On This Day in 1928: Very unlucky for some…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Famous (and not so famous) Last Words.


A person’s last words are often revealing, telling us something about them and their outlook on the life. Coming, as they do, right before that person’s death, it often doesn’t really matter to that person what they say or how it’s interpreted afterwards. From the intentionally funny (gangster George Appel), to the philosophical (spy Mata Hari), to the steely and courageous (Marshal Michel Ney), to the defiant (Australian soldier William ‘Breaker’ Morant), all usually tell us something, even if it’s only what they were thinking or feeling at their final moment.

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Supposed superspy Mata Hari, for example, is quoted as saying in her final letter before the firing squad in 1917 ‘Everything is an illusion.’ A philosophical remark, you might say but, given that she was less a master spy and more an expendable dupe served up on a plate to appease French ‘spy fever rampant in 1917, could just as easily have been a comment on her entire existence. She was never a Balinese exotic dancer, her alias ‘Mata Hari (meaning Eye of the Dawn’ in Javanese) should have been ‘Eye of the Storm’ as she merrily blundered her way around war-torn Europe, bouncing from one scrape to another until her own naivete finally sealed her doom.

Queen Elizabeth I was equally philosophical, summing up the feeling, perhaps, of many a dying person who knows the end is near:

“All my possessions for one moment of time.”

New York gangster George Appel opted for humour, albeit of a distinctly tasteless variety. In 1927 he’d been convicted of capital murder. In 1928 he’d just walked his ‘last mile’ between the ‘death house’ cells and execution chamber at the notorious Sing Sing Prison and was standing right in front of the electric chair when he made one final statement to the reporters and officials who’d come to watch him sit in the infamous ‘hot seat’ and ‘ride the lightning.’ His final words?:

“Well, folks. You’ll shortly be seeing a baked Appel.”

In 1966, Oklahoma murderer James French, the last Oklahoman to be electrocuted before that State switched (no pun intended) to lethal injection, opted for similarly-tasteless food-based wittery. His response to reporters talking to him hours before his execution was blunt and to the point:

“Hey fellas! How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s papers? ‘French Fries.'”

One of the most famous, unintentional and wildly inaccurate final statements comes from the American Civil War and General John Sedgwick. During the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864 Sedgwick, wanting to inspire by example some nervy staff officers, stood up to his full height in spite of Confederate gunfire and loudly declaimed:

‘They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist-“

Unfortunately for the suddenly-late General Sedgwick, they could. And they just had.

Douglas Fairbanks was equally off-the-mark. Shortly before suffering a fatal heart attack in 1939 he rose up in his bed (having had a previous heart attack only hours before) and uttered a remark that proved far more immortal than its originator:

“I’ve never felt better…”

Oops, Dougie. You might have been wrong on that one.

Repentance for past sins is a hardy perennial when choosing one’s final, parting words. Former Continental Army General Benedict Arnold, who had betrayed his American comrades to the British and spent his final years in exile, departed his rather sad and depressing existence thus:

“Let me die in the old uniform in which I fought my battles for freedom. May God forgive me for putting on another…”

Decidedly less repentant was New Mexico outlaw Tom ‘Black Jack’ Ketchum in 1901. Complaining bitterly about being hanged at dawn, and being denied a final breakfast in the process, he loudly declaimed:

“I’ll be in Hell before you start breakfast! Ler her rip, boys!”

They did. The length of drop was too long for a man Ketchum’s burly height and weight and the noose neatly (and messily) beheaded him when he reached the end of the rope. Still, at least he wasn’t hungry for too long.

The last word on, well, last words, rightly goes to Napoleon’s favourite general after the disastrous Battle of Waterloo in 1915. Marshal Michel Ney was legendary for his courage, known in fact as ‘The bravest of the brave’ for his seemingly total fearlessness on battlefields all across Europe. Originally sent to capture Napoleon after his escape from exile on the island of Elba, Ney instead threw in his lot with his former Emperor and turned traitor in the process. On being captured, tried and condemned for treason, Ney was asked the night before his execution if he had any last requests and he did. Remarkably, he wanted to command his own firing squad. And the authorities let him. His final words to his executioners were:

“I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her. Soldiers… Fire!”

Whatever you may think of his turning his coat, Marshal Michel Nay’s courage is not in question.