I recently had a brief Twitter conversation with a fellow scribe at Crime Traveller and these gentlemen came up therein, so I thought their story might be interesting to look at in more detail. ‘The Executor of High Works’ was a grandiose title for so unrelentingly grim a profession, especially one traditionally inherited by people already considered social outcasts. Many might regard their informal title of ‘Bourreaux’ as being more appropriate.
Les Bouureaux enjoyed (or endured) two distinct phases before and after the French Revolution of 1792. The Revolution brought many changes, but one thing never altered. They were the most despised, reviled and feared men in all of France. Hardly surprising, given their occupation, but not entirely fair and gross hypocrisy as well.
In pre-Revolutionary France executioners were chosen on a regional basis. In keeping with their public image they were drawn from people already performing work regarded as distasteful, unpleasant and only for the lowest rung of France’s social ladder. Undertakers, tanners, gravediggers and saddlers often found themselves shoe-horned into a part-time job that nobody else would take, that of torturer and local executioner. If nobody else was prepared to do the job then condemned criminals were offered it, spared their own lives in return for taking those of their peers.
When ordered they hung, drew and quartered, beheaded, burnt, broke on the wheel and hanged condemned prisoners. They also cut the hands off thieves and dismembered the condemned for public display, if ordered. Before a decree in 1791 they also tortured the condemned before execution if that was the sentence.
Beheading was often reserved for members of the aristocracy who usually died by the sword as a mark of their social status. Anne Boleyn, executed wife of England’s Henry VIII, died on his native soil, her husband importing a French executioner and his sword for the occasion. The social status of ‘Les Bourreux’ wasn’t in any doubt, either. Universally feared and loathed, the executioner was also a breed apart and. While happy to watch his hand sever necks, tie nooses and light fires under heretics, most French people weren’t inclined to shake it.
As much as executions were a public spectacle, the bourreaux lived in isolation. Schools routinely refused to teach their children. Merchants wouldn’t sell them goods. Employers seldom employed them. Traditionally nicknamed for the towns where they lived and worked, executioners were frequently made to live outside them. ‘Monsieur de Rennes’ might dispense justice both in Rennes and most of Brittany, but living in Rennes itself was out of the question.
Bakers followed an old French superstition. Obliged by law to provide bourreaux with free bread they kept it on a separate shelf, turned upside-down as inverted bread apparently attracted the Devil. Executioners also had to wear some badge of office, usually an image of a gallows or sword. Marking them as pariahs, Jews, prostitutes and vagrants also suffered a similar indignity.
Socially ostracised by virtue of their profession, the Church added to their outcast status. Bourreaux were only allowed to marry into the families of other bourreaux so, by abolition in 1981, all French executioners for centuries could be traced through a handful of family trees.
The few perks of the job couldn’t have compensated for the bitter irony of crowds turning out to watch them work one day only to spit on them in the street the next. So isolated were the bourreau families that one, the legendary Sansons, supplied six consecutive generations of executioners while their extended family supplied even more.
There were perks, though, albeit largely to ensure they had the means of daily living. An executioner possessed by law the right to levy certain goods from local merchants, even those who refused to actually sell them anything. Bread, vegetables, meat, fish and others goods could be levied according to the bourreau’s ‘droit de havage,’ the appropriately named ‘right of cleaving’ or ‘right of chopping.’
An executioner could take, for free, as much of those goods as his two hands could hold. The Revolution would change much for the bourreaux, public hypocrisy didn’t. Until the execution of Eugen Weidmann in Paris in July, 1939 the French public enjoyed watching the bourreaux work while shunning them everywhere else.
From 1791 torture before execution was abolished and from then on there would be only one executioner for each French region or ‘departement.’ Assistant executioners (known as valets) were also abolished in the departements. Again Paris was the exception ‘Monsieur de Paris, required by law to reside in the city, retained several valets.
Different methods of execution were also abandoned. From then on, as both a humanitarian and social statement, every prisoner would be beheaded in the same way. Whether prince or pauper, all would face a brand-new invention regardless of social distinction;
Known variously as the ‘People’s Avenger,’ ‘National Razor,’ ‘Timbers of Justice,’ ‘Madame la Guillotine’ and ‘The Widow’ it replaced the wheel, gallows, sword, axe and burning post. The executioner’s torture tools also became museum pieces. The bourreaux did not; They were never more well-known or less unpopular than when providing vengeance-by-proxy for their proletarian public. They were never as busy, either, sometimes killing a hundred or more aristocrats a day and over 3000 in a single month. First used on highway robber Nicolas Jacques Pelletier in Paris on April 25, 1792 it wasn’t an instant success.
With Pelletier public hypocrisy reached new heights. Far from promoting the bourreaux as no longer being svages and outcasts, the spectators complained that it was too quick and humane. They even came up with a then-popular song including the words ‘Give us back our wooden allows.’ The public might have regarded those who worked such instruments as the lowest of the low for doing so, but they hated even more the idea of being deprived of the entertainment factor from seeing prisoners strangle slowly at the end of a rope or be engulfed in flames. No, the bourreaux were still unholy brutes. It was just that were no longer brutal enough.
Until 1939 the heads still rolled, the crowds still turned out and the bourreaux were still objects of public hatred. By then use of the term ‘bourreaux’ had been officially outlawed (not that anyone stopped using it) while French officialdom too sought to distance itself from those who did their dirty work. The guillotine itself was officially the property of the chief executioner, not the Ministry of Justice. The chief executioner (now only ‘Monsieur de Paris actually dropped the blade) and his remaining valets were also kept at arm’s length.
‘Monsieur de Paris’ didn’t draw a salary. He was given an annual appropriation of 180,000 Francs to cover repairs, maintenance, expenses and paying himself and his assistants. The Ministry of Justice could then keep them all at an official distance while still regularly despatching them around France, themselves to despatch the criminals thereof.
