death sentence

Aum Shinryko: Japan’s largest execution since World War II?


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Japan, one of only two members of the G7 to retain capital punishment, the other is the US, has never liked publicity regarding its death penalty. Just as the British used to do until abolition, it’s shrouded in secrecy.

Even the condemned don’t know until shortly beforehand that their time has come. The public don’t know until after they’ve died and an official announcement is made. Until then, the condemned, the execution process and especially those who carry it out are hidden away, out of sight if not of mind.

Today’s mass execution has changed all that.

This morning Japan performed what is probably its largest mass execution since the war crimes trials after World War II. Seven members of the Aum Shinryko cult responsible for the Tokyo subway attack on March 20, 1995 were escorted from their cells one by one and dropped through the trapdoor at a Tokyo prison.

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One after another cult leader Shoko Asihara, Yoshihiro Inoue, Tomomitsu Niimi, Tomomasa Nakagawa, Kiyohie Hayakawa, Seiichi Endo and Masachi Tsuchiya were taken from their cells to the  trapdoor, strapped, hooded, noosed and dropped. Three prison officials pushed three buttons, only one of which released the trapdoor. Six more cult members are still awaiting the same fate.

Many, Japanese or not, would say it was justified. They’d littered Tokyo’s subway with packages of nerve agent Sarin, killing 13 people and injuring thousands. It wasn’t their first gas attack on their fellow citizens, they’d attempted a similar Sarin attack before and would try it with cyanide gas later. Even after today’s hanging of seven of them another six still remain on death row. All told, not prisoners likely to attract much, if any sympathy.

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Japan has long tried to keep its executions as secret as possible. Unlike the US where such criminals would attract more publicity than the biggest celebrities (at least around their executions), the Japanese like to keep it as discreet as possible. With a case like this, though, discretion is impossible. The attack was too notorious, the resulting executions were simply too big to hide.

Until recently Japan’s condemned were given no warning at all. They’d simply be roused if they were asleep, told it was time to go and within hours they’d be dead. Even Britain’s condemned knew their date and time beforehand. But Japan’s stance has softened a little in recent years. In 2010 Keiko Chiba, then Minister of Justice and an opponent of capital punishment, decided to stimulate debate by granting the media their first access to the death chamber itself. Traditionally, it’s also the Justice Minister’s responsibility to sign the death warrant formally beginning the execution process.

As in the US, capital justice moves slowly. Technically a prisoner should be hanged within six months of sentencing. In practice, prisoners have remained on death row for decades between sentencing and execution while appeals are heard, sometimes granted and  often dismissed. Once the Justice Minister puts pen to paper, however, it moves far more quickly.

For the remaining six cultists and the hundred or so other condemned inmates, every day could be their last. They just don’t know which day it will be.

 

On This Day in 1934; The last British hanging witnessed by a journalist.


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When Frederick Parker and Albert Probert mounted the gallows at Wandsworth Prison, they died never knowing they’d taken a singular place in Britain’s chronicles of crime. Theirs would be last execution in British prison to be witnessed by a gentleman (or lady) of the press.

Until the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868 executions were performed in public. Anyone, be they prince, pauper, journalist or ordinary member of the public, could watch a felon pay the ultimate penalty. After 1868 executions were performed entirely behind prison walls, although reporters were still permitted to be present. Both hangmen and prison governors alike came to prefer it if they weren’t.

Prison staff came to loathe many reporters who witnessed executions, believing them to fabricate reports of doomed men struggling to the last and kicking and screaming their way to their deaths. This, as a rule, very rarely actually happened. In the eyes of warders, governors and hangmen alike, it appeared in the next day’s newspapers far too often. As former assistant hangman Syd Dernley described it in his memoir ‘The Hangman’s Tale’;

“In the absence of genuine information, the wildest stories were heard and believed. Gruesome reports circulated of nightmare scenes in which condemned people had to be dragged kicking, screaming and pleading to the trap, where the rope had to be forced round their necks and they were dropped to strangle, moving and twitching for minutes on end.”

