Justice; Regular or Extra Crispy.


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.’

1200px-LSPEntrance-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.

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The retribution roadshow

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:

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

‘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.

Gruesome_Gertie_unloadedJimmy 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.

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The then-new gas chamber at Parchman.

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.

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

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.

Willie_Francis_(1929-1947)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.”

“Goodbye, Willie.”

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.

220px-Louisiana_chairAfter 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.

And their victims.

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Watching the detectives: The arrest of the inappropriately named Daniel Good.

With Good safely in his grave, the Metropolitan Police had to reconsider having only uniformed officers in their ranks. Had some officers been working out of uniform, they reasoned, they might have caught him far sooner. With that in mind a permanent cadre of non-uniformed officers. the Detective Department, was set up in August, 1842. It later became the Criminal Investigation Department.


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Daniel Good is probably an unfamiliar name, hanged as he was back in 1842. But the result of his crime if still familiar the world over. Good’s crime was unexceptional, the brutal murder and partial dismemberment of a woman he’d been living with. Horrific, certainly, but unfortunately not unusual.

His crime, committed on April 7, 1842, was discovered by accident. A uniformed officer of London’s Metropolitan Police went to arrest Good after he was seen stealing a pair of trousers from a pawnbroker in Putney. While the officer was busy discovering the victim’s corpse (and probably stunned by its having crudely dismembered) Good made his escape. A manhunt immediately began, nine divisions of officers joining the search.

With no plainclothes officers then in existence, the Met had a serious problem even with nine divisions of officers looking for him. Good, having committed a particularly brutal murder, was also facing a mandatory death sentence. If caught, he would almost certainly hang. But, uniformed officers being highly visible men, Good easily spotted them and slipped the net. Having successfully escaped London itself, Good may well have thought he was home free. As it turned out he couldn’t have been more wrong.

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Having found work in Tonbridge as a labourer, Good remained unaware that one of his new colleagues, one Thomas Rose, was a  former Metropolitan Police officer. Now off the force, Rose wasn’t in uniform and Good, looking for uniformed officers instead of anyone in plain clothes, was very much in harm’s way. Like many former police officers Rose kept a strong interest in crime and criminals. It wasn’t long before Rose recognised Good and alerted his chief pursuers Inspector Nicholas Pearce and Sergeant Stephen Thornton.

On April 25, 1842 Daniel Good was arrested. Once convicted, he was condemned to die. On May 23, 1842, only a month after his arrest, he ascended the ‘New Drop’ outside London’s notorious Newgate Prison to keep his date with the hangman. Executioner WIlliam Calcraft performed his grim duties with, unusually for him, speed and efficiency.

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After being left to hang for the traditional hour to ensure his death, Good was subjected to a rather creepy, but not unusual indignity; having his death mask made for him. This wasn’t unusual at the time, executed prisoners were often subjected to it. A mould was made of his face and a plaster bust made of his head. Good’s death mask now resides in Scotland Yard’s legendary ‘Black Museum,’ a place inspiring a 1950’s radio serial narrated by Orson Welles who famously called it a ‘mausoleum of murder.’

With Good safely in his grave, the Metropolitan Police had to reconsider having only uniformed officers in their ranks. Had some officers been working out of uniform, they reasoned, they might have caught him far sooner. With that in mind a permanent cadre of non-uniformed officers. the Detective Department, was set up in August, 1842. It later became the Criminal Investigation Department.

The Detective Department were the beginnings of Scotland Yard’s now-legendary detectives. In time, their reputation grew and their remit extended. Not only do they cover all crime within London, they are still regularly called in by local forces to assist in especially difficult cases.

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All local police forces today also have their own CID branches, following the Met’s example. Some of them (Frederick Wensley, Fred Cherrill, Jack Capstick, Robert Fabian, Leonard Burt, Ernest Millen, Jack Slipper and ‘Nipper’ Read among others) became celebrities, legendary in their own time.

Daniel Good obviously wasn’t there to appreciate his unwilling place in criminal history. The Yard’s detectives having grown to achieve legendary status, many generations of incarcerated or executed criminals won’t have appreciated it much either.

 

Paul Jawarski – Pennsylvania’s Phantom Dynamiter.


