IDENTIFIED: ‘An unidentified man is strapped into Sing Sing’s electric chair.’


For my 100th post, I’m going to offer you something special, something a little different from the usual fare. The story of this ‘unidentified man’ at the moment of his death.

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True crime buffs and historians will have seen this particular image many, many times. Taken by photographer William van der Weyde, it’s invariably captioned as ‘An unidentified man is strapped into Sing Sing Prison’s electric chair, circa 1900.’

It was taken at Sing Sing, but it wasn’t taken in 1900. That ‘unidentified man’ can now be given a name and a story. So here it is.

The photo was part of a series published the Royal Magazine in 1898. The article describes the original Sing Sing death house, not the one readers might be more familiar with today. That wasn’t opened until 1922 and the second death house didn’t open until 1915. This is the set-up as it was in the beginning.

Sing’s Sing’s first was a quadruple on July 7, 1891. That day Harris Smiler, James Slocum, Joseph Wood and Shibaya Jugiro paid for their crimes. The last was Eddie Lee Mays on August 15, 1963. Between them, the three death houses would claim 614 of New York’s 695 electrocutions.

The ‘unidentified man’ is actually murderer Arthur Mayhew, who walked his last mile on March 12, 1897. Mayhew, convicted of murder-robbery on the testimony of accomplice John Wayne, was the 20th inmate electrocuted at Sing Sing. His crime was unremarkable as murders go, clubbing 68-year old shopkeeper William Powell on Fulton Street. His execution would also have been unexceptional, saving that he hasn’t been properly identified in over a century. Wayne, who received a 15-year sentence and so avoided execution, later retracted his testimony before reverting to blaming Mayhew.

Convicted and condemned, Mayhew found himself awaiting execution for a year. In that time Carl Feigenbaum, Louis Hermann and Charles Pustalka were taken from their cells and executed. Given the original layout of Sing Sing’s pre-death house era, Mayhew would have heard every single detail of their deaths.

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As you can see, the death cells were separated from the death chamber itself by only a single door. The condemned wouldn’t actually see anything, white sheets being draped in front of their cells just before an execution, but they could hear absolutely everything.

They could hear another prisoner being led away, hear the door open and close, hear their last words (if they had any), the clunk of the switch being thrown and the hum of flowing electricity. As a final torture, they could hear the autopsy being performed, New York State law mandating an autopsy immediately after an execution. The autopsy room at Sing Sing was next door to the death chamber for convenience.

The convenience of prison staff, of course, not prison inmates. They didn’t find the clunk of the switch, the dull hum of electricity and the shrill whine of a bone saw the slightest bit convenient. In fact, it had a nasty (though unsurprising) tendency to drive them insane. When Sing Sing set its record on August 7, 1912 by electrocuting seven inmates one after another, those awaiting death created havoc. So did those whose dates were still approaching.

They were spared quite as much suffering when it was Arthur Mayhew’s turn. Mayhew, originally one of two executions scheduled that day, would have heard the other prisoner being told his sentence had been commuted and he was to be reassigned into Sing’s Sing’s general population.

With this last, most uplifting thought in his mind, Arthur Mayhew would die alone and, until now, unidentified.

His executioner, the world’s very first ‘State Electrician’ remained as close to anonymous as possible, though by his own choice. Edwin Davis was man fearful of being identified. The public knew his name and only a rough idea of what he looked like. He would journey to Sing Sing discreetly, having arranged with a railroad company  for its train to pick him up and drop him off at a spot between stations before and after an execution. He permitted no photographs and once lambasted assistant Robert Elliott (later New York’s third State Electrician) for once using his name while ordering dinner.

The layout of Sing Sing’s first death chamber was designed so official witnesses and reporters wouldn’t even see him do his deadly work. As you can see from the image below, the man in the background on the left (sometimes incorrectly identified as Davis) was actually puling a cord, not the switch. The cord was connected to Davis’s hand as he stood in the closed-off booth directly behind the chair. One pull told him to throw the switch, a second pull told him to cut the power so doctors could make their checks. If the prisoner was still alive, the cord was pulled again to order as many shocks as were needed.