The pay was low and one chief was fired for having pawned the device to raise funds. When they found out he’d done so, shortly before a scheduled execution, the Ministry had to redeem the pawnbroker’s fee out of public funds so the execution could go ahead. In their eyes, however, nothing could redeem the bourreau who’d pawned it. He was immediately fired.
In France’s notorious penal colonies at French Guiana and New Caledonia the National Razor’s operators were equally hated, though for a different reason. The penal colonies used convict-executioners, men already serving sentences who were ready to kill their fellow criminals in return for protection and privileges. Hated by guards and inmates alike, they were the most reviled convicts in the system.
Neither guards or inmates had any time for men viewed as traitors to their criminal class. A couple were themselves executed. Isidore Hespel, known throughout Guiana’s Penal Administration as ‘The Jackal’ was himself executed for murder by the very assistant executioner he’d trained. The assistant wasn’t any more popular for having executed his hated boss.
Worse still was the grisly fate of a particularly brutal Guiana bourreau Henri Clasiot. A man of singularly vile personality, Clasiot routinely beat, cursed and insulted the convicts he executed, marching them to the guillotine with fists and invective. Abducted by some freed convicts, Clasiot found himself facing far worse than even he had inflicted. After a severe beating, his captors stripped him naked, smeared him liberally with honey and staked him out over an anthill.
The ants were carnivorous.
After Weidmann in 1939, itself watched by a young Englishman later to become Sir Christopher Lee, executions were hurriedly removed behind prison walls. Such had been the disgust at drunkenness and debauchery during Weidmann’s death, President Lebrun (an opponent of capital punishment) ordered public executions abolished. The bourreaux became increasingly obscure and secretive figures, perhaps grateful for the lowering of their public profile. The penal systems of Guiana and New Caledonia closed and, while ‘Monsieur de Paris’ and his valets still plied their grim trade, they did so increasingly rarely and entirely in private.
1949 saw France’s last female execution, that of Germaine Leloy-Godefroy. In 1953 the last prisoners returned from Guiana, the infamous colony having closed its doors in 1946 and its caps and orisons gradually shut down. A movement against capital punishment had always existed in France, but it gathered increasing momentum after World War II. Ironically considering their profession, now the bourreaux themselves were on borrowed time.
1977 saw France’s last execution, that of Hamida Djandoubi in Marseille’s notorious Baumettes prison. In 1981 the Natonal Assembly finally abolished the death penalty. Djandoubi was the last prisoner beheaded in both France and Western Europe. France was the last in Western Europe to abolish beheading as a method. The days of ‘les bourreaux’ were over.
Until abolition French judges still passed death sentences, but all were commuted. Seeing the way the political wind was blowing President Francois Mitterand (another death penalty opponent) reprieved every death sentence passed between his election and final abolition. No longer would the residents of what the French called ‘Death Alley’ count off the days they had left and wonder how many actually remained.
French condemned prisoners were never given their exact date and time of execution until it actually happened, when at the traditional time of dawn their cell doors opened and their final walk began. They knew when there was an execution scheduled for the next morning, but whose? They spent every dawn hoping the door that opened wouldn’t be theirs.
No longer would they hear guards talking in the evenings and tremble until after the dawn, having heard the dreaded words ‘Monsieur de Paris est ici…’
Execution has long been part of criminal history, society’s ultimate sanction for the very worst offenders. Less enthusiastic supporters regard it as a necessary evil and a deterrent even while acknowledging its distasteful nature. Opponents believe it no deterrent at all, that it’s applied arbitrarily and makes society as uncivilized and barbarous as the condemned themselves. It is, they argue, vengeance dressed up as justice.
We’re not discussing the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, the most humane (or least inhumane) execution methods, wrongful convictions or excessive use. Like it or not it exists and the history of crime includes the history of punishment. That said, punishment sometimes takes unusual means inflicted by unusual people.
Mississippi and Louisiana adopted an unusual means. Mississippi’s executioner was certainly one of crime’s more unusual people.
The Deep South has a checkered history of crime and punishment. Brutal prison conditions, corruption, racism and the complete absence of rehabilitation were long cornerstones of its penal policy. To many Southerners (not all by any means) prisoners were there to suffer and be punished, broken or killed, not reformed or rehabilitated.
Prison wasn’t considered punishment in itself, but suffering while there certainly was. Bad food, hard labor, brutal punishments and rampant death from disease, malnutrition, overwork and often murder weren’t aberrations, they were the norm. When inmate workers died at Angola the attitude, held since its time as a slave plantation, was simple;
When one dies, get another.
Louisiana subjected inmates to forced labor for profit and brutal discipline, especially at Angola. Under the convict lease system of the time, inmates were expected to provide free labor under the harshest conditions making them a profitable asset. The harder they could be forced to work, the more profitable they were. It was a simple policy enforced with constant brutality, quaintly described as:
‘More lash, more cash.’
Angola being a former slave plantation, post-Civil War convicts would have barely noticed the difference. Race played a huge part in penal policy in both states. When rape was a capital crime not a single white Mississippian was executed, although many were convicted. Black rapists, on the other hand, especially those whose victim was white, knew that conviction meant almost certain death.
It was only slightly less biased regarding murder. Records show that since Mississippi achieved statehood the vast majority of inmates executed have been black. Historically, Louisiana has always executed far more black inmates than white regardless of their crime. Even though Louisiana and Mississippi were among the first states to offer alternatives to execution for murder anyone non-white, poor or both could expect to keep a date with the hangman.
Even today, a black murderer, especially of a white victim, is far more likely to die than the other way round. According to statistics released in the 1980’s black murderers are four times more likely to receive a death sentence than white ones. Contrary to the American ideal all citizens are not equal under the law even now. They were even less equal when Old Sparky and Gruesome Gertie were doing their rounds.
