Posts filed under 'Electrocuted'

1912: Sing Sing’s seven successive sparks

Add comment August 12th, 2014 Headsman

New York’s electric chair handled record traffic on this date in 1912: seven successive electrocutions.

The first two men committed unrelated and isolated crimes.

  • John Collins got drunk and started firing a pistol in his Manhattan apartment. Police responded, and Collins shot a patrolman through the chest when they entered his domicile and tried to arrest him.
  • Joseph Ferrone, a violent wife-murderer who reacted to his guilty verdict by smashing a glass and slashing a juror with the jagged edge before he was restrained.

The last five were the culmination of another record: six people (these were nos. two through six) executed for one homicide. More specifically, and this was their newspaper billing, “Six Italians”.

Ringleader Lorenzo Cali

Lorenzo Cali, Santo Zanza, Vincenzo Cona, Salvatore DeMarco, Angelo Giusto and Filippo DeMarco were all Sicilians who were among the million-plus emigres to leave the island in the wake of the devastating 1908 Messina earthquake, had washed up at Croton Lake outside of New York working on the aqueducts that supplied that swelling metropolis with its fresh water.

It was backbreaking work at less than $2 a day, with tent barracks for recuperation because it was a prohibitive two-hour train ride back to the last stop on the New York subway.

In 1911, Cali caught wind of the passing of a nearby farm owner — Henry J. Griffin, whose comfortable home (usually occupied by boarders from the aqueduct’s managerial ranks) must have looked a fair sight from the muddy workers’ tents. It was said that he had left his wife not only that property but a $3,000 insurance policy. That would be a good four times the average annual earnings of a workingman at the time: had that policy been cashed out, grabbing the proceeds would be a better day’s labor by far than tending the aqueduct.

On the night of November 8-9 of that year, our Six Italians — led by Cali, who had made a point of casing the house over the preceding weeks — stole by moonlight into the woods near the house and waited for the male residents to leave for the day. Once they did, the Italians raided the farm.

Though they easily overpowered the three women left there, they didn’t find any $3,000. One of the women, Mary Hall, the young wife of an aqueduct superintendent, lost her composure in the face of the bandits screaming at her to produce more money; desperate to control her sobbing and shrieking, Santo Zanza stabbed her fatally in the chest.

But as the men fled the house with pennies on their hoped-for fortune and a dying woman at their back, the other two matrons of the house summoned police — Aqueduct Police, actually, a special force detailed to keep order in the unruly laborers’ shanties. Four of the men were arrested in the vicinity that afternoon; Cali, the ringleader, made it back to his Brooklyn tenement but was caught there two days after the murder. Only Salvatore DeMarco, known to his confederates as “Penolo”, remained on the lam.

A speedy succession of four different trials (Filippo DeMarco and Cali opted to be tried together) commenced at the Westchester County courthouse in White Plains before the month was out. Heavy guard (“Black Hand” notes kept arriving at the judge’s door; for fear of a possible rescue attempt by underworld characters, Italians were barred from attending the trial) did not in the least encumber their rapidity.

Angelo Giusto had implicated Santo Zanza as the killer (“the confession was wrung from the prisoner by up-to-date third-degree methods,” a newspaper reported) and a cycle of desperately competing confessions and accusations ensued among the lot to easily doom them all. The general thrust of the non-Zanza defendants was that the whole thing was a robbery only, and that Zanza had gone rogue in knifing Mary Hall to death. Even if true, however, those statements amounted to confessing capital crimes under felony murder rules imputing to all participants in the criminal enterprise joint liability for all its consequences. There was one death by one man’s hand, but all six were murderers.

Twenty-six days after Mary Hall’s death, all five Italians stood together in the courtroom to receive their death sentences. The trials had taken just a few hours apiece; jury deliberations consumed less than a quarter-hour for all cases save that of the youngest, Giusto.


New York Times headlines from November 29 (left) and December 6 of 1911. “Less than thirty hours’ actual court time was used in the four trials,” the latter article reported by way of high-fiving the state’s attorneys. “It is believed that Westchester has established a new record for the quick disposal of murder cases in this State.”

Two days after that, the last fugitive Salvatore DeMarco was finally arrested at his East Flatbush apartment. He was tried, convicted, and condemned all in a single day on December 19.

As the short appeals process unfolded over the ensuing months, public pressure for mercy was exerted by the Italian consulate specifically on behalf of the men who had not bloodied their own hands. Even Santo Zanza, who was executed separately from the rest on July 12, climbed aboard, and gave statements designed to accentuate his own culpability and underscore his fellows’ innocence of his design. But considering the sensational nature of the crime, and its context of growing public fear of violent crime rife among New York’s Italian immigrants, this was not one to recommend itself to the governor‘s clemency.