Reporters weren’t officially banned to avoid accusations of censorship and officialdom muzzling the press. In practice, though, prison governors were able to say yes or no. Increasingly, they said no. By the time of Probert and Parker, Associated Press reporter W G Finch was very much the exception to a firm though unwritten rule. He would also be the last of his kind to receive such a privilege.

Finch was one of the doyens of British crime reporting. A member of a group known in the profession as the ‘Murder Gang,’ Finch made it his business to report murders, sometimes arriving at crime scenes before police officers. Like his fellow ‘Murder Gang’ members, he was as much tolerated as accepted by the police of the time. They couldn’t freeze out crime reporters, so they had to (sometimes grudgingly) tolerate their existence.

 

Parker and Probert themselves were otherwise unexceptional criminals. They’d assaulted shopkeeper Joseph Bedford while trying to rob his store on November 13, 1933. Severely beaten, Bedford died of his injuries the next day. Arrested a few days after the crime, Parker and Probert now faced trial for murder, then carrying a mandatory death sentence.

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They were tried before Mr Justice Roche, legendary pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury testified for the prosecution which was led by the equally legendary Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett, KC (King’s Counsel). Against such heavyweight opposition the pair could only blame each other. This, of course, made no difference. They had gone to rob together, had killed together and so, in the eyes of the law, would be tried, convicted and hanged together.

Convicted on March 16, 1934, they stood before Mr Justice Roche as he donned the traditional Black Cap to pass what reporters often called ‘the dread sentence’;

“Frederick Parker and Albert Probert, you stand convicted of the crime of wilful murder. The sentence of this Court is that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and then to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that afterwards your bodies be cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution.

And may the Lord have mercy upon your souls…”

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Their appeals proved fruitless and were denied on April 18, 1934. With that in mind, chief hangman Thomas Pierrepoint was booked to hang the pair. Uncle and nephew would work together so frequently they became known as ‘the firm of Uncle Thomas and Our Albert.’ With him were his assistant and nephew Albert (undoubtedly needing no introduction) and two additional assistants, Stanley Cross and Tom Phillips. Cross was an experienced assistant and Phillips even more so. Albert, however, was the relative novice that day.

Parker and Probert were only the sixth and seventh notches on Albert’s rope. Beginning with Patrick McDermott at Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail on December 29, 1932 (assisting his uncle Thomas), Albert had only assisted at four hangings since then. His uncle, meanwhile, had been involved in almost 200 executions by that point. He would continue until hanging cop killer John Caldwell at Barlinnie Gaol in Glasgow on August 10, 1946. Caldwell would be Thomas’s 296th and final victim.

Parker and Probert died quietly and quickly at 9am, without trouble, dropping simultaneously was the fashion. As they had murdered and been tried together, so they dropped side-by-side. The presence of W G Finch, though causing no problems whatsoever with the hanging itself, was frowned on by higher authority. The customary placing of official notices on the prison gate, announcing the executions had been carried out, was undoubtedly the death knell for Parker and Probert.

It was also the end of media access to a British gallows. Executions would continue until August 13, 1964 when two inmates, Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen died simultaneously at Strangeways and Walton Prisons respectively. Like Parker and Probert thirty years previously, Allen and Evans had committed murder during a robbery. With their deaths the Black Cap, ‘dread sentence’ and the death penalty itself became part of penal history.

 

Doctor George Henry Lamson, the ‘Sleight of Hand Poisoner’; Not as clever as he thought.


 

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The case of George Lamson, a once-promising doctor before becoming a drug addict and murderer, is a prime example of writer H.L. Mencken’s maxim on murder:

‘The easiest murder case to break is the one somebody tried to get very cute with.’

Lamson did indeed try to get very cute and, ultimately, it made no difference. Today in 1882 was the day he paid the price. By the time he was helped to gallows at London’s infamous Wandsworth Prison his nerve, tested by years of bad debts, hounding from creditors, rampant drug addiction and outright fear, had deserted him. He spent his final seconds begging the prison chaplain to stay the hangman’s hand for just one final prayer.

All in all, a sorry fate for a man who'[d once shown such promise.

