It’s common to find ‘Peachtree Bandit’ Frank Dupre, armed robber and murderer executed on September 1, 1921 with Luke McDonald, listed as the last man to hang in Georgia. He wasn’t. That was Arthur Meyers, a murderer hanged at Augusta on June 17, 1931 for a murder committed in March, 1924.
It’s equally common for the same reports to list a ‘Howard Henson,’ electrocuted on September 13, 1924, as the first Georgian to ride the lightning. He wasn’t, his name was actually Howard Hinton. Hinton was executed for rape and robbery or, to put it more delicately, ‘assaulting a white woman. Hinton, 1920’s Georgia being 1920’s Georgia, was an African-American.
So, with that in mind, why the confusion? The Georgia Assembly, thanks in part to Dupre’s execution, had passed a law on August 16, 1924 mandating a switch (no pun intended) from the gallows to the electric chair. Anyone sentenced to die after that wouldn’t hang in whichever county they were convicted, but would be taken to the Georgia State Prison then located at Milledgeville. From then on only those already sentenced to hang would face the gallows operated by their resident County Sheriff.
Even before Hinton walked his last mile at Milledgeville James Satterfield and Harrison Brown still faced the rope. After Hinton, Warren Walters, Gervais Bloodworth, Willie Jones and Mack Wooten would also keep their date with the hangman. Not until Meyers would Georgia’s gallows find itself finally consigned to history, by which time there had been 6 more hangings and 66 electrocutions.
Georgia’s method had changed. Its procedure had changed even more. Instead of County Sheriffs the Warden at Milledgeville now became Georgia’s only official executioner. Granted, County Sheriffs would occasionally still jerk their levers, but Milledgeville’s Warden would be throwing a switch.
County Sheriffs were now relegated to a supporting role, escorting their condemned to Milledgeville any time between twenty and two days before their scheduled date of execution. At Milledgeville the Warden would be assisted by a qualified electrician, two doctors, a guard and two assistant executioners. The condemned could also have their lawyers, relatives, friends and religious representatives with them when their time came. Appropriated on August 27, 1924 the Georgia State Prison’s death chamber cost $4760.65.
The decision to change Georgia’s method and procedures had been overwhelmingly endorsed by the state’s House of Representatives. They’d voted 115 to 45 in favour with 46 abstentions. It hadn’t been universally approved, though. Milledgeville is located within Baldwin County and Baldwin Representative J. Howard Ennis wasn’t happy.
Echoing the concerns raised decades later by Marvin Wiggins, Superintendent of Mississippi’s State Penitentiary in Sunflower County, Ennis decried the idea of Baldwin being known as the ‘Death County’ if executions there became a permanent feature. It did no good. Just as Wiggins was later ignored in Mississippi, Ennis’s pleas met deaf ears in Georgia. Wiggins was saddled with Mississippi’s new method, the gas chamber replacing the state’s portable electric chair. Ennis was saddled with the method Mississippi would later replace.
Old Sparky had come to the Peachtree State. Old Sparky was there to stay. As Georgia’s County Sheriffs had once plunged their inmates into eternity, Milledgeville’s Warden would offer them Southern hospitality for law-breakers;
A short walk and a comfortable chair.
Sparky’s reign in Georgia would be long and inglorious, lasting until the electrocution of murderer David Loomis Cargill on June 9, 1998. Sparky’s lair remained at Milledgeville until 1938. 14 years and 162 executions later Willie Daniels provided its farewell meal before moving to the new Georgia State Prion at Reidsville, dying in the chair on December 27, 1937.
At Reidsville business was even more brisk. 256 inmates (including the now-exonerated Lena Baker) would meet their ends. First to walk his last mile was murderer Archie Haywood on May 6, 1938. The last was murderer Bernard Dye on October 16, 1964. Sparky wouldn’t be put to work again at Reidsville, moving again to the euphemistically-named Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center in Jackson in June, 1980. The original chair was pensioned off, replaced by another. Georgia would have to wait three years to christen the new chair.
