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.
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.”
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.
Brown 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.
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.
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.
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.
On this day in 1920, Lee Monroe Betterton (addressed by his middle name) was electrocuted in Oklahoma for the murder of his wife, whose unusual name has been given variously as “Elzeana,” “Aldazia” and “Elzadah.” (This account will use the latter spelling, which was the one used in Betterton’s Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals syllabus.)
Little is known about Monroe Betterton’s background, other than that he was born in Missouri and was the seventh of twelve children, ten of whom survived to adulthood.
He was a heavy drinker and his violent nature was self-evident: Elzadah was, sadly, not the first wife Betterton killed. Nor was she even the second wife Betterton killed.
Betterton killed his first wife, Laura Elizabeth, in Barry County, Missouri in 1904. They had four young children together, two sons and two daughters. During an argument he beat her unconscious and she was taken to the hospital, where she soon died. For some reason, her husband was not prosecuted.
By 1908, Betterton had remarried and was living with Rosie, Wife #2, in Neosho, Missouri. They were walking to nearby Monett to visit some of his relatives when they started quarreling. Both of them had been drinking. About two miles outside of town, Betterton suddenly pulled out a knife and stabbed Rosie in the heart. She died instantly and he laid her body beside the railroad tracks.
This time he was arrested and charged with the crime. Betterton maintained that “I was guilty of that woman’s death, but it was an accident.” He got 99 years in prison, but served only ten before he was paroled in 1918.
He was 48 by then, and he returned to Monett and began courting Elzadah Lockwood, a widow close to his own age who was unfamiliar with the old adage that while once is a coincidence, twice is a trend. They got married, but their relationship turned rocky almost immediately and they argued constantly.
The couple separated after only a few months and filed for divorce. However, they reconciled after Betterton’s son Clifford married Elzadah’s daughter Mamie. In the first week of July 1919, a mere week after their divorce was final, Monroe and Elzadah remarried and settled in Vinita, Oklahoma.
Their previous problems resurfaced, however, and within days they were fighting like cats.
On July 9, 1919, Elzadah was preparing to leave her son-in-law Arthur Thomas’s house after yet another argument when Betterton shot her three times in the back. One of the bullets blew away the whole right side of her heart, and she was dead before authorities arrived at the scene.
When questioned, Betterton implicated everyone: the son Clifford; the son-in-law Arthur; even Elzadah herself as a phenomenally effective suicide. Mamie had been present at the scene, though. She and Elzadah’s eight-year-old son Raymond saw the whole thing, and both testified against their stepfather at his trial.
The case was pretty open-and-shut: As the Vinita Daily Journalnoted, “The prisoner seems to be the least [a]ffected of the family and pays close attention to the testimony for or against him … There was practically no defense.”
Hobart (Okla.) Daily Republican, June 21, 1920.
Less than an hour before his execution, Betterton gave an interview in his cell and continued to assert his innocence: “I am not guilty of the crime with which I am charged. I am ready to die. I am ready to meet my God. I do not fear death, but I do not want to die for a crime which I did not commit.”
Approximately 100 people witnessed his execution. He had no final statement.
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: