July 20, 1934 was the third and last of Walter Lett’s scheduled execution dates for raping a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama.
A thirty-something ex-convict, Lett’s protestations of innocence stood little chance against the word of a white woman named Naomi Lowery, herself a penniless drifter.
Lett was almost lynched but despite his certain condemnation there was something wrong about this case — something discomfiting even for Monroeville’s worthies. We have seen elsewhere in these pages that a rape accusation was a powerful weapon on the ambiguous fringes of the color line. Just three years before this story, nine black teens had been accused of a rape on an Alabama train, and the legal odyssey of these Scottsboro Boys would dominate headlines during the Depression.
“It may have been that [Lett] and Lowery were lovers, or that she was involved with another Negro man,” one author put it. “If a white woman became pregnant under those circumstances, it was not uncommon for her to claim rape, or accuse someone other than her lover.”
Records of this trial seem to have gone missing, but Lett’s claims had enough weight (and Lowery’s had little enough) to induce Monroeville’s elders to petition Gov. Benjamin Miller* against carrying out the electrocution. Miller reprieved Lett ahead of May 11 and June 20 execution dates: “I am of the opinion and conviction that there is much doubt as to the man being guilty,” Miller told the Montgomery Advertiser. Gov. Miller was so sure that Lett didn’t do it that before the man went to the chair on July 20, Miller decided instead to let him spend the rest of his life in prison for the thing he didn’t do.
We don’t have Walter Lett’s side of this story because the strain of his position drove him mad; when the sentence was commuted, he was transported from death row directly to a mental hospital, where he died of tuberculosis in 1937.
In his stead, we have a different voice: a Monroeville schoolgirl at the time of Lett’s trial named Harper Lee** would later channel the case’s undertones of racial injustice for her legendary (and, until recently, only) novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.
In one of the famously retiring Lee’s few public comments on the book, she cited the Lett case as her model for the book’s fictional, and manifestly unjust, rape trial.
Lee’s father, A.C. Lee was the editor-publisher of the Monroeville Journal at the time of l’affaire Lett. But as a young lawyer, before Harper’s birth, Lee himself had once defended in court two men who wound up being hanged. An idealized† version of this man is the clear foundation for the defense attorney Atticus Finch in Lee’s book.
Charles Shields, whose 2006 biography of Harper Lee is quoted above on the indeterminate reason for the rape allegation, writes that the author “had a free hand to retell this macabre episode in her father’s life, which he always referred to in vague terms, no doubt because of the pain it caused him. (He never accepted another criminal case.) This time, under his daughter’s sensitive hand, A. C. Lee, in the character of Atticus Finch, could be made to argue in defense of Walter Lett, and his virtues as a humane, fair minded man would be honored.”
* Miller was an anti-Ku Klux Klan politician, a fact of possible relevance to his actions.
** Harper Lee’s childhood friend was Truman Capote, future author of In Cold Blood. (Lee traveled to Kansas with Capote and helped him research the murder case in question.) Alabama’s legislature has recognized Monroeville as the state’s literary capital.
† According to Shields, the real A.C. Lee was more of a gentleman, establishment segregationist: more like the warts-and-all Atticus Finch of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman than the saintly character played by Gregory Peck. In 1952-53, A.C. Lee helped to force out the pastor of the local First Methodist church over controversial pro-integration remarks from the pulpit. Rev. Ray Whatley’s post-Monroeville assignment took him to Montgomery, where he was president of a chapter of the Alabama Council on Human Relations while the young Rev. Martin Luther King was vice-president. Whatley was forced out of his Montgomery congregation, too: called “a liar, a communist, and a few other things” (Whatley’s words) for supporting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They tried to reassign him to tiny Linden, Alabama, but townspeople there immediately rejected him and many stopped paying church tithes until he was shipped onward to Mobile.
See When the Church Bell Rang Racist by Donald Collins, who notes that Whatley’s anathema had a chilling effect on other white Methodist clergy — now clearly given to understand that there would be “a great price to be paid if a minister chose to speak out for racial justice.”
On this date in 1899, Adrian Braun was electrcuted at Sing Sing.
Braun was a hulking German cigar-maker with a reputation for habitually thrashing his wife. Authorities got involved when he bashed a neighbor who intervened in a beating so hard that it fractured the man’s skull.
In August 1897, Braun caught a two-year sentence for assault. With her batterer put away, Kate Braun now had to shift for herself; struggling to make ends meet as a washer-woman, she had to give up two of her five children to the St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum. Still, she scraped together enough money to buy her incarcerated husband some sweets on a prison visit.