That came on December 15, 1983 when murderer John Eldon Smith became its first victim in almost 20 years. He wasn’t far from being its last. Until May, 2001 when Georgia replaced bottled lightning with bottled poison, another 22 convicts would be seated, strapped, capped and killed. In May, 2001 Gerogia’s chair finally met its end, replaced by lethal injection. In October of that year the Georgia Supreme Court finally pulled the plug. Old Sparky was now cruel and unusual punishment. By the time the chair became history it had taken 440 men and one woman with it.
It’s a sobering thought that Arthur Meyer (last to hang) and Howard Hinton (first to be electrocuted) were both African-Americans. It’s even more sobering to consider that the majority of Georgia’s executions, regardless of method, have been non-white. It’s also an unfortunate fact that Milledgeville wasn’t just the first place in Georgia to see an electrocution, but also the first capital of the Southern Confederacy.
When 25 witnesses, mostly reporters, gathered in the basement death chamber at Illinois’s Cook County Jail, they couldn’t have known they were gathering there for the last time. Decades down the line Illinois hacks would gather again for the same reason, but in a different place and to see someone killed by a different method.
In 1962 the event itself wasn’t unusual. Illinois had started hanging people courtesy of the Northwest Ordinance passed in 1787. It had replaced the gallows in 1928, starting with a ‘triple hitter’ at Stateville on December 15, 1928. Dominick Bressette, John Brown and Claude Clarke were that night electrocuted and, with no problems, the chair’s continued presence was assured.
Three of them, to be exact. One was sited at Stateville and another at Menard, both State prisons. The third, and the busiest, was the Cook County Jail. A rule specified that any county with a population of over a million would retain control of its own executions and Cook (including Chicago and other large population centres) qualified. Anywhere else in Illinois you’d be sent to Stateville or Menard but if you killed in Cook County you died in Cook County.
That wasn’t good news for Warden Jack Johnson who despised the death penalty while still having to carry it out. Like New York had until 1915, Illinois had three electric chairs. Also like New York, its busiest user was its most vehement critic. Like Warden Lewis Lawes at Sing Sing, Johnson had to do the job, but didn’t have to like it. He didn’t, disliking it loudly and often.
Not that it made any difference on that steamy, muggy August night in 1962. James Dukes would die that night and with him went Illinois’s electric chair. Dukes had earned a seat in Old Sparky on June 15, 1956. He’d shot two men who tried to stop him beating up his girlfriend in a church on Chicago’s notorious South Side. They were both seriously wounded, nut survived.
Cornered by two Chicago detectives Dukes murdered Detective John Blyth before his pistol jammed. Dragged out from under a nearby vehicle by Blyth’s partner Detective Daniel Rolewicz, Dukes knew his fate. Illinois had a notoriously hard line with cop killers. As the witnesses gathered in Cook County’s death chamber Rolewicz was one of them. Turning to a reporter he said;
“I’ve been waiting for this night for a long time.”
Dukes, head shaven and already dressed in his execution clothes probably hadn’t declining a last meal, he had to be forced to walk his last mile as well. Clad only in a black hood and black shorts, he was already soaked in sweat and trembling when Warden Johnson’s men came to take him on his final walk.
It may have been around 20 feet between his Death Row cell and the chair itself, but he had to be forced all the same. Whether out of fear or just a desire to be as difficult as possible a United Press international report described the scene:
‘Dukes had to be shoved firmly into the electric chair and held while being strapped in.’
Well, not strapped exactly. Cook County’s chair had few straps but more metal clamps similar to the chair in Hollywood’s version of Stephen King’s ‘The Green Mile.’ That chair was based on the one used in Ohio where inmate Charles Justice had designed metal clamps to replace the old leather straps. Ironically, paroled and released, Justice later came back to Ohio’s state prison on a murder warrant. He died inside his own restraints, perhaps feeling Justice had been ill-served.
Dukes was seated, the straps and clamps were secured after a struggle and the electrodes were applied. Warden Johnson and two anonymous volunteers each pulled one of three switches. None of them knew which was delivering the current. Their first pull delivered a huge jolt. Pulls two and three delivered smaller ones. After a brief pause allowing Dukes’s body to cool enough to be examined the prison doctor stepped forward;
“I pronounce this man dead.”