Both states originally employed hanging in whichever county the crime was committed. After many bungled hangings both states adopted electrocution, a supposedly more humane alternative. The states took control, but with a uniquely Southern twist. Louisiana and Mississippi were the last US states to take their executions in-house, but the first to make them a portable affair. Both ‘Old Sparky’ and ‘Gruesome Gertie’ would make their first official appearance in 1941.
By 1940 most states used a single purpose-built facility for confining and executing inmates. Sing Sing’s infamous ‘Death House’ segregated the condemned and once they went in they seldom came out. Mississippi and Louisiana did it differently. In the 1930’s Mississippi also had the highest murder rate of any state, more executions suited the public and political mood.
There were some serious obstacles to this idea. Being Mississippi’s only maximum-security prison at the time Parchman was the obvious location. Unfortunately Parchman’s chief, Superintendant Marvin Wiggins, was firmly opposed to siting Death Row at his prison. Wiggins, a shrewd and highly-connected man was firmly opposed to executions at Parchman and he wasn’t alone.
Parchman is in Sunflower County and Sunflower residents feared it being stigmatized as the ‘death county.’ They loathed the idea of hosting both executions and condemned inmates with nothing to lose by rioting and attempting escape.
Both they and Superintendent Wiggins also feared increased unrest at Parchman, already known as one of the worst prisons in the US. According to author David Oshinsky in his book ‘Worse than Slavery’ one local politician stated: ‘Place that thing at Parchman and you’ll have riots and a wholesale breakout to descend hundreds of criminals down upon our people.’
Sunflower’s residents weren’t alone in that. No other county wanted to be known mainly for executions, either.
Tradition also played its part. Hangings had always been conducted under county jurisdiction. If a prisoner was condemned in a particular county then that was where they also died. Many believed that public hangings performed locally reassured law-abiding communities and intimidated their criminals. Local executions also made punishment more relevant to local communities and less remote than if done in one place alone.
If change was to be made, then the State needed to take control of executions while retaining their visibility, avoiding stigmatizing any one county and providing a less inhumane method than regularly-bungled hangings. A compromise was needed. Mississippi and Louisiana duly found one.
In 1940 Mississippi adopted electrocution and Louisiana followed the next year. After Louisiana only West Virginia would begin using electrocution but, in 1940, riding the lightning was the preferred option for most states. Louisiana’s last hanging was a quadruple on March 7, 1941 in Caldwell.
At Caldwell, William Heharg, William Landers, William Heard and Floyd Boyce, all escaped convicts convicted of murder (and unusually all white) climbed the scaffold’s 13 steps and dropped through its trapdoor. 13 had proved very unlucky indeed for them, but no longer for anyone else. Louisiana lightning was now the order of the day. All Gruesome Gertie needed was a victim.
Their compromise involved, for the first time in American history, a portable electric chair. It would travel from county to county in a large silver truck also carrying a generator, switchboard, cables and all the standard equipment. Supplied by a firm in Memphis, both states took the show on the road providing death on wheels.
The equipment and its transporter were far cheaper than a purpose-built ‘death house’ like Sing Sing’s which appealed to politicians and taxpayers alike. It also made death more local and the message harder to ignore. At a time when many people were born, lived and died without leaving their local area an execution on the other side of the state was unlikely to make much impression.
Also, with illiteracy very common, a small squib in their local paper would likely go unnoticed, let alone feared. People seeing the truck arrive and hearing its generator from several blocks away got a message unmistakable to citizens and criminals alike. Especially if they weren’t white and wealthy;
‘This is what happens to law-breakers. Don’t forget it…’
It had never been done before. In fact, nobody had even built a portable electric chair before, let alone used one. The method, however, was infinitely less unusual than Mississippi’s new executioner.
Mississippi’s new ‘State Executioner’ was Jimmy Thompson, a strange man with a violent past. An ex-convict, ex-merchant sailor, frequent drunkard, carnival showman, stage hypnotist and ex-Marine, Thompson had only recently been pardoned in 1939 after serving time for highway robbery.
During the 1920’s Thompson had also shot a neighbor for insulting his mother, escaping prosecution via an unwritten law of Southern life. At that time a man was allowed to shoot another man to defend a woman’s body or personal reputation. Needless to say this law only extended to white men, certainly not black men shooting whites on similar grounds.
Thompson was a curious character to put it mildly. He’d scratched a living on the carnival circuit as a stage hypnotist performing as ‘Doctor Zogg’, ‘Doctor Alzedi Yogi’ and, appropriately, ‘Doctor Stingaree.’ He was heavily tattooed, a natural performer and exhibitionist. He loved entertaining with hypnosis and jugs of illegal moonshine.
Thompson secured the job via State Governor Paul Johnson. Thompson and Johnson were old friends so it was no great surprise that Thompson beat five other applicants, none of whom knew Johnson personally. Whether he was in any way an appropriate person for such a task is altogether more debatable.
In September, 1940 the equipment was ready for its public unveiling in the State capital Jackson. Thompson arrived, set up, started the generator and worked the controls. While a crowd followed his every move, the carnival showman cycled the voltage up and down while the generator roared and the current whined. According to an article in Life magazine dated October 7, 1940:
‘Crowds saw a big silver truck, a portable generator and a sturdy chair complete with helmet straps and electrodes. Beside it stood Mississippi’s new executioner, Jimmy Thompson, ex-sailor, marine, carnival man and high tension expert. No less proud of his chair than of the black cat, snakes and strawberries tattooed on his velvety skin, he explained that he and his volts would travel from county to county as business required’
Other press reports were far less favourable. The Memphis Commercial Appeal bitterly criticized the exhibition as barbaric and tasteless, stating:
‘The only thing lacking at Thursday’s formal and public exhibition of the State’s new electric chair was a victim.’
