old sparky

On This Day in 1928: Very unlucky for some…


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Today it’s Friday June 13, 2018. June 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 1925; The Biter (nearly) Bitten at Sing Sing.


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When heroin-loving gangsters Morris ‘Whitey’ Diamond and his brother Joey teamed up with John Farina for an armed robbery and murder, they surely knew they had a fair chance of joining him in Sing Sing’s Death House and Old Sparky as well. The 1920’s and 30’s were halcyon days for New York’s ‘State Electrician’ and his infamous contraption, after all.

What they would never live to know (and executioner John Hurlburt came to know all too well) was that Hurlburt very nearly joined them in Sing Sing’s morgue. Hurlburt’s story is no great secret (you can find my account of it here) but less is reported of the night he found himself almost as dead as any of his 140 ‘customers.’

The Diamonds and Farina found themselves awaiting death for an armed robbery committed in 1924. They stole over $43,000 from bank messenger William Barlow and guard William McLaughlin. In the process they shot Barlow (a retired NYPD officer) three times in the back. McLaughlin (a US Army veteran) managed to fire a few shots before dying.

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It might have gone better if the Diamonds hadn’t been using heroin before the job. It might have gone better still if Whitey hadn’t left a blood-stained finger print in the getaway car, hadn’t left a false licence plate where it was easily found and hadn’t falsely registered it under the name ‘Joe Samuels.’ It probably didn’t help that the address on the false registration was also where Whitey habitually collected his mail.

Further bad news came via bank clerk Antony Pantano, the gang’s inside man. For a lowly clerk, his colleagues thought, he had an unusual interest in the bank’s security \arrangements, especially those involving cash deliveries and collections. When their colleagues were ambushed and left dying in the street, they immediately pointed the finger at Pantano.

Grilled by NYPD officers furious at Barlow’s murder and no doubt wanting to avoid a seat in Old Sparky, Pantano cracked. He named the Diamonds and Farina as the shooters and Nicky ‘Cheeks’ Luciano and George Desaro as driving the two getaway cars. Luciano, no relation, takes no great role in the story. Desaro was later arrested in his native Italy, which agreed to prosecute him and gave him 30 years for his role. He was luckier than Farina and the Diamonds, but not Pantano.

Pantano also found himself going ‘up the river’ to await ‘Black Thursday,’ but his sentence was commuted. Those of the Diamonds and Farina, however, weren’t. New York’s courts had an unwritten rule of never interfering in the cases of condemned cop killers and that Barlow had been retired made no difference. The Whitey, Joey and Farina would die on the same night, April 30, 1925, one after another.

New York’s death warrants only specified a particular week for a prisoner’s electrocution. With that in mind, executions were traditionally conducted on Thursdays (barring last-minute legal appeals, stays of execution, temporary reprieves or commutations.

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As Pantano left the Death House for Sing Sing’s general population, it must have occurred to him that he’d had a very narrow escape. During its tenure, Sing Sing’s Old Sparky (New York once had three of them) claimed 614 of the State’s 695 electrocutions. For every three inmates who walked in, two were wheeled out.

New York wasn’t a State noted for its generosity to the condemned. Pantano’s information and his being a first offender had undoubtedly saved him. As career criminals the Diamond brothers and Farina knew the rules of the game. They must also have known they’d gambled their lives, and lost. John Hurlburt pencilled a lucrative date in his diary, as much as he’d come to hate the work.

Hurlburt’s contract with New York was the same as his predecessor Edwin Davis. For single executions he was paid $150 and travel expenses. For doubles or more, which weren’t unusual, he got $150 for the first inmate and an extra per head thereafter. He would leave Sing Sing with $250 for his night’s work, more than some people earned in a year. Hurlburt, however, was cracking up.

Hurlburt had taken over from Davis when Davis retired in 1912, Davis having trained both Hurlburt and another assistant, Robert Greene Elliott. Initially a believer in capital punishment, he now found himself doing the job only for the money. With his wife Mattie chronically-ill he had no other way to pay the medical bills.

In the months before his date with Farina and the Diamonds he’d become withdrawn, sullen, temperamental, aggressive and depressed. Tantrums were regular, Hurlburt throwing items of equipment around the death chamber and cursing at guards while preparing for an execution.

This time, hours before he was due to earn his fee, Hurlburt suffered a nervous collapse. Prison officials were facing a crisis. Under New York law only a State Electrician could perform an electrocution and Hurlburt was the only one they had. No electrician, no electrocution. After much soft-soaping, gentle persuasion and cajoling, Hurlburt recovered enough to do the job, but only just.

At 11pm, Morris was first in line. He walked in, sat down and died. As his body was wheeled away in came his brother Joey. When Joey had been pronounced dead John Farina rounded out Hurlburt’s triple-hitter. Hurlburt, a broken man by then, promptly  suffered another nervous collapse. He spent the next week in hospital before recovering enough to leave. Unfortunately for Hurlburt, who desperately needed relaxing, calm and above all safe surroundings, he was taken to the nearest available medical facility;

The infirmary at Sing Sing Prison.

Luckily for Hurlburt, he’d been a firm adherent to Edwin Davis’s approach to anonymity. The press had his name, but they never got a picture or any other personal details. His desire for anonymity and the safety thereof was about to save his life.

Some people just aren’t popular in prisons. Informers, ex-cops, ex-guards and sex offenders usually top the list of people considered fair game. Anyone wanting to make them suffer and possibly kill them has virtually free rein to do so if they can get away with it. Seldom, however, will you find anyone convicts hate more than an executioner.