There is a detailed Crime Library summation of this case that begins here; note that most of its navigation links insert a gratuitous (and link-breaking) space after the phrase /croton in the web address; clicking through the 15-page story requires some annoying manual url manipulation.

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1958: Jeremiah Reeves, Montgomery Bus Boycott inspiration

Add comment March 28th, 2014 Headsman

In 1954, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama hired as its pastor a 25-year-old fresh out of Boston University’s doctoral program.

In his memoir, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remembered his entry to civil rights activism in Montgomery. One of his first steps was setting up a Social and Political Action Committee for his church, prominently emphasizing voter registration.

But his next engaged a major death penalty case that haunted Montgomery throughout the 1950s.

After having started the program of the church on its way, I joined the local branch of the NAACP and began to take an active interest in implementing its program in the community itself. Besides raising money through my church, I made several speeches for the NAACP in Montgomery and elsewhere. Less than a year after I joined the branch I was elected to the executive committee. By attending most of the monthly meetings I was brought face to face with some of the racial problems that plagued the community, especially those involving the courts.

Before my arrival in Montgomery, and for several years after, most of the NAACP’s energies and funds were devoted to the defense of Jeremiah Reeves. Reeves, a drummer in a Negro band, had been arrested at the age of sixteen, accused of raping a white woman. One of the authorities had led him to the death chamber, threatening that if he did not confess at once he would burn there later. His confession, extracted under this duress, was later retracted, and for the remaining seven years that his case, and his life, dragged on, he continued to deny not only the charge of rape but the accusation of having had sexual relations at all with his white accuser.

The NAACP hired the lawyers and raised the money for Reeve’s defense. In the local court he was found guilty and condemned to death. The conviction was upheld in a series of appeals through the Alabama courts. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court on two occasions. The first time, the Court reversed the decision and turned it back to thes tate supreme court for rehearing. The second time, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case but later dismissed it, thus leaving the Alabama court free to electrocute. After the failure of a final appeal to the governor to commute the sentence, the police officials kept their promise. On March 28, 1958, Reeves was electrocuted.

The Reeves case was typical of the unequal justice of Southern courts. In the years that he sat in jail, several white men in Alabama had also been charged with rape; but their accusers were Negro girls. They were seldom arrested; if arrested, they were soon released by the grand jury; none was ever brought to trial. For good reason the Negroes of the South had learned to fear and mistrust the white man’s justice.

-Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story

Reeves’s plight struck much closer to home for Claudette Colvin.

A Montgomery native, she was a classmate of Reeves at Montgomery’s segregated Booker T. Washington High School.

On March 2, 1955, Colvin boarded a city bus in front of King’s church on her way back from school, and plopped herself down in the middle of it. As the bus meandered on its route, it began to fill up. Montgomery’s segregated-bus rules at the time reserved a few rows up front for whites, and opened the middle rows for blacks … but only until the white rows overflowed, at which point black riders in the midsection were expected to give up their seats.

Colvin refused to do it.

She furiously argued with the police summoned by the bus driver, invoking her constitutional rights.

When they arrested her, she didn’t do nonviolent resistance: she fought back.

“I was really struggling,” she said in Ellen Levin’s Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories.

“Other kids got home and told Mama what happened,” Colvin remembered. “She already knew how hurt I was about Jeremiah Reeves. She knew this wasn’t a one-day thing. This was a rebellious time that started with Jeremiah … I just couldn’t get over Jeremiah being framed.”

Colvin’s spur-of-the-moment act of civil disobedience predated the more famous refusal of Rosa Parks by nine months. (Colvin’s parents knew Rosa Parks, and Parks was an advisor to the NAACP Youth Council, which Colvin was involved in.)

Montgomery civil rights leaders were already looking for a test case to mount a challenge against Montgomery buses’ racial ridership rules. Colvin was considered for the part, but ultimately Montgomery’s leaders took a pass on the case: she was an angry teenager, very dark-skinned, and from a working-class family; moreover, she soon became pregnant by an older, married man whom Colvin refused to name. Nevertheless, her name, and her act, became well-known in Montgomery and nationwide. The first pamphlets about Parks’s arrest reference Colvin as the well-known precedent.

Rosa Parks, a dignified and nonviolent matron, was eventually judged the palatable public figurehead to rally behind. Days after Parks’s December 1, 1955 arrest,* the Montgomery Improvement Association — with King at its head — mounted its famous bus boycott. Parks is the name everyone knows … but Colvin was the first.