Mr. Braun was at work peeling potatoes in the prison kitchen when he was summoned for the arrival of his spouse in March 1898. After using up their visiting time on a conversation that appeared entirely mutually affectionate, the two were about to part when Adrian Braun suddenly whipped out the potato-knife he had recently been employing and daggered the poor woman’s throat — with lethal effect.
Braun never explained his shocking crime and pursued only a half-hearted insanity defense at his ensuing trial.
“No man was ever executed at the prison who had less sympathy than was felt for Braun,” the Wilkes-Barre Times reported on the day of the man’s execution.
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.
On this date in 1897, criminals William Haas and William Wiley became the first two people to be executed in Ohio’s electric chair. Haas had actually been scheduled to die earlier that month, but the chair had a damaged electrical coil and his execution was postponed so the coil could be replaced.
William Wiley (left) and William Haas.
Haas, an illiterate farm worker, had had murdered Mrs. William Brady, his employer’s wife, the previous summer in Cincinnati. He raped her, slit her throat after she threatened to tell her husband, and set the house on fire to cover his tracks. Some berry pickers nearby saw the fire, though, and put it out before it could cause any real damage. Haas found himself arrested that very same day. He was only seventeen years old.
Thirty-eight-year-old Wiley, a tailor who was also from Cincinnati, had shot his wife to death in a drunken, jealous rage, “seemingly possessed by the devil himself.” After the murder he hid in a closet and was injured in the ensuing fight with police officers as they attempted to arrest him.
The prison officials made Haas and Wiley flip a coin to determine which would die first, and Haas “won.” He was electrocuted at 12:27 a.m.
Just after his body was removed from the chair, Wiley was brought in. A Sacramento Daily Unionarticle summarized the results:
An examination of the bodies after they had been removed to the prison morgue did not disclose even the slightest abrasion or irritation of the skin at the points of contact, and the physicians and experts pronounced the executions as perfect as it was possible to make them.
On this date in 1895, William Lake died in the electric chair for soiling Albion, N.Y., with a most gory crime of passion.
The farmhand Lake nursed a very one-sided crush on a servant in the household of farmer Joseph Van Camp, 18-year-old Emma Hunt. One October night in 1894, the farmer called on a neighbor, leaving the two alone in the kitchen.
He returned an hour later to find Emma Hunt slaughtered as if by a demon. Her throat was slashed ear to ear and cross-shaped slashes to her abdomen had nearly disemboweled her. Nearby lay a bloody hammer that had caved in her skull. Lake was nowhere to be found, but he only dodged the sheriff’s posses for a few days before an officer caught him hiding in a barn.
It turned out upon Lake’s ready confession that this crime of passion was also one of calculation. Emma, said Lake, “bothered me and hectored me” in disdaining his affections, and “I made up my mind I would kill her.” (New York Herald, Oct. 22, 1894)
While the family ate supper on that horrible night, William Lake wrote out a confession to the murder he was going to commit once left alone, and packed a satchel with which to flee. (He forgot the satchel when the time came.) Lake’s written confession attributed a lifelong bitterness to his illegitimate birth.
He did not attempt to mitigate the crime in any way and welcomed a death sentence that was conducted within seven weeks of his conviction.
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
“I don’t mind it. My love to mother and tell Mrs. Lawes I appreciate all she did for me.”
Crowley killed patrolman Frederick Hirsch after the officer asked for his driver’s license. Characterized by the press as a “petty city thug,” Crowley had been wanted for questioning in another murder case. After fleeing, Crowley, his girlfriend, and an accomplice staged a two-hour standoff with police, during which he wrote the following: “Underneath my coat will lay a weary kind of heart what wouldn’t hurt anything. I hadn’t anything else do to. That’s why I went around bumping off cops.”
Crowley’s last words previously had been reported as “You sons of bitches. Give my love to Mother,” but no original record of this account could be found.
The first U.S. execution of 2013 was that of Robert Gleason, Jr. in Virginia last January 16.
Gleason was serving a life sentence for another murder when he conned a fellow-prisoner into letting him tie his hands as part of a supposed escape attempt. Instead, Gleason choked the poor bastard to death with a urine-soaked sponge.
The killer said he did this precisely in order to be executed.
“I murdered that man cold-bloodedly,” he told a reporter in 2010. “I planned it and I’m gonna do it again. Someone needs to stop it. The only way to stop me is to put me on death row.”
