Born on April 6, 1937 in Oildale, California, Merle Haggard’s troubles started early. His father died which in 1945 affected him greatly. From then until 1960, he was in and out of trouble. Mostly in it.
School truancy, theft, burglary, robbery, passing bad checks, escapes, attempted robbery and attempted escape saw him mired firmly in trouble of one sort or another. In February, 1958 he was in Bakersfield Jail charged with attempted robbery, from which he escaped. Recaptured, he went to California’s legendary San Quentin for a 3-15-year stretch.
San Quentin was (and still is) a terrifying, rough, brutal place. The bad news is that it offers little but misery and hard time. The good news? They never run short of it. Assault, murder and rape are seen as everyday events because, in San Quentin, they are. Haggard described his arrival bluntly:
“We pulled up in a bus late at night and the walls are like 70 feet high and there’s armed guards everywhere and, if you’re not scared, there’s something wrong with you. It’s a bad place to go.”
Nobody acquainted with the prison’s entirely grim history and reputation could argue with that. San Quentin was and still is the location of California’s infamous ‘Condemned Row.’
The Row in 1958 was on the top floor of North Block backing on to the solitary confinement cells. Seeing as the solitary unit (known as ‘The Shelf’) was one where inmates weren’t allowed to talk, they could always hear the condemned talking just the other side of an internal wall. Haggard recounted ‘Red Light Bandit’ Caryl Chessman (executed on May 2, 1960) laughing as he received the offer of a life insurance policy in the mail. He’d probably have preferred a stay of execution or a commutation instead.
While at San Quentin, Haggard was a trouble-maker, regularly being given prison jobs and equally regularly being fired from them. He was also running a gambling and beer-making operation until he was caught having dipped once too often (and possibly a little too deeply) into his own supply. As a result he spent his 21st birthday, when Americans are legally old enough to drink, in solitary for doing exactly that:
“They caught me drinking some of my own beer, and I fell in the restroom and they figured I was drunk, so they took me and locked me up in jail inside of San Quentin. And that was where I decided to change directions in my life.”
It was just as well that he did. He faced a lengthy sentence with the likelihood of spending his life in and out of California’s penal system, hearing the chatter of condemned inmates only feet away (and presumably noticing the somber silences and hearing their goodbyes as they were led away to the gas chamber). All things considered it was a good time to ask himself exactly where his life was headed and whether he could direct it somewhere he actually wanted to go.
Inspiration came from several sources. Johnny Cash (who Haggard came to know well) played his first gig concert at San Quentin on New Year’s Day, 1959. It was a rousing success, both for Cash and for the inmates who very seldom got to see outside performers. Haggard was known in the prison as a guitarist and singer and, with Cash’s recent visit in mind, soon found himself besieged by other inmates wanting to learn guitar. As Haggard described Cash’s visit:
“He had the right attitude. He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards – He did everything the prisoners wanted to do.”
Darker and equally potent inspiration came from an unlikely source, fellow con James ‘Rabbit’ Kendrick. Kendrick had an escape plan and, inviting Haggard to come with him, also cautioned him against it. So did several other prisoners. According to Haggard, Kendrick told him that, if cornered, he’d fight rather than surrender. Impressed by Haggard’s musical ability Kendrick told him to stick with it and serve his time:
“You can sing and write songs and play guitar real good. You can be somebody someday.”
Kendrick was right about Haggard, both were right about Haggard’s decision not to escape. Kendrick duly escaped, shipping out of San Quentin in a packing crate. His period of liberty lasted only two weeks before he shot California Highway Patrolman Richard Duvall and was recaptured. In fact, Kendrick did what he’d sworn not to do. Cornered and with no hope of escape, he surrendered.
Quickly convicted and condemned Kendrick soon returned to San Quentin as a resident of ‘Condemned Row.’ Like all prisoners Haggard learned to spot condemned prisoners when he saw them. Confined within the Row as much as possible, he seldom saw them anyway. When he did, usually headed for a court appearance or a final visit, they were always escorted by two guards. Haggard later described Kendrick’s last walk through the prison:
“Even though the crime was brutal and the guy was an incorrigible criminal, it’s a feeling you never forget, when see someone you know make that last walk. They bring him through the yard, and there’s a guard in front and a guard behind – That’s how you spot a death prisoner.”
James ‘Rabbit’ Kendrick walked his last mile at 10am on November 3, 1961, one of eight prisoners executed that year. But he hadn’t just inspired Haggard to try turning his life around. Unwittingly, Kendrick provided creative inspiration as well. Haggard wrote a moving ballad about seeing a condemned prisoner led to their death. One of several songs he wrote about prison life, it became a hallmark of his;
Haggard took to redeeming himself. He earned his high school equivalency at San Quentin, playing in a prison band. On November 3, 1960, exactly a year before Kendrick died, he was paroled having been offered a job by his brother. $80 a week digging ditches wasn’t ideal, but he played bars and clubs as he had before San Quentin. Provided he kept on the right side of the law and his parole officer (he did he was free to attempt the music career that ‘Rabbit’ had urged him to pursue.
He pursued it with immense success, though not always without controversy. Haggard was unafraid to speak his mind even when his words weren’t always popular. He pioneered the ‘Bakersfield sound,’ a rougher, tougher, harder-edged antidote to more commercial country peddled in and around Nashville.
The less mainstream country artists banded together into a movement of which Haggard was an integral part, ‘outlaw country.’ In 1972 then-California Governor and future President Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full pardon, sealing his place as a redeemed member of society and proving that Haggard had survived and thrived far beyond everybody’s expectations possibly including his own.
Always an outsider, often controversial, immensely influential, never afraid to speak his mind even when it cost him and now an icon of country music, Haggard’s career went from strength to strength. His health, however, declined in his later years. After years of suffering various illnesses he passed away on April 6, 2016, his 79th birthday.
1952 was a quiet year for the Sing Sing death house. Only three prisoners walked their last mile, Edward Kelly and Wallace Ford, Jr on October 30 and before them Bernard Stein on March 6. That was pretty quiet considering 1951 saw eight inmates die including Lonely Hearts Killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck on March 8 of that year.
True to notoriety’s pecking order in which the most notorious inmates drew most attention, few people remember John King and Joseph Powers, killers of Detective Joseph Miccio and who died on the same night as Beck and Fernandez. When Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died on June 19, 1953 few people remembered that they were only two of six to die that year, although he Rosenbergs alone more than kept Sing Sing in the news.
Neither Ford or Kelly’s crimes were especially unusual which probably leaves you wondering why they appear here. While Ford’s crime was brutal, squalid and without any excuse or grounds for clemency (not unusual in the Sing Sing death house) Kelly was a rarity. While Ford had entered the death house never to leave it alive, this was Kelly’s second stint for the same crime.
There were 695 electrocutions in New York between William Kemmler (the world’s first on August 6, 1890) and Eddie Lee Mays (New York’s last on August 15, 1963). Initially New York had three electric chairs sited at Sing Sing, Auburn and Dannemora. Executions took place at all three until 194 when Sing Sing was designated the sole site for New York State, finally numbering 614 out of New York’s total.
There were anomalies, though. Around one inmate in three that entered the death house left alive via commutations to life imprisonment, successful appeals against their conviction or sentence or having been certified insane and sent to psychiatric institutions. With a successful appeal reversing their conviction some even left the death house and Sing Sing altogether, walking out into the bright light of freedom as though they’d never sat crossing dates of their calendar or come within days, hours or even minutes of death.
Edward Kelly was one of them. Originally condemned for the senseless murder of Eloise McHugh with a rifle (and then turning it on himself) Kelly arrived at Sing Sing on September 29, 1950. After winning his appeal and reversal of his conviction on July 1, 1951 Kelly walked out of Sing Sing on July 12 firmly believing he was one of that lucky third who’d never be coming back. He even left a warmly-worded letter for Warden Wilfred Denno, a man he never expected to see again. But we’ll be getting to that later
Suffice to say that Edward Kelly was wrong. Fatally so, in fact.
Kelly’s reversal was exactly that, a reversal and not an acquittal. The State of New York was thus free to try him again. That Kelly had shot McHugh was in no doubt whatsoever, but the trial judge had misdirected the jury regarding Kelly’s insanity defence. According to the judge Kelly had to understand what he was doing OR that it was a crime. New York State’s appellate judges saw it differently. To be considered legally sane, they ruled, Kelly had to understand BOTH his act and the nature thereof, not one or the other. With that in mind they reversed his conviction (and his mandatory death sentence) and out he walked.
If Kelly thought he was home free, he wasn’t. With a reversal instead of an acquittal double jeopardy didn’t apply. New York State could try him again and did so, this time winning a conviction that withstood Kelly’s lawyers and their best efforts. Having walked out of Sing Sing’s death house on July 12, 1951, he walked back in on November 28 to be reunited with Warden Wilfred Denno and the death house guards Kelly’s letter had so warmly praised. In the same week as Edward Kelly began his second stint in the death house Wallace Ford, Jr arrived to begin his first (and last).
Unlike Kelly, Ford held no particular distinction. His crime, the kidnap and murder of his sister-in-law after his marriage folded, was brutal, squalid and utterly unnecessary. Hardly a rare breed among Sing Sing’s soon-to-be-dead then or now. An argument with sister-in-law and victim Nancy Bridges over contact with his children saw Ford beat her unconscious, drive her to Genesee County. Once there he drove his car over her, reversing over her again to ensure her death. Not a man to inspire sympathy among appellate judges or the State Governor who still had the power to commute. In Ford’s case he chose not to. Convicted and condemned on November 30, 1951, he arrived at Sing Sing on December 4.
If Kelly’s case was unusual for Warden Denno it wasn’t unusual for State Electrician Joseph Francel. The fourth of five men to hold the title, Kelly and Ford would be numbers 130 and 131 of the 140 inmates he electrocuted between 1939 and 1953. After Kelly and Ford, Francel would throw the switch only nine more times before resigning in 1954.
Francel didn’t like the low pay, $150 for a single with an extra $50 per head for executing two or more prisoners in the same night. He’d also taken a dislike to the publicity surrounding his job, especially after the Rosenbergs in 1953. Kelly and Ford, however, were just another day at the office. With Ford and Kelly both out of appeals and Governor Thomas Dewey not inclined to be generous, preparations for the double event began.
12 hours before their scheduled time of 11pm Ford and Kelly were moved from their death house cells to a block of six pre-execution cells long nicknamed the Dance Hall, only 20 steps from the execution chamber itself. The execution team rehearsed, each guard knowing their particular part of the job. Francel, as was the custom, arrived in the afternoon to check the equipment and ensure it was running properly. Warden Denno had to meet and greet the official witnesses, ensuring that none had any hidden cameras as happened when Ruth Snyder was executed in 1928.
In the absence of any stays of execution, appellate rulings or executive clemency all Kelly and Ford could do was wait…
Ford had sent a letter to Judge Loughran of the New York State Court of Appeals. It did him no good, but he did cite a complaint common among condemned inmates even today;
‘My attorneys at the trial were appointed by the Genesee County Court and they also represented me on appeal before this Court. I sincerely do believe that to the limit of their knowledge, capabilities and experience, they faithfully and conscientiously did their collective best and utmost to protect my interest. However, Your Honor, they were both young men, comparatively young in the practice of law and for both my case was their first murder trial and appeal.’
It did Wallace Ford, Jr no good in 1952. It seldom does now.
As far Edward Kelly, sitting in his cell with head shaved and appeals exhausted, his own letter to Warden Denno on leaving the death house might well have come back to haunt him;
Due to the fact that I’m leaving the “Death House,” I cannot say I have any regrets, nor will I recommend it to anyone, but I can inform them that, if they are ever unfortunate enough to go to Sing Sing, they will be very well treated. I had no fault to find with anything or anybody during my stay, every reasonable request was granted. The entire staff of the prison are a credit to New York State. The officers and guards are as fine a group of men as you could find anywhere.
“Dick” and “Freddie” go about their duties as if they had a personal interest in the place, always helpful and ready with a word of cheer if needed. I enjoyed “Terry’s” homelike meals. It would certainly be a pleasure to meet everybody, including yourself, under different circumstances. I extend my best wishes to all, but I hope I never come back.
Edward H Kelly, 109-821.’
Did these words, written as Kelly walked cheerfully from death to freedom, haunt him as he made the return journey?
Execution has long been part of criminal history, society’s ultimate sanction for the very worst offenders. Less enthusiastic supporters regard it as a necessary evil and a deterrent even while acknowledging its distasteful nature. Opponents believe it no deterrent at all, that it’s applied arbitrarily and makes society as uncivilized and barbarous as the condemned themselves. It is, they argue, vengeance dressed up as justice.
We’re not discussing the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, the most humane (or least inhumane) execution methods, wrongful convictions or excessive use. Like it or not it exists and the history of crime includes the history of punishment. That said, punishment sometimes takes unusual means inflicted by unusual people.
Mississippi and Louisiana adopted an unusual means. Mississippi’s executioner was certainly one of crime’s more unusual people.
The Deep South has a checkered history of crime and punishment. Brutal prison conditions, corruption, racism and the complete absence of rehabilitation were long cornerstones of its penal policy. To many Southerners (not all by any means) prisoners were there to suffer and be punished, broken or killed, not reformed or rehabilitated.
