On This Day in 1952, Edward Kelly and Wallace Ford, Jr.


1952 was a quiet year for the Sing Sing death house. Only three prisoners walked their last mile, Edward Kelly and Wallace Ford, Jr on October 30 and before them Bernard Stein on March 6. That was pretty quiet considering 1951 saw eight inmates die including Lonely Hearts Killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck on March 8 of that year.

True to notoriety’s pecking order in which the most notorious inmates drew most attention, few people remember John King and Joseph Powers, killers of Detective Joseph Miccio and who died on the same night as Beck and Fernandez. When Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died on June 19, 1953 few people remembered that they were only two of six to die that year, although he Rosenbergs alone more than kept Sing Sing in the news.

Neither Ford or Kelly’s crimes were especially unusual which probably leaves you wondering why they appear here. While Ford’s crime was brutal, squalid and without any excuse or grounds for clemency (not unusual in the Sing Sing death house) Kelly was a rarity. While Ford had entered the death house never to leave it alive, this was Kelly’s second stint for the same crime.

There were 695 electrocutions in New York between William Kemmler (the world’s first on August 6, 1890) and Eddie Lee Mays (New York’s last on August 15, 1963). Initially New York had three electric chairs sited at Sing Sing, Auburn and Dannemora. Executions took place at all three until 194 when Sing Sing was designated the sole site for New York State, finally numbering 614 out of New York’s total.

There were anomalies, though. Around one inmate in three that entered the death house left alive via commutations to life imprisonment, successful appeals against their conviction or sentence or having been certified insane and sent to psychiatric institutions. With a successful appeal reversing their conviction some even left the death house and Sing Sing altogether, walking out into the bright light of freedom as though they’d never sat crossing dates of their calendar or come within days, hours or even minutes of death.

Edward Kelly was one of them. Originally condemned for the senseless murder of Eloise McHugh with a rifle (and then turning it on himself) Kelly arrived at Sing Sing on September 29, 1950. After winning his appeal and reversal of his conviction on July 1, 1951 Kelly walked out of Sing Sing on July 12 firmly believing he was one of that lucky third who’d never be coming back. He even left a warmly-worded letter for Warden Wilfred Denno, a man he never expected to see again. But we’ll be getting to that later

Suffice to say that Edward Kelly was wrong. Fatally so, in fact.

Kelly’s reversal was exactly that, a reversal and not an acquittal.  The State of New York was thus free to try him again. That Kelly had shot McHugh was in no doubt whatsoever, but the trial judge had misdirected the jury regarding Kelly’s insanity defence. According to the judge Kelly had to understand what he was doing OR that it was a crime. New York State’s appellate judges saw it differently. To be considered legally sane, they ruled, Kelly had to understand BOTH his act and the nature thereof, not one or the other. With that in mind they reversed his conviction (and his mandatory death sentence) and out he walked.

If Kelly thought he was home free, he wasn’t. With a reversal instead of an acquittal double jeopardy didn’t apply. New York State could try him again and did so, this time winning a conviction that withstood Kelly’s lawyers and their best efforts. Having walked out of Sing Sing’s death house on July 12, 1951, he walked back in on November 28 to be reunited with Warden Wilfred Denno and the death house guards Kelly’s letter had so warmly praised. In the same week as Edward Kelly began his second stint in the death house Wallace Ford, Jr arrived to begin his first (and last).

Unlike Kelly, Ford held no particular distinction. His crime, the kidnap and murder of his sister-in-law after his marriage folded, was brutal, squalid and utterly unnecessary. Hardly a rare breed among Sing Sing’s soon-to-be-dead then or now.  An argument with sister-in-law and victim Nancy Bridges over contact with his children saw Ford beat her unconscious, drive her to Genesee County. Once there he drove his car over her, reversing over her again to ensure her death. Not a man to inspire sympathy among appellate judges or the State Governor who still had the power to commute. In Ford’s case he chose not to. Convicted and condemned on November 30, 1951, he arrived at Sing Sing on December 4.

If Kelly’s case was unusual for Warden Denno it wasn’t unusual for State Electrician Joseph Francel. The fourth of five men to hold the title, Kelly and Ford would be numbers 130 and 131 of the 140 inmates he electrocuted between 1939 and 1953. After Kelly and Ford, Francel would throw the switch only nine more times before resigning in 1954.