He was as good as his word. That summer, he got a necklace around the throat of a prisoner in a neighboring solitary pen and horribly throttled him to death. Virginia obliged Gleason’s heart’s desire with a death sentence that the killer did not contest.
Unusually, Gleason chose to die in the state’s 104-year-old oak electric chair, rather than by lethal injection. Virginia at the time was one of 10 states still allowing an inmate to choose electrocution, but Gleason was the first person to do so since 2010.
Allex, whose name is thought to be a pseudonym, had been seized in Mogadishu in 2009 and forced during his captivity to broadcast his captors’ demands.
Following the French intervention in Mali last January — an event potentially raising the danger for French hostages throughout the Islamic world — a commando unit attempted to free Allex on January 12.
The French suspect that Allex might have been killed during that operation. His captors, however, claimed that Allex survived it, and that they thereafter “reached a unanimous decision to execute the French intelligence officer, Dennis Allex.
“With the rescue attempt, France has voluntarily signed Allex’s death warrant”
In contemporary America, it would be next to unthinkable to schedule an execution for New Year’s Day — and asking the associated team of wardens, guards, executioners, witnesses, lawyers, and journalists to ditch New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and do a ball drop to a lethal chemical injection would be a complete nonstarter.
But the First of January, especially prior to the age of widespread telecommunication, was not always so sentimentally held. The Espy File of historical American executions records none whatsoever for Christmas Day, but several have occurred on New Year’s. We’ve previously profiled some of them in these grim annals, like Sylvester Henry Bell and Archilla Smith.
January 1 of 1926, “just 15 minutes after the arrival of the New Year” in the words of the Associated Press report, was the occasion in Huntsville, Texas for electrocuting African-American Melton Carr for raping a white woman in Walker County.
I have found hardly any information pertaining to this case online, but the detail that Carr was reprieved from an earlier execution date “on a petition from officials and citizens of Walker county” — implicitly, white citizens — might be a suggestive indicator for a crime so incendiary under other circumstances. We have seen that detail before in the case of Tom Joyner’s ancestors, who had broad clemency support because the racial politics of the time made an open judicial exploration of their actual innocence impossible.
Daryl Holton went to the Tennessee electric chair.
Holton was an depressive Gulf War veteran with an acrid relationship with his ex-wife Crystle.
Bitter at being kept from his children for weeks on end, Holton picked up his three kids and their half-sister on November 30, 1997 and told them they’d be going Christmas shopping.
According to the confession that he gave when he turned himself in later that night, he instead drove them to an auto repair shop in Shelbyville, where he shot them in two pairs by having first Stephen and Brent (aged 12 and 10) and then Eric and Kayla (aged 6 and 4) stand front-to-back facing away from him, then efficiently shot them unawares through the back with an SKS. (Eric and Kayla played elsewhere while the older boys were murdered. Eric was hearing-impaired.)
“They didn’t suffer,” Holton would tell his shocked interrogators that night. “There was no enjoyment to it at all.”
The original plan was to complete a family hecatomb by proceeding to murder Crystle and her boyfriend, and then commit suicide. But on the drive over, Holton lost his zest for the enterprise, smoked a joint, and just went straight to the police where he announced that he was there to report “homicide times four.”
Holton had a light trial defense focused on disputing his rationality and competence at the time of the murders — a theme that appellate lawyers would attempt to return to, hindered significantly by Holton’s refusal to aid them or to participate in legal maneuvers that would prevent his execution. A spiritual advisor reported him at peace with his impending death: “He’s very clear, very focused.”
Holton’s was Tennesee’s first electrocution in 47 years and, as of this writing, its last. The Volunteer State subsequently removed electrocution from its statutes altogether — but in 2014 it re-adopted the electric chair as a backup option in view of the nationwide shortage of lethal injection drugs.
Eighty-five years ago today, the state of Georgia executed a gentleman whose most remarkable characteristic to his contemporaries was that he was the onetime Chief of Police of Cleveland, Tenn. — and most remarkable characteristic to posterity is that his name was Homer Simpson.
Despite the inevitable cartoonish riffs in this here post, the Homer Simpson case was a shocking and controversial one. When Simpson was returned to his native Cleveland four days after he died in Georgia’s electric chair, a reported 10,000 souls crowded the funeral, predominantly sharing the sentiment that Simpson’s own father expressed in a subsequent book, The Life and Fate Of Homer C. Simpson: The Man Who Was Electrocuted for a Crime He Did Not Commit.