Only three minutes and forty seconds had elapsed since Dukes had been forced into the room. Now James Dukes was gone. Illinois’s electric chair, unknown to the world, had gone with him. After the current had been shut off an era had ended. No more would witnesses hear the sound of switches clanking and the current humming through a prisoner. No more would an extractor fan remove the smoke and stench of burned meat from a lifeless corpse.
James Dukes had had his day. So had the chair that killed him.
Dukes died without saying any final words, he was too busy struggling to do that, but he wasn’t about to go without a final statement of a kind. When guards went to clear his cell after the execution they found a copy of philosopher Plato’s ‘Dialogues.’ On the pages left open was circled a particular remark:
‘The hour of departure has arrived and we go our ways. I to die and you to live. Which is better God only knows.’
It was done. Illinois wouldn’t have another execution for 28 years. On September 12, 1990 it lethally injected murderer Charles Walker. The next was that of notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy on May 10, 1994. The prison was Stateville (site of Illinois’s first electrocution), the method was lethal injection. Illinois later abolished its death penalty on July 1, 2011, Gacy having been the second of twelve executions in the post-Furman vs Georgia era.
Unlike the more philosophically-inclined Dukes, Gacy’s final comment to the world was reportedly cruder and more defiant. Declining to say anything when strapped onto the stretcher securing him for his lethal injection Gacy said little before entering Stateville’s death chamber. Rather than indulge in any Dukes-like profundity he resorted to profanity instead. Gacy’s last words were reportedly;
August 15, 1963 was an historic day in New York’s penal history, although nobody involved knew it at the time. New York’s lawmakers didn’t know it. the Warden of New York’s infamous Sing Sing Prison (now the Ossining Correctional Facility) didn’t know. Dow Hover, New York’s last ‘State Electrician’, didn’t know it. Eddie Lee Mays (armed robber and murderer of no particular note) didn’t know. He was well beyond caring by then anyway.
At 10pm Eddie Lee Mays would die. walk his last mile. He would leave his pre-execution cell in Sing Sing’s ‘death house,’ walk twenty feet with two prison officers and a prison Chaplain, take a seat in ‘Old Sparky’ and ‘ride the lightning.’ Moved from his regular Death House cell twelve hours before the scheduled time, Mays would spend his final hours in the ‘Dance Hell,’ a group of six cells nearer the death chamber.
When his time came Mays would be New York’s 695th inmate to do so since William Kemmler at Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890 and Sing Sing’s 614th.
He would also be the last.
Mays was 34 years old, an ex-convict from North Carolina where he’d already served a sentence for murder. He’d been lucky to avoid North Carolina’s gas chamber then, especially as North Carolina used their chamber frequently in 1940’s and 1950’s and being black wasn’t going to work in his favour.
Sing’s Sing’s electric chair would prove unavoidable. Mays himself wasn’t especially bothered by the typical Death Row inmate’s standards. With a lengthy criminal record and no future other than more prison time, Mays had already said he’d rather ‘fry’ than spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Along with two accomplices (neither of whom faced the ‘hot seat’) Mays had embarked upon a string of violent crimes during 1961. Resident in Harlem, in six weeks Mays and his gang had committed no less than fifty-two armed robberies. Having already shown in North Carolina that murder wasn’t beyond him, it’s no great surprise that he soon killed again.
On March 23, 1961 Mays and his friends entered the ‘Friendly Tavern’ at 1403 Fifth Avenue, showed their guns and demanded that the owner and his customers hand over every cent they had. One of them was Maria Marini, known to her friends as ‘Pearl.’ Maria didn’t open her purse as quickly as Mays demanded and. When she did, it was empty. Mays, enraged by her tardiness and lack of cash, bellowed:
“I’m going to kill somebody! I mean it! I’ll show you!”
Turning to Maria he then bellowed:
“I ought to kill you!”
