Today is the centennial of the electrocution of Floyd Allen, the wealthy patriarch of a Virginia clan, and his son Claude — for an astounding shootout right in the Carroll County (Va.) courthouse.
Before the unpleasantness, Allen was for Carroll County gentleman farmer, prosperous shopkeep, moonshine-distiller, and political operator. He was also a guy with a violent reputation.
That’s him on the right, but maybe you want to picture an Old Dominion Don Corleone instead.
“The worst man of the clan,” said a local judge who suspected that Allen had dodged other brushes with the law by intimidating witnesses. “Overbearing, vindictive, high tempered, brutal, with no respect for law and little or no regard for human life.”
Mix a guy like that with an innocent rustic harvest-produce ritual and bloodshed is bound to follow.
Matters began for the 50-something Allen with teenage hormones at a local cornshucking. Custom dictated that finding a lucky red ear of corn would entitle the corn-shucker who drew it to a kiss from any girl of his choice. A youth named Wesley Edwards, nephew to Floyd Allen, drew a red ear.
The girl he kissed happened to have a boyfriend. So here we go.
The next day, the jealous boyfriend got his by jumping Wesley Edwards, which drew Wesley’s brother into the brawl, which led to assault and weapons charges against the Edwards boys. They were arrested over the border in North Carolina, but en route to returning them to the Hillsville, Va., lockup, Floyd Allen stopped the cart and liberated his kin. Allen would say later that he didn’t intend this to go full-outlaw; rather, his lordly sense of prerogatives was offended to see the boys tied up instead of treated with dignity, and a political foe of a sheriff rushing to get them in manacles when Allen full intended to post bail for them.
And that led to the March 1912 trial of Floyd Allen for interfering with an officer of the law. Allen was convicted on this count and sentenced to one year in prison.
“Gentlemen,” replied our put-upon paterfamilias to this sentence. “I ain’t a-goin’.”*
Literally, this is what Floyd Allen got up and said in court in direct response to the judge’s delivery of sentence moments before.
There’s a great deal of after-the-fact argument and finger-pointing about who started this mess. It must have been mayhem: the sheriff plunked Allen, who collapsed on his attorney; Allen fired back with the revolver that he was naturally carrying to his own criminal sentencing.
Fears and rumors had circulated that exactly this sort of thing might go down if the surly Floyd Allen drew jail time, so quite a lot of attendees in the crowded courtroom were jittery and packing heat. Now they all started crouching and firing. At least fifty spent rounds were later retrieved from the hall of justice.
When the smoke cleared, the Allen clan had absconded as a gang with the now-fugitive Floyd. Five other people left the room for their coffins: the judge, the prosecutor, the sheriff, the jury foreman, and a 19-year-old girl who had testified against Allen.
Considering the distribution of bodies, that’s less a shootout than a massacre. (pdf)
A massive manhunt brought the Allens in within weeks. This time, jurors nervous of retaliation handed Floyd Allen the death penalty, and a like sentence to his son Claude.** The eventual clemency appeals for the latter would focus on his honorable adherence to the family, complaining that Claude was condemned for doing “no more than any boy would do for an old gray haired Father without a moments [sic] time to consider.” The appeals for the former blamed the sheriff for starting the shootout and the entire affair from the nephews’ arrest on down on political rivalries among Carroll County’s elites. Between these and clemency opponents decrying the “maudlin sentimentality” that proposed to spare these murderers, the standard of Virginia manhood was thoroughly litigated on editorial pages throughout the Commonwealth — indeed, throughout the country, for the astonishing case drained newsprint ink from coast to coast.
And why not? From corn-shucking to the twisted family honor to the electric chair, every pore oozed Americana. Even a young woman who was described as “a mountain girl” descended from her haunts to appeal for the life of her betrothed, Claude.
From the Trenton (N.J.) Evening Times, September 13, 1912.