 Paul Jawarski, leader of the 'Flatheads' gang and known as the 'Pennsylvania Phantom.'

Paul Jawarski, leader of the ‘Flatheads’ gang and known as the ‘Pennsylvania Phantom.’

Meet Paul Poluszynski, alias ‘Paul Jawarski’, known throughout Pennsylvania as ‘The Phantom.’ Before the end of his extremely violent (and, some might say, mercifully brief) criminal career he claimed to have killed twenty-six people including four police officers and a payroll security guard. His gang, the ‘Flatheads’, also committed the first-ever robbery using a landmine. Criminals often use explosives to blow vehicle doors and crack safes. Blowing an entire armoured truck onto its roof and then rifling the cargo had never been done before. Jawarski and his gang were the first to do it.

Jawarski was a Polish Immigrant born some time during 1900. He died in the electric chair at the Pennsylvania State Penitentiary at Rockview on January 21, 1929 aged only 29. When he died he was also wanted in Ohio and Michigan, mainly for a string of armed robberies and multiple murder. If Pennsylvania hadn’t executed him then Ohio almost certainly would have. In Michigan he would almost certainly have spent the rest of his life behind bars.

The world’s first robbery-by-landmine happened on March 3, 1927 on Great Bethel Road outside Pittsburgh. A Brinks truck was delivering a payroll to the Pittsburgh Terminal Coal Company in Coverdale. The truck and its single escort car tended to use the same route on a regular schedule and that proved their undoing. Jawarski got the idea from the First World War. On the Western Front opposing armies used mine warfare regularly, either by burying artillery shells nose-up to destroy enemy tanks and trucks or by tunnelling under enemy trenches and burying huge explosive charges of up to 96 tons beneath their front line positions. Jawarski saw landmines as having a criminal use. Namely ambushing payroll trucks and incapacitating their escorts. It worked perfectly..

The crews of the truck and escort car didn’t expect anything out of the ordinary. They certainly didn’t expect the hundred pounds or so of industrial dynamite that erupted without warning right under their truck. Armoured trucks are enormously heavy vehicles and don’t usually end up being blown twenty feet into the air and landing upside-down. This one did. Its support car went straight into the resulting crater, leaving both vehicle crews injured, dazed and utterly disoriented but, miraculously, still alive. The ‘Flatheads’ then rifled through the truck (which had been blown wide open) and disappeared with $104,000 in cash. Criminal history had been made and mercifully nobody had died.

 Robbery by landmine. The Brinks armoured truck Jawarski and his 'Flatheads' dynamited and looted of $104,000.

Robbery by landmine. The Brinks armoured truck Jawarski and his ‘Flatheads’ dynamited and looted of $104,000.

This was the most notable crime of his career, but it wasn’t his first or last. It was only one of a string of armed robberies and murders Jawarski committed in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. Other criminals, security guards, bystanders, suspected informers and several police officers fell before his shotgun. It was for one of them, that of payroll guard Isiah Gump on Christmas Eve, 1925 during a Pennsylvania robbery with a haul of $48,000, that saw him condemned to death. It was the Gump case that caused him to show one of his rare moments of decency. Another man, Daniel Rastelli, was convicted of Gump’s murder and sentenced to death. Jawarski contacted a lawyer and passed on a confession, freeing Rastelli but also dooming himself when he was spotted and arrested two days after the landmine robbery. Rastelli was released while ‘Jawarski’ drew thirty-to-sixty years for the landmine robbery which did little to improve his attitude toward society. Two days after his conviction for the landmine robbery he was tried again for the murder of payroll guard Ross Dennis during a robbery outside Beadling, Pennsylvania. He was condemned to death. If he managed to gain a commutation for the Dennis murder it would make no difference. He could still have been condemned for confessing to the murder of Isiaih Gump.

Pennsylvania didn’t have a formal Death Row at that time. Unlike New York’s infamous ‘Death House’ at Sing SIng Prison, Pennsylvania lodged its condemned in local institutions such as the Allegheny County Jail and transport them to the State Prison at Rockview for their date with ‘Old Sparky.’ It was at Allegheny that he was confined in a cell on ‘Murderer’s Row.’ With a bitter irony, it was the same cell previously occupied by Daniel Rastelli. Jawarski was to wait there until his appeals were denied (with his record they almost certainly would have been) and a car arrived to take him to Rockview for execution. He would eventually visit Rockview and be executed, but not yet. The Pennsylvania Phantom’ planned a disappearing act.