Francel didn’t like the low pay, $150 for a single with an extra $50 per head for executing two or more prisoners in the same night. He’d also taken a dislike to the publicity surrounding his job, especially after the Rosenbergs in 1953. Kelly and Ford, however, were just another day at the office. With Ford and Kelly both out of appeals and Governor Thomas Dewey not inclined to be generous, preparations for the double event began.

12 hours before their scheduled time of 11pm Ford and Kelly were moved from their death house cells to a block of six pre-execution cells long nicknamed the Dance Hall, only 20 steps from the execution chamber itself. The execution team rehearsed, each guard knowing their particular part of the job. Francel, as was the custom, arrived in the afternoon to check the equipment and ensure it was running properly. Warden Denno had to meet and greet the official witnesses, ensuring that none had any hidden cameras as happened when Ruth Snyder was executed in 1928.

In the absence of any stays of execution, appellate rulings or executive clemency all Kelly and Ford could do was wait…

Ford had sent a letter to Judge Loughran of the New York State Court of Appeals. It did him no good, but he did cite a complaint common among condemned inmates even today;

‘My attorneys at the trial were appointed by the Genesee County Court and they also represented me on appeal before this Court. I sincerely do believe that to the limit of their knowledge, capabilities and experience, they faithfully and conscientiously did their collective best and utmost to protect my interest. However, Your Honor, they were both young men, comparatively young in the practice of law and for both my case was their first murder trial and appeal.’

It did Wallace Ford, Jr no good in 1952. It seldom does now.

As far Edward Kelly, sitting in his cell with head shaved and appeals exhausted, his own letter to Warden Denno on leaving the death house might well have come back to haunt him;

‘Dear Sir,

Due to the fact that I’m leaving the “Death House,” I cannot say I have any regrets, nor will I recommend it to anyone, but I can inform them that, if they are ever unfortunate enough to go to Sing Sing, they will be very well treated. I had no fault to find with anything or anybody during my stay, every reasonable request was granted. The entire staff of the prison are a credit to New York State. The officers and guards are as fine a group of men as you could find anywhere.

“Dick” and “Freddie” go about their duties as if they had a personal interest in the place, always helpful and ready with a word of cheer if needed. I enjoyed “Terry’s” homelike meals. It would certainly be a pleasure to meet everybody, including yourself, under different circumstances. I extend my best wishes to all, but I hope I never come back.

Sincerely,

Edward H Kelly, 109-821.’

Did these words, written as Kelly walked cheerfully from death to freedom, haunt him as he made the return journey?

 

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On This Day in 1890; William Kemmler – The World’s First Legal Electrocution.


 William Kemmler and the first electric chair.

 William Kemmler and the world’s first electric chair.

August 6, 1890 saw the dawn of a new age for criminal history. At Auburn Prison in upstate New York there was the execution.of one William Kemmler, condemned for murdering girlfriend Matilda Ziegler with a hatchet. There was nothing remarkable about Kemmler (an alcoholic vegetable hawker with a vicious temper) or about his crime. There wasn’t anything unusual about an execution in New York State, either., hangings being a fairly regular event.

 Matilda 'Tillie' Ziegler, Kemmler's girlfriend and victim.

Matilda ‘Tillie’ Ziegler, Kemmler’s girlfriend and victim.

What was unusual was the method. Americans had been hanged, shot, drowned and burned at various times, but none had ever been electrocuted. Even the word ‘electrocute’ was brand new, a buzzword for what enthusiasts had clumsily named ‘electrical execution.’ It had never been done before. After its nightmarish debut, there was much debate about whether it should ever be done again.

Of course, it was. There have been over 4000 electrocutions in American penal history since Kemmler’s. Today ‘Old Sparky’ is (rather ironically) at death’s door, replaced by the gas chamber and lethal injection. It was once by far the most popular means for America’s prisons to perform human pest control.

State after State threw away its gallows and plugged into this new innovation. They did so with varying degrees of enthusiasm. New York loved it. South Dakota used it only once. Other States varied between the enthusiastic Florida and the far less enthusiastic New Mexico. They also turned on to the new idea with varying degrees of competence (often with hideous results for all concerned, especially the condemned).

Hanging can be the least inhumane method of execution if properly performed, so there’s a bitter irony in the reason for Old Sparky’s long tenure. Which was that many American executioners would probably have found it a challenge correctly hanging curtains, let alone humans. Bungled hangings were regular events, with prisoners often beheaded or slowly strangled by bungling hangmen using faulty or unsuitable equipment.