And then he did. Mays put his .38 pistol directly against her forehead and squeezed the trigger in a totally unnecessary murder before running away with $275 in cash. It wasn’t long before Mays and his accomplices were in custody awaiting trial. Their future looked bleak at best, either life imprisonment or a very brief acquaintance with Sing Sing’s most notorious resident;
By 1962 New York had already discarded its mandatory death penalty for murder, opting for new legislation separating capital from non-capital murder. Unfortunately for Mays New York’s Felony Murder Statute defined murder during a robbery as capital murder. Given his lengthy record, previous murder conviction and the totally unnecessary murder of Maria Marini, the outcome was in no real doubt.
Convicted and condemned, it wasn’t long before Eddie Lee Mays was on the fast-track to a disinterested, if not unwilling, place in penal history. His accomplices could also have been condemned but they struck lucky. As Mays had fired the shot, the judge ruled, they escaped with lengthy prison terms and their lives. Mays wouldn’t be so fortunate.
Mays had his one mandatory appeal granted by law. Neither the State Court of Appeals or State Governor were ready to intervene. Warden Wilfred .L. Denno, appointed in December, 1950, received his latest ‘thunderbolt jockey’ and Denno knew the drill backwards. Eddie Lee Mays would be his 62nd execution since taking charge at Sing Sing. He gave the usual orders instructing Death House staff to make the usual preparations. He also sent a letter to New York’s fifth and final ‘State Electrician’ Mr. Dow Hover to set August 15, 1963 in his diary. Hover agreed, driving down from his Germantown home a few hours before the scheduled time of 10pm.
Dow Hover was the last of five men to hold the title of New York’s ‘State Electrician.’ The principal qualifications were being a fully-qualified electrician, being prepared to kill people for $150 an inmate (with an extra $50 per inmate for multiple executions, not unusual events at Sing Sing) and not minding the measly 8 cents a mile fuel allowance.
Edwin Davis, John Hurlburt, Robert Elliott and Joseph Francel had all pulled the switch many, many times. It was Hover who replaced Francel when Francel unexpectedly resigned in 1953 shortly after executing the atom bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Francel hadn’t liked the publicity he’d received and wasn’t satisfied with the money either, which hadn’t improved much since Davis executed William Kemmler at Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890.
Hover wasn’t bothered about the money or the work. A cold and unemotional man, he saw executions as a professional job. They were to be properly done and then forgotten about. The low pay didn’t bother him either, but any publicity did. Hover was extremely careful to avoid being publicly identified as the ‘State Electrician’, however. He’d change the number plates on his car before leaving home, changing them back on his return. He also never talked about his work with anybody and did all he could to keep out of sight.
August 15, 1963 would be the last time he drove a car with false number plates.
By late-afternoon, all was ready. Warden Denno had screened the official witnesses and reporters to be present that night. The prison officers had rehearsed their already well-rehearsed routine for escorting Mays on his last mile, strapping him down securely and the general running of the execution. Mays himself had consulted with the prison’s Protestant chaplain. He’d also refused a last meal, asking instead for a carton of Pall Mall cigarettes.
Under Death House rules he wasn’t allowed matches in his condemned cell. Whenever he wanted a smoke (which was increasingly often) an officer had to light it for him. His head was shaved, his leg was shaved for the second electrode and he was given the traditional execution clothes.
These were specially made with a slit right trouser leg and wooden buttons that wouldn’t catch fire, glow or melt when the switch was thrown. Instead of shoes or boots Mays would walk his last mile in shower slippers. The Warden and witnesses gathered while Hover tested his equipment thoroughly. It was all in perfect working order. All that was left was to watch the clock and wait until 10pm when the final act would begin.
It began promptly and worked like a well-oiled machine, like clockwork. Mays gave no trouble as he walked his last mile. Before a small audience of prison staff and a few disinterested reporters he quickly seated himself without making any final statement.
Officers swiftly applied thick, heavy leather straps rounds his wrists, ankles, waist and chest. Hover attached the electrode to Mays’s right calf muscle, firmly sliding the leather helmet containing the head electrode down over Mays’s head. A thick leather strap with a hole exposing his nose went over Mays’s face, buckled tightly round the back of the chair. Mays was strapped down tight, the electrodes were firmly attached, the generator was running properly. All was set.