At $100 per execution plus expenses Thompson was as keen to start work as Mississippi was to demonstrate its new concept. Mississippi wanted to show off its latest innovation. Thompson was keen to start making regular visits to the drunk tank after every execution, spending as much on fines for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct as he did on booze. It wasn’t long before both would be satisfied.
Like most of Mississippi’s condemned Willie Mae Bragg was black. He’d been convicted of murdering his ex-wife in Lucedale. With the State keen to demonstrate its new method and Bragg inspiring no sympathy in appellate judges he was first in line.
His date of execution was October 11, 1940. Bragg fully expected to die, but didn’t know he was about to make State and penal history. He would be the first convict to die in a portable electric chair. Another black Mississipian, Hilton Fortenberry, was executed on the same day in Jackson.
Hortenberry was the last Mississipian to hang. As a black murderer of a white retired police officer, Hortenberry knew full well he would keep his date with the hangman. While Fortenberry hanged in Jackson, Bragg burned in Lucedale. It was an historic day for Mississippi. Out with the old, in with the new.
His guilt confirmed, Bragg’s execution was also assured. Whether Mississippi’s desire to demonstrate its new toy made it more certain we’ll never really know. Thompson arrived at Lucedale Courthouse on October 10 to set up what he’d already nicknamed ‘My killing machine.’ After some fairly basic tests to ensure all was ready, ‘Dr. Stingaree’ and Willie Mae Bragg were all set to make history. Press interest within Mississippi and further afield was enormous.
Electrocutions were nothing new and Bragg a typical condemned inmate, but a portable electric chair was a world first. If all went well Mississippi could trumpet its new invention. If things went badly the press would have an even bigger story. Either way, Jimmy Thompson and his ‘killing machine’ would be center-stage. Nobody involved was especially concerned about Willie Mae Bragg.
It’s also highly unlikely that anybody considered the dreadful fate of William Kemmler at New York’s Auburn Prison in August, 1889. The world’s first judicial electrocution had been a nightmarish exhibition of just how badly wrong untested methods can go. Whether the portable version would be equally appalling remained to be seen.
By this point Hilton Fortenberry was largely ignored. Journalists were far more interested in this latest innovation whether it worked properly or not. Death on wheels was far more newsworthy than yet another hanging, botched or otherwise. So newsworthy, in fact, that a photographer from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger was there to record this historic event standing only feet away from the chair.
The potential for horrendous problems was large. Granted, judicial electrocution had been considerably refined since William Kemmler. It was now done using permanently-sited, largely-standardized equipment operated by experienced professionals. Furthermore, New York and many other States insisted on employing only executioners who were also qualified electricians. Many ‘State Electricians’ worked in the electricity industry prior to their appointment as executioners.
Mississippi on the other hand was about to test a generator, switchboard, cables and electrodes that had been bounced around in a truck for hundreds of miles before its first use. They were also employing an executioner with no electrical repair or maintenance skills who, as far as we know, had never performed an execution. Electrocution was familiar, but this way of using it was anything but.
It was totally untested, nobody knew if it would work. The generator, cables, switchboard and electrodes could malfunction. If any of the equipment malfunctioned Bragg might receive no current, receive too much (and be burnt to death) or too little (and be slowly cooked alive).
Thompson himself claimed that both he and his assistant had been trained by experienced ‘electrocutioners’ but he’d never actually electrocuted anybody and had a reputation for excessive drinking. Even if the equipment functioned perfectly, Thompson might not. Anybody worried about potential problems had ample reason to be.
As it was their worries were unfounded. Thompson did his job, the equipment worked perfectly and Bragg died as quickly and cleanly as he could have done. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger thoughtfully provided explicit captions with its photographs. As Bragg was being prepared the caption read:
‘At the left Bragg sits in the chair and watches as guards strap his arms.’
Accompanying a photograph taken while the current was switched on another caption read:
‘The picture at the right was made as the first flash of electricity surged through his body. Note Bragg’s hands gripping the chair and his neck bulging in death’s throes.’
Thompson, always ready to supply an attention-grabbing soundbite, stated that Bragg had died:
‘With tears in his eyes for the efficient care I took to give him a good, clean burning.’
It wasn’t until the remarkable failed electrocution of Willie Francis in Louisiana in 1946 that the technical pitfalls of portable electrocution would be shown in horrifying fashion.
The Jackson Clarion-Ledger had its banner headline and exclusive photographs, Thompson had his first fee and the new method had been proved sound. The Clarion-Ledger also managed something very rare in criminal history by photographing the execution. Previously, the only live image of an electrocution had been taken secretly at New York’s Sing Sing Prison in January, 1928 by newspaper photographer Tom Howard.
His secret snap of Ruth Snyder, taken only seconds after executioner Robert Elliott threw the switch, clearly shows Snyder as 2000 volts flowed through her body. It’s still one of the most famous images in media history. After Snyder’s execution, prison officials in many states thoroughly searched witnesses before executions. Even today it’s strictly forbidden to photograph or film an execution in any US State.
Thompson himself was effusive about his successful debut and subsequent ‘fry parties’ as he charmingly called them. In an interview given to Craddock Gains Thompson supplied some choice comments. Thompson seemed to think condemned inmates were grateful for his apparent skill at killing them, stating that he told each of them:
Brother, I sure appreciate your trade. I’m going to show my appreciation by giving you a nice clean job. I’m going to give you the prettiest death a guy can have.’
Describing how he thought inmates regarded him Thompson delivered a curious response. Mississippi had several inmates already condemned to hang when electrocution replaced the gallows. These inmates were given a choice between hanging or electrocution. According to Thompson, it was a measure of their faith in his ability that all those with a choice chose electrocution. He even believed them grateful to die at the hands of so skilled an executioner, stating:
‘You can’t imagine how much that helps a poor peckerwood in the death chamber unless you have seen the grateful eyes these men turn upon me when they place themselves in my hands. I guess I just have a talent for this sort of thing. Condemned men seem to trust me, and I never let ’em down.’