British hangman Albert Pierrepoint was openly scathing of American hangmen and their kit, sarcastically calling the traditional hangman’s knot a ‘cowboy’s coil.’ After one horror show too many at the hanging of Roxalana Druse, New York State Governor David Hill decided to form a ‘Death Commission’ to decide which method would best replace the rope. Enter two very big names, an inventor, a dentist and, of course, William Kemmler.

The idea of electrocution came from a dentist, Alfred Southwick of Buffalo, New York. Southwick had seen a drunk die instantly from accidentally staggering up against an electrical generator. Being a staunch supporter of capital punishment, Southwick decided that the new technology would be perfect for deliberately killing people as well. Being a dentist, he thought a chair with restraining straps was the best way to convey the current to the inmate. He left the actual building of the ‘hot seat’ to Harold Brown, an electrical engineer working for a rather famous name. Enter one Thomas Edison.

Edison had been approached to oversee the creation of the electric chair but, being firmly opposed to capital punishment, had firmly refused to take part. Unfortunately, Edison became locked in the ‘War of the Currents’ with his great rival George Westinghouse. Edison championed direct current (DC) while Westinghouse was marketing an alternating current (AC) system.

Both wanted to corner the rapidly-snowballing market in electricity and related products. Westinghouse’s system was far more efficient at transmitting electricity over long distances, but required far higher voltages to do so, making it potentially far more dangerous to technical staff and consumers.

Edison saw that as an opportunity to bury Westinghouse’s new system and corner the burgeoning electrical market for himself. Putting his personal opposition to executions aside (along with many other principles), Edison made full use of AC being more dangerous to human life.

He started a publicity campaign openly touting Westinghouse’s AC as deadly and his own DC as the safe option. A series of public demonstrations (from which Edison kept himself at arm’s length) involved- electrocuting animals ranging from cats and dogs to a fully-grown elephant. Then he reconsidered his attitude to the death penalty. What better way was there to discredit George Westinghouse by harnessing both his system and his name to death?

Westinghouse had refused to sell the State of New York a generator for executions so Brown, funded by Edison, bought one under a false name, had it delivered to Brazil and then shipped back to Auburn Prison. This infuriated Westinghouse, but not nearly as much as the more personal aspect of Edison’s campaign.

The new method, in the eyes of many Americans, needed a new name. ‘Electrocution’, a combinations of ‘electricity’ and ‘execution’ caught on to replace the clumsy phrase ‘electrical execution.’ Edison quietly tried to introduce another name. If Edison had his way, inmates would be ‘Westinghoused.’

Westinghouse was unsurprisingly outraged. This wasn’t just Edison trying to ruin his business, but trying in a particularly personal and extremely unpleasant way. Before theirs had been a business and corporate rivalry. Now it developed into a full-fledged personal feud. The bitterness between these industrial titans was extreme and William Kemmler was caught right in the middle of it.

With Kemmler, a violent drunkard, securely if not comfortably ensconced on Auburn’s Death Row, Westinghouse, for reasons business and now personal, delayed things as much as possibly by funding Kemmler’s appeals. Edison in turn secured large funding from one of his investors, J.P Morgan no less, to ensure Kemmler’s appeals failed. They did.

William Kemmler was destined to take a prime (and unwilling) place in criminal history; the first inmate ever to do the ‘hot squat.’ At Auburn Prison preparations went ahead. Harold Brown enlisted one Edwin Davis to help perfect the final touches to the ‘electrocution chair.’ Davis was a qualified electrical contractor at Auburn and was also the perfect choice to become the world’s first ‘State Electrician.’

In time Davis would execute around 200 inmates and train two of his proteges, John Hurlburt and Robert Elliott. Both of whom succeeded him as executioners. Between them, these three men would execute over 700 prisoners. Elliott would be credited with perfecting electrocution as an execution method, developing what became known as the ‘Elliott Technique’ or ‘Elliott Method.’ Even today when electric chairs work on an automatic, pre-set programme, it’s based on Elliott’s earlier manual method

For now, though, Davis was in charge. Davis designed and patented the first electrodes which on early chairs were fixed to the inmate’s head and the base of their spine. After much gruesome experimentation and numerous hideous deaths, electrodes were later fixed to an inmate’s head and leg as standard. But that was in the future. For now, nobody really knew what they were about to be doing. On execution day this would become abundantly, horrifically obvious.