“They were men of the mountains; they were out of the beaten parts of civilization; they were untaught in the ways of the world outside. Their habits and training had led them to adhere to a code of almost primal instincts in many ways; to them the right to do as they pleased regardless of what custom or other people demanded was ingrown. And yet they had never been criminal at heart.” -From a profile of the family in the March 28, 1913 Miami Herald
Though the Allens managed a few short delays as their appeals percolated, Mann was steadfast in his refusal to mitigate the crime. The two went to Virginia’s electric chair eleven minutes apart on this date.
All that from a red ear of corn. Incidentally, somewhere in this whole timeline, Floyd’s nephews were themselves sentenced for the original brawl with the boyfriend (long before the shootout, and the resulting serious prison sentences they got for that). Their punishment was 30 and 60 days working the sheriff’s orchard. That, plus the destruction of their family.
* Allen had successfully refused to serve a one-hour jail sentence for a 1903 scrape. One measly hour.
** Several other Allens got long prison sentences eventually truncated by executive pardons in the 1920s. Most of their estate was seized and the family generally scattered across the country, far from Carroll County. (Floyd Allen’s brother Jack got into a barroom argument in North Carolina in 1918 about the notorious Hillsville events, and Jack wound up shot dead himself in the dispute.)
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post on the anniversary of what was then the first execution in Indiana for nearly 20 years. 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 hold no grudges. I’m sorry it happened. I know what I’m doing.”
— Steven T. Judy, convicted of rape and murder, electric chair, Indiana.
Executed March 9, 1981
A serial rapist, Judy openly courted capital punishment. At his trial for killing a woman and her three children (ages five, four, and two), Judy told a jury to condemn him or else he might kill them, their children, and the judge. He showed no remorse for the murders, telling reporters, “I don’t lose sleep over it.” Judy asked for death. “I’ve lived my hell,” he said. “So [what waits for me] has to be better.”
On February 12, 1950, Buffalo socialite Marion Little Frisbee* was discovered in a frozen ditch in a suburb 12 miles outside the city, a .32-20 rifle bullet through her left temple.
Within 24 hours, a 19-year-old Native American** youth named Harley LaMarr had been caught at a boarding-house and copped to the crime.
While the coroner did report an “attempt at criminal assault,” the motive for Frisbee’s abduction/murder had been robbery. Harley LaMarr needed money because his mother, Amelia Palwodzinski, had had a fight with her second husband the month before. In the course of that fight, she planted a butcher’s knife in the man’s chest.
As Amelia went off to serve a 30-year stretch for manslaughter, she made her boy Harley promise to give the victim a decent burial. Harley had no money: he did have a .32-20. He took it to a tony part of town and waited for an opportunity.
Marion Frisbee’s purse netted him about $6. He didn’t bother taking her diamond ring because, he said, he just wanted cash for the funeral. Harley insisted the gun went off by accident: the jury in a four-day trial that April didn’t buy it.
The day before Harley LaMarr’s electrocution at Sing Sing on January 11, 1951, the Empire State’s prison officers brought his mother from Bedford Hills a few miles down the road to death row for one last goodbye with her tragically dutiful son.
The youth met with his mother for 20 minutes after authorities brought her from Bedford Hills.
They spoke together in low tones. The woman took a long last look at her son and walked away from the visiting cage dry-eyed.
“Thank you for coming, ma,” the youth called after her. (Source (pdf))
At 12:09 a.m. this date in 1934, Harry Pierpont — a partner of notorious gangster John Dillinger — was electrocuted at the Columbus, Ohio penitentiary.
This Indiana-born criminal helped Dillinger transition from local malcontent to FBI’s Most Wanted* in prison in Michigan City, Indiana. Pierpont was a professional armed robber and the leader of a gang that knocked over several Indiana banks in the mid-1920s before his capture.
That was right about the time that fellow Hoosier Dillinger was catching an absurdly harsh 10-to-20-year sentence for robbing a local grocer in Mooresville — a sentence Dillinger helped bring on himself when he took his father’s advice to plead guilty and take responsibility and blah blah blah.
The court threw the book at him.