Prison wasn’t considered punishment in itself, but suffering while there certainly was. Bad food, hard labor, brutal punishments and rampant death from disease, malnutrition, overwork and often murder weren’t aberrations, they were the norm. When inmate workers died at Angola the attitude, held since its time as a slave plantation, was simple;
When one dies, get another.
Louisiana subjected inmates to forced labor for profit and brutal discipline, especially at Angola. Under the convict lease system of the time, inmates were expected to provide free labor under the harshest conditions making them a profitable asset. The harder they could be forced to work, the more profitable they were. It was a simple policy enforced with constant brutality, quaintly described as:
‘More lash, more cash.’
Angola being a former slave plantation, post-Civil War convicts would have barely noticed the difference. Race played a huge part in penal policy in both states. When rape was a capital crime not a single white Mississippian was executed, although many were convicted. Black rapists, on the other hand, especially those whose victim was white, knew that conviction meant almost certain death.
It was only slightly less biased regarding murder. Records show that since Mississippi achieved statehood the vast majority of inmates executed have been black. Historically, Louisiana has always executed far more black inmates than white regardless of their crime. Even though Louisiana and Mississippi were among the first states to offer alternatives to execution for murder anyone non-white, poor or both could expect to keep a date with the hangman.
Even today, a black murderer, especially of a white victim, is far more likely to die than the other way round. According to statistics released in the 1980’s black murderers are four times more likely to receive a death sentence than white ones. Contrary to the American ideal all citizens are not equal under the law even now. They were even less equal when Old Sparky and Gruesome Gertie were doing their rounds.
Both states originally employed hanging in whichever county the crime was committed. After many bungled hangings both states adopted electrocution, a supposedly more humane alternative. The states took control, but with a uniquely Southern twist. Louisiana and Mississippi were the last US states to take their executions in-house, but the first to make them a portable affair. Both ‘Old Sparky’ and ‘Gruesome Gertie’ would make their first official appearance in 1941.
By 1940 most states used a single purpose-built facility for confining and executing inmates. Sing Sing’s infamous ‘Death House’ segregated the condemned and once they went in they seldom came out. Mississippi and Louisiana did it differently. In the 1930’s Mississippi also had the highest murder rate of any state, more executions suited the public and political mood.
There were some serious obstacles to this idea. Being Mississippi’s only maximum-security prison at the time Parchman was the obvious location. Unfortunately Parchman’s chief, Superintendant Marvin Wiggins, was firmly opposed to siting Death Row at his prison. Wiggins, a shrewd and highly-connected man was firmly opposed to executions at Parchman and he wasn’t alone.
Parchman is in Sunflower County and Sunflower residents feared it being stigmatized as the ‘death county.’ They loathed the idea of hosting both executions and condemned inmates with nothing to lose by rioting and attempting escape.
Both they and Superintendent Wiggins also feared increased unrest at Parchman, already known as one of the worst prisons in the US. According to author David Oshinsky in his book ‘Worse than Slavery’ one local politician stated: ‘Place that thing at Parchman and you’ll have riots and a wholesale breakout to descend hundreds of criminals down upon our people.’
Sunflower’s residents weren’t alone in that. No other county wanted to be known mainly for executions, either.
Tradition also played its part. Hangings had always been conducted under county jurisdiction. If a prisoner was condemned in a particular county then that was where they also died. Many believed that public hangings performed locally reassured law-abiding communities and intimidated their criminals. Local executions also made punishment more relevant to local communities and less remote than if done in one place alone.
If change was to be made, then the State needed to take control of executions while retaining their visibility, avoiding stigmatizing any one county and providing a less inhumane method than regularly-bungled hangings. A compromise was needed. Mississippi and Louisiana duly found one.
In 1940 Mississippi adopted electrocution and Louisiana followed the next year. After Louisiana only West Virginia would begin using electrocution but, in 1940, riding the lightning was the preferred option for most states. Louisiana’s last hanging was a quadruple on March 7, 1941 in Caldwell.
At Caldwell, William Heharg, William Landers, William Heard and Floyd Boyce, all escaped convicts convicted of murder (and unusually all white) climbed the scaffold’s 13 steps and dropped through its trapdoor. 13 had proved very unlucky indeed for them, but no longer for anyone else. Louisiana lightning was now the order of the day. All Gruesome Gertie needed was a victim.
Their compromise involved, for the first time in American history, a portable electric chair. It would travel from county to county in a large silver truck also carrying a generator, switchboard, cables and all the standard equipment. Supplied by a firm in Memphis, both states took the show on the road providing death on wheels.
The equipment and its transporter were far cheaper than a purpose-built ‘death house’ like Sing Sing’s which appealed to politicians and taxpayers alike. It also made death more local and the message harder to ignore. At a time when many people were born, lived and died without leaving their local area an execution on the other side of the state was unlikely to make much impression.
Also, with illiteracy very common, a small squib in their local paper would likely go unnoticed, let alone feared. People seeing the truck arrive and hearing its generator from several blocks away got a message unmistakable to citizens and criminals alike. Especially if they weren’t white and wealthy;
‘This is what happens to law-breakers. Don’t forget it…’
It had never been done before. In fact, nobody had even built a portable electric chair before, let alone used one. The method, however, was infinitely less unusual than Mississippi’s new executioner.
Mississippi’s new ‘State Executioner’ was Jimmy Thompson, a strange man with a violent past. An ex-convict, ex-merchant sailor, frequent drunkard, carnival showman, stage hypnotist and ex-Marine, Thompson had only recently been pardoned in 1939 after serving time for highway robbery.
During the 1920’s Thompson had also shot a neighbor for insulting his mother, escaping prosecution via an unwritten law of Southern life. At that time a man was allowed to shoot another man to defend a woman’s body or personal reputation. Needless to say this law only extended to white men, certainly not black men shooting whites on similar grounds.
Thompson was a curious character to put it mildly. He’d scratched a living on the carnival circuit as a stage hypnotist performing as ‘Doctor Zogg’, ‘Doctor Alzedi Yogi’ and, appropriately, ‘Doctor Stingaree.’ He was heavily tattooed, a natural performer and exhibitionist. He loved entertaining with hypnosis and jugs of illegal moonshine.
Thompson secured the job via State Governor Paul Johnson. Thompson and Johnson were old friends so it was no great surprise that Thompson beat five other applicants, none of whom knew Johnson personally. Whether he was in any way an appropriate person for such a task is altogether more debatable.
In September, 1940 the equipment was ready for its public unveiling in the State capital Jackson. Thompson arrived, set up, started the generator and worked the controls. While a crowd followed his every move, the carnival showman cycled the voltage up and down while the generator roared and the current whined. According to an article in Life magazine dated October 7, 1940:
‘Crowds saw a big silver truck, a portable generator and a sturdy chair complete with helmet straps and electrodes. Beside it stood Mississippi’s new executioner, Jimmy Thompson, ex-sailor, marine, carnival man and high tension expert. No less proud of his chair than of the black cat, snakes and strawberries tattooed on his velvety skin, he explained that he and his volts would travel from county to county as business required’
Other press reports were far less favourable. The Memphis Commercial Appeal bitterly criticized the exhibition as barbaric and tasteless, stating:
‘The only thing lacking at Thursday’s formal and public exhibition of the State’s new electric chair was a victim.’
