Minutes after midnight this date in 1912, a desexed preacher’s troubled concupiscence was at last abated by the Massachusetts mercy seat.
Some demon ruled Clarence Virgil Thompson Richeson‘s wayward footsteps through this life, and ere its last immolation saw Richeson alternate a serial pattern of abstinent betrothals with bouts of increasingly severe mental instability.
“Clarence had become deranged,” wrote one of the several theological seminaries he attended to his father, explaining why he couldn’t be kept.
Derangement for Clarence Richeson ranged from the merely embarrassing (wet dreams, three or four times a week) to the positively poltergeistian (bouts of raving, delirious lunacy). These foibles proved no obstacle to the charismatic Richeson’s repeated engagement — six or more young women by my count succumbed to his court — although he would later confess that these relationships, never consummated in matrimony, were almost never consummated in bed either. Richeson claimed to have remained a virgin until age 28, and then for most of the succeeding six years as well, even though a book of that period describes him as a “tall, handsome giant with the classic face of a Gibson hero.” On at least one occasion he besought a doctor to castrate him as he feared he could not keep his self-control around women.
Richeson’s strange proclivities kept interrupting the cursus honorum of Baptist pastorships that comprised his professional life: he had to resign from a church in Kansas City in 1904 after proposing to three different women, and a gig in El Paso was cut short when he fell into a spell of paranoid delusion.
1908 finds him a minister once again, now in Hyannis, Mass., and celebrating the birthday of 17-year-old Avis Linnell with an engagement ring. His “spells” or “fits” of madness were continuing as well, and numerous associates would later produce affidavits testifying to his violent outbursts. A doctor (who only quelled Rev. Richeson this night by morphine) recalled one incident:
I was called to see him at the residence of Mrs. Hallet, with whom he was boarding, and when I arrived I found there were with him two or three men whom I knew to be members of his church; he was acting violently and they were trying to control and quiet him both by words and by attempting to restrain him by physical force. He appeared at times to be partly conscious; then he would go into a state whereby he lost consciousness and was practically unconscious, apparently had no knowledge of what he was doing or saying. During this period of time he talked irrationally, raved incoherently, and physically manifested an abnormal degree of strength.
Parishioners decent enough to stand with their preacher would eventually find these private afflictions played out in lurid public detail. That was after Avis Linnell turned up dead at the Boston YWCA where she boarded while studing at the New England Conservatory of Music. It was 17 days before her scheduled Halloween, 1911 marriage to Clarence Richeson, and Miss Linnell was pregnant.
At first ruled a suicide, the case caught the eye of the Boston Post, whose swarm of reporters soon found a pharmacist who had sold Richeson cyanide days before the death of his betrothed. Richeson’s clemency petitions would eventually focus on his unbalanced mental state, but poison, of course, suggests the calculation of the pastor and not the outbursts of the madman within. (We’re getting ahead of ourselves, but doctors arguing for mercy also viewed Richeson as a prime research subject, whose maintenance behind bars could help to avert dangerous mental illnesses in others in the future.)
Matters went very quickly from this point.
Richeson resigned from his pastorship and, while lying in jail under indictment, slashed himself with a sharp piece of tin. Not his wrists, but his manhood — an attempted emasculation that was near enough successful that the physician responding to his shrieks was obliged to complete it in order to close up the wound. Richeson would later insist that he “shall think to my dying day that two men came in and did it” — apparitions of his mind’s creation.
The dying day was quick in coming. Two weeks after his self-mutilation, on January 5, 1912, Richeson withdrew his pretrial not guilty plea and simply copped to the murder. The death sentence was mandatory, but the plea also prevented any opportunity for a jury to rule on whether the killer’s instability lessened his criminal culpability. It was the opinion of some psychiatrists and not a few laymen that it was not simply a matter of Richeson’s state slipping between lucidity and delirium, but that his deterioration over the years had delivered him into a state of permanent derangement. Even Avis Linnell’s mother forgave her daughter’s killer “this dreadful thing” because “it is my belief he went to the electric chair an insane man and that he has been mentally irresponsible for some time past.”
On Sunday, May 19, a day and a half before he became the 14th client of the Massachusetts electric chair, Rev. Richeson conducted his last service — not in the prison chapel (against regulations) but from his own cell. “This is Sunday my last on earth,” he reflected. “If I had lived a righteous life I should today be delivering a sermon from the pulpit of my church in Cambridge instead of being caged here awaiting a felon’s death.”
It had not been so long ago in those environs that any execution would be a prayerful service, condemned together with the congregation. Matters by now were disposed of behind prison bars, but the electrocution of a clergyman was far too rich a theme not to fill New England’s actual pulpits that same day with topical exhortations; indeed, since the Richeson case made national headlines, these were preached all over. (The Olympia, Wash., Daily Recorder of May 20 notes a Presbyterian baccalaureate address that Sunday touching on Richeson as a cautionary example; the Grand Rapids, Mich. Evening Press of May 27 had a preacher at the Calvary Baptist Church declaiming against Richeson’s execution as an instance of anti-clerical prejudice.)
With the witnesses all gathered in the death chamber and just as the last straps were being adjusted the Rev. Herbert S. Johnson stepped forward and asked Richeson the following questions which he answered in a clear voice:
“Would you like to confess Christ as your Savior before these witnesses?”
“I do confess Christ as my Savior.”
“Have you the peace of God in your heart in this hour?”
“I have the peace of God in this hour.”
“Does Christ give you the strength you need in this hour?”
“Christ gives me the strength I need.”
“Do you repent of your sins?”
“Have you the peace of God in your heart?”
“God will take care of my soul and I pray for all.”
“Are you willing to die for Jesus’ sake?”
“I am willing to die.”
Just as he uttered the word “die,” Warden Bridges tapped the stone floor with his gold headed black cane which had been used so many times as a signal to the executioner who switched on the electric current and at 12:17 Drs. McLaughlin, McGrath and Butler pronounced Richeson legally dead. The penalty exacted by the laws of Massachusetts had been paid and all hope of studying this abnormal man for the purpose of aborting criminal tendencies in others of his kind was wiped out in a few seconds.