“I will be the meanest bastard you ever saw when I get out of here,” 21-year-old Dillinger is supposed to have said. He’d prove infamously true to his word … with the help of Harry Pierpont.
The two crossed paths in the penitentiary system in 1925. Pierpont was only eight months older, but was a much more seasoned criminal and mentored the young Dillinger in the arts of bank robbery. Both also cribbed from two former associates of the German robber Hermann Lamm, who broke new ground in the larceny game with his disciplined, systematic approach to the job: casing the bank, organizing the crime, plotting and practicing the getaway route.
Dillinger finally made parole after nine long years in the stir on May 22, 1933. The years-long show of rehabilitation that won him his liberty immediately proved to have been a facade: in a pre-arranged plan, Dillinger committed several bank robberies that summer to raise funds to orchestrate a prison break for Pierpont et al.
Pierpont and seven others, who would form the first Dillinger gang (Pierpont reportedly encouraged the branding fronting his charismatic former apprentice), and their escape conveniently occurred just after Dillinger himself had been arrested. His once-and-future associates returned the favor by liberating Dillinger from the Lima, Ohio jail — gunning down Sheriff Jess Sarber in the process.
Dillinger would be dead within the year and Pierpont not much outlive him. But in those months pillaging banks (wildly unpopular at this moment, the very pits of the Great Depression) from the open-road freedom of zooming Terraplanes that could outrace police cars, wielding spectacular Tommy guns that could outgun police, the Dillinger gang staked its social bandit bona fides.**
They robbed several more banks with the discipline and precision that would make them famous; notably, Dillinger and company rarely drank and never when planning heists, evaluating targets with all the businesslike sobriety of corporate raiders.
They weren’t caught in the act, but while trying to lay low in Arizona.
Dillinger and had one more escape in his bag, and that a spectacular one: brandishing a fake wooden “gun”,† Dillinger busted out of the allegedly “escape-proof” Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Ind. and joined up with another gangster.
Dillinger had four months and change yet to go, a cavalcade of Midwestern robberies, an alleged appearance-altering plastic surgery, and a running battle with the young HerbertJ. Edgar Hoover and his star agent Melvin Purvis. Dillinger was finally shot dead in Chicago that summer of 1934. His robbery spree had lasted only 15 months, but it made him a worldwide celebrity.
Three others arrested with Dillinger in Arizona, however, were not with Dillinger when he escaped Crown Point.
Instead, they were destined for Ohio to answer for that sheriff they’d murdered freeing Dillinger the year before. Harry Pierpont and a fellow gang member, Charles Makley, caught capital sentences.
It’s more than likely that they were anticipating another rescue from their famous confederate, but Dillinger’s end in Chicago sealed Pierpont’s and Makley’s fate, too.
On September 22, with death dates looming, those two attempted to replicate Dillinger’s “fake gun” escape gambit with bars of soap carved like pistols and painted with bootblack. (Woody Allen paid it homage.) It was a desperate try, and it ended in a fusillade from an un-bluffed squad of prison guards as Pierpont and Makley tried to spring the gate to their prison block.
Makley, perhaps the luckier of the two, died of his injuries. The hobbled Pierpont lived long enough to make it to the electric chair.
A few books about John Dillinger
* Dillinger was the first person designated as the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Most Wanted.
** Anecdote: the Dillinger gang wouldn’t steal from bank customers, telling them “we only want the bank’s money.”
† Or maybe a real gun subsequently replaced with a fake gun, maybe with the connivance of bribed guards or the like … there’s a good deal of unresolved speculation about this escape.
(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 Butler’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
“It looks pretty dark, but if I have to, I guess I can take my medicine.”
-Morris Cohen, convicted of murder, Illinois. Executed October 13, 1933
A thirty-eight-year-old barber, Cohen got the electric chair for the murder of Officer Joseph Hastings during a robbery attempt at Chicago’s Navy Pier. A secondary headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune read “Record for Speedy Justice Is Set.” He had been executed less than two months after the crime.