At $100 per execution plus expenses Thompson was as keen to start work as Mississippi was to demonstrate its new concept. Mississippi wanted to show off its latest innovation. Thompson was keen to start making regular visits to the drunk tank after every execution, spending as much on fines for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct as he did on booze. It wasn’t long before both would be satisfied.
Like most of Mississippi’s condemned Willie Mae Bragg was black. He’d been convicted of murdering his ex-wife in Lucedale. With the State keen to demonstrate its new method and Bragg inspiring no sympathy in appellate judges he was first in line.
His date of execution was October 11, 1940. Bragg fully expected to die, but didn’t know he was about to make State and penal history. He would be the first convict to die in a portable electric chair. Another black Mississipian, Hilton Fortenberry, was executed on the same day in Jackson.
Hortenberry was the last Mississipian to hang. As a black murderer of a white retired police officer, Hortenberry knew full well he would keep his date with the hangman. While Fortenberry hanged in Jackson, Bragg burned in Lucedale. It was an historic day for Mississippi. Out with the old, in with the new.
His guilt confirmed, Bragg’s execution was also assured. Whether Mississippi’s desire to demonstrate its new toy made it more certain we’ll never really know. Thompson arrived at Lucedale Courthouse on October 10 to set up what he’d already nicknamed ‘My killing machine.’ After some fairly basic tests to ensure all was ready, ‘Dr. Stingaree’ and Willie Mae Bragg were all set to make history. Press interest within Mississippi and further afield was enormous.
Electrocutions were nothing new and Bragg a typical condemned inmate, but a portable electric chair was a world first. If all went well Mississippi could trumpet its new invention. If things went badly the press would have an even bigger story. Either way, Jimmy Thompson and his ‘killing machine’ would be center-stage. Nobody involved was especially concerned about Willie Mae Bragg.
It’s also highly unlikely that anybody considered the dreadful fate of William Kemmler at New York’s Auburn Prison in August, 1889. The world’s first judicial electrocution had been a nightmarish exhibition of just how badly wrong untested methods can go. Whether the portable version would be equally appalling remained to be seen.
By this point Hilton Fortenberry was largely ignored. Journalists were far more interested in this latest innovation whether it worked properly or not. Death on wheels was far more newsworthy than yet another hanging, botched or otherwise. So newsworthy, in fact, that a photographer from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger was there to record this historic event standing only feet away from the chair.
The potential for horrendous problems was large. Granted, judicial electrocution had been considerably refined since William Kemmler. It was now done using permanently-sited, largely-standardized equipment operated by experienced professionals. Furthermore, New York and many other States insisted on employing only executioners who were also qualified electricians. Many ‘State Electricians’ worked in the electricity industry prior to their appointment as executioners.
Mississippi on the other hand was about to test a generator, switchboard, cables and electrodes that had been bounced around in a truck for hundreds of miles before its first use. They were also employing an executioner with no electrical repair or maintenance skills who, as far as we know, had never performed an execution. Electrocution was familiar, but this way of using it was anything but.
It was totally untested, nobody knew if it would work. The generator, cables, switchboard and electrodes could malfunction. If any of the equipment malfunctioned Bragg might receive no current, receive too much (and be burnt to death) or too little (and be slowly cooked alive).
Thompson himself claimed that both he and his assistant had been trained by experienced ‘electrocutioners’ but he’d never actually electrocuted anybody and had a reputation for excessive drinking. Even if the equipment functioned perfectly, Thompson might not. Anybody worried about potential problems had ample reason to be.
As it was their worries were unfounded. Thompson did his job, the equipment worked perfectly and Bragg died as quickly and cleanly as he could have done. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger thoughtfully provided explicit captions with its photographs. As Bragg was being prepared the caption read:
‘At the left Bragg sits in the chair and watches as guards strap his arms.’
Accompanying a photograph taken while the current was switched on another caption read:
‘The picture at the right was made as the first flash of electricity surged through his body. Note Bragg’s hands gripping the chair and his neck bulging in death’s throes.’
Thompson, always ready to supply an attention-grabbing soundbite, stated that Bragg had died:
‘With tears in his eyes for the efficient care I took to give him a good, clean burning.’
It wasn’t until the remarkable failed electrocution of Willie Francis in Louisiana in 1946 that the technical pitfalls of portable electrocution would be shown in horrifying fashion.
The Jackson Clarion-Ledger had its banner headline and exclusive photographs, Thompson had his first fee and the new method had been proved sound. The Clarion-Ledger also managed something very rare in criminal history by photographing the execution. Previously, the only live image of an electrocution had been taken secretly at New York’s Sing Sing Prison in January, 1928 by newspaper photographer Tom Howard.
His secret snap of Ruth Snyder, taken only seconds after executioner Robert Elliott threw the switch, clearly shows Snyder as 2000 volts flowed through her body. It’s still one of the most famous images in media history. After Snyder’s execution, prison officials in many states thoroughly searched witnesses before executions. Even today it’s strictly forbidden to photograph or film an execution in any US State.
Thompson himself was effusive about his successful debut and subsequent ‘fry parties’ as he charmingly called them. In an interview given to Craddock Gains Thompson supplied some choice comments. Thompson seemed to think condemned inmates were grateful for his apparent skill at killing them, stating that he told each of them:
Brother, I sure appreciate your trade. I’m going to show my appreciation by giving you a nice clean job. I’m going to give you the prettiest death a guy can have.’
Describing how he thought inmates regarded him Thompson delivered a curious response. Mississippi had several inmates already condemned to hang when electrocution replaced the gallows. These inmates were given a choice between hanging or electrocution. According to Thompson, it was a measure of their faith in his ability that all those with a choice chose electrocution. He even believed them grateful to die at the hands of so skilled an executioner, stating:
‘You can’t imagine how much that helps a poor peckerwood in the death chamber unless you have seen the grateful eyes these men turn upon me when they place themselves in my hands. I guess I just have a talent for this sort of thing. Condemned men seem to trust me, and I never let ’em down.’
Mississippi authorities were far more co-operative with the press than elsewhere in the country. The angle, distance and clarity of the pictures prove the photographer was only feet away, obviously photographing quite openly. They not only co-operated but actively encouraged him. The images, unpleasant though they are, are valuable in their rarity.
Thompson, being a natural showman, seemed utterly unaffected by his grim work and to positively revel in the notoriety he attracted. Future events showed that those in authority had no problem with his professional skill, but were far less impressed by his self-publicizing antics between executions.