Warden Denno gave the signal, his 62nd since assuming command of Sing Sing in 1950 and the last in New York’s history. Like Hover, Denno was no stranger to the grim ritual. In the thirteen years since taking over he’d stood in front of ‘Old Sparky’ on sixty-one previous occasions involving some of New York State’s most notorious criminals.
In 1951 it had been the ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’ Raymond Fernandez and Martha Jule Beck. In 1953 it had been Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, their publicity had caused Joseph Francel to quit and Dow Hover to be throwing the switch that night. In 1954 it had been German immigrant, armed robber, murderer and resident of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, Gerhard Puff, for murdering FBI Special Agent Joseph Brock.
In 1958 it was notorious hitman Elmer ‘Trigger’ Burke (for murdering bar-owner Edward ‘Poochy’ Walsh) and Angelo LaMarca (for the kidnap-murder of Peter Weinberger). Then in 1960 Henry ‘Snow’ Flakes had died in front of him. A former heavyweight boxing contender, Flakes had fallen on hard times, developed a drug problem and killed a store-owner during a robbery. Like Mays, Flakes died without leaving a final statement, although he did have an enormous last meal.
And in between the ones anybody remembered, assuming they’d heard of them at all, were dozens of others. Nameless, faceless and then lifeless, their deaths hadn’t rated so much as a paragraph in their local paper. Not for them the banner headlines of the Rosenbergs or Martha Beck.
When Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez died on March 8, 1951 their deaths made headlines nationwide. Those of John King and Richard Powers, executed the same night for murdering Detective Joseph Miccio, were barely acknowledged then or now. The likes of Powers, King and hundreds of others might as well have been phantoms.
Their deaths though, when they came, were real enough.
Warden Denno gave the signal, Hover worked the controls in a pre-determined cycle perfected by his predecessor Robert Elliott. 2000 volts for three seconds, then 500 volts for fifty-seven seconds, then 2000 again for three seconds, 500 for fifty-four seconds and 2000 again for the last few seconds. Hover shut off his controls, Denno signaled to the prison physician to make his checks and all waited quietly for the outcome.
Eddie Lee Mays was dead.
New York abolished the death penalty almost entirely in 1965. The only exceptions were prison inmates who committed murder while already serving a life sentence and anybody murdering a police officer or prison officer. ‘Old Sparky’ was uprooted and transferred to the maximum-security Green Haven Correctional Facility in 1969. The last Death Row inmate in New York condemned prior to abolition had their sentence commuted in 1972 when the US Supreme Court struck down all existing State death penalty laws in its historic ruling Furman vs Georgia.
New York did reinstate capital punishment in 1995 when then-Governor George Pataki signed the new law using the pen of a murdered police officer (and made sure the media knew who the pen had previously belonged to). But New York’s State Courts struck down his law, ruling it unconstitutional. There were no executions in New York during its brief existence.
Even the infamous Sing Sing ‘Death House’ star of so many books, movies, radio dramas, TV documentaries and now blog posts, has lost its grim purpose. Today it’s known simply as Unit 17, a vocational training centre used by inmates wanting to learn a trade. Warden Lewis Lawes, at one time America’s most-frequent practitioner of the death penalty and its most high-profile opponent, might have seen that as a sign of progress. Whether any of its hundreds of residents still haunt the former Death House is unknown.
The last word on New York’s last execution goes to Warden Denno, who remained in charge at Sing Sing until 1967. In 1965 he went over to the Death House with the best news its few remaining residents could have dreamt of. New York’s lawmakers had abolished the death penalty except for the murder of police or prison officers.
Aside from cop killers Anthony Portelli and Jerry Rosenberg (both later commuted) all the condemned were now lifers, no longer dead men walking. Denno arrived with the good news during a baseball match, commenting afterward:
“It may sound incredible, but they seemed more interested in the ball game.”
If the death penalty is a deterrent intended to strike dread into the hearts of the criminally-inclined, that wasn’t quite the reaction he’d expected.
