge electrician known under the alias ‘Sam Jones’ (Louisiana’s Governor when Gruesome Gertie replaced the gallows in 1940) hadn’t actually executed anyone before.
The result was a serious lack of knowledge of how to actually electrocute a prisoner, what should happen and what shouldn’t. Astounded by the brutality of Williams’s death, Angola’s Warden Ross Maggio had to consult outside sources to find out whether Williams had actually died as he was supposed to.
After this somewhat shaky start, Louisiana soon relearned by experience. After Williams another 19 inmates would ride the lightning before Gertie was finally retired. Her last victim was Andrew Lee Jones on July 22, 1991. Both Old Sparky and Gruesome Gertie had become museum pieces having long outlived their custodians.
August 15, 1963 was an historic day in New York’s penal history, although nobody involved knew it at the time. New York’s lawmakers didn’t know it. the Warden of New York’s infamous Sing Sing Prison (now the Ossining Correctional Facility) didn’t know. Dow Hover, New York’s last ‘State Electrician’, didn’t know it. Eddie Lee Mays (armed robber and murderer of no particular note) didn’t know. He was well beyond caring by then anyway.
At 10pm Eddie Lee Mays would die. walk his last mile. He would leave his pre-execution cell in Sing Sing’s ‘death house,’ walk twenty feet with two prison officers and a prison Chaplain, take a seat in ‘Old Sparky’ and ‘ride the lightning.’ Moved from his regular Death House cell twelve hours before the scheduled time, Mays would spend his final hours in the ‘Dance Hell,’ a group of six cells nearer the death chamber.
When his time came Mays would be New York’s 695th inmate to do so since William Kemmler at Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890 and Sing Sing’s 614th.
He would also be the last.
Mays was 34 years old, an ex-convict from North Carolina where he’d already served a sentence for murder. He’d been lucky to avoid North Carolina’s gas chamber then, especially as North Carolina used their chamber frequently in 1940’s and 1950’s and being black wasn’t going to work in his favour.
Sing’s Sing’s electric chair would prove unavoidable. Mays himself wasn’t especially bothered by the typical Death Row inmate’s standards. With a lengthy criminal record and no future other than more prison time, Mays had already said he’d rather ‘fry’ than spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Along with two accomplices (neither of whom faced the ‘hot seat’) Mays had embarked upon a string of violent crimes during 1961. Resident in Harlem, in six weeks Mays and his gang had committed no less than fifty-two armed robberies. Having already shown in North Carolina that murder wasn’t beyond him, it’s no great surprise that he soon killed again.
On March 23, 1961 Mays and his friends entered the ‘Friendly Tavern’ at 1403 Fifth Avenue, showed their guns and demanded that the owner and his customers hand over every cent they had. One of them was Maria Marini, known to her friends as ‘Pearl.’ Maria didn’t open her purse as quickly as Mays demanded and. When she did, it was empty. Mays, enraged by her tardiness and lack of cash, bellowed:
“I’m going to kill somebody! I mean it! I’ll show you!”
Turning to Maria he then bellowed:
“I ought to kill you!”
And then he did. Mays put his .38 pistol directly against her forehead and squeezed the trigger in a totally unnecessary murder before running away with $275 in cash. It wasn’t long before Mays and his accomplices were in custody awaiting trial. Their future looked bleak at best, either life imprisonment or a very brief acquaintance with Sing Sing’s most notorious resident;
By 1962 New York had already discarded its mandatory death penalty for murder, opting for new legislation separating capital from non-capital murder. Unfortunately for Mays New York’s Felony Murder Statute defined murder during a robbery as capital murder. Given his lengthy record, previous murder conviction and the totally unnecessary murder of Maria Marini, the outcome was in no real doubt.
Convicted and condemned, it wasn’t long before Eddie Lee Mays was on the fast-track to a disinterested, if not unwilling, place in penal history. His accomplices could also have been condemned but they struck lucky. As Mays had fired the shot, the judge ruled, they escaped with lengthy prison terms and their lives. Mays wouldn’t be so fortunate.