Thompson continued as ‘travelling executioner’ for several more years, but his lucrative notoriety didn’t last. In December, 1944 a new State Governor was elected, replacing Thompson’s close friend and original employer Paul Johnson. Governor Thomas Bailey lost no time replacing Thompson with C W Watson although his reasons remain unclear.
No official records exist of Thompson’s hiring and firing but in December, 1946 a report appeared in the Jackson Daily News detailing a shooting accident in which Thompson was slightly wounded, describing him as the ‘former State executioner.’
Thompson could have been replaced for several reasons. Political patronage was an important factor in being employed by the State and, without a patron, finding or keeping State employment was difficult. The new Governor might have employed a friend or acquaintance as his predecessor had done. Thompson’s heavy drinking and perpetual exhibitionism could have been distasteful enough that Bailey wanted somebody less bizarre and more discreet. Perhaps Thompson himself may have simply decided to move on.
We’ll probably never know whether Thompson resigned or was fired, although his exhibitionism and regular arrests for post-execution drunkenness probably didn’t help him much. What we do know is that his being replaced coincided almost exactly with Bailey’s election and Johnson’s departure.
Executioners at the time were often private contractors employed by multiple States. Most of New York’s executioners did brisk business with neighboring States like New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Connecticut. Robert Elliott was employed by all those States at the same time. Elliott was so busy that on January 6, 1928 he executed six men in two different States on the same day. Elliott performed three electrocutions at the Massachusetts State Prison that morning before taking a train to New York and another triple execution that night.
Jimmy Thompson was gone. His ‘killing machine’ wasn’t, now being carted around by Watson. During its 15-year tenure the chair executed 73 inmates. 56 black men, 16 white men and 1 black woman died in courthouses and county jails all over Mississippi. Nearly a dozen were still juveniles aged under 21. Willie Mae Bragg was the first. On November 10, 1954 murderer James Johnson became the last.
Willie McGee, convicted of rape in what many still consider a blatant injustice, achieved international attention. McGee’s case went to the US Supreme Court three times during his eight years awaiting execution. Celebrities such as William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker spoke out against his execution and President Harry Truman came under international pressure to commute McGee’s sentence. Even Soviet spy Julius Rosenberg, himself awaiting execution at the time, publicly condemned McGee’s case as demonstrating all that was wrong with American society.
McGee was executed at the Laurel County Courthouse on May 8, 1951 in the same courtroom in which he’d been convicted in 1945. True to form, the Mississippi media made an impression. There were no photographs this time, but a local radio station broadcast a commentary that was syndicated nationwide.
The recording of McGee’s final half-hour is available online for those who can stomach hearing the generator noise rising and falling while locals cheer and shout the ‘Rebel Yell’ in the background. It’s not easy listening but, like the Willie Mae Bragg photographs, is still an important part of the historical record.
Jimmy Thompson died in a traffic accident on October 12, 1952. He was a passenger in a pick-up truck when it crashed and Thompson was thrown from the vehicle, suffering fatal injuries. He was 56 years old when he died. He left a sister and five brothers, but no children of his own. His life and work later formed the basis for the movie ‘The Travelling Executioner’ starring Stacy Keach as Jonas Candide, a very-thinly veiled version of Thompson himself.
Filmed largely at Alabama’s Kilby Prison (where Samuel Hall met his singular end) and released in 1970 it performed poorly at the box office, widely considered too unusual to be a mainstream hit. Nor was it particularly accurate. That said, Thompson himself would have been highly gratified to be portrayed by so famous an actor and it’s absolutely clear Thompson’s life and work inspired the movie.
Mississippi continued using the portable electric chair James Johnson was executed on November 10, 1954. In 1955 it was replaced by what Superintendent Wiggins and residents of Sunflower County had always feared. A gas chamber was installed at Parchman and the Maximum Security Unit built to house only condemned inmates.
C W Watson and his assistant Thomas Berry Bruce would now ply their trade in one place only. Wiggins loathed only one thing more than taking charge of executions and that was the possibility of a botched one. With Mississippi’s newly-installed gas chamber would soon provide that as well.
The first Mississippi convict to die by gassing was Gerald Gallego, a murderer and escaped convict. Unlike the portable electric chair, Mississippi’s gas chamber had a nightmarish debut. Gallego walked his last mile reciting the Lord’s Prayer to the strains of eight other dead men walking singing ‘Up Above There’s A Heaven Bright.’ Seated and strapped in the chair nicknamed ‘Black Death’ Gallego suffered for over 45 minutes before dying. If he did see a heaven bright Gerald Gallego was probably wishing he’d see it a little faster.
The mixture of sodium cyanide and dilute sulfuric acid had been incorrectly brewed leading to a less-than-lethal concentration of cyanide gas. Gallego coughed, spluttered, gasped and writhed for over thirty minutes, but didn’t die. In a complicated, potentially-lethal procedure a new batch of brew had to replace the old batch hurriedly drained away from beneath the chair.
That done, the airtight door was re sealed and the cyanide and acid mixed again. This time it worked and Gerald Gallego was dead. In 1957 Watson was replaced by Bruce, Watson’s bodyguard and then deputy executioner since 1951.
In 1987, days before the execution of Edward Earl Johnson and not having gassed anyone since Tim Jackson in 1964, Bruce found himself replaced by Charles Tate Rogers and then Donald Hocutt. Despite the Gallego disaster Mississippi continued using the gas chamber until 1989 when the method changed again to lethal injection.
Prisoners condemned prior to the change were given the option of choosing gas or injection. Today lethal injection is the sole method used in Mississippi, the location is still Parchman. Death Row had finally come to Sunflower County and business was still reasonably brisk.
Local residents and even prison staff at Parchman still observe a curious tradition reflecting the long battle to keep executions out of Sunflower County. Mississippi’s condemned are housed at the ‘Maximum Security Unit’ or ‘MSU.’ Even today, despite executions and their location being public knowledge, Parchman still doesn’t officially have a Death Row.
If you visit, you’ll probably be told they don’t have one and be directed to ‘MSU’ instead. Even today the ghosts of long-dead Mississippians, local residents and condemned inmates alike, still dispute one of the darkest aspects of Mississippi’s history.
Louisiana did things slightly differently. Granted, their equipment was similar. A large truck travelled from the feared state prison at Angola (still America’s largest prison) and visited parish jails and courthouses dispensing law to the lawless. Race was also a factor, most of Louisiana’s condemned being non-white, but there were differences.
Where Mississippi followed tradition, nicknaming their chair ‘Old Sparky,’ Louisiana’s retribution roadshow was provided by ‘Gruesome Gertie.’ Now long retired, Gertie resides at the prison museum at Angola, occasionally making guest appearances in movies like Monster’s Ball.