So, the State of South Carolina (previously responsible for executing then exonerating 14-year old George Stinney) is considering dusting off Old Sparky. Difficulties in obtaining lethal injection drugs have caused a backlog on Death Row. South Carolina has numerous condemned inmates, wants to start executing them, but can’t obtain the legally-approved means to do it.
A number of drug companies (Pfizer among others), no longer sell drugs for the purpose of executing people. Negative publicity has affected their bottom line, so it’s simply unprofitable to keep doing so. European drug companies also face the European Union’s declared opposition to the death penalty and have felt pressured into withdrawing their supply.
One of the reasons for introducing lethal injection in the first place was, its supporters claimed, to provide a more humane (or less inhumane) method to replace the gas chambers, gallows, firing squads and electric chairs once so popular in dispensing death on demand. This also helped sidestep legal challenges to executions, particularly those citing the 8th Amendment outlawing cruel and unusual punishment. That wasn’t a problem for the pro-execution lobby, either.
That discussing more humane methods allows some legislators and supporters to evade discussing executions per se is no great secret. From the pro lobby point of view it’s often easier to avoid debating abolition simply by diverting attention to killing them nicely instead. A debatable concept if ever there was one, but a useful dodge when needed.
Despite lethal injection being introduced (allegedly) to make death more humane, it seems several states are quite willing to discuss reinstating the same methods they cited as outdated and passe. As its boosters claimed at the time, lethal injection would do away with horrific spectacles like those of James Wells in Arkansas’s electric chair or Donald Harding in Arizona’s gas chamber. Botches like that of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma have already proved it every bit as unreliable a method as any other. Prisoners still die, granted, but not always quickly, cleanly or humanely.
Part of South Carolina’s problem (aside from the drug boycott) lies in its own execution laws. Lethal injection is the norm unless an inmate specifically chooses electrocution and (rather inconveniently) inmates aren’t choosing to ride the lightning. Unless they do, lethal injection is the only available method under State law.
The combination of the drug shortage and intransigent inmates has led Republican State Senator William Timmons to champion a return to Sparky’s revenge instead. The idea is currently in committee at the State Senate and will be discussed further. Timmons is also pushing for a ‘shield law’ to stop identification of drug companies supplying lethal injection drugs in an effort to encourage new suppliers.
South Carolina is the latest in a long line of States to reinstate defunct methods or consider doing so. Virginia’s Governor vetoed restoring the electric chair, but allowed secretly importing execution drugs instead. Tennessee has already returned Old Sparky to active service. One Missouri legislator called for a return to their gas chamber. Oklahoma is considering using a nitrogen gas chamber instead of cyanide.
Nebraska was caught trying import generic drugs not approved by the Federal Drug Administration, as was Arizona. Other States including Ohio and Texas have been warned about similar efforts.The thought of an inmate giggling their way into the grave does seem off-putting at best. The irony of killing to protect the sanctity of human life and uphold the law by breaking it seems lost on them. By cloaking drug suppliers in anonymity the ‘shield law’ makes such abuses easier.
The attitude of the pro-death lobby seems to be hardening under pressure from abolitionists and increasing public opposition. From once touting lethal injection as more humane than electrocution, gas, shooting or hanging, the new attitude is blunter and more hard-line;
‘If we can’t kill in the way we touted as better, we’ll simply kill with something worse.’
Crime, it’s a part of human existence. It’s in our culture, our art, our literature, our entertainment. For some of us it’s in our blood. It’s also crossed over into our language. Seemingly normal everyday phrases, the kind most people use without even thinking about their origin, can often have the darkest, most disturbing meanings. So here are some choice examples of criminal slang that even the most law-abiding citizens use all the time:
In the clink: This one’s obviously slang for going to prison. It’s an English phrase dating back to the time when all convicts were permanently shackled in manacles or made to wear the ball and chain. Think Magwitch in Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations or ‘I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang’ for this one. Being ‘in clink’ was a reference to constant noise made by convicts as their shackles, balls and chains rattled every time they so much as moved. Go into pretty much any prison museum and you’ll see examples of the manacles, the shackles and the ball-and-chain alongside the old-style convict uniforms with either stripes or arrows all over them. Metal restraints didn’t just restrict a convict’s mobility. The constant rattling and clinking as they moved made it impossible for them to move quietly, important in a time when prisons weren’t always as secure as they are now.