Mays had his one mandatory appeal granted by law. Neither the State Court of Appeals or State Governor were ready to intervene. Warden Wilfred .L. Denno, appointed in December, 1950, received his latest ‘thunderbolt jockey’ and Denno knew the drill backwards. Eddie Lee Mays would be his 62nd execution since taking charge at Sing Sing. He gave the usual orders instructing Death House staff to make the usual preparations. He also sent a letter to New York’s fifth and final ‘State Electrician’ Mr. Dow Hover to set August 15, 1963 in his diary. Hover agreed, driving down from his Germantown home a few hours before the scheduled time of 10pm.
Dow Hover was the last of five men to hold the title of New York’s ‘State Electrician.’ The principal qualifications were being a fully-qualified electrician, being prepared to kill people for $150 an inmate (with an extra $50 per inmate for multiple executions, not unusual events at Sing Sing) and not minding the measly 8 cents a mile fuel allowance.
Edwin Davis, John Hurlburt, Robert Elliott and Joseph Francel had all pulled the switch many, many times. It was Hover who replaced Francel when Francel unexpectedly resigned in 1953 shortly after executing the atom bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Francel hadn’t liked the publicity he’d received and wasn’t satisfied with the money either, which hadn’t improved much since Davis executed William Kemmler at Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890.
Hover wasn’t bothered about the money or the work. A cold and unemotional man, he saw executions as a professional job. They were to be properly done and then forgotten about. The low pay didn’t bother him either, but any publicity did. Hover was extremely careful to avoid being publicly identified as the ‘State Electrician’, however. He’d change the number plates on his car before leaving home, changing them back on his return. He also never talked about his work with anybody and did all he could to keep out of sight.
August 15, 1963 would be the last time he drove a car with false number plates.
By late-afternoon, all was ready. Warden Denno had screened the official witnesses and reporters to be present that night. The prison officers had rehearsed their already well-rehearsed routine for escorting Mays on his last mile, strapping him down securely and the general running of the execution. Mays himself had consulted with the prison’s Protestant chaplain. He’d also refused a last meal, asking instead for a carton of Pall Mall cigarettes.
Under Death House rules he wasn’t allowed matches in his condemned cell. Whenever he wanted a smoke (which was increasingly often) an officer had to light it for him. His head was shaved, his leg was shaved for the second electrode and he was given the traditional execution clothes.
These were specially made with a slit right trouser leg and wooden buttons that wouldn’t catch fire, glow or melt when the switch was thrown. Instead of shoes or boots Mays would walk his last mile in shower slippers. The Warden and witnesses gathered while Hover tested his equipment thoroughly. It was all in perfect working order. All that was left was to watch the clock and wait until 10pm when the final act would begin.
It began promptly and worked like a well-oiled machine, like clockwork. Mays gave no trouble as he walked his last mile. Before a small audience of prison staff and a few disinterested reporters he quickly seated himself without making any final statement.
Officers swiftly applied thick, heavy leather straps rounds his wrists, ankles, waist and chest. Hover attached the electrode to Mays’s right calf muscle, firmly sliding the leather helmet containing the head electrode down over Mays’s head. A thick leather strap with a hole exposing his nose went over Mays’s face, buckled tightly round the back of the chair. Mays was strapped down tight, the electrodes were firmly attached, the generator was running properly. All was set.
Warden Denno gave the signal, his 62nd since assuming command of Sing Sing in 1950 and the last in New York’s history. Like Hover, Denno was no stranger to the grim ritual. In the thirteen years since taking over he’d stood in front of ‘Old Sparky’ on sixty-one previous occasions involving some of New York State’s most notorious criminals.
In 1951 it had been the ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’ Raymond Fernandez and Martha Jule Beck. In 1953 it had been Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, their publicity had caused Joseph Francel to quit and Dow Hover to be throwing the switch that night. In 1954 it had been German immigrant, armed robber, murderer and resident of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, Gerhard Puff, for murdering FBI Special Agent Joseph Brock.
In 1958 it was notorious hitman Elmer ‘Trigger’ Burke (for murdering bar-owner Edward ‘Poochy’ Walsh) and Angelo LaMarca (for the kidnap-murder of Peter Weinberger). Then in 1960 Henry ‘Snow’ Flakes had died in front of him. A former heavyweight boxing contender, Flakes had fallen on hard times, developed a drug problem and killed a store-owner during a robbery. Like Mays, Flakes died without leaving a final statement, although he did have an enormous last meal.