Lamson was an American citizen, serving with distinction in the Balkan War and Franco-Prussian War. In the process the young doctor had been decorated, earning France’s Legion of Honour. While acquiring his decoration and military experience, however, he’d also acquired a habit that would come to rule his life and then destroy it;

Morphine.

By the autumn of 1881 Lamson, still not thirty years old, was a hopeless drug addict with a lengthy reputation for swindling patients, friends and family in order to fund his rampant drug habit. Creditors were hounding him and he’d moved to several different places to escape their demands. Unfortunately, however, their demands followed him. In desperate need of something to pay off his creditors and still sustain his addiction, his drug-addled mind turned to his wife and her cousin Percy John.

Percy’s youth had been spoiled by a crippling spinal disorder that denied him many of like’s simple pleasures. Should he die, the £1500 held in trust for him would be inherited by his wife. Lamson, naturally, intended that the money should come to him and thence to his creditors and the nearest available source of morphine. With that in mind, our medical murderer looked for a way to murder his brother-in-law while setting a false trail to protect himself if he were accused of Percy’s murder.

Capsules were then a new fad and, Lamson decided, would play a crucial part of both his murder scheme and emergency alibi. If he could induce Percy to take capsules obviously not laden with poison while delivering it in some other way then Percy would die, Lamson’s wife would inherit and Lamson would pocket the cash. In December, 1881 his scheme went into effect when he visited Percy at his boarding school.

Percy admired and trusted his dashing, outwardly respectable brother-in-law. He also trusted him, as did the school headmaster specially invited by Lamson as an unwitting alibi witness. In the event of Lamson being accused and trid for murder, he would point to the capsules and deny everything. He also hoped the prosecution might accuse him of using the capsules when a lethal dose of aconitine (a drug he believed untracable) was actually in the raisins of a Dundee cake.

That evening he made a point of describing the new way for Percy to take his medicine, making sure the headmaster saw him filling the capsule with harmless sugar. Making his excuses (he had a train to catch, Lamson left, purposely leaving behind two packets of empty capsules to strengthen his alibi.

Before Lamson even caught his train to Paris, Percy John was already dead.

Suspicion, as Lamson expected, immediately pointed the finger at him. With that in mind Chief Inspector Butcher of Scotland Yard was summoned to investigate and apprehend his prime suspect. London’s newspapers, sensing a classic murder to get their teeth into, helped in the hunt and, before long, Lamson was arrested. The charge was wilful murder, then carrying a mandatory date with the hangman.

The trial, at London’s legendary Old Bailey with Mr Justice Hawkins presiding, didn’t go as Lamson had planned…

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Chief Inspector Butcher had been as diligent as you’d expect from a Scotland Yard detective. He’d found a pharmacist who identified Lamson as buying aconitine while signing a false name in the pharmacist’s Poisons Register. He had evidence of both Lamson’s many debts and that his wife was to inherit Percy’s trust fund. He could place Lamson as being one of the last people to see the victim alive before suddenly and hastily leaving. Lamson’s one shot at an acquittal lay in the prosecution building their case around the capsules. In that there lay one small kink in Lamson’s plan…

They didn’t.

Lamson’s drug-addled mind had failed to account for a very important factor; The jury didn’t need to be convinced of exactly how he’d poisoned Percy, only that he’d done so. And convinced they duly were. After a six-day trial garnering a great deal of publicity (destroying what remained of Lamson’s personal and professional reputation) the jury foreman rose to deliver the verdict;

Guilty as charged, with no recommendation for mercy.

With that Mr Justice Hawkins had only one duty left to perform before a packed and silent courtroom. Donning the dreaded ‘Black Cap,’ a traditional gesture of mourning for the soon-to-be-departed, Hawkins read the final lines of this rather rather sorry drama;

“George Henry Lamson, you stand convicted of the crime of murder.  The sentence of this Court is that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that afterward your body be cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul…

Remove the prisoner.”

Lamson was immediately transferred to Wandsworth Prison and the Condemned Cell. The ‘CC’ was only a short walk to the end of ‘A’ Wing where Lamson would end his days in what Wandsworth inmates called the ‘cold meat shed.’ But first, surprisingly under the circumstances, there was a powerful campaign to see his death sentence overturned and Lamson reprieved.