On this day in 1945, twenty-year-old Henry William Hagert died in Ohio’s electric chair for the murders of thirteen-year-old twins James and Charles Collins two years earlier.
Hagert, who was only seventeen at the time of the crime, had shot the boys in cold blood and for no reason at all.
The young murderer was from Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland. He was a bit of a bad seed; those who knew him said he started to go bad when he was about seven years old, after a bout with double pneumonia and “brain fever.” After his recovery from the illness, he became unstable and aggressive. In 1942, after a high-speed police chase, he was arrested on multiple charges of auto theft and sent to the Boys’ Industrial School for a year.
Typically, this experience in reform school failed to reform him, and he returned home worse than ever.
Hagert’s mother, unable to handle him, had him committed to the psychiatric ward in Cleveland City Hospital in early July 1943. There he was diagnosed as having a “psychopathic personality” and released on August 9. (Just why is unclear; Hagert’s mother claims she begged the chief staff physician not to release him, and the doctor denied this and said, on the contrary, she had begged for him to let her son go.)
Just two days later, Hagert was driving his blue Chevy around when he picked up a nine-year-old boy, the son of a city aide. His plan had to been to sexually assault and murder the child, but he later claimed he was moved by the boy’s crying and pleas and decided to spare his life. This didn’t stop him from keeping his victim in the car overnight, torturing and sexually abusing him. The next day, Hagert drove the boy to a wooded area, tied him to a tree, and placed a series of anonymous calls to the child’s parents with clues as to his whereabouts. The police found the little boy where his abductor had left him.
The following afternoon, for reasons best known to himself, Hagert returned to the spot where he’d left the abduction victim and encountered a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter and a photographer.
As Hagert made small talk with the photographer, the reporter became suspicious of his behavior and remembered the old cliché about the killer returning to the scene of his crime. He scribbled down a physical description of Hagert and took note of the license plate number on his Chevy. Later, he turned his notes over to the police.
A compliant Hagert was taken in for questioning. Unaccountably, two hours passed before anyone realized he had a loaded gun under his shirt. When an officer removed Hagert’s shirt, the gun fell to the floor. As the officer picked it up, the young man said casually, “The gun you have in your hand is the one I shot the other two with.”
James and Charles Collins had been missing since noon the previous day and law enforcement agents were frantically searching for them. They were last seen hitchhiking to their jobs as caddies at a local golf course. Hagert calmly confessed to killing the Collins twins and lead authorities to their bodies. The dead boys were about 300 feet apart and each had been shot at the base of the skull — that is, “execution style.”
If anyone doubted by now that Hagert was a monster, they would have been convinced by what he had to say about the double murder:
It’s pretty serious, you know. I kidnapped one kid and killed two others … I just felt like killing them, so I killed them. Now it all seems like a bad dream … I had the urge to kill before but I always managed to suppress it by running. I’d run down the street because I felt I had too much energy. The Collins boys were just victims of circumstance. I would have killed anyone at that time. It just happened to be them … I’m not especially sorry for any of those folks I have hurt … The whole thing is just like a smashed fender … When it’s done, it’s done — that’s all.
An initial panel of three psychiatrists unanimously agreed that Hagert was insane. This would not do: the state could not risk the possibility that this incredibly dangerous psychopath would be committed to a hospital, only to escape later on, or be released like before, to walk the streets again.
Five more psychiatrists were appointed to examine the defendant and this group said he was sane. In spite of this, the defense went with an insanity plea anyway. There wasn’t much of an alternative, given the evidence against their client.
Testifying before the jury, one of the doctors described Hagert as “a petulant, cruel, ruthless, determined, egotistical young man with no respect for God, man or the Devil.” Another said Hagert had told him that, if he were set free, the first thing he would do was track down and kill the newspaper reporter whose tip had led to his arrest.
The tearful testimony of his mother, who said Hagert had often complained of seeing “little midgets” who mocked him, carried little weight.
The jury took only two hours to find Henry Hagert guilty without a recommendation of mercy. In his book, Bellamy opines, “Most of the jurors, one suspects, thought Henry was insane by any imaginable standard of common sense, but they knew not what else to do with such an incorrigible monster.”
