1924: The first electrocutions in Texas

4 comments February 8th, 2011 Headsman

There is sweeping over Texas, as never before in her history, a wave of crime. Murder, theft, robbery and holdups are hourly occurrences that fill the daily press. The spirit of lawlessness has become alarming. Our loose method of dealing with violators of the law is in a large degree responsible for the conditions that today confront us.

-Texas Gov. Pat Neff, in a 1921 message to the state legislature.

It was just after midnight on this date in 1924 that the state of Texas first used its new electric chair, supplanting public hangings with a regime of private executions administered by the state.

Five men, all black, died in rapid succession on the new contraption. (Although witnesses, “sickened by the odor of burning flesh that filled the room, were given a brief respite” between the fourth and the fifth executions.) It was a half-year’s worth of backlog built up while the new death chamber had been constructed for the transition from county-level hangings.

Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire chronicles the evolution of that state’s prison regime after the Civil War in lucid, page-turning prose. We’re very grateful that he’s allowed Executed Today to mark the Lone Star State’s era of electrocutions with this brief excerpt from that book.


Although elected as a progressive, Pat Neff was the first Texas governor to make hard-fisted, no-nonsense crime fighting a central part of his political identity.

… Neff proposed tougher penalties for bootleggers, an expansion of the Texas Rangers, and the abolition of the state’s suspended sentencing law, an innovation enacted at the end of leasing. He also radically curtailed executive clemency. …

Walter Boyd, aka Leadbelly, was … caught in Neff’s clutches. “‘Dat man ain’ gonna tu’n you loose, ol’ Walter,'” his fellow convicts told him. “‘He wouldn’ tu’n his own mammy loose.'” … Leadbelly had tried everything but running to regain his freedom. Through hard work on the line, he had convinced a captain to request that his escape record be expunged, which under a different governor would have enhanced his chances of parole. About a year after his arrival at Sugar Land, Leadbelly’s father showed up carrying a “fat roll of bills.” He had sold the family’s last parcel of land and tried, rather brazenly, to buy his only son’s freedom, but the warden turned him down …

[Leadbelly] was well known as a musician. When he heard that Governor Neff was planning a personal inspection, he composed a special song. Neff was “a big, fine-lookin’ man,” he recalled, and “sho was crazy about my singin’ an’ dancin’. Ev’y time I’d sing a new song or cut a few steps he’d roll me a bran-new silver dollar ‘cross the flo'” Once his audience warmed, Leadbelly presented his unusual appeal.

Please, Governor Neff, be good and kind,
Have mercy on my great, long time.

With his boot tapping and strings blazing, the musician hit all the conventional clemency notes. He called himself Neff’s “servant,” pleaded on behalf of his wife Mary (in reality his girlfriend), lamented his thirty-year sentence, and even offered an oblique critique.

Some folks say it’s a sin,
Got too many women and too many men.
… In de pen.

Neff himself remembered the encounter almost as vividly. In his autobiography, The Battles of Peace, he painted the singer as a happy minstrel and himself as the benevolent master. “On one of the farms … was a negro as black as a stack of black cats at midnight,” he wrote. “This negro would pick his banjo, pat his foot, roll his eyes, and show his big white teeth as he caroled forth in negro melody his musical application for a pardon.” In his paternalistic way, the governor was moved, or at least amused. He announced that he would grant the supplicant’s request but in his own time. “Walter, I’m gonna give you a pardon,” Leadbelly remembered Neff telling him, “but I ain’ gonna give it to you now. I’m gonna keep you down here to play for me when I come, but when I get out of office I’m gonna turn you loose.” True to his word, the governor enjoyed Leadbelly’s high-spirited performances on command whenever he visited the lower farms, then set him free on his last day in office.


Lead Belly singing the prison blues song “Midnight Special”.

Few other convicts were as fortunate. Despite the costs to taxpayers, almost a thousand more convicts entered Texas prisons than were allowed to leave during Neff’s four-year reign. Inmates sentenced to death, most of them African Americans and Hispanics convicted of rape or murder, found especially little sympathy. Largely in response to lynching, which the governor condemned, Texas centralized the death penalty in 1923. Previously, every county had carried out its own executions, usually in the form of public hangings. Progressives hoped that by sequestering such events at the Walls, they would discourage mob sentiment and encourage reverence for “the majesty of the law.” But the site and method of execution did not alter its racial dynamics.