Lamson soon found himself watching his lawyers before a three-judge panel at the Court of Criminal Appeal. Barred by law from speaking in his own defence, he could only watch as his barristers trampled the remnants of his personal and professional reputation in a failed effort to overturn his conviction and sentence.

It was here that his ploy with the capsules came back to bite him. He’d intended for the prosecution to accuse him of spiking the capsules and for the defence to easily destroy their case and win his acquittal. Unfortunately for Lamson, the prosecution hadn’t taken the bait. Without it, the defence couldn’t spring the trap. Moreover, appeals at the time were based entirely on evidence used at the trial, ruling out any chance for them to do so before the appellate judges. It must have loomed large in whatever remained of the good doctor’s drug-ravaged mind that, if the defence couldn’t spring their trap, the public hangman certainly could.

And was probably going to…

Lamson’s court appeal having failed, petitions were arranged, personal appeals were made, a public meeting was organised by other Americans living in London. Even the US Ambassador tried to persuade the Home Secretary to reprieve Lamson after requests from Lamson’s family in the US. All were to no avail. Lamson was unaware of something else, an unwritten rule that a Home Secretary didn’t reprieve poisoners unless they absolutely had to. Chief public executioner William Marwood was instructed to make a date in his diary.

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After a brief postponement from April 2, the fatal day finally dawned on April 28, 1882. At dawn Lamson was awoken in the Condemned Cell. He declined a final breakfast and, when his time came, had to be helped along his last mile between the ‘CC’ and the ‘Cold Meat Shed.’ Unable even to stand on his own two feet, the ravages of fear and morphine withdrawal taking their toll, he had to supported on the trap as the hangman went about his business. William Marwood (pioneer of ‘long drop’ hanging) worked as quickly as possible to bring this once-promising young man’s suffering to an end.

George Henry Lamson was dead.

On This Day in 1959; Elmer Brunner, the last execution in West Virginia.


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West Virginia has never been known as a hard-line death penalty State, abolishing capital punishment in 1965. After 1899 there were 104 hangings and, with a change in method, nine electrocutions. Elmer Brunner’s, on April 3, 1959 was the last.

Brunner wasn’t a notable murderer in himself. His crime, murdering homeowner  Ruby Miller, was and remains all-too-typical. Miller had disturbed him while he was burgling her home in Huntington on on May 27, 1957. According to Brunner’s version, she’d disturbed him with a shotgun. Beating her to death with a claw hammer, he said, was an act of self-defence.

Not surprisingly, neither judge or jury bought that defence, especially not from an ex-convict. Arrested on the same day,  Brunner’s trial began in the week of June 28, 1957. Before a packed courtroom he was convicted with no recommendation for mercy. His execution date was set for August 2, only a month after his conviction. He was shipped to the dreaded West Virginia State Penitentiary at Moundsville, home of Old Sparky.

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Moundsville possessed a reputation as bad as any penitentiary in American history. Assaults on inmates and staff alike were an almost daily occurrence. Rapes and murder were also occupational hazards for anyone unfortunate enough to live or work there. Disease was rampant, even a tuberculosis epidemic swept the prison at one time and the food was appalling.

Granted, Brunner would be kept in a single cell away from the violence, deprivation and brutality, but he would have traded his more comfortable single cell for life in general population. All he had to distract him was fighting appeals, trying to forestall his ever-encroaching appointment with Moundsville’s most lethal inmate;

Old Sparky.

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The electric chair had replaced West Virginia’s gallows in 1951. Built by inmate Paul Glenn, Old Sparky’s tenure was both brief and limited. Where West Virginia’s chair claimed only nine inmates in its 14-year career compared to its New York namesake, Sing Sing’s once claimed seven inmates in a single day (August 7, 1912). Other States electrocuted more than West Virginia’s total in a single month. Brunner’s position that point was certainly precarious. but it could have been worse.

It probably did little to reassure Brunner that only two inmates walked their last mile during his tenure. Eugene Linger, well, didn’t. The murderer walked to the chair on June 5, 1958. Another murderer, Larry Fudge, saw his time and appeals run out on July 1, 1958. Fudge, the 8th in West Virginia to ride the lightning, walked calmly from his cell, sat in the chair and died. Next and, though nobody knew it, last to do so would be Elmer Brunner. But not for a while.