Hurlburt must have been terrified. He couldn’t have avoided the fact (and fear) that, if anyone blew his cover, Hurlburt would be a dead man. He’d immediately be headed for the same morgue as the 140 or so inmates on whom he’d inflicted the ‘hot seat.’ If they even thought he might have been involved with Old Sparky, they’d kill him.

All in all, not what the doctor ordered. With the Diamonds and Farina dead, Hurlburt himself didn’t last much longer. He performed only two more executions, John Durkin on August 27 and Julius Miller on September 19, then resigned only hours before he was due to executed John Slattery and Ambrose Miller. on January 16, 1926. Slattery and Miller were delighted, their executions were postponed and subsequent legal action saw them commuted. Their accomplices Luigi Rapito and Emil Klatt were less fortunate.

By their date on January 29 New York had appointed the other of Davis’s two proteges, the legendary ‘Agent of Death’ Robert Greene Elliott. Another accomplice, Frank Daley, followed them on June 24. Daley played it tough until the bitter end, cursing Slattery and Ross for implicating him until the switch was thrown.

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As it turned out Hurlburt, in failing health himself, his nerves broken and grieving after Mattie’s death in September, 1928, wasn’t long in joining them. On the afternoon of February 22, 1929 he walked into the basement of his home near Auburn Prison where he’d worked as both electrician and performed his very first executions. In his hand was the revolver he always carried when visiting a prison.

He didn’t walk out.

 

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


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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.

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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.

 

 

Sparky’s Revenge; South Carolina considers reinstating the electric chair.


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.’

 

 

 

 

Paul Jawarski – Pennsylvania’s Phantom Dynamiter.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

 

 End of the line for the 'Pennsylvania Phantom.'


End of the line for the ‘Pennsylvania Phantom.’

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

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

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

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

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

True Crime Blogs And Websites: Some Top Picks.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York State’s Last Execution, Eddie Lee Mays, August 15, 1963.


 Eddie Lee Mays, his Death House file at Sing Sing Prison.


Eddie Lee Mays, his Death House file at Sing Sing Prison.

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 either, but he was well beyond caring at the time.

At 10pm Mays would walk his last mile. He would leave his pre-execution cell in the ‘Dance Hall’ of Sing Sing’s notorious ‘Death House’, walk no more than twenty feet down a corridor with two prison officers and a prison Chaplain, take a seat in ‘Old Sparky’ and ‘ride the lightning.’ He 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 and 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. Not that Mays himself was especially bothered by the typical Death Row inmate’s standards. He’d already stated that he’d rather ‘fry’ than spend the rest of his life in prison.

Along with two accomplices (neither of whom ended up in the ‘hot seat’) Mays had embarked upon a string of armed robberies during 1961. Resident in Harlem, in the six weeks prior to the murder 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 another murder was about to happen. On March 23, 1961 it did. 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. He put his 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. New York had already discarded the mandatory death penalty for murder but, under New York’s Felony Murder Statute defining murder during a robbery as capital murder and given his previous murder conviction, 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, as it was Mays who fired the shot, they were lucky enough to escape with their lives. Mays wouldn’t be so fortunate. 

 Dow. B. Hover, Sheriff's Deputy, electrical contractor and New York's last 'State Electrician.'


Dow. B. Hover, Sheriff’s Deputy, electrical contractor and New York’s last ‘State Electrician.’

So, 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 already knew the drill backwards. Eddie Lee Mays would be his 62nd execution since taking charge at Sing Sing. He gave the usual orders instructing the ‘Death House’ staff to make the usual preparations. He also sent a letter to New Yorks fifth and final ‘State Electrician’, Mr. Dow .B. Hover, to set August 15, 1963 in his diary and drive 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 an hour 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 changed since Davis first pulled the switch on William Kemmler at Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890. But Hover wasn’t bothered about the money or the work. A cold and unemotional man, he saw executions as a professional job to be properly done and then forgotten about. The low pay didn’t bother him either. He was extremely careful to avoid being publicly identified as the ‘State Electrician’, however. He’d change the number plates on his car before leaving his home and change them back again on his return. He also never talked about his work with anybody and did all he could to keep out of sight. This would be the last time he drove a car with false number plates.

 Sing Sing's death chamber as it was in August, 1963.


Sing Sing’s death chamber as it was in August, 1963.

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 had consulted with the prison’s Protestant chaplain and, refusing a last meal, simply asked for a carton of Pall Mall cigarettes. Under ‘Death House’ rules he wasn’t allowed matches in his condemned cell, so 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, he was given the traditional execution clothes, specially made with a slit right trouser leg and wooden buttons that wouldn’t catch fire when the switch was thrown. The Warden and witnesses gathered while Hover tested his equipment thoroughly and found it all in 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, declining to make 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 and then slid 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 and was 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, the former heavyweight boxing contender had fallen on hard times 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.

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. 

 As it stands today, now avocational training centre for inmates to learn a trade.


As it stands today, now avocational training centre for inmates to learn a trade.

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 on the case of 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 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 a vocational training centre used by inmates wanting to learn a trade..

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’ and informed the last remaining condemned inmates that the New York lawmakers had (almost) abolished the death penalty. Aside from a couple condemned for murdering two police officers (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 and commented 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’s not quite the reaction he’d expected.

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.