 Allegheny County Jail. Jawarski escaped while under sentence of death.

Allegheny County Jail. Jawarski escaped while under sentence of death.

It was in April, 1928 when the ‘Phantom’ suddenly (and violently) vanished. An outside accomplice (probably a ‘Flathead’) visited him. Security at Allegheny being somewhat lax in this instance considering Jawarski was a condemned prisoner, the staff didn’t find the guns the visitor was smuggling. One for himself, one for Jawarski and another was taken from a prison guard when the accomplice, the ‘Phantom and convicted murderer Jack Vasbinder decided to arrange their own reprieve. Having blasted their way out, the trio disappeared. Jawarski’s unofficial stay of execution wouldn’t last very long. Vasbinder’s would be even shorter.

Vasbinder, aside from being a murderer, had one other major failing. He was a hopeless drug addict and that made him a liability. If caught and going through withdrawal he might offer any and every piece of help to the authorities in return for a fix. His escape partner knew that full well and decided to solve the problem by shooting him. As Vasbinder lay dying, his killer finished the job by dumping him in the Allegheny River before moving on to Michigan and re-starting his crime spree. It was in Detroit that another career highlight presented itself. On June 6, 1928 ‘Jawarski and his new gang robbed the payroll of a newspaper, the Detroit News. They left having taken out nearly $30,000 in payroll money and also two police officers. Sergeant George Barstad had walked in on the robbery and was shot dead. Patrolman Guy Cragg was seriously wounded.  

September 13, 1928 was the beginning of the end. Unknown to him, n old acquaintance had recognised him from ‘Wanted’ posters by then all over Pennsylvania and Michigan. The acquaintance alerted police who quickly responded. After a fierce gunfight and chase Jawarski was in handcuffs and seriously wounded. Patrolmen Effinger and Wieczorek were both dead from shotgun blasts. The crime spree was over and the extradition negotiations were about to start. They were unusually brief. Normally when a felon is wanted in multiple States then there’s a protracted and sometimes hostile amount of negotiation over where they eventually end up. As Jawarski had already been condemned to die in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio agreed relatively quickly that Pennsylvania could have him. Perhaps as far as law enforcement in all three States were concerned, the sooner he did the ‘hot squat’ the better.

 

 End of the line for the 'Pennsylvania Phantom.'

End of the line for the ‘Pennsylvania Phantom.’

They didn’t have long to wait. Jawarski knew it was hopeless. With his record trying for a commutation in Pennsylvania was a lost cause. Even if he escaped a death sentence in multiple murder charges there, he’d still be tried for murder in Ohio, also a death penalty State, or spend the rest of his days in a MIchigan prison. He ‘volunteered’ by dropping his appeals and instructing his lawyers not to make any efforts to delay the inevitable. His wish was granted. On January 20, 1929 the car and escort arrived to take him on his last ride. He remained unrepentant to the very end. During his last night he wrote a brief, scathing note to Andrew Park, the prosecutor who secured his death sentence. It read:

‘To Andy Park. See you at 49 Hell’s Fire Lane, 6 1/4 miles the other side of Hell.’

Shortly before he walked his last mile Paul Poluszinsky, alias Paul Jawarski, alias Paul Palmer, known to the pres and public as the ‘Pennsylvania Phantom’ was offered the spiritual advice of a Catholic priest. His last words were as blunt and forceful as his personality:

“I preached atheism since the day I quit singing in the choir. A man is yellow if he spends his life believing in nothing and then comes crawling to the Church because he is afraid his death is near.”

He didn’t believe he had a mortal soul. Judging by his carer and reputation, it’s unlikely anybody else did, either.

True Crime Blogs And Websites: Some Top Picks.