And Colvin was one of four plaintiffs in the federal suit that forced desegregation in Montgomery.

Claudette Colvin’s refusenik notoriety made it so difficult for her to work in Montgomery that she moved to New York in 1958 — the same year her schoolmate was finally electrocuted for that supposed rape.

Days after Reeves died in Alabama’s electric chair, an Easter rally assembled on the lawn of that state’s capitol building to protest the execution — and gird for the struggles still to come.

We assemble here this afternoon on the steps of this beautiful capitol building in an act of public repentance for our community for committing a tragic and unsavory injustice. A young man, Jeremiah Reeves, who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair for the charge of rape. Whether or not he was guilty of this crime is a question that none of us can answer. But the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves. Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence. It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves’s penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence.

But not only are we here to repent for the sin committed against Jeremiah Reeves, but we are also here to repent for the constant miscarriage of justice that we confront every day in our courts. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is only the precipitating factor for our protest, not the causal factor. The causal factor lies deep down in the dark and dreary past of our oppression. The death of Jeremiah Reeves is but one incident, yes a tragic incident, in the long and desolate night of our court injustice.

Let us go away devoid of biterness, and with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive. I hope that in recognizing the necessity for struggle and suffering, we will make of it a virtue. If only to save ourselves from bitterness, we need vision to see the ordeals of this generation as the opportunity to transfigure ourselves and American society … Truth may be crucified and justice buried, but one day they will rise again. We must live and face death if necessary with that hope.

-Martin Luther King, ““Statement Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage Protesting the Electrocution of Jeremiah Reeves” (pdf transcription)

* Parks would say that she had been thinking on the occasion of her refusal of that summer’s murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi.

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1963: Frederick Charles Wood, “Let me burn”

6 comments March 21st, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1963, hardened killer Frederick Charles Wood, 51, became the next-to-last prisoner to be executed at Sing Sing Prison in New York.

Although he came from a respectable, law-abiding family, Wood had a terrible temper and was very experienced at homicide. The man’s murderous career makes him the perfect poster child for the death penalty.

He committed his first murder while he was in his mid-teens, poisoning a girlfriend. He was out in only a few years, however, and fell back into crime: in 1933, he committed another horrific slaying. This time his victim, also female, was a stranger. Wood reportedly beat her with an iron bar and crushed her skull, and stabbed her over 140 times.

He served seven years and was paroled in 1940. In 1942, he killed again — for the third time. Wood attacked a man, hit him with a beer bottle, stomped on his head and slashed his throat. The victim, he said, was bothering his girlfriend.

This time he served almost twenty years before he was paroled again in 1960.

Mere weeks after his release from custody, in New York City, Wood beat and slashed a 62-year-old acquaintance to death, supposedly because his victim had made a pass at him. He then slaughtered the man’s 78-year-old sleeping roommate.

(When he was arrested the next day, Wood gave his occupation as “wine sampler.”)

Newspapers condemned the state parole board for letting him go so many times. Wood himself seemed to realize how stupid and pointless it all was, and refused any attempts to put off his much-deserved death sentence. He wrote that he wanted to “ride the lighting without further delay,” and added, “I do not welcome any intrusion into this stinking case of mine.”

Although Wood claimed he had schizophrenia and requested electroconvulsive therapy, three psychiatrists found him sane. A member of the Lunacy Commission asked him, “Is there any way we can help you?” Wood replied, “Let me burn.”

This article provides a detailed account of his crimes and execution, comparing him with Timothy McVeigh.

As he stood in the death chamber waiting to be strapped into the electric chair, he grinned at the witnesses and said, “Gents, this is an educational project. You are about to witness the damaging effect electricity has on Wood. Enjoy yourselves.”

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1899: Martha Place, the first woman electrocuted

Add comment March 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1899, Martha Place became the first woman to die in the electric chair.

William Place, a widowed insurance adjuster at 598 Hancock Street in Brooklyn, had taken Martha Garretson on as a housekeeper.

In time William felt her a suitable enough helpmate to put a ring on it and make her Ida’s full-time mother.

Honestly, though, some kids are just better off in a single-parent household.

Martha’s aptitude as a nurturer really can’t have met Bill Place’s expectations. “She felt that her husband loved his daughter more than he did her, and her jealousy rapidly changed into hatred for the little girl,” opined the New York Times. (July 9, 1898) “As the child grew into a pretty young woman and became more and more of a contrast to her, her hatred began to take active form. Place tried to reconcile them, but in vain. For three years Ida and her stepmother rarely spoke to each other, and in her father’s absence the girl was generally away from home.”