Hagert’s conviction was overturned on a technicality in December 1944, but his second trial, held before a three-judge panel in March 1945, resulted in the same inevitable guilty verdict. Hagert himself didn’t seem to care much. His last words were, “Do a good job of it now. Give me a good dose — it’s good for what ails for me.” He did donate his corneas, possibly the only contribution he ever made to society.
On this date in 1932, two African-American men were electrocuted in Huntsville, Texas.
Richard Johnson was a career criminal already serving a 35-year sentence for various burglaries when he busted out of prison in 1931. He teamed up with 20-year-old Richard Brown to rob a white couple in a parked car.
When the man, Ted Nodruft, tried to drive away, they shot him (he died the next day), and then proceeded to rape his fiancee and steal her jewelry. When caught, each man tried to throw the lion’s share of blame on the other.
These two on their own hardly stand out to posterity, and certainly not in the context of notoriously execution-friendly Texas, whose “List of individuals executed in Texas” Wikipedia entry (most states have such a page) is actually paginated by decade. Here’s the doings for the rest of the 1930s in the still-newish Texas electric chair.
We pause to note them here on this site because they made unexpected headlines earlier this year when Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins — the first elected black D.A. in Texas history — publicly revealed that Richard Johnson was his great-grandfather.
Long before that revelation, Watkins had already earned nationwide plaudits for doing what every district attorney should be doing as a matter of course: publicly emphasizing justice rather than conviction counts as his office’s guiding principle, greeting the rising tide of exonerations with a proactive program to search out potential miscarriages of justice rather than doubling down on them … hell, even apologizing to people whose lives have been ripped apart by wrongful convictions.
Watkins knew about the “dark secret of our family” for many years before he mentioned it in the run-up to witnessing his first execution (it was topical because Watkins used the trip to also visit his great-grandfather’s grave in the prison cemetery). How exactly that blood tie has helped to shape Craig Watkins’s outlook is hard to say, but not for any reticence on the DA’s part: he’s been disarmingly public about speaking to the real ambiguities and human costs of the criminal justice system that prosecutors are usually not supposed to acknowledge.
And so my concern, basically, is, look, we are seeking the ultimate punishment against someone, and we need to have all the safeguards in place to make sure that we don’t wrongly execute someone. And I think with all the evidence that we have seen, I think anyone that does not come to the conclusion that a person has been executed in this country for a crime they didn’t commit is being irresponsible. So that’s my position. Like I said, I can argue from my moralistic standpoint all day, but that’s not where the argument should be had. It should be one of logistics. Are we making mistakes? Do we need to reevaluate the process to make sure we are not making mistakes?
Watkins personally opposes the death penalty on moral grounds, but seeks it routinely in his capacity as district attorney. Here’s the man expanding on some of those themes in a 30-minute interview with the Dallas-Fort Worth NBC affiliate:
On this date in Sing Sing Prison in New York, Italian-American Anna Antonio was electrocuted for murder.
She’d been convicted of hiring two hit men, Sam Ferraci and Vincent Saetta, to kill her husband Salvatore for his $5,000 in life insurance. The dirty deed was done at Easter in 1933: Salvatore’s body turned up beside a country road, full of holes. He’d been shot five times and stabbed fifteen times.
When Saetta and Ferraci were picked up, they implicated Anna. All three conspirators were convicted and sentenced to death. They spent sixteen months on death row, where Anna was the sole female inmate, attended by three matrons.
As chronicled in Geoffrey Abbott’s book Amazing Stories of Female Executions, Anna had been originally scheduled to die with Ferraci and Saetta at 11:00 p.m. on June 28. The executioner, Robert G. Elliott, arrived, set everything up and waited … and waited … and waited …
No one appeared.
It wasn’t until 1:15 a.m. that he was told to just go home: no one would die tonight.