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Mayhew needed only the standard two jolts before dying, one to kill him and another to make absolutely sure. He was certified dead little over a minute after the cord was pulled and Davis threw the switch. As he was led into the chamber he clutched a crucifix, a fact confirmed by press reports published on March 13, the day after he died.

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As he was being strapped down he uttered his final words;

“Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”

His end, at least, was mercifully brief. Though not so brief there wasn’t time for another picture:

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As Mayhew is listed by most sources as ‘unidentified,’ the first photograph of an electrocution in progress is commonly held to be that of Ruth Snyder, executed at Sing Sing in 1928. The image is widely considered one of the most important and distinctive in the history of journalism and is still used in some journalism courses for teaching purposes. It made journalistic history at the time.

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Snyder was illicitly photographed by reporter Tom Howard just after the current was turned on, using a hidden camera concealed in his trouser leg. Given that Mayhew is specifically named in the archived article in the Royal Magazine (published in 1898) and that Sing Sing records and contemporary news reports list Mayhew as having been executed on March 12, 1897, it reasonable to say that these images are of Mayhew and that the world’s first electrocution photographs were in fact taken some thirty years earlier than commonly thought.

The image also has its place in popular culture. It’s easily found online and provided the inspiration for the James Cagney film ‘Picture Snatcher.’ Curiously, while Cagney played a newspaper photographer who illicitly photographed a woman in the electric chair, probably the most famous scene of his entire career is at the end of classic ‘Angels with Dirty faces’ in which Cagney (playing gangster ‘Rocky Sullivan’) has to be dragged kicking and screaming into Sing Sing’s chair. Cagney himself never clarified whether his character was actually panicking or was feigning fear to benefit the ‘Dead End Kids,’ preferring the audience to decide for themselves.

I somehow doubt Arthur Mayhew, who always protested his innocence, would have appreciated his singular place in the chronicles of crime. Or his place as a small-time pop culture icon, either.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Six Executions In One Day


 

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Robert Greene Elliott, ‘Agent of Death’ for six US States.

 

Meet Robert Greene Elliott. Family man, devout Methodist, Sunday school superintendent, electrical contractor and pipe smoker. He also personally executed 387 people (including 5 women) working as a freelance executioner for six US States. Elliott was (and remains) the most experienced ‘State Electrician’ in penal history. He became notorious Statewide, easily as well-known in New York as any of his victims and considerably better-known than most of them. Here we look at his busiest day in a 13-year career when American executioners were at their busiest, at a time when business was so brisk that Elliott himself executed six men in two different States on the same day.

On the morning of January 6, 1927 Elliot performed the first triple electrocution at the Massachusetts State Prison in Charlestown. Afterward he took a train down to New York City, spending a few hours with his family before taking another train to New York’s notorious Sing Sing Prison. At 11pm three men were taken from their cells in Sing Sing’s purpose-built ‘Death House’ and escorted one-by-one along their ‘Last Mile.’ Elliott, promptly and professionally as usual, electrocuted them all.  His standard fee was $150 an inmate, earning himself $900 that day alone.

In his native New York, Elliott was as familiar a name as Ruth Snyder, Bruno Hauptmann, Sacco and Vanzetti, Albert Fish or Francis ‘Two Gun’ Crowley. The Snyder case spawned the famous play ‘Machinal’ and film classic ‘Double Indemnity.’ Bruno Hauptmann was convicted of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Sacco and Vanzetti are still discussed as a miscarriage of justice. Albert Fish was a serial killer and cannibal and Francis Crowley inspired James Cagney’s most infamous screen villain ‘Rocky’ Sullivan in the crime classic ‘Angel with Dirty Faces.’ Elliott also claimed to be opposed to capital punishment and that it served no useful purpose. Odd really, considering his achieving notoriety in New York and 5 other States as their ‘Electrocutioner.’

Elliot took the job in 1926 when his predecessor suddenly resigned after 140 executions. He held it until 1939 when he resigned and was replaced by Joseph P. Francel. Elliott died in 1940 shortly after publishing his memoir ‘Agent of Death.’ The book covers some of his most notorious victims, the technical aspects of electrocution and his personal musings on both condemned inmates and capital punishment itself.