And in between the ones anybody remembered, assuming they’d heard of them at all, were dozens of others. Nameless, faceless and then lifeless, their deaths hadn’t rated so much as a paragraph in their local paper. Not for them the banner headlines of the Rosenbergs or Martha Beck.
When Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez died on March 8, 1951 their deaths made headlines nationwide. Those of John King and Richard Powers, executed the same night for murdering Detective Joseph Miccio, were barely acknowledged then or now. The likes of Powers, King and hundreds of others might as well have been phantoms.
Their deaths though, when they came, were real enough.
Warden Denno gave the signal, Hover worked the controls in a pre-determined cycle perfected by his predecessor Robert Elliott. 2000 volts for three seconds, then 500 volts for fifty-seven seconds, then 2000 again for three seconds, 500 for fifty-four seconds and 2000 again for the last few seconds. Hover shut off his controls, Denno signaled to the prison physician to make his checks and all waited quietly for the outcome.
Eddie Lee Mays was dead.
New York abolished the death penalty almost entirely in 1965. The only exceptions were prison inmates who committed murder while already serving a life sentence and anybody murdering a police officer or prison officer. ‘Old Sparky’ was uprooted and transferred to the maximum-security Green Haven Correctional Facility in 1969. The last Death Row inmate in New York condemned prior to abolition had their sentence commuted in 1972 when the US Supreme Court struck down all existing State death penalty laws in its historic ruling Furman vs Georgia.
New York did reinstate capital punishment in 1995 when then-Governor George Pataki signed the new law using the pen of a murdered police officer (and made sure the media knew who the pen had previously belonged to). But New York’s State Courts struck down his law, ruling it unconstitutional. There were no executions in New York during its brief existence.
Even the infamous Sing Sing ‘Death House’ star of so many books, movies, radio dramas, TV documentaries and now blog posts, has lost its grim purpose. Today it’s known simply as Unit 17, a vocational training centre used by inmates wanting to learn a trade. Warden Lewis Lawes, at one time America’s most-frequent practitioner of the death penalty and its most high-profile opponent, might have seen that as a sign of progress. Whether any of its hundreds of residents still haunt the former Death House is unknown.
The last word on New York’s last execution goes to Warden Denno, who remained in charge at Sing Sing until 1967. In 1965 he went over to the Death House with the best news its few remaining residents could have dreamt of. New York’s lawmakers had abolished the death penalty except for the murder of police or prison officers.
Aside from cop killers Anthony Portelli and Jerry Rosenberg (both later commuted) all the condemned were now lifers, no longer dead men walking. Denno arrived with the good news during a baseball match, commenting afterward:
“It may sound incredible, but they seemed more interested in the ball game.”
If the death penalty is a deterrent intended to strike dread into the hearts of the criminally-inclined, that wasn’t quite the reaction he’d expected.
For my 100th post, I’m going to offer you something special, something a little different from the usual fare. The story of this ‘unidentified man’ at the moment of his death.
True crime buffs and historians will have seen this particular image many, many times. Taken by photographer William van der Weyde, it’s invariably captioned as ‘An unidentified man is strapped into Sing Sing Prison’s electric chair, circa 1900.’
It was taken at Sing Sing, but it wasn’t taken in 1900. That ‘unidentified man’ can now be given a name and a story. So here it is.
The photo was part of a series published the Royal Magazine in 1898. The article describes the original Sing Sing death house, not the one readers might be more familiar with today. That wasn’t opened until 1922 and the second death house didn’t open until 1915. This is the set-up as it was in the beginning.
Sing’s Sing’s first was a quadruple on July 7, 1891. That day Harris Smiler, James Slocum, Joseph Wood and Shibaya Jugiro paid for their crimes. The last was Eddie Lee Mays on August 15, 1963. Between them, the three death houses would claim 614 of New York’s 695 electrocutions.
The ‘unidentified man’ is actually murderer Arthur Mayhew, who walked his last mile on March 12, 1897. Mayhew, convicted of murder-robbery on the testimony of accomplice John Wayne, was the 20th inmate electrocuted at Sing Sing. His crime was unremarkable as murders go, clubbing 68-year old shopkeeper William Powell on Fulton Street. His execution would also have been unexceptional, saving that he hasn’t been properly identified in over a century. Wayne, who received a 15-year sentence and so avoided execution, later retracted his testimony before reverting to blaming Mayhew.
