4 comments June 13th, 2012 Headsman
On this date in 1930, Lee Akers was electrocuted in Ohio for murdering a Cleveland man at a gas station stickup.
Akers had been held at the death house at the Ohio Penitentiary bound in the end for a May 2, 1930 execution.
The “lucky” break that bought him six extra weeks of life was just the deadliest prison fire in history. (n.b. — Recently surpassed in Honduras)
Already a century old and packed to triple its 1,500-soul capacity, the penitentiary had a fire break out* shortly after supper on April 21 in Section “I”. This fire
licked along dry timber into Section “H”, from Section “H” to Section “G”, and thence upward to where 300 prisoners, trapped like caged animals, tore futily [sic] at steel bars that became their pyre.
It was a twilight of indescribable horror.
Some 320 perished from burns, suffocation, and smoke inhalation. Most of the casualties were those who never got out of their locked prison cells, and couldn’t move a meter as death enveloped them.
20th century literary great Chester Himes also happened to be serving a sentence for armed robbery at this prison:** indeed, it was during that sentence that he began to write at all, setting him on a path towards his life’s work.
1991 cinematic adaptation of Himes’s A Rage in Harlem.
One of Himes’s first published works was a short story in Esquire in 1934, written while Himes was still incaracerated. Titled “To What Red Hell” (an allusion to Oscar Wilde’s meditation on prison and death row, The Ballad of Reading Gaol: “For none can tell to what red Hell / His sightless soul may stray.”), this story follows the experience of the Ohio prison inferno through the fictional inmate “Blackie”, who beholds tormented prisoners like “condemned souls jumping flame pots in the ante room of Hell” … but also notices the ironic safety of death row, where the literal condemned souls remained un-burned.
From where he stood he could see the death house, a low, red brick building at the end of the cell block. Just above it was a wall parapet. A guard stood on the cat-walk with a sub-machine gun cradled in his arm. Two searchlights shone in opposite directions down the sides of the gray, stone wall. The green door of the death house looked black in the vague light.
The end of the parade! The last mile! What a joke! The death house was on the other side of the yard tonight, he was thinking. It was quiet over here in the shadows with the scared ghosts of the executed men.
In fact, someone had managed to spring the death house doors, momentarily “liberating” the doomed men. As militia arrived on the scene, they attempted to forestall any general uprising or wholesale prison break by setting up machine gun emplacements on prison towers, with orders to shoot to kill.
When the death row prisoners were collared — they hadn’t actually gone anywhere or tried anything** — they were offered transportation to the city jail for their own safety against these potentially itchy trigger fingers. While three of them took the refuge, the others (Akers included) refused, on the sensible grounds that they could hardly be much worse off being shot dead than being electrocuted.
The inmates — reported to have labored heroically alongside guards, firefighters, civilian nurses, virtually without incident — were understandably incensed at the disaster, charging that guards had allowed most of the victims to die out of needless reticence over releasing anybody as the fire began to spread — and that the refusal to turn the keys went straight to the top. William Wade, “a big Negro prisoner” who had sledgehammered a cell open to save 25 men, was quoted in the next day’s New York Times saying simply, “They could have saved these men. They let human beings burn to death.”
Warden Preston Thomas, who comes off in the story as an unmitigated shit,† was the focus of the prisoners’ ire … and when he showed himself, the focus of their raucous jeers (Thomas tried to dump the blame on lower-level guards, who in turn claimed that they’d been directed by their superiors not to open cells). The Ohio governor’s refusal to dismiss Warden Thomas soon triggered a riot in the prison and the arrival of the National Guard for several tense days of teargas-punctuated negotiations.
This mutiny was only just being settled when Akers’s original May 2 execution date came up. The charred prison clearly had some other priorities at that moment than orchestrating an execution, so Akers and another man, John Richardson, both got a gubernatorial reprieve until things were peaceful enough for orderly killing.
The inferno, meanwhile, opened space for some humanitarian reforms: since overcrowding (which had been fretted in internal reports in the years preceding the fire, and had also contributed to several other prison disturbances) was widely understood to be part of the disaster, a parole board was formed in 1931 that released 2,300 prisoners. “Mandatory minimum” sentences that stuffed minor offenders into these dungeons were widely rolled back.
According to the Justice Policy Institute (pdf), the total United States prison population in 1930 was a mere 180,889.
Although we may have made some provisions to avoid spectacular catastrophes like the Ohio Penitentiary fire in our present-day overcrowded prisons, the routine catastrophe of imprisonment itself — “the moral scandal of American life” — has grown more than twelvefold since 1930.
* The mysterious fire was eventually found to have been started by some (non-death row) prisoners in an abortive breakout bid: two of them later hanged themselves in remorse. However, and rather amazingly, there were no reported escape attempts during the nighttime chaos.
** Himes wasn’t the Ohio penitentiary’s only noteworthy litterateur. The facility’s prison yard was named in honor of the pseudonym that a previous scribbling inmate had concocted there in order to get published while doing his time: O. Henry.
† e.g., a committee formed by the legislature to investigate the fire took testimony from convicts that Warden Thomas was a tyrannous martinet even apart from the disaster, even as Thomas was publicly threatening the angry inmates who were demanding his ouster: “If these prisoners don’t quiet down pretty quick, I’ll use forceful methods against them if it takes a soldier to every man.”
Part of the Themed Set: Ohio.
On this day..
- 1962: The only hangings in independent Cyprus - 2016
- 1873: A day in the death penalty around the U.S., courtesy of the New York Herald - 2015
- 1628: John Lambe murdered - 2014
- 1887: Ellen Thomson and John Harrison, lovers - 2013
- 1857: Twelve blown from cannons in British Punjab - 2011
- 1683: James Smith and John Wharry, Covenanter bystanders - 2010
- Unspecified Year: Clever Tom Clinch, hung like a hero - 2009
- 1798: Rigas Feraios, Greek poet - 2008