Where Mississippi often had many witnesses in attendance, Louisiana only allowed around a dozen including the executioner, a doctor and a priest. The biggest difference was their choice of executioner. Grady Jarratt was a former lawman from Texas, who worked Gertie throughout her travels. When Gertie was permanently installed at Angola in 1957 Jarratt continued in the job until 1961.
During his 67 executions the difference between Jarratt and Thompson couldn’t have been greater. Jarratt made his debut on September 11, 1941, electrocuting Eugene Johnson in Livingston Parish for murder and robbery. His last was on June 9, 1961 when Jesse Ferguson died in St. Landry for murder and rape. Jarratt also performed Louisiana’s only female electrocution, that of murderer Toni Jo Henry in Calcasieu Parish on November 28, 1942.
Where Thompson was a born showman, reveling in the notoriety his grim profession brought him, Jarratt was actually a professional. Born in Texas in 1888 he was widely known in Louisiana, but didn’t seek publicity. A tall, burly man known for his white Stetson and cowboy boots, he was also known for his absolute professionalism when on the job, checking the chair, generator, cables, electrodes and straps thoroughly. As former Angola Warden Hilton Barber described him:
“Everything had to be right up to snuff, even the leather. He would take it in his hands and ply it. If it had a crack in it then we’d have to make a new one. He was very particular.”
For an executioner Jarratt was also a personable man. Where Thompson was obnoxiously showy, Jarratt made a point of politely meeting and greeting witnesses, trying to put them at their ease in what was undoubtedly a nervy, tense situation. He was even polite to those he was about to kill, making a point of addressing them by name. The last words his prisoners ever heard were “Goodbye, (insert name here)” right before he threw the switch.
Skilled and competent, Jarratt was the antithesis of his opposite number.
Jarratt, ever the professional, would insist on a perfect set-up and thorough testing even though Angola’s chief electrician would check everything before the chair left the prison. Unfortunately for Willie Francis, however, Jarratt was unavailable for his execution on May 2, 1946. It was a case that would make state and national history.
Captain Ephie Foster usually delivered the chair, but he’d never actually thrown the switch. Jarratt being unavailable, Foster was slated to electrocute Willie Francis in St. Martinville Parish. Foster, though he delivered the equipment, had never actually thrown the switch and his assistant, convict Vincent Venezia, hadn’t either. Venezia was assistant to Angola’s electrician E.J Usnault, but wasn’t qualified.
Both men arrived at St. Martinville the day before and both spent the night drinking heavily and inviting anyone who wanted to watch to turn up at St. Martinville’s jail. Even while setting up and testing the chair and generator they were seen, still hungover from the night before, passing a flask back and forth. The result was both appalling and unforgettable.
When Francis was seated and strapped Foster threw the switch and the current surged. There wasn’t enough current. Francis, in great pain, wasn’t merely still alive but able to speak even while Gertie did her best to silence him forever. As the generator roared, heard blocks away from the parish jail, Francis was clearly heard explaining that it wasn’t working.
The first jolt had failed. Foster shouted outside to Venezia:
“Give me some more juice down there!”
Venezia couldn’t, replying:
“I’m giving you all I’ve got now!”
At that point the most unlikely voice made itself heard. Despite being masked, restrained with heavy leather straps, the head electrode and another leather strap cinched tight under his chin, Willie Francis still managed to clarify the situation;
“I AM N-N-NOT DYING!”
With that announcement Francis, the only convict ever to walk away from his own electrocution, was taken back to his cell. After a lengthy legal battle taken to the US Supreme Court, which inexplicable felt he should be executed again, he returned to St. Martinville on May 9, 1947.
This time Jarratt was in charge. This time, with a competent professional checking the machinery and pulling her switch, Gruesome Gertie did her job properly. Once more Willie Francis, 15 at his first execution and only 16 at his second, was seated, strapped and capped. Jarratt, true to form, checked everything.
“Are the straps too tight?”
“Everything is just fine.”
“Is there anything you want to say?”
“Nothing at all.”
Jarratt immediately hit the switch. Willie Francis, survivor of Gruesome Gertie first time round, didn’t survive the second. Seated at 12:05pm, he was dead at 12:12.
Memories of his highly-dubious conviction, botched execution and the Supreme Court’s preferring the letter of the law over the spirit of justice still live on.
Jarratt continued as ‘electrocutioner’ until 1961. By the time Gertie found her permanent home at Angola in 1957 Jarratt had been through a divorce and begun drinking heavily. He started regularly downing a half-pint of whiskey before an execution and another half-pint afterward.
His last execution, that of Jesse Ferguson on June 9, 1961, saw Gruesome Gertie lie dormant until Robert Wayne Williams on December 14, 1983. By then Gertie had lain dormant for over 20 years, posing a significant problem.
Jarratt had died on June 1, 1973 and no American had been executed for nine years. Many states had also replaced their chairs with lethal injection in the meantime. Gruesome Gertie had spent 19 years in storage.
Jarratt’s replacement, a Baton Rouge electrician known under the alias ‘Sam Jones’ (Louisiana’s Governor when Gruesome Gertie replaced the gallows in 1940) hadn’t actually executed anyone before.
The result was a serious lack of knowledge of how to actually electrocute a prisoner, what should happen and what shouldn’t. Astounded by the brutality of Williams’s death, Angola’s Warden Ross Maggio had to consult outside sources to find out whether Williams had actually died as he was supposed to.
After this somewhat shaky start, Louisiana soon relearned by experience. After Williams another 19 inmates would ride the lightning before Gertie was finally retired. Her last victim was Andrew Lee Jones on July 22, 1991. Both Old Sparky and Gruesome Gertie had become museum pieces having long outlived their custodians.
“This is Orson Welles speaking from London. The Black Museum, repository of death… Here, in this grim stone structure on the Thames which houses Scotland Yard, is a warehouse of homicide where everyday objects, a piece of wire, a chemist’s flask, a silver shilling, all are touched by murder…”
In today’s internet age there are a myriad of true crime podcasts. In the 1950’s there was screen legend Orson Welles (star of Citizen Kane and Waterloo among other film classics) presenting Tales from the Black Museum. First Welles, in his own inimitable style, describes the exhibit itself before narrating a dramatised version of the case its connected to.
For any true crime buff its a fascinating series of real cases with names changed to protect the innocent (and sometimes the guilty). For any podcaster it’s well worth sampling to hear a master at work. If you’re a fan of historic true crime then have fun testing your criminal knowledge by trying to identify the real cases behind the changed names.
The Black Museum, as any true crime buff knows, is a private collection of exhibits and evidence drawn from thousands of criminal cases investigated by the British police. Not open to the public, visits are by appointment and only to police officers or others its custodians consider appropriate. For anyone with a squeamish disposition its location is appropriate, sited in Room 101 at New Scotland Yard.