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So, as you’re no doubt aware, I have an interest in true crime and I ted to cover the more unusual bits and pieces. If you’re interested in the subject generally then it’s hard to avoid the plethora of websites and blogs out there that deal with it, although the tone and style of some I wouldn’t touch with a barge-pole. So, if you’re a more serious student of the subject, here are a few of my top picks in no particular order:

1. Crime Magazine I’ve written for Crime Magazine since 2007 and I’ve always liked its accessibly style and avoidance of the trashy, prurient attitude you’ll find on many true crime sites. It’ll cost you a small subscription to read the articles on here, but it’s worth it for the quality thereof. There’s no trash here, it’s all handled in a tasteful and factual manner, certainly not for anybody who might want the trashy end of the spectrum. If you like your true crime sensible and non-sleazy, then this is a place for you.

2. Sword and Scale is a newcomer to the genre. It’s free to use, has an accessible style without being quite as heavyweight as Crime Magazine, but not tasteless and tacky, either. I wrote regularly for Sword and Scale and it’s always nice to see something new appear that doesn’t sacrifice quality for sensationalism. For a lighter writing style that doesn’t pull its punches, this is a good place to drop by.

3.True Crime Library A veritable encyclopaedia of al things crime. Everything from Victorian hangings, famous murders, Depression-era bank bandits and the home-grown cases you might not have already heard of can be found here. They also publish plenty of books (some of which I use in my own writing) and have a broad range of subjects with something for everybody. Not overly heavyweight in tone, but not by any means a disreputable torture-porn site, either. A good place for general cases and covering all bases, albeit sometimes slightly more tabloid than I personally like. 

4. Laura James This is more for your fans of historical cases. Think of the ‘classics’ such as Crippen or the Acid Bath Murderer with a broad variety of subjects and a huge database of other cases. Again, I prefer my true crime to be respectful and mindful of the fact that true crime is exactly that. It isn’t fiction, it involves real people whose actions had real consequences and so its not (to me anyway) an area that benefits from being treated like torture-porn hackwork. A great place for historical true crime and the facts are solid and reliable.

5. Executed Today One for anybody with an interest in the death penalty.The style might seem somewhat lowbrow and opinionated at times, but it’s a good site if you’re interested in this particular area. With crime comes punishment and capital punishment is its most extreme and questionable form. Here you’ll find a list of executions, famous inmates, curious stories and general interest stuff. Well worth a look.

6. The Malefactors Register Run by well-known crime writer and expert Mark Gribben (you’ll often find him on crime documentaries, especially ones about the American Mafia) this is an excellent read. Again, there’s something here for everybody. The style is sensible without being overly reverent, blunt without being crude and covers all manner of different areas. 

7. Historical Crime Detective Another fairly new website to look through. Factual, brisk and simple. A meat-and-potatoes site for those who like their prose simple and their cases outside the constant rehashes of Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy and so on ad nauseum. This one often focuses on the less well-known crimes and criminals and, in my opinion, is a breath of fresh air for those among us who’ve gone beyond just reading about and studying the crimes and criminals everybody’s already heard of, over and over and over again. Historical Crime Detective is recommended and certainly one to keep popping back to.

8. Old Bailey Online One for British enthusiasts, but certainly interesting to anybody fancying a look at cases tried in possibly the most famous courthouse in the world. The Central Criminal Court or ‘Old Bailey’ to give it it’s more familiar name, has seen every kind of crime and criminal pass through its courtrooms, often on their way to penal colonies, prisons or the gallows. Terrorists, serial killers, spree killers, armed robbers, spies, traitors and crooks of all kinds have come here to have a judge and jury decide their fate and they still do. The court itself is built on the former site of the infamous Newgate Prison, once one of London’s hanging jails and still a notorious clink with a fascinating (if rather grim) history. For afficionados of historic cases and some of Britain’s best-known crimes and criminals, take a look through their database.

9. Crime Library Probably the most widely-known true crime website out there. I’m not always keen on the style, sometimes it feels a little too populist and not quite as sombre as the subject perhaps demands, but there’s plenty here for anybody and everybody who’s perhaps less of a snob than me. Famous crimes, criminals, detectives, prisons and general mainstream crime is what you’ll mostly find here. It’s not catering to any particular niche and doesn’t claim to, either. Pretty much what you’d expect if you’re new to true crime and you’re looking for a decent, entry-level site to dip your toe in the water. 

So, take a quick look around these if you’re looking for a mix of the old, new, reverent and slightly less so. You’re bound to find something there that will tickle your fancy or help you learn something new, maybe even inspire you to have a crack at writing yourself. After all, if I can do it then anybody should be able to.