Mississippi authorities were far more co-operative with the press than elsewhere in the country. The angle, distance and clarity of the pictures prove the photographer was only feet away, obviously photographing quite openly. They not only co-operated but actively encouraged him. The images, unpleasant though they are, are valuable in their rarity.
Thompson, being a natural showman, seemed utterly unaffected by his grim work and to positively revel in the notoriety he attracted. Future events showed that those in authority had no problem with his professional skill, but were far less impressed by his self-publicizing antics between executions.
Thompson continued as ‘travelling executioner’ for several more years, but his lucrative notoriety didn’t last. In December, 1944 a new State Governor was elected, replacing Thompson’s close friend and original employer Paul Johnson. Governor Thomas Bailey lost no time replacing Thompson with C W Watson although his reasons remain unclear.
No official records exist of Thompson’s hiring and firing but in December, 1946 a report appeared in the Jackson Daily News detailing a shooting accident in which Thompson was slightly wounded, describing him as the ‘former State executioner.’
Thompson could have been replaced for several reasons. Political patronage was an important factor in being employed by the State and, without a patron, finding or keeping State employment was difficult. The new Governor might have employed a friend or acquaintance as his predecessor had done. Thompson’s heavy drinking and perpetual exhibitionism could have been distasteful enough that Bailey wanted somebody less bizarre and more discreet. Perhaps Thompson himself may have simply decided to move on.
We’ll probably never know whether Thompson resigned or was fired, although his exhibitionism and regular arrests for post-execution drunkenness probably didn’t help him much. What we do know is that his being replaced coincided almost exactly with Bailey’s election and Johnson’s departure.
Executioners at the time were often private contractors employed by multiple States. Most of New York’s executioners did brisk business with neighboring States like New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Connecticut. Robert Elliott was employed by all those States at the same time. Elliott was so busy that on January 6, 1928 he executed six men in two different States on the same day. Elliott performed three electrocutions at the Massachusetts State Prison that morning before taking a train to New York and another triple execution that night.
Jimmy Thompson was gone. His ‘killing machine’ wasn’t, now being carted around by Watson. During its 15-year tenure the chair executed 73 inmates. 56 black men, 16 white men and 1 black woman died in courthouses and county jails all over Mississippi. Nearly a dozen were still juveniles aged under 21. Willie Mae Bragg was the first. On November 10, 1954 murderer James Johnson became the last.
Willie McGee, convicted of rape in what many still consider a blatant injustice, achieved international attention. McGee’s case went to the US Supreme Court three times during his eight years awaiting execution. Celebrities such as William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker spoke out against his execution and President Harry Truman came under international pressure to commute McGee’s sentence. Even Soviet spy Julius Rosenberg, himself awaiting execution at the time, publicly condemned McGee’s case as demonstrating all that was wrong with American society.
McGee was executed at the Laurel County Courthouse on May 8, 1951 in the same courtroom in which he’d been convicted in 1945. True to form, the Mississippi media made an impression. There were no photographs this time, but a local radio station broadcast a commentary that was syndicated nationwide.
The recording of McGee’s final half-hour is available online for those who can stomach hearing the generator noise rising and falling while locals cheer and shout the ‘Rebel Yell’ in the background. It’s not easy listening but, like the Willie Mae Bragg photographs, is still an important part of the historical record.
Jimmy Thompson died in a traffic accident on October 12, 1952. He was a passenger in a pick-up truck when it crashed and Thompson was thrown from the vehicle, suffering fatal injuries. He was 56 years old when he died. He left a sister and five brothers, but no children of his own. His life and work later formed the basis for the movie ‘The Travelling Executioner’ starring Stacy Keach as Jonas Candide, a very-thinly veiled version of Thompson himself.
Filmed largely at Alabama’s Kilby Prison (where Samuel Hall met his singular end) and released in 1970 it performed poorly at the box office, widely considered too unusual to be a mainstream hit. Nor was it particularly accurate. That said, Thompson himself would have been highly gratified to be portrayed by so famous an actor and it’s absolutely clear Thompson’s life and work inspired the movie.
Mississippi continued using the portable electric chair James Johnson was executed on November 10, 1954. In 1955 it was replaced by what Superintendent Wiggins and residents of Sunflower County had always feared. A gas chamber was installed at Parchman and the Maximum Security Unit built to house only condemned inmates.
C W Watson and his assistant Thomas Berry Bruce would now ply their trade in one place only. Wiggins loathed only one thing more than taking charge of executions and that was the possibility of a botched one. With Mississippi’s newly-installed gas chamber would soon provide that as well.
The first Mississippi convict to die by gassing was Gerald Gallego, a murderer and escaped convict. Unlike the portable electric chair, Mississippi’s gas chamber had a nightmarish debut. Gallego walked his last mile reciting the Lord’s Prayer to the strains of eight other dead men walking singing ‘Up Above There’s A Heaven Bright.’ Seated and strapped in the chair nicknamed ‘Black Death’ Gallego suffered for over 45 minutes before dying. If he did see a heaven bright Gerald Gallego was probably wishing he’d see it a little faster.
The mixture of sodium cyanide and dilute sulfuric acid had been incorrectly brewed leading to a less-than-lethal concentration of cyanide gas. Gallego coughed, spluttered, gasped and writhed for over thirty minutes, but didn’t die. In a complicated, potentially-lethal procedure a new batch of brew had to replace the old batch hurriedly drained away from beneath the chair.
That done, the airtight door was re sealed and the cyanide and acid mixed again. This time it worked and Gerald Gallego was dead. In 1957 Watson was replaced by Bruce, Watson’s bodyguard and then deputy executioner since 1951.
