May 3rd, 2009 Gilbert King
The truck was a 1941 International Harvester K–3 two-ton cornbinder, from the manufacturer known at the time for its production of heavy-duty farm equipment. Painted red, it was mounted with a large, gray sheet-metal trailer, unmarked and nondescript. In fact, the only thing odd about this truck was the additional muffler and exhaust pipe that extended from the roof of the van. It would not have turned heads, at least not until it pulled up to park behind a Louisiana parish jail. Then, as photographs show, people would stop dead in their tracks and stare, as if some ancient beast of classical mythology was lurking behind the thick, metal doors. And when Captain Ephie Foster, the Angola prison guard who, on May 3, 1946 had arrived to execute Willie Francis emerged from the truck, they stared at him, too — their somber eyes carefully registering the face of a killer.
May 3rd was supposed to be Willie’s last day on earth. His head had been shaved and his pant leg had been torn so that current could cleanly surge through the body of the 17-year-old Louisiana youth as he sat strapped into the electric chair known as “Gruesome Gertie.” But things did not proceed as planned in the small town of St. Martinville. Foster and his assistant had been drinking and did not wire the chair properly on that hot morning, and when the switch was thrown, Willie convulsed and screamed for more than a minute, until it became obvious to everyone in the death room that something was wrong. “I am not dying,” Willie shouted, until finally, the sheriff ordered the electricity shut off.
Deputies put Willie back in his cell and Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis was called as town officials were unsure what to do with the boy who walked away from the electric chair. About an hour later, Davis had made up his mind. Foster was to load the chair back into the truck and drive it home to Angola where it would be fixed. Then they’d send it back to St. Martinville a week later where Willie Francis was to be re-executed.
Gruesome Gertie had haunted the dreams of many a condemned man in Louisiana. Willie was the twenty-third person to take the deadly current, but the first to survive an electrocution. By the 1940s, executions were private affairs. They took place behind the walls of prison complexes, and the most anyone might see of them would be a hearse driving out with a coffin loaded in the back.
But Louisiana had a traveling electric chair that turned an execution into a bizarre, macabre road show.
A crowd would often gather to watch prison officials unload Gruesome Gertie and bring her into a parish jail. The chair would then be attached to two long, black, snake-like cables that would lead back to the truck, plugged into a powerful gasoline engine in the back that gave Gertie her juice. The engine was loud, and people were drawn to the noise from blocks away. On May 3rd, one of the people in the crowd in St. Martinville, Louisiana was Frederick Francis, Willie’s father. He’d arrived with a coffin and was seen pacing back and forth beneath a live oak tree, waiting to claim the body of his youngest son.
I’d been working on my book, The Execution of Willie Francis for nearly two years, but had never seen a picture of the truck that had delivered death to so many condemned men (and one woman, Tony Jo Henry) in Louisiana. I’d read about it in countless newspaper stories, as well as in Ernest Gaines’ book, A Lesson Before Dying, which was loosely based on Willie’s story. But it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to go through the legal files of Bertrand DeBlanc, the lawyer who took Willie’s case after the botched execution, that I ever got a glimpse of the truck. DeBlanc lived across the street from the St. Martinville jail, and when the truck parked in front of his house, he was just another curious onlooker who went outside with his Brownie camera to take pictures.
The photographs DeBlanc took on that fateful day not only provide a record of one of the most famous execution attempts in this country’s history, but they also serve to illustrate the inequity of the death penalty in the south at the time. Lynchings were becoming less common, but the implied bargain of swift justice pacified the vigilante cry for death. This innocuous looking truck rolled through small Louisiana towns to execute mostly black men at the hands of white law enforcement officials. But when townspeople gathered around, and the doors swung open and Gertie was taken up the back steps and fired up, the spectacle of this traveling show of death sent as strong a message to blacks as any public mob lynching.