Back to the regular output tomorrow, haven’t decided what yet. But do take a look at what’s on offer. It’s a fascinating area of human life and history as long as you’re not incorrigibly squeamish.

Trial Watchers – A Strange Breed.


1912: Poisoner Frederick Seddon being sentenced to death by Mr. Justice Bucknill. This is the only known photograph of a British judge passing a death sentence.
1912: Poisoner Frederick Seddon being sentenced to death by Mr. Justice Bucknill. This is the only known photograph of a British judge passing a death sentence.

“Prisoner at the Bar, 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 afterwards your body shall 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…”

Frederick Seddon heard this sentence in 1912 and was hanged a few weeks later. Doubtless, he wasn’t happy to hear it. The trial judge, Mr. Justice Bucknill, was a kindly man by the standards of British judges. He had no relish for passing death sentences, unlike some of his colleagues, and as soon as he’d finished he removed the ‘Black Cap’ traditionally worn during death sentences as a gesture of mourning for the newly-condemned and rushed from the court in tears.

Seddon hadn’t come to hear it. His lawyer didn’t want to hear it and the judge didn’t want to pass it, but there was a percentage of attendees in the public gallery who probably had come to enjoy a genuine life-or-death drama and possibly in the hope of seeing Seddon condemned to hang. They were the trial watchers.

As a pastime, trial watching is nothing new. You might ask what would make people who have no personal or professional connection with a court case bother turning up and cramming the public gallery, but people have been doing so not for decades or centuries, but for millenia. In ancient Rome the Forum was the administrative heart of Roman life where issues were debated, rulings made and laws passed. It also contained the law courts where, in the absence of universally-applied criminal trials there were many private prosecutions. Lawyers held celebrity status in Rome and the public turned out in droves to watch trials, especially those involving unusually gruesome crimes or well-known public figures, as though they were attending the theatre. In a sense, they were, although its performers had faced worse than a bad review if they lost their case. At a time when finely-crafted public executions were the norm, using methods expressly designed to be as hideous as possible, the defendants were in grave danger. A prosecutor losing a case would likely find his forehead branded with the letter K, short for ‘Kalumniator’ or ‘false accuser.’ A defender losing a case might face the same punishment as his client. All in all, the law courts were a great show to attend unless you happened to be performing in it.. If you came merely to watch then you got real drama, not actors playing from a script. You got a taste of tension as the trial was in progress, even more tension as the citizens delivered their verdict and there was always a good chance of seeing either an ecstatic defendant walking free or being clapped in irons and led off to await a gruesome death. And then you could go and watch that as well, if you had the stomach for it. Many Romans usually did.

But it didn’t end there. Trials usually being public affairs, the highest profile cases always attracted increased attendance and still do. The worse the crime or the more famous the defendant, the bigger the crowds flocking into the public gallery. O.J. Simpson, Amanda Knox and Phil Spector all spring to mind.Mafia boss John Gotti may have been the archetypal celebrity gangster, but he wasn’t the only celebrity attending his numerous trials as Hollywood stars Anthony Quinn, Mickey Rourke and Jon Voight all turned up to watch. Some reporters more or less ignored the criminal aspect in favour of endless column inches on which stars had turned up, what they were wearing and why they were there. Gotti himself was the subject of almost daily reports regarding his clothes and hairstyle.

Look through the true crime section in any public library or bookstore or online sotre and you’ll find books devoted to famous trials such as the ‘Notable American Trials’ and ‘Notable British Trials’ collections. Go online and websites like http://www.wildabouttrial.com/ and http://www.websleuths.com/forums/forum.php carry live trial coverage and debate as their most popular content. You don’t have to make an effort to get to court to watch the show, you can do it from your own PC, laptop or mobile device. And many, many people do.

.  In the US trial watching has always been a popular pastime. In Britain it still happens, the celebrity of the defendant or witness and/or the gruesome nature of the crime being the yardsticks to measure likely attendance. But, which doesn’t say much for human nature, trial watching in person started losing its popularity after the abolition of the death penalty. After the last British hangings in August 1964 as five-year moratorium was agreed and in 1969 capital punishment for murder was abolished. Curiously, trial watching began to diminish as well.