This was far from Welles’ first foray into radio, in fact it will always be overshadowed by his dramatisation of H G Wells’ War of the Worlds back in the late 1930’s. Originally broadcast in 1952 and syndicated for an American audience, European listeners first got to hear Tales from the Black Museum in 1953 on Radio Luxembourg. It’s since been repeated, usually a small selection of episodes instead of the full series, in the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s. The BBC finally got round to airing a few episodes as late as 1994.
Courtesy of the Old Time Radio Researchers Group, all 53 episodes are available to hear online. They’re also downloadable as MP3 files. You can pop along and find the series, in full and free to hear and download, at the following address:
August 6, 1890 saw the dawn of a new age for criminal history. At Auburn Prison in upstate New York there was the execution.of one William Kemmler, condemned for murdering girlfriend Matilda Ziegler with a hatchet. There was nothing remarkable about Kemmler (an alcoholic vegetable hawker with a vicious temper) or about his crime. There wasn’t anything unusual about an execution in New York State, either., hangings being a fairly regular event.
What was unusual was the method. Americans had been hanged, shot, drowned and burned at various times, but none had ever been electrocuted. Even the word ‘electrocute’ was brand new, a buzzword for what enthusiasts had clumsily named ‘electrical execution.’ It had never been done before. After its nightmarish debut, there was much debate about whether it should ever be done again.
Of course, it was. There have been over 4000 electrocutions in American penal history since Kemmler’s. Today ‘Old Sparky’ is (rather ironically) at death’s door, replaced by the gas chamber and lethal injection. It was once by far the most popular means for America’s prisons to perform human pest control.
State after State threw away its gallows and plugged into this new innovation. They did so with varying degrees of enthusiasm. New York loved it. South Dakota used it only once. Other States varied between the enthusiastic Florida and the far less enthusiastic New Mexico. They also turned on to the new idea with varying degrees of competence (often with hideous results for all concerned, especially the condemned).
Hanging can be the least inhumane method of execution if properly performed, so there’s a bitter irony in the reason for Old Sparky’s long tenure. Which was that many American executioners would probably have found it a challenge correctly hanging curtains, let alone humans. Bungled hangings were regular events, with prisoners often beheaded or slowly strangled by bungling hangmen using faulty or unsuitable equipment.
British hangman Albert Pierrepoint was openly scathing of American hangmen and their kit, sarcastically calling the traditional hangman’s knot a ‘cowboy’s coil.’ After one horror show too many at the hanging of Roxalana Druse, New York State Governor David Hill decided to form a ‘Death Commission’ to decide which method would best replace the rope. Enter two very big names, an inventor, a dentist and, of course, William Kemmler.
The idea of electrocution came from a dentist, Alfred Southwick of Buffalo, New York. Southwick had seen a drunk die instantly from accidentally staggering up against an electrical generator. Being a staunch supporter of capital punishment, Southwick decided that the new technology would be perfect for deliberately killing people as well. Being a dentist, he thought a chair with restraining straps was the best way to convey the current to the inmate. He left the actual building of the ‘hot seat’ to Harold Brown, an electrical engineer working for a rather famous name. Enter one Thomas Edison.
Edison had been approached to oversee the creation of the electric chair but, being firmly opposed to capital punishment, had firmly refused to take part. Unfortunately, Edison became locked in the ‘War of the Currents’ with his great rival George Westinghouse. Edison championed direct current (DC) while Westinghouse was marketing an alternating current (AC) system.
Both wanted to corner the rapidly-snowballing market in electricity and related products. Westinghouse’s system was far more efficient at transmitting electricity over long distances, but required far higher voltages to do so, making it potentially far more dangerous to technical staff and consumers.
Edison saw that as an opportunity to bury Westinghouse’s new system and corner the burgeoning electrical market for himself. Putting his personal opposition to executions aside (along with many other principles), Edison made full use of AC being more dangerous to human life.
He started a publicity campaign openly touting Westinghouse’s AC as deadly and his own DC as the safe option. A series of public demonstrations (from which Edison kept himself at arm’s length) involved- electrocuting animals ranging from cats and dogs to a fully-grown elephant. Then he reconsidered his attitude to the death penalty. What better way was there to discredit George Westinghouse by harnessing both his system and his name to death?
Westinghouse had refused to sell the State of New York a generator for executions so Brown, funded by Edison, bought one under a false name, had it delivered to Brazil and then shipped back to Auburn Prison. This infuriated Westinghouse, but not nearly as much as the more personal aspect of Edison’s campaign.
The new method, in the eyes of many Americans, needed a new name. ‘Electrocution’, a combinations of ‘electricity’ and ‘execution’ caught on to replace the clumsy phrase ‘electrical execution.’ Edison quietly tried to introduce another name. If Edison had his way, inmates would be ‘Westinghoused.’
Westinghouse was unsurprisingly outraged. This wasn’t just Edison trying to ruin his business, but trying in a particularly personal and extremely unpleasant way. Before theirs had been a business and corporate rivalry. Now it developed into a full-fledged personal feud. The bitterness between these industrial titans was extreme and William Kemmler was caught right in the middle of it.
With Kemmler, a violent drunkard, securely if not comfortably ensconced on Auburn’s Death Row, Westinghouse, for reasons business and now personal, delayed things as much as possibly by funding Kemmler’s appeals. Edison in turn secured large funding from one of his investors, J.P Morgan no less, to ensure Kemmler’s appeals failed. They did.
William Kemmler was destined to take a prime (and unwilling) place in criminal history; the first inmate ever to do the ‘hot squat.’ At Auburn Prison preparations went ahead. Harold Brown enlisted one Edwin Davis to help perfect the final touches to the ‘electrocution chair.’ Davis was a qualified electrical contractor at Auburn and was also the perfect choice to become the world’s first ‘State Electrician.’
In time Davis would execute around 200 inmates and train two of his proteges, John Hurlburt and Robert Elliott. Both of whom succeeded him as executioners. Between them, these three men would execute over 700 prisoners. Elliott would be credited with perfecting electrocution as an execution method, developing what became known as the ‘Elliott Technique’ or ‘Elliott Method.’ Even today when electric chairs work on an automatic, pre-set programme, it’s based on Elliott’s earlier manual method
For now, though, Davis was in charge. Davis designed and patented the first electrodes which on early chairs were fixed to the inmate’s head and the base of their spine. After much gruesome experimentation and numerous hideous deaths, electrodes were later fixed to an inmate’s head and leg as standard. But that was in the future. For now, nobody really knew what they were about to be doing. On execution day this would become abundantly, horrifically obvious.