The third degree: This is American criminal slang, used by cops and robbers alike. Nowadays you’ll hear anybody who’s been on the wrong end of a conversation that seemed overly aggressive and confrontational saying they’ve been given the third degree. Originally, the third degree was a police interrogation involving violence or threats thereof, usually aimed at either getting a prisoner to confess to something, to provide information about their accomplices on a particular crime or otherwise make an unco-operative prisoner rediscover their sense of civic duty. Threats to see that a prisoner fell down the stairs on their way to the cells, to ensure that if they didn’t co-operate or confess their sentence would be far heavier than if they did and officers giving them a good hiding then saying they started the ruckus was standard practice, hence some American police officers nicknaming the baseball bat the ‘Alabama lie-detector.’. The ultimate in the third degree was officers demanding a confession if the prisoner didn’t want to be shot while trying to escape.
Bootleg: Anybody familiar with Prohibition, Al Capone, the Untouchables and crime in general will have heard and used the word ‘bootleg.’ If you’re into music then you’ll certainly have heard of ‘bootleg recordings’ and might even own a few. Originally it refers to the trade between the early European settlers and Native Americans. Native Americans were forbidden access to alcohol and in Puritan settlements even those living there weren’t supposed to imbibe the demon drink. To do business with the Native Americans some European settlers would meet them and bring illegal whiskey, gin, rum and many other spirits to trade, hiding them in the legs of their high boots. It’s surprising how many fifths of Scotch you can hide in a high boot even while you’re wearing it, hence the trade was often lucrative and hard to stamp out. Prohibition existed long before the dark days when Chicago became a warzone. So did bootleggers.
Bobby: Another one from Merrie Old England, this. Every Brit and most foreigners will have heard of British beat cops being called ‘Bobbies.’ In London the tourist traps and souvenir stalls often sell plastic police helmets and miniature truncheons. But even a lot of us Brits don’t know why we call them ‘Bobbies’ even though it’s a common nickname. It’s simple. In the days before policing as we know it today, London was rife with crime until the beginnings of what we now call the Metropolitan Police. Before the Met existed there were only a few constables employed by the local magistrates and no formal police force until the arrival of the ‘Bow Street Runners.’ The Runners were founded and led by Sir Robert Peel, a senior political figure of his time and even after the Runners were replaced by the Met, the nickname stuck. Brits call British police ‘Bobbies and the Irish often call police officers ‘Peelers’ for the same reason.
On the spot: We’ve all said it, heard it or thought it. When somebody else has said or done something that’s put us in a difficult situation then it’ll be ‘They really put me on the spot’ or something similar. This is an American phrase and it does indeed refer to being put in a difficult position. In America’s gangland to put somebody ‘On the spot’ was to set them up at a particular time and place so they could be murdered. Nowadays people might complain of being put on the spot if they were blamed for somebody else’s misbehaviour or otherwise caught the rough end of a situation they maybe knew nothing about until they were angrily being blamed for something they had nothing to do with. Take heart, unjustly-maligned people everywhere, at least there wasn’t a flashily-dressed psychopath with a scarred face, bad attitude and sawn-off shotgun waiting for you when you got there.
13, Unlucky for some: This one’s so common I can’t imagine many people having never heard it before. So, why is the number 13 unlucky for some and not for others? Simple. London’s criminals knew full well that, at one time in British history, there were over 200 different crimes that could mean a trip to the gallows. Under the notorious ‘Bloody Code’ you could hang for sheep rustling or something as minor as theft of anything worth more than five shillings. While we’re on the subject of crime and punishment, London’s underworld also knew that there are traditionally 13 steps to the top of a scaffold or gallows and the traditional hangman’s knot has 13 turns of the rope. Of course, not every crook sentenced to die actually did and a lot of them managed to escape being caught at all. Hence, 13 was always only unlucky for some.