‘Agent of Death’ is long out of print. Original copies are both very expensive and equally hard to find. It’s not as unusual as you might think for executioners to publish memoirs. Albert Pierrepoint, John Ellis and Syd Dernley all left memoirs of their time working Britain’s gallows. In the US former Warden Don Cabana’s ‘Death at Midnight: Confessions of an Executioner’ is compelling if difficult reading. Mississippi’s ‘travelling executioner’ Jimmy Thompson never tired of interviews and photo opportunities involving his portable electric chair. But, generally speaking, executioners tend more to keep their lives and careers to themselves, shunning publicity in the same way that many people might shun executioners.

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Sing Sing’s most famous inmate, the dreaded ‘Old Sparky.’

 

In Massachusetts Elliott ‘burned’ John McLaughlin, John Deveraux and Edward Heinlein for murdering nightwatchman James Ferneaux during an attempted robbery in October, 1925. The then-infamous ‘Waltham Car Barn murder’ attracted great publicity at the time, not least because only Deveraux had fired the shot. Despite this all three were convicted of the murder as they’d committed the robbery together. Legal concepts of ‘common purpose’ meant that if one member of a criminal group committed murder during some other crime (such as bank robbery, burglary or kidnapping) then all involved were guilty. The fact that Ferneaux hadn’t died from the gunshot wound, but had been finished off by being pistol-whipped made their appeals a formality.

At 7am Charlestown Prison, normally as rowdy and loud as any prison at breakfast time, was silent. Inmates and staff alike knew that this was the first time the State of Massachusetts had executed three men at once. Staff were worried about potential technical problems at the execution or unrest among the general population. Inmates sat in their cells, silently watching the clock tick down to 7am. At the appointed time the three men died one after another without a hitch. Elliott had just made Massachusetts history, earning himself a whopping $450 ($150 an inmate) for his first job that day. Three down, three to go.

According to one report Elliott simply returned to New York City and spent the next few hours with his family. They had dinner and saw a movie before Elliott headed for the railroad station. At Sing Sing executions were traditionally performed on Thursdays at 11pm, a grim tradition known to staff and inmates alike as ‘Black Thursday.’ Elliott reported to Sing Sing’s infamous ‘Death House’ (one of the few purpose-built Death Rows in the country at the time) and prepared ‘Old Sparky’ for a ‘triple-hitter.’ He was ready to double his money..

Charles Goldson, Edgar Humes and George Williams were all condemned for joint involvement in a 1926 robbery and murder. While robbing a silk warehouse they murdered nightwatchman William Young. Goldson and Humes were only 22, Williams wasn’t much older at 26. Being over 21 they were still adults and liable for the death penalty. Nothing really separated their crime from Elliott’s victims early that morning and neither New York’s appellate judges or State Governor thought them worth saving.

Like Charlestown, Sing Sing was quiet and not because it was late at night. Prisoners tend not to enjoy being near executions any more than most people. Executions often make prison staff uncomfortable as well. Inmates might riot in sympathy and not every prison officer supports the death penalty. Elliott arrived in mid-evening, inspected and tested the equipment and at 11pm did his job as professionally as at Charlestown. Three more down, six in total, job done. Elliott earned himself $900 that day, plus travel expenses. As a private contractor he had agreements with New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Connecticut. With six States and little sympathy among judges and Governors for the condemned, his tenure was a busy one.

Elliott was also technically skilled and is credited with perfecting the technique of judicial electrocution. He routinely shocked a prisoner with 2000 volts for 3 seconds, 500 volts for the remainder of the first minute, up the voltage to 2000 for 3 more seconds and then another 57 seconds at 500 volts before a final 3-second burst at 2000. Today’s executioners simply push a button and a computer-controlled process raises and lowers the voltage automatically. In Elliott’s time the equipment was manually operated, meaning that Elliott had to stand at his controls, carefully watching the prisoner die while doing his job. If the voltage was excessive the inmate burnt alive. If it was insufficient they were slowly cooked, so a skilled and experienced executioner was essential to avoid nightmarish mishaps. For doing that 6 times in one day $900 doesn’t seem like much.

A pretty curious abolitionist, really.