On at least one occasion, Mr. Place summoned the police to deal with a death threat that landed Martha in the dock.

On February 7, 1898, there’d be no more need for threats.

William Place arrived home that day to find the vengeful termagant brandishing an axe in his direction, with which she clobbered him twice about the head. Only wounded when she walked away from him, Place managed to pry a door open and call for help. When the police arrived, they found Martha in a gas-filled room attempting suicide (or pretending to) … and they found Martha’s bete noir, the poor stepdaughter, stone dead on her bed with acid burns on her face and an axe-gash from her scalp to her neck.

There’s a reason the “Wicked Stepmother” is such a venerable trope.

Public opinion did not take kindly to this destruction of hearth and home by such an unlovely faux-mother. The Times (July 8, 1898, once again) judged her

rather tall and spare, with a pale, sharp face. Her nose is long and pointed, her chin sharp and prominent, her lips thin and her forehead retreating. There is something about her face that reminds one of a rat’s,* and the bright, but changeless eyes somehow strengthen the impression. She looks like a woman of great strength of mind and relentless determination. The only time her expression changed during the trial was when her husband, William W. Place, testified to the attack made upon him. Then her thin lips parted in a sardonic grin, and she fixed her eyes upon him. The smile hardly ever left her face while he was on the stand. He did not look at her.

A greater contrast than that between this husband and wife could not be imagined. He is a man of refined appearance, and speaks in a quiet, pleasant voice. He testified calmly, except once or twice, when the questions of the lawyers bore upon the persecution of Ida. Then his voice trembled with emotion, while, on the other hand, it was impossible to make one’s self believe that Mrs. Place was possessed of any other feeling than that of a mild curiosity.

The criminal conviction was simplicity itself, and if women are generally less exposed to the risk of execution, their most characteristic point of vulnerability will tend to be a violation of the demands of sacred motherhood. Envious rat-faced stepmom acid-burns blooming daughter of refined burgher? That’s as paradigmatic as a female execution gets.

There was, of course, no shortage of attention since executions of women aren’t exactly everyday affairs in American history … and this one in particular would be the very first since New York introduced the industrial age’s death penalty innovation, the electric chair. The Medico-Legal Society of New York had a contentious debate at its February 1899 meeting over whether women ought to be executed at all. (The lone female speaker, Ida Trafford Bell, earned applause from the women in attendance by insisting that the fairer sex should have “just as much right to be electrocuted as a man.” (NYT, Feb. 16, 1899) Probably so, but they were still a generation away from having just as much right to vote.

Anyway, the governor of the state — Theodore Roosevelt, who was just a couple of years from becoming U.S. president thanks to another New York murderer — had the final say in the matter. Martha Place’s presence in these annals naturally discloses the outcome of his deliberations.

No more painful case can come before a Governor than an appeal to arrest the course of justice in order to save a woman from capital punishment, when that woman’s guilt has been clearly established, and when there are no circumstances whatever to mitigate the crime. If there were any reasonable doubt of the guilt — if there were any basis whatsoever for interference with the course of justice in this case — I should so interfere. But there is no ground for interference …

The only case of capital punishment which has occurred since the beginning of my term was for wife murder, and I refused to consider the appeals then made to me on behalf of the man who had killed his wife, after I became convinced that he had really done the deed and was sane.** In that case a woman was killed by a man; in this a woman was killed by another woman. The law makes no distinction of sex in such a crime.

This murder was one of peculiar deliberation and atrocity. To interfere with the course of the law in this case could be justified only on the ground that never hereafter, under any circumstances, should capital punishment be inflicted upon any murderess, even though the victim was herself a woman and even though that victim’s torture preceded her death.” (as quoted in the New York Times, March 16, 1899)

Happily the Sing Sing electric chair performed its duty smoothly with, per the March 21 Times, “no revolting feature” in evidence. It was, boasted the prison doctor, “the best execution that has ever occurred here.”

* As we’ve often seen, observers of women in the dock have a knack for perceiving a correlation of physical beauty to virtue, and the reverse.

** Roosevelt rejected Bailer Decker’s appeal for mercy on January 3, 1899 — his very first day in office.

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1896: Bartholomew “Bat” Shea, political machine ballot-stuffer

2 comments February 11th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1896, during a driving Adirondack snowstorm, Bartholomew “Bat” Shea was electrocuted at New York’s Clinton Prison for a political murder two years prior.