August 6, 1890 dawned bright and clear. The chair had been installed, linked to the prison generator (later chairs had their own separate generator) and thoroughly tested. Warden Charles Durston woke Kemmler at 5am, gave him a final breakfast and had him dressed for the occasion. At 6:30am the grim ritual began. Kemmler, his head and spine shaved and with a slit in his shirt-tails, was led into a room in front of 17 witnesses including 3 doctors and numerous reporters. He was asked for his last words which proved grimly ironic in the light of what was about to happen:

“Take it easy and do it properly, I’m in no hurry…”

Kemmler probably would have been in a hurry if he’d known what was coming. The execution team, given that they’d never actually electrocuted anyone before, certainly didn’t do it properly. About the best that could be said for the witnesses was that their misery would be less horrendous than Kemmler’s.

 The grim facade of Auburn Prison in upstate New York, the prison is still in use, but New York repealed the death penalty in 1965. The last execution in New York was in August, 1963.

The grim facade of Auburn Prison in upstate New York, the prison is still in use, but New York repealed the death penalty in 1965. The last execution in New York was in August, 1963.

At 6:38am the signal was given and Davis threw the switch. 1000 volts of alternating current seared through Kemmler’s body and nervous system. After 17 seconds the power was shut off. Doctor Charles Spitzka stepped forward fully expecting to certify Kemmler dead.

He wasn’t.

Spitzka initially thought Kemmler was dead and said as much. The chair’s inventor, dentist Alfred Southwick, proudly stood before the witnesses. In front of Kemmler’s smoking body Southwick uttered the immortal words:

“Gentlemen, we live in a higher civilisation from this day.”

So, briefly, did William Kemmler who began breathing and started twisting against the straps while moaning increasingly loudly. Horrified witnesses blanched as Warden Durston and Doctor Spitzka hurriedly discussed what to do. Either the current had been too low or not applied for long enough. The obvious solution, naturally was to double the voltage and increase the duration. Spitzka spoke briefly and sharply:

“Have the current turned on again, quick. No delay!”

The current was turned on quick. It was also set far too high for far too long. For a full minute 2000 volts cooked Kemmler alive. His remaining hair smouldered. His flesh singed. Blood vessels burst under his skin causing him to bleed through his pores. Smoke and a stench of burnt meat filled the room while witnesses tried to get out and pounded on locked doors. Several fainted.and slumped around the floor.

Kemmler did at least die, but in a way that nearly made his both the first and last electrocution in criminal history. Newspapers competed to run the gaudiest, grisliest tales of his suffering, as though it needed to look any worse than it already was. Two of the doctors present, Charles Spitzka and Carlos MacDonald, feuded bitterly and publicly for years afterward over what had gone so dreadfully wrong.

Edison, whose role in the affair was now public knowledge to his lasting discomfort, refused to comment or to even speak to reporters. His great rival George Westinghouse, asked for his opinion of the execution, was far more forthcoming and brutally frank:

“They would have done better using an ax…”

Of course, the chair, its components and the overall method survived even into the early 21st century. Over time and by trial and error the process was steadily refined, though never really perfected. Davis’s apprentices Hurlburt and Elliott would develop the process and kill hundreds doing so, Although Hurlburt did commit suicide shortly after resigning as the euphemistically-titled ‘State Electrician.’

All of New York’s executioners had to be qualified electricians, paid $150 per prisoner with an extra $50 for any additional prisoner during multiple executions. Good money if you could stomach the work generally and the occasional botch in particular.

 Tennessee's electric chair at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution

Tennessee’s electric chair at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution

There’s a grim postscript to this story. Until recently Old Sparky had fallen into disfavour and disuse. No States retained it as their primary method, most having changed to lethal injection as their first choice. The current refusal by drug companies to supply American prisons with the drugs for lethal injection has led to experimentation with different drug combinations and, in turn, botched lethal injections such as Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma and Joseph Wood in Arizona. Wood took over two hours to die in a process that should have taken minutes.