Nowadays you could put some of that decline down to modern media, especially the internet, making it possible to follow a criminal trial from the comfort of your own home and (reporting restrictions and contempt of court notwithstanding) voice your own opinion from your own armchair. In that they’re not so different from their pre-internet predecessors. The 1920’s through to the 1950’s were what some people think of as the ‘classic’ era of British murders and crime in general, a kind of ‘Golden Age.’ Almost anybody could sit in the public gallery at a murder trial and if it was a high-profile case then there was seldom standing room. At the trials of notorious killers like ‘Doctor’ Crippen, George Smith of ‘Brides in the Bath’ infamy, Herbert Rowse Armstrong (the only British lawyer hanged for murder) and so on. Scheming husbands, jealous lovers, obsessed wistresses, ambitious business partners and suchlike all turned up as defendants, one of the distinguishing features of murder being that it can be committed by almost anybody and for almost any reason. A trial watcher in those days could have the drama of the capital case, they could see the lawyers duel with each other, the witnesses grilled, the defendants under constant strain and experience the heightening tension as the jury delivered their verdict.and, if they were lucky (and in those days they often were) the prisoner was guilty, the judge donned his ‘Black Cap’ and they got to watch them condemned to death as well. It was a vicarious thrill experienced from a safe distance.

People lined up in their hundreds to watch the action and discuss the cases as they unfolded. Even the least-educated, lowest-born trial watcher knew the names of the famous judges and their habitual demeanour. If Justice Avory or Hilbery were presiding then you knew the they would be icily severe, brooking no kind of breach of protocol or levity in their courtroom. Justice Mackinnon or Justice Bucknill, on the other hand, might be inclined to be less hard-nosed. Justice Darling might interject with tart remarks on a regular basis while Justice Shearman might decide (as he so often did) to marry his ironclad Edwardian morality with his judicial duties and sit on the bench glowering mercilessly at anything and anybody that looked they even might be of slightly loose morals. Which, as much as the rather weak and entirely circumstantial evidence, helps explain the highly dubious conviction and execution of Edith Thompson over whose trial Shearman presided. The famous lawyers such as Sir Edward Marshall Hall or Norman Birkett had their admirers and detractors as well. When a well-known defender like Hall was against an equally well-known prosecutor like Hewart or Goddard the anticipated legal battle was touted more like a heavyweight boxing match than a life-or-death criminal trial.,  The famous detectives of the time, Bob Fabian, Jack Capstick,  Fred Cherrill, Ernest Millen, Leonard Burt and others, were public figures whose cases were followed fervently by crime buffs. And the legendary pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, who made his name convicting Crippen and George Smith (both of whom were hanged) was as much a celebrity as any judge if not more so. Spilsbury carried enough weight simply by turning up that one of his more bitter critics acidly remarked that he could solve a case in days from start to finish, needing only the briefest assistance from the public hangman. High-profile murder trial in those days were as much a theatre of justice as formal criminal proceedings.

Even Britain’s executioners like the Billington family, John Ellis and the Pierrepoint family (especially Albert) attracted a certain fame and notoriety when arriving at a prison to do a job and leaving afterward. Albert Pierrepoint became so well-known that even after he resigned in 1956 (in a dispute over fees, not a matter of conscience) he spent the rest of his life signing into hotels under an assumed name. It seemed as though, British trial watches, now long denied the atavistic thrill of watching somebody tried for the life (and possibly going to watch in the hope of seeing their favourite judge don the dreaded ‘Black Cap’ and recite what was once called ‘the dread sentence’, seemed to lose interest as though trials had a little less spice to them.

It was probably the arrival of the internet that caused a certain resurgence in British trial watching. Looking at the various websites and news coverage, radio programmes, Tv documentaries and so on, it doesn’t look as though we’ve lost our taste for it. If anything, the web has made it possible to make this a global pastime. If I wanted to sit here in Truro and watch a capital murder trial in, say, Florida or Texas, then I could do that.It wouldn’t be the same as being there in person, having attended trials before now I’d certainly notice the difference, but the general principles remain the same.

All of which makes me wonder whether, despite the world having moved on a little in many ways since Roman prosecutors being branded and British judges having long abandoned the ‘Black Cap’ and the ‘dread sentence’, just how much have human beings really changed..?