Brunner fought against his sentence for two years, taking his case as far as the US Supreme Court. He won a stay or two, but never a commutation. All he managed was to delay the inevitable. By his final date on April 3, 1959, his time and appeals ran out. State Governor Cecil Underwood, whose tenure also included the executions of Linger and Fudge, wasn’t offering anything, either. Warden Donivon Adams had already overseen the executions of Linger and Fudge, now he prepared to execute Elmer Brunner. Brunner’s time had simply run out.

Brunner’s final stay, a brief one, came from Underwood. Originally slated to die on March 27, Underwood postponed the execution until March 3 because of the Easter weekend. Had he taken his final walk on March 27, Brunner wouldn’t have been having a Good Friday. As it was, fryday was postponed only briefly.

When the time came Brunner was stoic, as calm as anyone could be expected to be in the face of his impending death. He’d eaten his last meal, the witnesses had been assembled and Old Sparky thoroughly tested. Three prison employees waited to push three buttons, only one of which would send 2,000 volts searing through Elmer Brunner.

At the appointed time Warden Adams gave the signal. All three buttons were pushed simultaneously, the current surged and Brunner died. Old Sparky had delivered his last jolt.

West Virginia, facing increasing public opposition, abolished its death penalty in 1965. No longer would inmates dread the crash of the gallows trapdoor or the hum of flowing electricity. Despite occasional efforts to restore it, West Virginia hasn’t executed anyone since.

The State Penitentiary is now a museum and training facility. Once the State’s only maximum-security prison, its terrible reputation eventually forced its closure in 1995. It became both a training facility for prison officers and a tourist attraction. Old Sparky, seldom used then and in retirement today, remains one of its most popular exhibits.

 

 

George Kelly, falsely convicted and quickly hanged.


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For most crime buffs the name ‘George Kelly’ inspires memories of rattling Tommy guns, bank robberies and the kidnapping of Charles Urschel, all attributed to American crook George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly. Kelly, a second-rate gangster at best, was made out to be far worse than he actually was, spending the remainder of his life in Leavenworth and Alcatraz before dying of a heart attack in 1954.

For residents of Liverpool, however, that name reminds them of a double murder, a rigged trial and a fast hanging in 1950. Like his American namesake, our George Kelly was also made out to be far worse than he really was. A petty crook, he didn’t deserve to title of ‘gangster.’

He didn’t deserve to go to the gallows, either. For a double murder he didn’t commit.

But, at 8am in Liverpool’s Walton prison on March 28, 1950, he did exactly that. When the time came Albert Pierrepoint and assistant Harry Allen walked into the condemned cell, strapped Kelly’s arms, led him the few short steps to the gallows and justice, so it seemed, had been served.

It hadn’t, by a long way.

Kelly’s alleged crime, armed robbery of Liverpool’s Cameo Cinema on the night of March 19, 1949, also resulted in a double murder. Cinema manager Leonard Thomas and assistant manager John Catterall were shot dead. Local gossip blamed Kelly and his alleged accomplice, local strong-arm man Charles Connolly. If tried and convicted, the pair would almost certainly be hanged. They were arrested on September 30, 1949 on the basis of an anonymous letter.

Enter local hoodlum Robert Graham who came forward and blamed the pair. He claimed that, while in Walton with them, Kelly had admitted the shootings and named Connolly as his partner. According to Graham, Kelly was the shooter and Connolly the look-out. Under the rules governing common purpose, that made both men equally responsible for the shootings and, therefore, equally likely to hang if convicted. In return for his information, and likely for his own safety, Graham was immediately released from his prison term.

A prison term for dishonesty…

First, Kelly and Connolly were tried together. The jury were unable to reach a verdict, but only an acquittal would have barred the Crown from a arranging a retrial. The fact that neither could be proved as having ever met, that both offered sound alibis and that the evidence of both Graham and fellow prosecution witnesses James Northam and Jacqueline Dickson, a pimp and prostitute respectively, was less-than-stellar, probably saw the collapse of the first trial. Dickson was also outed as writing the anonymous letter. Faced with prosecution witnesses of such low character, the jury couldn’t agree a verdict against either defendant.