Convicted and condemned, Mayhew found himself awaiting execution for a year. In that time Carl Feigenbaum, Louis Hermann and Charles Pustalka were taken from their cells and executed. Given the original layout of Sing Sing’s pre-death house era, Mayhew would have heard every single detail of their deaths.
As you can see, the death cells were separated from the death chamber itself by only a single door. The condemned wouldn’t actually see anything, white sheets being draped in front of their cells just before an execution, but they could hear absolutely everything.
They could hear another prisoner being led away, hear the door open and close, hear their last words (if they had any), the clunk of the switch being thrown and the hum of flowing electricity. As a final torture, they could hear the autopsy being performed, New York State law mandating an autopsy immediately after an execution. The autopsy room at Sing Sing was next door to the death chamber for convenience.
The convenience of prison staff, of course, not prison inmates. They didn’t find the clunk of the switch, the dull hum of electricity and the shrill whine of a bone saw the slightest bit convenient. In fact, it had a nasty (though unsurprising) tendency to drive them insane. When Sing Sing set its record on August 7, 1912 by electrocuting seven inmates one after another, those awaiting death created havoc. So did those whose dates were still approaching.
They were spared quite as much suffering when it was Arthur Mayhew’s turn. Mayhew, originally one of two executions scheduled that day, would have heard the other prisoner being told his sentence had been commuted and he was to be reassigned into Sing’s Sing’s general population.
With this last, most uplifting thought in his mind, Arthur Mayhew would die alone and, until now, unidentified.
His executioner, the world’s very first ‘State Electrician’ remained as close to anonymous as possible, though by his own choice. Edwin Davis was man fearful of being identified. The public knew his name and only a rough idea of what he looked like. He would journey to Sing Sing discreetly, having arranged with a railroad company for its train to pick him up and drop him off at a spot between stations before and after an execution. He permitted no photographs and once lambasted assistant Robert Elliott (later New York’s third State Electrician) for once using his name while ordering dinner.
The layout of Sing Sing’s first death chamber was designed so official witnesses and reporters wouldn’t even see him do his deadly work. As you can see from the image below, the man in the background on the left (sometimes incorrectly identified as Davis) was actually puling a cord, not the switch. The cord was connected to Davis’s hand as he stood in the closed-off booth directly behind the chair. One pull told him to throw the switch, a second pull told him to cut the power so doctors could make their checks. If the prisoner was still alive, the cord was pulled again to order as many shocks as were needed.
Mayhew needed only the standard two jolts before dying, one to kill him and another to make absolutely sure. He was certified dead little over a minute after the cord was pulled and Davis threw the switch. As he was led into the chamber he clutched a crucifix, a fact confirmed by press reports published on March 13, the day after he died.
As he was being strapped down he uttered his final words;
“Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”
His end, at least, was mercifully brief. Though not so brief there wasn’t time for another picture:
As Mayhew is listed by most sources as ‘unidentified,’ the first photograph of an electrocution in progress is commonly held to be that of Ruth Snyder, executed at Sing Sing in 1928. The image is widely considered one of the most important and distinctive in the history of journalism and is still used in some journalism courses for teaching purposes. It made journalistic history at the time.
Snyder was illicitly photographed by reporter Tom Howard just after the current was turned on, using a hidden camera concealed in his trouser leg. Given that Mayhew is specifically named in the archived article in the Royal Magazine (published in 1898) and that Sing Sing records and contemporary news reports list Mayhew as having been executed on March 12, 1897, it reasonable to say that these images are of Mayhew and that the world’s first electrocution photographs were in fact taken some thirty years earlier than commonly thought.
The image also has its place in popular culture. It’s easily found online and provided the inspiration for the James Cagney film ‘Picture Snatcher.’ Curiously, while Cagney played a newspaper photographer who illicitly photographed a woman in the electric chair, probably the most famous scene of his entire career is at the end of classic ‘Angels with Dirty faces’ in which Cagney (playing gangster ‘Rocky Sullivan’) has to be dragged kicking and screaming into Sing Sing’s chair. Cagney himself never clarified whether his character was actually panicking or was feigning fear to benefit the ‘Dead End Kids,’ preferring the audience to decide for themselves.
I somehow doubt Arthur Mayhew, who always protested his innocence, would have appreciated his singular place in the chronicles of crime. Or his place as a small-time pop culture icon, either.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?