Which is why the State of Tennessee, previously discarding their electric chair for lethal injection, have reinstated electrocution and dusted off their ‘hot seat.’ South Carolina is considering doing the same. Alabama and Oklahoma, meanwhile, are considering something new and as yet untried. The gas chamber too has been discarded, but it might make a comeback using nitrogen gas instead of cyanide. Oklahoma was also the first state to adopt lethal injection, although Texas was the first to actually use it.

It would seem the wheel is going to turn full circle. Like William Kemmler on this day in 1890, somebody is likely to take their own place in the chronicles of crime, albeit as the first to suffer death in a nitrogen (not cyanide) gas chamber. Unlike William Kemmler and some 4000 other inmates, Old Sparky might also be rising from the grave.

Kemmler’s tale can be found, among many others, in my  first book ‘Criminal Curiosities’ available on Amazon Kindle:

 

On This Day in 1928: Very unlucky for some…


cropped-sing-sing-death-chamber4.jpeg

 

Today it’s Friday July 13, 2018. July 13, 1928 was also a Friday, a Friday delivering the ultimate in bad luck to 11 men in three different States…

In Mississippi’s Yazoo County murderer Will Burdo nervously awaited his date with the hangman. While Burdo pondered his fate in Yazoo County Jail, over in Smith County Greene Kirk was doing the same after being convicted of robbery and murder. Mississippi wouldn’t centralise its executions until 1954 and the installation of the gs chamber at Parchman. That came after 14 years of Mississippi’s notorious travelling electric chair. Both Kirk and Burdo were entrusted to the tender mercies of hangmen they hoped would be both skilled and sober. Not that American hangmen had a great reputation for being either.

Over at the Georgia State Prison, Preddis Taylor and Sam Gower were pondering a similar fate shortly to be imposed by newer technology; the electric chair. Unlike Mississippi, Georgia had centralised its retribution, installing Old Sparky in 1924 at the old State Prison in Milledgeville. It’s doubtful that either Taylor or Gower appreciated what was then the relative novelty of being Southern-fried.

Two double executions in two different States on the same day, which wouldn’t have been a criminal curiosity had it not been for the electrical extravaganza scheduled in Kentucky. Kentucky, not the most hawkish of death penalty States, but not afraid to impose it, had no less than seven men doomed to its own electric chair. At the feared State Prison near Eddyville known as the ‘Castle on the Cumberland,’ Old Sparky was about to be fed a seven-course banquet.

In the 20th century only one other prison had executed seven inmates in one day. Sing Sing marched that number to their deaths on August 12, 1912. It had been a nightmare for all concerned. Not because of any technical hitches or other problems, but because the seven men didn’t react too well, or sanely, to being marched one after another through the death chamber door.  Nor, as it happened, did those condemned inmates still waiting for their own date with death. It was a day never before seen and never repeated, even at the notoriously tough Sing Sing.

Clarence McQueen, James Howard, Willie Moore, Milford Lawson, Orlando Seymour, Hascue Dockery and Charles Mitra would meet their maker one after another and quick succession, Kentucky’s largest mass execution of the 20th century. All in all, not a good Friday 13 for anybody apart the executioners who’d profit well from the day’s work, especially in Kentucky.

While Greene and Burdo dropped to their deaths in Mississippi, Taylor and Gower were doing the hot squat in Georgia. Of the four men three were black and one white. Without exception, and as usual in capital cases, all were poor and lacked the funds for even average lawyers. In Kentucky the balance was slightly less uneven. Lawson, Seymour, Dockery and Mitra were white while McQueen, Howard and Moore were black. All of these men were poor as well.

According to reports the black prisoners held up better than their white counterparts, singing hymns and spirituals as they waited to go one-by-one to their deaths. The three whites, however, are reported as having been virtually paralysed by fear as their time came.The result, be they brave and dignified or craven and catatonic, was still the same. All seven never got to hear the phone ring at the last minute, as it so often does in Hollywood’s more stylised idea of capital punishment. There weren’t any lawyers, expensive or pro bono, to delay their walking the last mile. Taken one-by-one they stood, walked, sat down and died.

Even in those less enlightened and perhaps more racially-charged times, Friday June 13 was a rarity. Nowadays few death penalty States execute eleven convicts per year while some haven’t had eleven executions in decades.

That didn’t make this particular Friday 13 any less unlucky for some.