In 1987, days before the execution of Edward Earl Johnson and not having gassed anyone since Tim Jackson in 1964, Bruce found himself replaced by Charles Tate Rogers and then Donald Hocutt. Despite the Gallego disaster Mississippi continued using the gas chamber until 1989 when the method changed again to lethal injection.
Prisoners condemned prior to the change were given the option of choosing gas or injection. Today lethal injection is the sole method used in Mississippi, the location is still Parchman. Death Row had finally come to Sunflower County and business was still reasonably brisk.
Local residents and even prison staff at Parchman still observe a curious tradition reflecting the long battle to keep executions out of Sunflower County. Mississippi’s condemned are housed at the ‘Maximum Security Unit’ or ‘MSU.’ Even today, despite executions and their location being public knowledge, Parchman still doesn’t officially have a Death Row.
If you visit, you’ll probably be told they don’t have one and be directed to ‘MSU’ instead. Even today the ghosts of long-dead Mississippians, local residents and condemned inmates alike, still dispute one of the darkest aspects of Mississippi’s history.
Louisiana did things slightly differently. Granted, their equipment was similar. A large truck travelled from the feared state prison at Angola (still America’s largest prison) and visited parish jails and courthouses dispensing law to the lawless. Race was also a factor, most of Louisiana’s condemned being non-white, but there were differences.
Where Mississippi followed tradition, nicknaming their chair ‘Old Sparky,’ Louisiana’s retribution roadshow was provided by ‘Gruesome Gertie.’ Now long retired, Gertie resides at the prison museum at Angola, occasionally making guest appearances in movies like Monster’s Ball.
Where Mississippi often had many witnesses in attendance, Louisiana only allowed around a dozen including the executioner, a doctor and a priest. The biggest difference was their choice of executioner. Grady Jarratt was a former lawman from Texas, who worked Gertie throughout her travels. When Gertie was permanently installed at Angola in 1957 Jarratt continued in the job until 1961.
During his 67 executions the difference between Jarratt and Thompson couldn’t have been greater. Jarratt made his debut on September 11, 1941, electrocuting Eugene Johnson in Livingston Parish for murder and robbery. His last was on June 9, 1961 when Jesse Ferguson died in St. Landry for murder and rape. Jarratt also performed Louisiana’s only female electrocution, that of murderer Toni Jo Henry in Calcasieu Parish on November 28, 1942.
Where Thompson was a born showman, reveling in the notoriety his grim profession brought him, Jarratt was actually a professional. Born in Texas in 1888 he was widely known in Louisiana, but didn’t seek publicity. A tall, burly man known for his white Stetson and cowboy boots, he was also known for his absolute professionalism when on the job, checking the chair, generator, cables, electrodes and straps thoroughly. As former Angola Warden Hilton Barber described him:
“Everything had to be right up to snuff, even the leather. He would take it in his hands and ply it. If it had a crack in it then we’d have to make a new one. He was very particular.”
For an executioner Jarratt was also a personable man. Where Thompson was obnoxiously showy, Jarratt made a point of politely meeting and greeting witnesses, trying to put them at their ease in what was undoubtedly a nervy, tense situation. He was even polite to those he was about to kill, making a point of addressing them by name. The last words his prisoners ever heard were “Goodbye, (insert name here)” right before he threw the switch.
Skilled and competent, Jarratt was the antithesis of his opposite number.
Jarratt, ever the professional, would insist on a perfect set-up and thorough testing even though Angola’s chief electrician would check everything before the chair left the prison. Unfortunately for Willie Francis, however, Jarratt was unavailable for his execution on May 2, 1946. It was a case that would make state and national history.
Captain Ephie Foster usually delivered the chair, but he’d never actually thrown the switch. Jarratt being unavailable, Foster was slated to electrocute Willie Francis in St. Martinville Parish. Foster, though he delivered the equipment, had never actually thrown the switch and his assistant, convict Vincent Venezia, hadn’t either. Venezia was assistant to Angola’s electrician E.J Usnault, but wasn’t qualified.
Both men arrived at St. Martinville the day before and both spent the night drinking heavily and inviting anyone who wanted to watch to turn up at St. Martinville’s jail. Even while setting up and testing the chair and generator they were seen, still hungover from the night before, passing a flask back and forth. The result was both appalling and unforgettable.
When Francis was seated and strapped Foster threw the switch and the current surged. There wasn’t enough current. Francis, in great pain, wasn’t merely still alive but able to speak even while Gertie did her best to silence him forever. As the generator roared, heard blocks away from the parish jail, Francis was clearly heard explaining that it wasn’t working.
The first jolt had failed. Foster shouted outside to Venezia:
“Give me some more juice down there!”
Venezia couldn’t, replying:
“I’m giving you all I’ve got now!”
At that point the most unlikely voice made itself heard. Despite being masked, restrained with heavy leather straps, the head electrode and another leather strap cinched tight under his chin, Willie Francis still managed to clarify the situation;
“I AM N-N-NOT DYING!”
With that announcement Francis, the only convict ever to walk away from his own electrocution, was taken back to his cell. After a lengthy legal battle taken to the US Supreme Court, which inexplicable felt he should be executed again, he returned to St. Martinville on May 9, 1947.
This time Jarratt was in charge. This time, with a competent professional checking the machinery and pulling her switch, Gruesome Gertie did her job properly. Once more Willie Francis, 15 at his first execution and only 16 at his second, was seated, strapped and capped. Jarratt, true to form, checked everything.
“Are the straps too tight?”
“Everything is just fine.”
“Is there anything you want to say?”
“Nothing at all.”
Jarratt immediately hit the switch. Willie Francis, survivor of Gruesome Gertie first time round, didn’t survive the second. Seated at 12:05pm, he was dead at 12:12.