Just ten minutes before eleven on that night, Saetta had had a talk with the prison warden, unburdened himself and signed an affidavit. He admitted he and Ferraci had killed Salvatore, but he said the motive was a $75 drug debt. He swore Anna had had no part in the crime.
In an earlier conversation with a prison clerk, Saetta had said he and his partner in crime had only said Anna was involved because they thought this would save their own lives: “They’ll never send me to the hot seat. Not while there’s a dame in the case. In New York they don’t like to send a woman to the chair and they can’t send me and not her.”
The governor, Herbert Henry Lehman, thought it prudent to issue a 24-hour stay for all three of the condemned in order to investigate this new evidence. Anna Antonio fainted with relief at hearing the news.
Twenty-four hours later, she was again facing the chair. Again, Executioner Elliott showed up at Sing Sing, and again he was turned away: the stay had been extended by a week.
At the end of the week, a further stay was granted; the state was still mulling over what to do.
Meanwhile, the suspense was, pun intended, killing Mrs. Antonio. Abbott records:
At that stage the state of the condemned women can hardly be imagined; suffice it to say that her wardresses reported their prisoner’s condition alternated between bouts of hysteria and collapsing into a semi-coma. Eventually the decision was issued that all executions would take place on 9 August and all hopes were dashed.
She had weighed 100 pounds on June 28, but in the interim she stopped eating and dropped fifteen pounds in six weeks: she was probably among the smallest people to ever sit in the electric chair.* At one point she cried in anguish, “I have already died enough for a million men!” The Crime Library provides a detailed account of her execution.
On the last day of her life (which, horribly enough, was also her daughter’s birthday), Anna told the prison warden she was innocent. She reminded the warden that her late husband had been a drug dealer and said if she had wanted him dead, she could have just killed him with one of the guns that were lying around the house.
She did, however, admit that prior to the murder, Ferraci and Saetta had told her they intended to kill Salvatore. She said she had chosen not to try to prevent it because she was afraid for herself and her three children. Anna didn’t particularly care much for Salvatore anyway; he was violent and abusive.
Anna spent the day of August 9 playing with her children. She may have been expecting yet another reprieve; when she was told the execution was definitely on this time, she seemed stunned.
When asked about a last meal, she said simply, “I want nothing.”
She walked calmly into the death chamber at 11:12 p.m. and was pronounced dead four minutes later. Ferraci came after her, and Saetta was last.
* Even 14-year-old George Stinney, who was too small for the electrocution mask, weighed in at 90 pounds.
On this date in 1936, onetime lovers Everett C. Applegate (referred to in some accounts as “Edward” or “Earl”) and Mary Frances Creighton, who went by her middle name, were electrocuted in Sing Sing Prison for the murder of Ada Applegate, Everett’s wife.
Mary Frances Creighton (top) and Everett Applegate.
Newspapers of the time referred to Frances as the Long Island Borgia. The murder came about as a result of, depending on your point of view, a Jerry Springer-type sensation or horrific child sexual abuse or both: In 1934, Frances and her husband and their two children were living with the Applegates and their daughter in Nassau County, New York.
By January 1935, Everett Applegate was having an affair with Frances. He was also interested in the Creightons’ blooming teenage daughter, Ruth. By June of that year the thirty-something man was sleeping with her also, with the knowledge of — and in at least one case, in sight of — Ada, whose obesity kept her mostly confined to bed.
Ruth was delighted with her new boyfriend, who drove her anyplace she wanted to go, gave her money and and bought her clothes and other gifts. But when Frances found out about the relationship in July, she was furious and humiliated.
Not only was Everett in the arms of another, but he was making her, Frances, look like a bad mother. Ruth was going to school dressed like a harlot, even wearing lipstick. Suppose she became pregnant? This would bring terrible shame upon the family.
In mid-September, Ada Applegate became violently sick, with diarrhea and bilious vomit. She spent a few days in the hospital and was discharged, without a diagnosis but feeling much better.
Immediately after she got home, however, her symptoms returned, and she died two days later, on September 27. The cause of death was listed as “coronary occlusion” — in other words, a heart attack.
