On this date in 1966, James French went to the Oklahoma electric chair, clinching his spot in perpetuity on last-words listicles by cracking to the press pool, “Hey, fellas. How about this for a headline for tomorrow’s paper? French Fries!”*
French had enjoyed five years to work out this chill fare-thee-well since the calculated murder of his cellmate in 1961, back when he, French, was already serving time for murder.
It’s alleged that French committed this ruthless deed in pursuit of the mercy seat, as a form of suicide by executioner; whether this is or isn’t so he had certainly embraced the consequence by the time he presented himself to the judiciary.
“He deserved to die,” the expansive French once informed an interviewer. “And now because of what I did, I deserve to die, too. I don’t want to die. Who does? But the rules are clear: to take a life is to forfeit your own.”
It’s just that his letters imploring speedy implementation of justice could not override procedural errors in his first trial (they biased the jury by presenting French in manacles) nor his second trial (bad jury instruction by the judge) until the third time charmed in 1965.
The man could have lived a long life punning on his surname — perhaps he would have insisted on going by James Freedom as a post-9/11 America blundered into Iraq? — had he chosen to fight his death sentence, for even then the law’s French frying apparatus was grinding to a halt. Just two more executions — Aaron Mitchell and Luis Monge, both in 1967 — would take place in all the land before capital punishment went into a decade-long hiberation during which all previously existing death sentences were invalidated. French’s was the last death by electric chair until John Spenkelink in 1979 and the last ever electrocution in Oklahoma (which has used lethal injection in the modern, post-1972 era).
* His actual, and better, last words in the death chamber were by way of declining to make a final statement: “Everything’s already been said.”