On this day in 1947; George Sitts, (appropriately named).


sitts-000

As regular readers know, I do like crime’s more unusual case, the firsts, lasts and onlys. Minnesota’s George Sitts is certainly one of those. Born in Leroy, Minnesota on October 29, 1913, he was a serial felon, escape artist and double cop-killer. He was the first, last and only inmate to sit in South Dakota’s electric chair.

So, the appropriately-named Sitts did indeed sit April 8, 1947. Once, and very briefly.

Sitts had escaped escaped from the Hennequin County Jail in his native Minnesota where he was awaiting transfer to Stilwater State Prison for murdering liquor store clerk Erik Jhansson during a robbery on December 12, 1945. A life sentence at Stillwater didn’t appeal to him so, with three other inmates, he broke out. This was very bad news for several people.

By January 24, 1946 he’d got as far as South Dakota, leaving a trail of gas stations without actually paying for his gas. Near the town of Spearfish he was confronted by Butte County Sheriff Dave Malcolm and State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Tom Matthews. Sitts murdered both of them, reportedly shooting one of them as his victim lay on the ground wounded.

Sitts had gone from escaped felon to the target of a multi-State manhunt. Already wanted by Minnesota, now he was wanted in Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska as well. The double killing in South Dakota could see him electrocuted if he was caught and caught he eventually was.

On January 28 he arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota. Either out of sheer bravado or, more likely, not knowing whose house it was, he broke into the home of former Deadwood police chief Ross Dunn. He lived secretly in Dunn’s basement, living off canned food and seemingly invisible to law enforcement.

By now local newspaper the Rapid City Journal had started a fundraising drive for a reward, assisted by the Black Hills and Badlands Association. On January 31, the same day the fund drive started, Butte County Sheriff Dave Malcolm was buried and a successor appointed. On February 4 Sitts crept out of Deadwood.

The same day he flagged down motorist Leonard Ronneburg, abducted him at gunpoint, forced Ronneburg to drive him across the State line into Beulah, Wyoming and left him there. Sitts, having relieved Ronneburg of his car, kept going until he drew near the town of Lysite. There, mistaking a posse for a group of ranchers, he was arrested and returned to South Dakota to be tried for the murder of Agent Matthews.

The trial was both brief and a foregone conclusion. It began on March 18, Sitts was convicted on March 22 and Judge Charles Hayes sentenced him to death on March 30. SItts, the fourth man condemned to South Dakota’s chair, would be the first, last and only man to sit in it.

When South Dakota condemned its first inmate to electrocution, Clifford Hayes for murdering Grant County Sheriff Melbourne Lewis in 1939, they didn’t actually have an electric chair. As the law offered only electrocution as a method, the State had to borrow one from Illinois and have inmates make a replica. Illinois had adopted electrocution in 1928 and had three chairs at Menard, Cook County Jail and Stateville Prison, so lending South Dakota one of their wasn’t a problem.

fs_electric_chair

The replica, connected, wired and tested, sat in the jute mill at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, still awaiting its first occupant. When inmates two and three had their sentences commuted Sitts, South Dakota’s fourth candidate for the dubious distinction of being its first victim, found his number was up. Despite a brief problem with obtaining a head electrode (someone went out and bought a football helmet to use for the occasion) Sitts was doomed. As a double cop killer, escape artist and serial felon he could hardly have been surprised.

At 12:15 on April 8, 1947, the fateful time finally came. After a last meal of chicken chow mein, Sitts, his head and leg shaved, was escorted from his cell to the jute mill. 41 witnesses were there for this first in South Dakota history. As he was strapped into the chair, Sitts was asked for any final words. Defiant to the end, he replied;

“This is the first time authorities helped me escape prison.”

Minutes later, the switch was thrown. Four jolts of around 2000 volts each seared through Sitts’ body. The switch was thrown by SCI Agent Floyd Short, a personal friend of murder victim Agent Tom Matthews. As the current was turned off and the generator wound down, Sitts was pronounced dead.

South Dakota wouldn’t have another execution for 60 years, until Elijah Page died by lethal injection on July 11, 2011. Page was from Lawrence County, scene of the Sitts trial in 1946. He’d also committed his crime near the town of Spearfish, where Sitts had earned his place in criminal history.

 

 

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


elmer-brunner

 

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

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

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

The_West_Virginia_State_Penitentiary,_a_retired,_gothic-style_prison_in_Moundsville,_West_Virginia,_that_operated_from_1876_to_1995_LCCN2015631907.tif

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

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

Old Sparky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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