Memories of his highly-dubious conviction, botched execution and the Supreme Court’s preferring the letter of the law over the spirit of justice still live on.
Jarratt continued as ‘electrocutioner’ until 1961. By the time Gertie found her permanent home at Angola in 1957 Jarratt had been through a divorce and begun drinking heavily. He started regularly downing a half-pint of whiskey before an execution and another half-pint afterward.
His last execution, that of Jesse Ferguson on June 9, 1961, saw Gruesome Gertie lie dormant until Robert Wayne Williams on December 14, 1983. By then Gertie had lain dormant for over 20 years, posing a significant problem.
Jarratt had died on June 1, 1973 and no American had been executed for nine years. Many states had also replaced their chairs with lethal injection in the meantime. Gruesome Gertie had spent 19 years in storage.
Jarratt’s replacement, a Baton Rouge electrician known under the alias ‘Sam Jones’ (Louisiana’s Governor when Gruesome Gertie replaced the gallows in 1940) hadn’t actually executed anyone before.
The result was a serious lack of knowledge of how to actually electrocute a prisoner, what should happen and what shouldn’t. Astounded by the brutality of Williams’s death, Angola’s Warden Ross Maggio had to consult outside sources to find out whether Williams had actually died as he was supposed to.
After this somewhat shaky start, Louisiana soon relearned by experience. After Williams another 19 inmates would ride the lightning before Gertie was finally retired. Her last victim was Andrew Lee Jones on July 22, 1991. Both Old Sparky and Gruesome Gertie had become museum pieces having long outlived their custodians.
The dawn on September 11, 1977 dawned damp and grey for the citizens of Marseilles, especially those residing in Les Baumettes Prison. All the inmates (and some of the staff) were were in a dark mood as they contemplated the rising of the dawn and the falling of executioner Marcel Chevalier’s blade. Inmates of ‘Death Alley’ were equally subdued. If they were relieved at that day not being theirs they were too tactful to show it.
For Hamida Djandoubi, however, this was his day. Nobody involved yet knew it, but it would be the last time, both in France and Western Europe, that a prisoner would embrace the infamous ‘Widow’ and lie between the ‘Timbers of Justice.’ It would be the last time Chevalier, descended from a long line of executioners, would perform the grim office of ‘The Executioner of High Works.’
Capital punishment had been under debate in France for many years. The guillotine itself had been both a political and humanitarian statement. Egalitarian in principle, it became the only method of execution for French civilians regardless of rank and social class. No more did peasants swing limp on the rope while the axe and sword were reserved for their social betters. No longer would people be burned, broken on the wheel or hung, drawn and quartered. When Charles-Henri Sanson debuted his new device, beheading highway robber Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier on April 25, 1792, everybody was to get a quicker and cleaner death.
Djandoubi would be the last.
By 1977 death sentences were rare and executions even rarer. Much of the French public and its politicians had turned against the death penalty. When Chevalier inherited the job from his uncle Andre Obrecht in 1975 he worked only a few times, although he his son was at Djandoubi’s execution to assist and watch should he succeed his father. Judicial death in France had long been a family affair, after all.
Executioners, disparagingly nicknamed ‘les bourreaux’ by their countrymen, occupied a contradictory place in french society. Until the execution of German serial killer Eugen Weidmann in June, 1939 the French public hadn’t minded turning out in their thousands to watch these men work, but had always despised and shunned them at the same time.
Schools refused to accept their children. In the days of regional executioners they were forced to live just outside whichever town or village they lived in. Even bakers would keep the executioner’s bread separate so their other customers would know their bread wasn’t tainted, an old French folk tale said that anything touched by the executioner was also touched by the Devil himself. Even churches refused to marry them, except into the families of other executioners. By the time Chevalier became last to perform his office all French executioners could be traced to only a handful of families, not always illustrious ones at that.
After Weidmann executions would always be performed in private within prison walls. Hamida Djandoubi’s date with ‘bourreaux’ Marcel Chevalier would be poorly-attended by official order.
Not that people called him a ‘bourreaux’ much any more. In 1870 the term had been outlawed and calling anybody a ‘bourreaux’ became a crime. The same changes also mandated that only one chief executioner would be required and he was required by law to reside in Paris. Overnight the regional executioners lost their jobs, although some did continue as assistant executioners or ‘valets.’ Now that ‘Monsieurs de (insert town here) were largely out of work there was only one chief and he bore a sinister nickname;
‘Monsieur de Paris,’ the ‘Man from Paris.’
It became a phrase dreaded in French prisons, especially in the cells forming ‘Death Alley.’ For a long time prisoners didn’t know their execution date until the official party came to take them from their cells. Until 5am every morning, by which time executions for the day would have been performed, every condemned prisoner dreaded the sound of a guard saying to a colleague ‘Monsieur de Paris est arrivee.’
‘The Man from Paris has arrived.’
Who would it be, they wondered? Whose cell would be unlocked? Who would be taken away never to return, perhaps kicking and screaming on their final walk? Until 5am they didn’t know but, for at least one of them and maybe more, the time between four a five in the morning was when they’d find out.
Would the keys rattle in their cell door..?
With no chance of a commutation or stay, Djandoubi knew his time was almost up. At around half-past four it was his turn to hear those keys rattle like a skeleton’s bones. He was told what time it was and why he had official visitors. Led away from Death Alley for the last time he was accompanied by his lawyer and ready for the final acts of his personal drama.
Djandoubi, a French-Tunisian by birth and pimp by profession, had tortured and murdered his sometime girlfriend Elizabeth Bousquet. She’d refused his increasingly insistent efforts to become one his working girls and, his harassment getting worse, had reported him to police and he’d spent 11 months in prison. He avenged himself on her after his release in Spring 1973.