This was the great boom time for machine politics, corrupt political patronage networks doling “spoils” like jobs and benefits to members who in turn maintained a party’s stranglehold on an electorate. These flourished in an industrializing America’s burgeoning cities; Troy, N.Y., at 60,000-plus in the 1890s (it has fewer than that today), was one of upstate New York’s prime industrial centers, and home to a municipal machine rooted in Irish Catholic immigrants and bossed by Democratic U.S. Senator Edward Murphy.

Machine politics were a major bone of contention in the Progressive Era, and certainly in the Troy elections of 1894. The ballot that year would decide Troy’s mayor, and as per usual the Murphy machine meant to stuff the box for its handpicked candidate.

On March 6, 1894, a group of Murphy “repeaters” (so called for their intent to vote repeatedly) including “Bat” Shea and (he’ll figure momentarily) John McGough approached a Thirteenth Ward polling place.

Republican poll watchers Robert and William Ross awaited them — armed, and expecting trouble. They had sparred with the Murphy machine at the ward caucus a few days previous.

“In a twinkling,” went a press report, “clubs and revolvers were flourished. Many shots were fired and when the fight closed it was found that Robert Ross had been fatally shot, that his brother, William, received a bullet in the neck and that Shea and McGough, who fled from the scene, had each been slightly wounded.”

This bloodshed, profaning as it seemed a sacred pillar of the polis, aroused a passionate if opportunistic response from Republicans, anti-machine reformers, and Troy’s Protestants. The killer(s) “were guilty of a crime against the Republic and against republican institutions,” as the resulting Committee of Public Safety put it, deep into the appeals process. (NYT, Jan. 15, 1896) “If such a crime is to go unpunished, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people,’ must perish from the earth.”

“In this case there is something dearer than a single life,” said a prosecutor.*

It is the question of American citizenship, a question which comes home to us all, Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor. The question is whether it is the good citizen with the ballot, or the thug with his revolver, who shall control our nation.

Two other men were actually implicated in Robert Ross’s death before “Bat” Shea. John Boland, a fellow ballot-watcher, was the first arrested, but outcry against the apparent bid by the Murphy machine to fix the homicide on the victimized party soon freed him.

John McGough of the “repeater” party was also taken into custody, and accused at first of having fired the fatal shot.

Eyewitnesses soon pinned the murder on “Bat” Shea, and a conviction was speedily secured on this basis — with McGough subsequently receiving a long prison sentence for attempted murder, his shot having come within centimeters of taking William Ross’s life, too.

But many of those whom the Murphy machine benefited never believed the evidence against Shea and certainly never thought him capitally liable. Eyewitnesses hewing to their own party affiliation, pushing their own political agenda aided by convenient certainty upon the triggerman of this or that specific bullet in a general firefight. (The Rosses were shooting, too.)

The evidence could certainly be disputed, and over nearly two years Shea’s advocates did just that in courts and clemency petitions — a remarkable (for the time) odyssey to save Shea from the gallows.

Days prior to Shea’s January 1896 execution, his fellow repeater McGough sent a letter to Republican Gov. Levi Morton,** claiming that he, not Shea, shot Ross.

Interviewed directly by the governor’s agents, McGough stuck to his story. This wasn’t enough to convince Morton to spare Shea. For one thing, it would invite the suspicion that the Murphy people were conniving to weasel each other out of the debt that someone owed for Ross’s blood — McGough having already been convicted for his part in the skirmish, and thus safely out of the executioner’s potential grasp.

So much for Republican New York, Protestant New York, respectable New York. Shea’s many supporters who could never secure a legal toehold received his remains in honor at Troy, crowding a train platform where the coffin arrived in at 2:30 a.m. the morning after the electrocution. All that Wednesday, February 12, throngs of supporters paid their respects as the electrocuted man lay in state at his family’s River Street home.

At funeral services at St. Patrick’s Church on February 13, the officiating Father Swift averred uncertainty as to Shea’s guilt.

“If he was guilty,” said Swift (NYT, Feb. 14, 1896), “I do not believe he was conscious of it.”

For the reported 10,000 who turned out to lay the “murderer” to rest, the sentiment was quite a bit less ambivalent. Countless floral arrangements crowded into the Shea home. “Innocent,” read the cards upon many of them. Or, “Murdered.” (With a similar sympathy but perhaps much less taste, someone else sent flowers shaped like the electric chair.)

The present-day visitor to Troy can see “Bat” Shea’s name on a downtown Irish pub … and a monument of Robert Ross defending a ballot box at Oakwood Cemetery.


(cc) image from @zakkforchilli.

* This statement was made in the McGough trial, not the Shea trial. It’s sourced to this 1890s celebration of Ross and his cause.