In the hot seat: From Merrie Olde England to the United States once more with this one. Americans being Americans, they’ve always been keen on progress, on new ideas and technologies. That even extends to their use of various weird (and not-so-wonderful) methods of execution. Disdaining the old-fashioned European concept of simply hanging people (not that judicial hanging is actually that simple a simple job) they found something far more modern and progressive. The electric chair AKA ‘The hot seat.’ Nowadays people refer to uncomfortable and difficult situations as being put ‘In the hot seat.’ Over 4000 American convicts might look at people complaining about a difficult job interview or press conference and think ‘My heart bleeds.’ Still, while those convicts were fried like bacon at least they can rest easy that they provided endless fodder for dime novelists and film-makers. After all, an American prison movie wouldn’t be an American prison movie without somebody being dragged from their cell through the ominous green-painted, seldom-opened door at the end of the cellblock, never to return unless, in true Hollywood fashion, the phone rings just as a black-gloved hand is reaching for a large switch.
In Limbo: When people are either describing a situation where they don’t know what’s going to happen they’ll often say things are ‘In Limbo.’ ‘Limbo’ was a nickname for the condemned cells at Newgate Prison (where the Central Criminal Court, the famous ‘Old Bailey,’ stands today. Newgate was also one of London’s ‘hanging jails’ with its own gallows. That gallows was used regularly and often for multiple inmates at a time. At the time, British law meant that condemned inmates were neither legally alive or legally dead. They weren’t legally alive after being condemned, but they weren’t legally dead because they hadn’t been hanged yet. ‘Limbo’, being a slang term for Purgatory (the transitional phase between life and death) became the nickname for the condemned cells and Newgate’s dead men walking were described as ‘In Limbo’ until they were either reprieved or taken to Tyburn to perform an entirely different form of Limbo dance.
Turned off: Nowadays when we describe something as a ‘turn off’ or say ‘I was completely turned off’ we mean that something is off-putting, unpleasant, unenjoyable, distasteful and generally something we’d rather not experience again unless we had to. All of which apply perfectly to the original form of ‘turn off.’ In the days when hanging existed, but conventional gallows hadn’t been designed yet, our ancestors had to find ways to hang people without a proper scaffold. They did, in an improvised kind of way. The prisoner would be taken to a conveniently-sited tree with a noose already tied and waiting. Then the prisoner was forced to climb a ladder before having the noose applied. At a signal, the ladder would be twisted violently so that the prisoner was literally ‘turned off’ and left to slowly choke to death. It wasn’t or another couple of centuries that anything resembling a gallows we would recognise it today was even invented. Lovely.
Pom: Australians often refer to British folk as ‘Poms’ or Pommies.’ More impolite Australians might refer to ‘whinging Poms’ if they should hear one of us complaining about something. Why do they call us ‘Poms’ or ‘Pommies’? Simple, really. The answer dates back to when Australia was a part of the British Empire and not the independent nation it is today. At the time Australia was initially used as a penal colony where Britain simply exported its convicts and left them there to live or die as best they could. To identify them as convicts (and therefore British government property) they were branded with a set of initials. Yes, that’s right, branded. With a hot iron. Forever burned into their skin were the letters ‘POHM’ short for ‘Prisoner of Her Majesty.’ Hence, today’s Australians have always referred to residents of the mother country as ‘Poms.’ Useful tip if you’re ever visiting, though, is to avoid answering any immigration officer who asks if you’ve any criminal conviction by saying ‘Didn’t know they were still compulsory.’ Just a thought.
So, there you have it. A regular Rogue’s Gallery of phrases that perfectly honest, decent law-abiding folk use every day while having no idea of their criminal origins. At least society’s low-lives have managed to contribute something to human existence, albeit unwittingly and, in some cases, terminally.
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.
Here’s an interesting link for the inside track on this debacle. It’s a preliminary summary from Robert Patton (Director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections) to Mary Fallin (Oklahoma State Governor):