That father, Jake Simpson, had been a Tennessee legislator who had the opportunity during his single term to cast the decisive vote* cementing not only Tennessee’s ratification, but also nationwide constitutional adoption, of women’s suffrage.
Homer’s vision was not as sharp as his dad’s.
Adrift after a Republican electoral wave swept him out of the sheriff’s office, Homer accepted the invitation of a World War I buddy to hop a train to Jacksonville, Fla. for a dubious “job” just over the Georgia border.
The “job” for Homer was to pose as a wealthy land-buyer in order to lure a local banker off to a lonely property where he could be trussed up while the conspirators emptied his vaults. It was supposed to be a bloodless robbery, but the victim, Carl Arp Perry, energetically fought back when they pulled a gun on him and that army buddy Malcolm Morrow shot him three times.
The bleeding Perry was loaded back into the “buyer’s” car to raid the bank to the tune of $4,600. This was supposed to be the easy part — nobody had a plan B for a mortally wounded man bleeding out in the back. Panicking, they fled back to their safehouse in Jacksonville with Perry still in tow but wrecked one of the two getaway cars. Homer — and again, this man is a former police chief — pulled Perry out and deposited him in the brush near the accident, bustling with his two confederates past a Good Samaritan who had pulled over to find out what was wrong.
The three fled the scene. The Samaritan brought the expiring Carl Perry to a hospital and summoned the police. Perry was a goner but he held on long enough to give John Law a detailed description of that night’s events and of his assailants.
We can see already that former Rep. Jake Simpson’s book implies a far surer claim on innocence than the bare facts might permit for a disinterested observer.
The core argument Simpson pere et fils advanced by way of mitigation was that Homer had no intention of hurting anyone, did not shoot Carl Perry himself, and indeed pled with Morrow at the critical moment to stop firing at their prisoner.
This point does not lack moral weight; in its time, it helped to support a push for a new trial or executive clemency.
As a legal matter, however, Simpson’s fate was determined by the felony murder rule which made all parties to the bank robbery scheme jointly culpable for the homicide that arose out of it. This standard has made a fair few non-triggerman accomplices with even lesser participation than our man here eligible for execution in the U.S. right down to the present day.
And there’s an anti-Simpson case to make as well, beginning with the part where he comes from several states away (bringing guns along with him) and continuing to the part where however sincerely he desired Perry not be shot, he utterly failed to aid Perry once the shooting had occurred. For the state, the acme was dumping the injured man out of the wrecked automobile, presumably to die. (Simpson’s angle was that they were removing him from a dangerous spot and with other drivers stopping Perry was sure to receive aid. So actually, see, they helped him.)
Days before they were to die, Malcolm Morrow unexpectedly confessed to being the sole triggerman in a vain attempt to save his old friend. “I shot Perry and I am willing to take the blame. If Simpson dies for the crime for which I, alone, am responsible, he will be getting a tough break at the hands of the law.” And the governor even took a personal meeting with both men’s mothers hours before the execution.
But there was no relief for either prisoner.
On the day that both Morrow and Simpson were electrocuted, Simpson’s hometown paper The Banner published a last goodbye.
To my dear friends at dear old Cleveland who have been faithful in your efforts to help me: I want to thank each one of you for your kindness in all that has been done both in your petitions and letters, and your faithful prayers. But dear ones it looks like that all is in vain and there seems to be no mercy for me.
After the good jury signed the petition for me and also wrote personal letters in my behalf, and the Chief Justice and his associate justice wrote letters and also went in person to the governor, and said I did not have a fair trial, and also said that according to the laws of the state of Georgia that I did not deserve the death penalty, after all this was done, with the good petitions and letters, and good prayers, I felt encouraged. But after all it looks like I will have to say goodbye to you dear ones.
Now dear kind friends I love you all and appreciate your kindness, but it seems that the time has come when you can do no more for me, and now my last request of you is that please do what you can to comfort and cheer my dear kind old Dad, and my precious darling mother, my sweet sisters and dear brothers, who have been so faithful and done everything that they can do.
Homer Simpson’s case has enjoyed a bit of present-day rediscovery. There’s an online book dedicated it; titled The Grave: Murder in the Deep South, it traces Carl Perry’s story and that of his family. A Simpson descendant was also recently reported to be working on a book titled Homer Simpson Must Die.
* Tennessee was the 36th and final state necessary to ratify the 19th Amendment, and the measure carried in Tennessee by one vote: every vote was by definition decisive. The decisivest, though, was that of Harry Burns, who switched his vote at the 11th hour under pressure from his mother.