** Morton had been U.S. Vice President from 1889 to 1893. More interestingly for this blog, Morton was U.S. President James Garfield’s 1881 appointee as ambassador to France. This was the very diplomatic post for which Charles Guiteau had petitioned Garfield, and being passed over (on account of being a whackadoodle obscurity) caused Guiteau to assassinate Garfield. Morton was succeeded as governor by Frank Swett Black … a Troy clean-elections crusader who had gone into politics after sitting at the prosecution’s bar in the case of “Bat” Shea.

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1844: Hester Foster and William Young Graham

1 comment February 8th, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

At 1:30 p.m. on this date in 1844 at the Columbus Penitentiary in Ohio, William Young Graham, aka William Clark, and Hester Foster, aka Helen or Esther, were hanged together for their respective crimes.

It was an integrated execution: Graham was a white man, and Foster was black.

Foster was the first woman to be executed in Ohio. (There would be just three more … so far.) The previous spring, while incarcerated for some offense lost to history, she beat a white female prisoner to death with a fire shovel. As this history of Franklin County notes, Foster admitted to her actions, but claimed the murder wasn’t premeditated and therefore not a death penalty crime.

Graham’s crime was somewhat similar; within a few months of the murder Foster committed, he killed a prison guard with an ax. His defense had been one of insanity.

The pair’s public execution was attended by thousands. In the atmosphere of “noise, confusion, drunkenness and disorder,” one attendee, a Mr. Sullivan Sweet, was accidentally trampled to death. Many more Ohio men would face the death penalty in coming years, but Ohio’s next execution of a woman would not be until almost a century later, with the electrocution of serial poisoner Anna Marie Hahn in 1938.

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1928: Ben “Two Gun” Fowler, cinema shooter

1 comment January 25th, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1928, a lawman was electrocuted in Nashville, Tennessee for the drunken double murder he’d committed nearly a year earlier. He walked resolutely to the death chair and even helped the guards adjust the straps before they pulled the switch.

Deputy Sheriff Ben “Two Gun” Fowler possessed three main qualifications for Prohibition-era law enforcement:

  1. He was enormous in size.
  2. He had a menacing demeanor.
  3. He was a World War I veteran. (Although, it’s true, most of his service time had been spent in the hospital battling the Spanish Flu.)

His main duty seems to have been busting up whiskey distilleries; he claimed he had destroyed 200 of them during his three years of service in Scott County, Tennessee.

Not being a wasteful man, he consumed much of the confiscated booze himself. He was thus fortified with moonshine on the night of his crime: March 5, 1927.

The town of Robbins lacked a theater, so its residents regularly screened films in the school auditorium. A large crowd came to see a comedy that fateful March night, Fowler among them. He was armed with his usual two pistols, and also wearing a bullet-proof vest.

Supposedly, he planned to serve a civil warrant on someone whom he thought would also be attending the movie.

But shortly after the film began, Fowler became annoyed by some noisy children and ordered them to keep quiet or he would arrest them. This prompted laughter from others in the crowd, including Dr. Wylie W. Foust. Fowler ordered him to shut up and threatened to arrest him, and Foust replied calmly, “You won’t do that.”

Foust was right: Fowler didn’t do that. Instead he struck him in the face with one of his pistols then shot him two or three times in the head. The doctor fell dead on the spot. If this sounds familiar, it’s because armed moviegoers are still to this day known to demand polite moviegoers.

Dr. Foust’s adult son was sitting behind him, and he was also armed. He pulled out his own pistol and shot at his father’s killer, but the bullets were ineffective against Fowler’s bullet-proof vest.

Fowler returned fire. At least two bystanders were shot in the melee. One of them, 53-year-old John Wesley West, also a deputy sheriff, was fatally wounded and died at the hospital.

For some time after the shootings, the drunken deputy stalked the auditorium, brandishing his pistols. He kept all the filmgoers in a state of terror, and ordered the Widow Foust to stop crying. Finally more level-headed armed men arrived and Fowler was put under arrest.

Justice moved swiftly: the murders happened Saturday night, Fowler was indicted on Monday, his trial started on Thursday, and the jury got the case the following Monday. Fowler’s defense was intoxication: he claimed he was too sauced to know what he was doing, which reduced his crimes to second-degree murder, a non-capital offense.

Although most witnesses agreed “Two Gun” was under the influence at the time of his senseless outburst, they couldn’t agree just how drunk he was, and no one could testify as to how much alcohol he’d actually consumed prior to the shootings. The jury took only two minutes to convict.

It should be noted that this wasn’t Fowler’s only brush with the wrong side of the law, either: he and another deputy had previously been charged with killing two moonshiners, but both men were acquitted in that case.