Frances was a bit of a hard case and no stranger to murder. She and her husband John were living with his parents, as well as her teenage brother, Raymond Avery, in New Jersey in 1920 when Anna and Walter Creighton suddenly sickened and died, one after the other.
In 1923, Raymond too became ill with the same symptoms and rapidly expired, and his sister and brother-in-law collected his $1,000 life insurance policy. Frances and John were charged with his murder after the autopsy, held in spite of their objections, found arsenic in young Raymond’s body.
After the autopsy, deeply suspicious investigators exhumed the elder Creightons’ bodies while their son and daughter-in-law were in jail. No arsenic could be found in Walter’s system, but Anna’s contained a lethal dose, and Frances (but not John this time) was charged with murder even before she came to trial for her brother’s death. She’d never gotten along with her in-laws or they with her, and just before Anna became ill, Frances had made ominous statements that the old woman would shortly “destroy herself.”
The Creightons’ four-day trial for Raymond’s murder resulted in acquittal for both defendants. John went home and Frances remained in custody for another two weeks until she faced her next trial, for the death of Anna Creighton. The prosecution was unable to prove she had personally purchased any poison, and the 24-year-old defendant, an attractive nursing mother who was keeping her infant son in her cell with her, presented a sympathetic picture. Once again, she heard a jury announce a murder acquittal.
But she didn’t take warning from her two near escapes.
Twelve years later, Ada Applegate became the third person close to Frances Creighton who died of arsenic poisoning. Goodness knows how many more she might have ventured.
The police knew about Frances’s relatives’ proclivities for mysterious deaths, and were deeply suspicious. An autopsy revealed three times the lethal dose of arsenic in Ada’s corpse, and it didn’t take long for Frances to crack under questioning.
She admitted to poisoning Ada, but also implicated Everett, saying he’d known about the crime all along and had helped her. She also claimed he used his knowledge of her past to blackmail her into having sex with him.
Frances killed Ada, Frances said, so Everett would have a chance to make an honest woman out of Ruth, and because Ada had been gossiping in the neighborhood about her husband’s affair with the girl.
Frances Creighton and Everett Applegate found themselves arrested. Only then did a bewildered John find out about the sexual improprieties that had been going on for months right under his nose. Remarkably, he stood by Frances and said he believed her to be innocent of murder.
He was the only one.
A look into Frances’s past revealed some very additional suspicious incidents apart from the deaths in her family. Relatives of a neighbor she quarreled with got extremely ill after having tea with Frances, and although they pulled through, later on, the neighbor’s house burned down.
The fire was arson and Frances had been the prime suspect, but there was insufficient evidence to arrest her.
As for Everett Applegate, the case against him was far less persuasive.
Frances made three statements: in the first, as told above, she implicated her erstwhile lover. In the second, she said she’d done the murder all on her own and Everett was not involved. The third time she went back to blaming him: he had mixed the poison, and she had given it to his wife.
To this shaky accusation add the ill feeling engendered by Everett’s caddish mores, and it was enough for an indictment. (Everett was also charged with criminally assaulting Ruth. At his arraignment he attempted to plead guilty to this, saying, “I want to marry this girl.” The judge refused to accept the plea.)
By the time of the trial, Frances had gone all-in on blaming Everett. She claimed the lothario had “made” her poison Ada. Her defense portrayed her as a weak woman who had been lead astray by an evil, domineering male. But Everett’s lawyer made sure the jury heard about the deaths of her brother and parents-in-law in New Jersey, and her conviction was a foregone conclusion.
The main evidence against Everett was Frances’s testimony, the fact that he was known to have purchased the rat poison that wound up in Ada’s eggnog, and his despoiling the teenage daughter of his paramour. Everett’s defense attorney agreed their client was a scumbag and a pervert, but denied that he was a murderer.
In his concluding arguments, the attorney asked the jury to acquit Everett of killing his wife and convict him instead of the rape of Ruth. It didn’t work: the jury convicted him on both counts.