Second time around the pair were set to be tried separately. Connolly, warned that a murder conviction would probably see him hang, accepted ten years for robbery and conspiracy while Kelly was awaiting both his own appeal and execution.. He died in 1997, still protesting his and Kelly’s innocence. His chance of a reprieve effectively destroyed by Connolly’s deal, Kelly remained in Walton’s condemned cell under 24-hour suicide watch.

Kelly’s trial was, by modern standards, a dubious affair. It was also Britain’s longest murder trial at that point, lasting 13 days of February, 1950 with Mr. Justice Roland Oliver presiding. The prosecution’s case was riddled with flaws, allegations of police coaching prosecution witnesses, the prosecution withholding evidence from the defence and of Kelly generally being railroaded to the gallows.

It also saw the first appearance of a woman as lead counsel in a capital case. Rose Heilbron had become a King’s Counsel (a senior barrister) in the same month that Kelly and Connolly supposedly murdered Thomas and Catterall at the Cameo. With Kelly facing the rope if convicted, her first murder case as lead counsel couldn’t have been any more challenging.

Inexperienced in capital cases, she did as much as anyone could. It wasn’t enough. The jury convicted her client, Mr. Justice Oliver donned the traditional Black Cap and sent Kelly back to Walton under sentence of death. Under the law as it then stood, George Kelly had only a minimum of three Sundays between sentencing and execution. With that in mind, letters from the Prison Commissioners went to Albert Pierrepoint and senior assistant Harry Allen offering them a morning’s work.

Rose Heilbron, however, had other ideas. She lobbied hard to have Kelly’s verdict and death sentence overturned. She went to the Court of Criminal Appeal, Kelly beside her as she listed 11 error’s in Oliver’s summing-up of the case. She also pointed out that a man named Donald Johnson has been tried and acquitted of the crime.

Johnson (also represented by Heilbron) had given police two statements. One admitted Johnson’s role as an accessory, which was ruled inadmissible and caused his trial to collapse. The other, not rediscovered until the 1990’s, had been withheld from the defence.

Johnson, a career criminal with a lengthy record, had also been stopped by a police officer near the Cameo Cinema before the crime. The shooter was also described as being left-handed. Johnson was left-handed, George Kelly wasn’t. Northam and Dickson’s statements appear to have been withheld from Kelly’s lawyers, Kelly was tried separately from Connolly without legal cause, Connolly’s guilty plea was obtained by threats of execution and Robert Graham’s first statement had been withheld from Kelly’s legal team as well.

The case against him was also based entirely on circumstantial evidence, without even forensic evidence linking Kelly to the crime. All told, the defence had plenty of grounds for appealing a conviction that should never have occurred in the first place.

None of it did any good at the time. Kelly’s conviction was upheld, his sentence approved and he duly went to the gallows. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that local man Lou Santangeli, a friend of Connolly’s, began a campaign to prove Kelly’s innocence. Digging through old files and using Connolly’s own memories, he pushed the case to the Court of Criminal Appeal in 2001. In 2003 the court ruled; George Kelly’s conviction had finally been quashed. Connolly’s robbery conviction went with it. According to Mr. Justice Rix;

“There was in these cases a breakdown in the due administration of justice and a failure to ensure a fair trial, we consider that the consequence was a miscarriage of justice which must be deeply regretted.”

Before his death in 1997 Charles Connolly expressed regrets of his own;

“If capital punishment had not been in force and George Kelly had not already been sentenced to hang I would never have pleaded guilty. i would have shouted my innocence whatever the consequences.”

Shortly after the ruling Kelly’s body, buried within prison walls in accordance with the law governing hanged prisoners, was finally returned to his family. Daughter Kathleen Hughes stated;

“I have waited a long, long time for this day. I hope now I can give him a decent Christian burial, which I have previously been thwarted from doing.”

 

 

 

The Last Meal.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Etymology Of Crime – Tyburn.


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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.


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“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.