Fowler, a Kentucky native, was the only Scott County residence to die in the electric chair in Nashville. He was 35 years old when he attained that distinction.

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1936: Harry Singer, in the holiday spirit

Add comment December 26th, 2013 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. 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.)

(Said to a guard) “The chair will be a good enough [Christmas] present for me.”

— Harry Singer, convicted of murder, electric chair, Indiana.
Executed December 26, 1936

The twenty-five-year-old former farmhand kept mostly to himself Christmas Day, playing checkers and eating “heartily,” according to the Associated Press. Few details of the crime have survived, except the names of his victims: Mr. and Mrs. John Wesley Kaufman and their daughter, age twelve. In prison, Singer also confessed to the murder of Joseph Bryant, age twenty, of Detroit.

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1888: One Newfoundland, for Thomas Alva Edison

2 comments July 30th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1888, a 76-pound Newfoundland was electrocuted before a crowd in a lecture hall at the Columbia College School of Mines (now the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University) in New York City. The pooch was an innocent bystander who’d fallen victim to the War of Currents between Thomas Edison and his electrical adversary, George Westinghouse.

Edison was a proponent of direct current (DC), where the electricity flows in one direction from source to receiver. Westinghouse, one the other hand, favored AC, alternating current, where the electrical current will reverse direction from time to time and electricity doesn’t flow from the source to the receiver so much as in between them.

In the late 1800s, as electrical systems were spreading all over America, Westinghouse’s company and Edison’s company were duking it out as to which system would prevail over the other. Westinghouse’s AC, being far more efficient, was usually the system of choice for providing electricity to houses, businesses and streetlights, which was where most of the profits lay. (DC was better for things like batteries.)

Desperate to hold onto eroding market share, Edison saw an opportunity to do Westinghouse dirty when New York State adopted the electric chair as their means of execution. Some notable botches had rendered hanging unpalatable, but industrial electrification was still such a newfangled concept that at the time the law was passed, the chair had yet to be built. Edison figured that a propaganda blitz to make sure the device used AC would help convince the public that the rival current was too deadly to be used in private homes and city streets.

Edison hired Harold P. Brown to help him in his campaign to prove AC’s dangerousness: which brings us to this day’s event, as described in Craig Brandon’s detailed book The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History.

In private experiments, Brown and his assistant, Arthur E. Kennelly, “attached electrodes to dozens of stray dogs and tried various combinations of volts and amperes before announcing that it took only 300 volts of alternating current to kill a dog, but 1,000 volts of direct current.”


Seriously?*

Satisfied that they were ready to go public, Brown scheduled a demonstration at Columbia on July 30, inviting electricians, scientists and the press to watch. Kennelly and Dr. Frederick Peterson, a member of the Medico-Legal Society of New York, assisted him.

Book CoverBrown opened his demonstration by insisting that he had been drawn into the controversy not out of any self-interest but because of his concern that alternating current was too dangerous to be used on city streets. He denied charges that he was in the pay of any electric light company and had “no financial or commercial interest” in the results of his experiments. Of course, the fact that he was using Edison’s equipment and was assisted by Edison’s chief of research spoke of itself.

Brown then brought in the first experimental subject: a 76-pound Newfoundland dog in a metal cage. The dog had been muzzled and had electrodes attached to one foreleg and one hind leg.


SERIOUSLY?! (cc) image from DanDee Shots.

Brown connected the dog to the DC generator that Edison had loaned him and starting with 300 volts gradually increased the voltage to 1,000 volts. As the voltage increased, the observers noted, the dog’s yelping increased but it remained alive.

Having proven the safety of DC current, Brown disconnected the suffering animal from the DC generator and connected it to the AC generator with the remark, “We shall make him feel better.” (No word on whether he was twirling his mustache as he said so.)

Brown turned the voltage to 330, and the dog collapsed and died instantly.

The viewers were impressed, but Brown wasn’t done yet and brought in another dog. He said he was going to connect this one to the AC generator first. This, he said, would prove that the animal didn’t die because the shocks from the DC generator had weakened it.

Before he could accomplish this, however, an agent from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals arrived and asked Brown to stop the experiment and spare the poor dog’s life. It took some convincing, but in the end Brown agreed to stay of execution. The second dog would die another day.