August 6, 1890 dawned bright and clear. The chair had been installed, linked to the prison generator (later chairs had their own separate generator) and thoroughly tested. Warden Charles Durston woke Kemmler at 5am, gave him a final breakfast and had him dressed for the occasion. At 6:30am the grim ritual began. Kemmler, his head and spine shaved and with a slit in his shirt-tails, was led into a room in front of 17 witnesses including 3 doctors and numerous reporters. He was asked for his last words which proved grimly ironic in the light of what was about to happen:
“Take it easy and do it properly, I’m in no hurry…”
Kemmler probably would have been in a hurry if he’d known what was coming. The execution team, given that they’d never actually electrocuted anyone before, certainly didn’t do it properly. About the best that could be said for the witnesses was that their misery would be less horrendous than Kemmler’s.
At 6:38am the signal was given and Davis threw the switch. 1000 volts of alternating current seared through Kemmler’s body and nervous system. After 17 seconds the power was shut off. Doctor Charles Spitzka stepped forward fully expecting to certify Kemmler dead.
Spitzka initially thought Kemmler was dead and said as much. The chair’s inventor, dentist Alfred Southwick, proudly stood before the witnesses. In front of Kemmler’s smoking body Southwick uttered the immortal words:
“Gentlemen, we live in a higher civilisation from this day.”
So, briefly, did William Kemmler who began breathing and started twisting against the straps while moaning increasingly loudly. Horrified witnesses blanched as Warden Durston and Doctor Spitzka hurriedly discussed what to do. Either the current had been too low or not applied for long enough. The obvious solution, naturally was to double the voltage and increase the duration. Spitzka spoke briefly and sharply:
“Have the current turned on again, quick. No delay!”
The current was turned on quick. It was also set far too high for far too long. For a full minute 2000 volts cooked Kemmler alive. His remaining hair smouldered. His flesh singed. Blood vessels burst under his skin causing him to bleed through his pores. Smoke and a stench of burnt meat filled the room while witnesses tried to get out and pounded on locked doors. Several fainted.and slumped around the floor.
Kemmler did at least die, but in a way that nearly made his both the first and last electrocution in criminal history. Newspapers competed to run the gaudiest, grisliest tales of his suffering, as though it needed to look any worse than it already was. Two of the doctors present, Charles Spitzka and Carlos MacDonald, feuded bitterly and publicly for years afterward over what had gone so dreadfully wrong.
Edison, whose role in the affair was now public knowledge to his lasting discomfort, refused to comment or to even speak to reporters. His great rival George Westinghouse, asked for his opinion of the execution, was far more forthcoming and brutally frank:
“They would have done better using an ax…”
Of course, the chair, its components and the overall method survived even into the early 21st century. Over time and by trial and error the process was steadily refined, though never really perfected. Davis’s apprentices Hurlburt and Elliott would develop the process and kill hundreds doing so, Although Hurlburt did commit suicide shortly after resigning as the euphemistically-titled ‘State Electrician.’
All of New York’s executioners had to be qualified electricians, paid $150 per prisoner with an extra $50 for any additional prisoner during multiple executions. Good money if you could stomach the work generally and the occasional botch in particular.
There’s a grim postscript to this story. Until recently Old Sparky had fallen into disfavour and disuse. No States retained it as their primary method, most having changed to lethal injection as their first choice. The current refusal by drug companies to supply American prisons with the drugs for lethal injection has led to experimentation with different drug combinations and, in turn, botched lethal injections such as Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma and Joseph Wood in Arizona. Wood took over two hours to die in a process that should have taken minutes.
Which is why the State of Tennessee, previously discarding their electric chair for lethal injection, have reinstated electrocution and dusted off their ‘hot seat.’ South Carolina is considering doing the same. Alabama and Oklahoma, meanwhile, are considering something new and as yet untried. The gas chamber too has been discarded, but it might make a comeback using nitrogen gas instead of cyanide. Oklahoma was also the first state to adopt lethal injection, although Texas was the first to actually use it.
It would seem the wheel is going to turn full circle. Like William Kemmler on this day in 1890, somebody is likely to take their own place in the chronicles of crime, albeit as the first to suffer death in a nitrogen (not cyanide) gas chamber. Unlike William Kemmler and some 4000 other inmates, Old Sparky might also be rising from the grave.
Kemmler’s tale can be found, among many others, in my first book ‘Criminal Curiosities’ available on Amazon Kindle:
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.
Japan, one of only two members of the G7 to retain capital punishment, the other is the US, has never liked publicity regarding its death penalty. Just as the British used to do until abolition, it’s shrouded in secrecy.
Even the condemned don’t know until shortly beforehand that their time has come. The public don’t know until after they’ve died and an official announcement is made. Until then, the condemned, the execution process and especially those who carry it out are hidden away, out of sight if not of mind.
Today’s mass execution has changed all that.
This morning Japan performed what is probably its largest mass execution since the war crimes trials after World War II. Seven members of the Aum Shinryko cult responsible for the Tokyo subway attack on March 20, 1995 were escorted from their cells one by one and dropped through the trapdoor at a Tokyo prison.
One after another cult leader Shoko Asihara, Yoshihiro Inoue, Tomomitsu Niimi, Tomomasa Nakagawa, Kiyohie Hayakawa, Seiichi Endo and Masachi Tsuchiya were taken from their cells to the trapdoor, strapped, hooded, noosed and dropped. Three prison officials pushed three buttons, only one of which released the trapdoor. Six more cult members are still awaiting the same fate.
Many, Japanese or not, would say it was justified. They’d littered Tokyo’s subway with packages of nerve agent Sarin, killing 13 people and injuring thousands. It wasn’t their first gas attack on their fellow citizens, they’d attempted a similar Sarin attack before and would try it with cyanide gas later. Even after today’s hanging of seven of them another six still remain on death row. All told, not prisoners likely to attract much, if any sympathy.
Japan has long tried to keep its executions as secret as possible. Unlike the US where such criminals would attract more publicity than the biggest celebrities (at least around their executions), the Japanese like to keep it as discreet as possible. With a case like this, though, discretion is impossible. The attack was too notorious, the resulting executions were simply too big to hide.
Until recently Japan’s condemned were given no warning at all. They’d simply be roused if they were asleep, told it was time to go and within hours they’d be dead. Even Britain’s condemned knew their date and time beforehand. But Japan’s stance has softened a little in recent years. In 2010 Keiko Chiba, then Minister of Justice and an opponent of capital punishment, decided to stimulate debate by granting the media their first access to the death chamber itself. Traditionally, it’s also the Justice Minister’s responsibility to sign the death warrant formally beginning the execution process.
As in the US, capital justice moves slowly. Technically a prisoner should be hanged within six months of sentencing. In practice, prisoners have remained on death row for decades between sentencing and execution while appeals are heard, sometimes granted and often dismissed. Once the Justice Minister puts pen to paper, however, it moves far more quickly.
For the remaining six cultists and the hundred or so other condemned inmates, every day could be their last. They just don’t know which day it will be.