While the two condemned awaited their fate, Ruth, who had been sent to a girls’ reform school, would later write a letter to the authorities. She said her mother was innocent and she had heard Everett say he wanted to do away with Ada so he could marry her. No one believed her story.
On the day of their executions, Frances was given the first slot in hopes that she might make a final statement exonerating Everett. Alas, she was in no condition to give any statement at all; suffering from hysterical paralysis, she had to be taken to the chamber on a wheelchair, and some reports state that she was completely unconscious when they strapped her into it. She was the first executee at Sing Sing in 45 years who was unable to walk on their own to their death.
Everett, still protesting his innocence, followed her ten minutes later.
On this date in 1944, a five-foot-one-inch, ninety-pound prisoner walked into the death chamber of the Central Correctional Institute in Columbia, South Carolina and was executed in the electric chair.
He was so small that the guards had trouble strapping him into the chair and fitting the electrodes on. When the first jolt of electricity hit him, the mask fell off his face, revealing an expression of horror.
His name was George Junius Stinney Jr., and at fourteen years, seven months and twenty-six days, he was the youngest person to be legally executed in the U.S. in the 20th century. In spite of this startling distinction, his death went practically unnoticed in the press.
Stinney, a black youth from a poor family in the town of Alcolu, was condemned for the double murder of two white girls he knew: Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 8. The girls had gone out on their bicycles on March 23, 1944, and along the way they saw Stinney and his sister and asked where to look for flowers. The Stinneys said they didn’t know.
The next day, the two girls’ bodies were found in a muddy, water-filled ditch. They had both sustained severe head injuries; their skulls were shattered. A fifteen-inch railroad spike was found nearby.
A few hours later, Stinney was arrested and locked in a room with several police officers and no one else. According to later testimony, at first he claimed the girls had suddenly attacked him and he hit them with the railroad spike in self-defense. However, a short time later he gave a second statement confessing to premeditated murder.
Stinney allegedly stated he had wanted to have sex with Betty June, but he couldn’t do so until the younger girl was out of the way, so he killed Mary Emma with the railroad spike. Betty June ran away, but Stinney caught up with her. When she resisted his sexual advances, he killed her too and dragged both bodies into the ditch. That’s the story.
When the townspeople found out that Stinney had confessed and would be charged with murder, a lynch mob formed outside the jail. Authorities took the boy to another jail in Columbia, fifty miles away, for his own safety; fearing for their own lives, Stinney’s family also fled town.
The trial took place on April 24, one month and one day after the murders, beginning at 2:30 p.m. Virtually the only evidence against Stinney was the testimony of the sheriff who heard the confession: there was no written record of the confession. Stinney’s defense attorney, who planned to run for state office, did not contest the confession and called no witnesses, but only claimed his client was too young to be held responsible for the murders. However, under South Carolina law at the time, a fourteen-year-old was legally an adult.
The jury was sent out at 5:00 p.m. and returned with a guilty verdict just ten minutes later.
There was no appeal.
Some local churches and the NAACP asked the governor for a commutation, citing Stinney’s age — but the governor allowed the execution to proceed. The entire drama from homicides to execution spanned less than 90 days.
One of Betty June Binnicker’s sisters reflected fifty years later, “Everybody knew that he done it, even before they had the trial they knew that he done it. But I don’t think that they had too much of a trial.”
More than sixty-five years after Stinney died, a community activist called for the case to be reopened, suggesting Stinney may have have been innocent. The evidence against him was absurdly slight. He had no history of violent behavior, and it seems unlikely that this short, slender boy would be strong enough to overpower two girls and beat them to death. Stinney’s brother, now a pastor in Brooklyn, said the family always believed in his innocence. Both his brother and his sister recalled that he had been a smart boy, a good student and artistic, and their family had been a close and loving one.
As one article noted, “Stinney’s trial and subsequent execution were suspicious at best and a miscarriage of justice at worst … This was South Carolina in 1944, with a black male defendant, two young white female victims, and an all white, male jury. Stinney never stood a chance.”