Although the regular newspapers loved this bit of theater, the trade magazine The Electrical Engineer claimed the experiment was unscientific. The magazine offered a terrible little poem about the proceedings:

The dog stood in the lattice box,
The wires around him led,
He knew not that electric shocks
So soon would strike him dead…
At last there came a deadly bolt,
The dog, O where was he?
Three hundred alternating volts,
Had burst his vicerae

Although the ASPCA might have brought his first experiment to a premature end, Brown was not deterred. He toured New York State for months, giving dog and pony shows before fascinated crowds, where he would electrocute cats, cows, calves, and well, dogs and ponies, using both direct and alternating currents. He paid young boys twenty-five cents apiece to round up stray animals to get fried.

The public watched — but wasn’t fooled, and continued to use alternating currents. Even the 1890 execution of William Kemmler in New York’s brand-spanking new AC electric chair failed to convince anyone that they were going to drop dead if they installed AC electricity in their homes. (Brown helped design the chair.) AC won the War of Currents hands-down.

The poor Newfoundland, having laid down its small life for the greater prosperity of Edison’s investors, died, unmourned, in vain.

* This shock-a-dog diagram is from “Death-Current Experiments at the Edison Laboratory,” an article that Harold Brown published in the New York Medico-Legal Journal, vol. 6, issue 4. He remarks therein, just by the by, on alternating current’s “life-destroying qualities,” and how the august committee carrying out these electrocutions “were not a little startled when I told of them results of recent tests for leakage made by me not long since on the circuit of one of the alternating current stations in this city.” Brown was, he said, indebted to “Mr. Thos. A. Edison, through whose kindness I was allowed the use of apparatus.”

As noted, the thorough Brown put said apparatus to use on a variety of fauna. In the interest of science, he also includes in this same article diagrams on the electrocution of a calf and a horse; we enclose them here for your edification.

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1917: “John Nelson”, mystery man

3 comments July 10th, 2013 Headsman


(Salt Lake (Utah) Telegram, Dec. 31, 1916)

On this date in 1917, someone was electrocuted in Rockview, Pennsylvania.

“John Nelson”, the cipher alias by which authorities were eventually content to call him, was 5′ 8″ tall and 165 pounds, and looked like an African-American. (“Nelson” himself said that neither white men nor black were of his race.) Papers put this about quizzically because he was also utterly steadfast in refusing to identify himself or his background.

He eventually allowed that he came from Canton, Ohio (but who knows if that’s true). “He reads Shakespeare and seeks high grade newspapers and magazines,” ran news-of-the-weird wire copy all around the country. He boasts “long hair which bears the appearance of having been done up in kids to give a ‘Sis Hopkins’* effect” as well as “long gray whiskers, sideburns and a heavy mustache.” He looked maybe 60 years old.

Anyone?

Aw, heck.


The Scranton Times sent 5,000 of these postcards around the country hoping to scare up information about their mysterious murderer.

Tips poured in from all over — but nothing definitive. An upstate New York sheriff reported discharging a guy named John Nelson from jail a couple of years before. A woman in Butte, Montana recognized the picture and thought it might be her vanished father. The prisoner also resembled a missionary from Ohio and a bank president from Richmond, Va., also both missing; a Scranton woman thought he maybe used to be her gardener. (All but the last of these indefinite tips via Cheryl Kashuba’s two-part series on this case in the March 17 and March 24, 2013, issues of the Scranton Times-Tribune.)

Although nobody could figure out who he was, everyone was pretty sure what he’d done.

On the evening of Oct. 30, 1915, he’d trudged into Mill City, a Wyoming County township outside of Scranton, and made an unexplained sudden attack on three men lolling about a barbershop porch.

According to those three men’s story — and they’re all we have to work with since Nelson kept mum on this, too — a little white boy running down the darkened street bumped into the mystery pedestrian. At that, “Nelson” suddenly produced a knife and charged at the trio of nearby men, bellowing “White people in a tank town like this can’t run over me!”

J.M. Sickler, a prosperous local farmer, bravely intercepted the attacker before he reached Judge Robert Westlake, and suffered mortal stab wounds for his trouble. The attacker fled, but other locals roused by the commotion overpowered him as he escaped; Sickler lived long enough to give a deathbed positive identification.

Of course, it wasn’t really “positive” — that’s the whole point. And “John Nelson”, whoever he might have been, kept his nose in his Shakespeare and his lips enigmatically sealed on the crime and its causes; on his background and biography; on everything whatsoever. “I just wouldn’t care to talk about that,” he would reply when questioned, or similar versions of that polite deflection.

He kept his queer peace all the way to the electric chair.

* Maybe Mr. “Nelson” was just taking Sis Hopkins’ good advice: “There ain’t no sense in doin’ nothin’ for nobody what won’t do nothin’ for you.” As Nelson blithely put it (and who could contradict him?) any name at all would do for his circumstances.

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