After abducting her and torturing her with lit cigarettes, on July 3, 1974 he’d taken her to the outskirts of Marseilles, strangled her and dumped her body. It was a brutal, squalid and utterly unnecessary murder that drew no pity from judges, jurors or anyone able to stop his execution.
Before he could die the traditional French bureaucracy had to be observed. Paperwork had to be completed paroling the prisoner into the (very temporary) custody of Chevalier and his assistants. French law dictated that no convict could be guillotined, so Djandoubi had to be freed in order to be killed. With that taken care of the ‘toilette du condamne’ could begin.
‘Le toilette’ was rather more practical. Djandoubi, wearing the traditional red sweater of the condemned, had his hands and feet tethered with string. He could walk, but not run or struggle. His neck was bared, the sweater cut with scissors and eased down around his arms to avoid jamming the blade. He was offered a last cigarette and a glass of spirits. Now all was ready and, for Djandobui and the guillotine itself, all was finished.
The end came quickly. Standing before a door leading into the prison yard Djandoubi was held by two of Chevalier’s valets and marched quickly to his fate. He was laid face-down on ‘le bascule,’ a sliding wooden board. When the blade fell its impact would cause Djandoubi’s body to ounce from the bascule into the traditional wicker coffin beside it. A nod to the days when executions were regarded as public entertainment, the French nicknamed it the ‘family picnic basket.’ As the bascule slid him into position ‘le lunette,’ the traditional wooden collar, was quickly slipped down over the back of his neck. With everything ready Chevalier wasted no further time. One last look ensured nobody was at risk from the falling blade and Chevalier pushed a button. No photograph exists, but this image of Weidmann’s execution is very similar to what Djandoubi faced.
The blade fell. Hamida Djandoubi was dead.
So was the death penalty. France finally abolished capital punishment in 1981 after a vote in the National Assembly. The guillotine became a museum piece (albeit an embarrassing exhibit seldom displayed in public) and Chevalier, last of ‘les bourreaux,’ was out of work. Between Djandoubi’s execution and final abolition every death sentence was respited, the authorities seeing no point in further executions.
As Djandoubi’s body, spirit and head simultaneously parted company, centuries of tradition were died with him. Like Djandoubi and many thousands of others, ‘les bourreaux,’ the death penalty and the ‘National Razor’ were no more.
Now here’s a real criminal curiosity, the infamous Execution Bell from London’s notorious Newgate Prison. Accounts of executions, themselves a grim British tradition until the 1960’s, often relate stories of a black flag being raised and a prison bell tolling to announce a prisoner’s death. These are true, at least after public executions ended with the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868.
Before Newgate acquired its own full-sized bell, the tradition was altogether more chilling and, many would say, unnecessarily cruel. It involved the employment of Newgate’s Execution Bell and its Bellman. A local merchant, one Robert Dove, established the tradition in 1604, donating the then-considerable sum of £40 to ensure the practice continued. Dove, a devout Christian, hoped it would encourage repentance among the condemned. To modern eyes it seems unspeakably cruel.
Before Newgate had its own prison bell the neighbouring Church of St. Sepulchre would toll its bell on every execution day, a sound even those not condemned learned to dread. Until Newgate acquired its own bell, its bellman would wait until just after midnight and, withe prisoner’s death imminent, would pace up and down outside the Condemned Hold reciting a verse while clanging the handbell.
The Bellman’s verse, recited loudly three times (in case anyone actually needed reminding of their impending execution), was this:
“All you that in the Condemned Hold do lie,
prepare you, for tomorrow you will die.
Watch all, and pray, the hour is drawing near,
That you before the Almighty must appear.
Examine well yourselves, in time repent,
that you may not to Eternal flames be sent.
And when St. Sepulchre’s bell tomorrow tolls,
the Lord have mercy on your souls…”
Possibly not the best cure for pre-hanging insomnia.
To give this ghastly ritual some context, it wasn’t intended as an act of sadism or cruelty. Just the opposite, in fact. Religion at the time dominated people’s lives to a much greater extent than it does today. Dove, Newgate’s officials and the Bellman (probably not the most popular man on Newgate’s staff) would have seen it as saving their souls, their lives already forfeit for their crimes.
It’s at best debatable whether it actually benefited the condemned all that much. Those who were already repentant didn’t need asking. Those who were unrepentant didn’t care. Everybody else, condemned to hang or not, probably didn’t appreciate the Bellman and his traditional early-morning alarm call.
Eventually this well-meaning but appalling tradition was ceased. In 1783 executions at Tyburn were ceased and Newgate acquired its own bell. From 1783 until 1868 hangings would be performed, still in public, outside Newgate Prison itself. After Michael Barratt was hanged in 1868 executions were moved inside prisons nationwide.
For decades there would still be the traditional hoisting of the black flag and tolling of the prison bell, but Newgate’s Bellman had had his day. Eventually the flag and bell ceased, replaced by a prison officer placing an official notice on a prison gate to certify a prisoner had indeed been hanged. No longer would trembling prisoners sit in filthy, dark, grimy cells, illuminated by candlelight and dim lanterns, hearing the dreaded Bellman approach. They wouldn’t hear his heavy doom-laden tread crunch his way over the thousands of lice and bugs infesting the prison. Especially pleasing, they wouldn’t hear him repeatedly reciting his traditional verse.
Newgate was finally closed and demolished at the turn of the 20th century, making room to expand the neighbouring Old Bailey (probably the world’s most famous courthouse) Its gallows equipment went to Pentonville Prison in north London where it hanged many more prisoners including Doctor Crippen.
Put yourself in a condemned prisoner’s place, just for a moment. Imagine the gloom of your cell, the stench and dirt, the fear and realisation of impending death. Consider what it would be like to lie manacled in your cell hearing the Bellman’s feet, the clanging of his bell and (in convoluted fashion) him saying;