Following the lead of New York and other states, lawmakers also ordered prison officials to carry out executions by a new technique, one they perceived as “more modern and humane,” the electric chair. Huntsville officials thus built a new death house, the very same in use today, and by the end of the year a squat, straight-backed throne — soon christened Ol’ Sparky — was ready for operation. Governor Neff wasted little time in authorizing its use.

On a visit to the Walls in January, the governor stopped in to visit with five men he would soon send to their deaths. “A queer feeling creeps over you as you pass the death cell and pause,” he wrote. “They knew, and I realized, that I held within my hand the power to save them from the electric chair. How feeble were words, both theirs and mine, at such a time.” Not long after the governor departed, the men, all of them African American, ranging in age from twenty to thirty-nine, were approved for elimination.

In a dramatic gesture of conscience, Huntsville’s warden, R.F. Coleman, resigned his post only days before. “It just couldn’t be done,” he told reporters. “The penitentiary is a place to reform a man, not to kill him.” But a replacement was quickly found, and the Walls’ inaugural electrocutions went forward as scheduled. At nine minutes after midnight, the first condemned man, Charlie Reynolds, was escorted by two guards into the brightly lit death chamber. He blinked rapidly, reported a witness, was speedily strapped in the chair, and then stiffened violently when the new warden threw the switch. Within the hour, four other men met the same fate.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Mass Executions,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Texas,USA

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1910: George Reynolds and John Williams

Add comment February 8th, 2010 Headsman

At 6:30 this morning a century ago, two black men were hanged in Kansas City, Mo., for raping a white violinist less than seven weeks before.

There was really only one way this case was going to end.

The assault was of such a nature that intense feeling was aroused. Threats of lynching frequently were heard …

Prisoners in the County Jail raised bedlam when the verdict became known. They had previously threatened to lynch the negroes in the exercise room of the jail.

That’s from the Los Angeles Times blog’s roundup of its A.P. coverage from the Show-Me state a century ago — which further reveals George Reynolds and John Williams enjoyed a five-minute jury deliberation, and this vituperative sentence from the judge:

“They don’t even deserve to be classed with the murderer who must pay the penalty for his crime with his life,” continued Judge Latshaw.* “It would be an insult to these men, who had at least a spark of manhood in their hardened souls, to have such brutes as these put in their class. I don’t care to desecrate the day by ordering these two brutes hanged on the legal hanging day.”

(The regular hanging day — Friday — was safely un-desecrated; Reynolds and Williams hanged on a Tuesday.)

Reynolds fainted at the gallows. “Cowardly Brute,” the LA Times headlined it, also mentioning that he’d been starving himself for a week in a desperate bid to cheat the hangman. He maintained his innocence at the last.

* Judge Latshaw presided over a number of high-profile Missouri trials … often acquittals.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,Missouri,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Sex,USA

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1924: Gee Jon, debuting the gas chamber

11 comments February 8th, 2009 Headsman

It was the best of intentions. It was the worst of intentions.

As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, the forefathers’ standard means of dispatching an evildoer — a length of rope or a shot of lead — were under re-examination by a technophilic nation convinced its science could find a way to kill a man without inconveniencing him.

The first great American contribution — if you can call it that — to the the art of killing me softly was the electric chair, and its debut did not impress everyone.

Out west, grossed out by electrocution and inspired by the pestilent fogs that had lately enveloped World War I trenches, the Nevada legislature cottoned to the brainchild of one Dr. Allen McLean Hamilton to say it with cyanide.

Unfortunately, the logistics of billowing a plume of lethal gas directly into the prisoner’s cell to take the condemned asleep and unawares — another ostensible mercy that would have opened a path towards a Japan-like system of perpetual apprehension followed by sudden execution — proved insoluble; so, they had to build a little airtight room and give the procedure all the familiar ceremonial trappings.

That little airtight room was used for the first time ever on this date in 1924.

Its occupant was Gee Jon, a Chinese-born resident of San Francisco’s Chinatown who had gunned down a member of a rival tong in the railroad town of Mina not far from the California border.

A minute or two after the sodium cyanide pellets hit the sulphuric acid to release a toxic cloud of hydrogen cyanide gas, Gee Jon fell unconscious. He remained in the chamber, shrouded in gas, for half an hour to make sure: later, the apparatus improved with the addition of a stethoscope to enable a doctor to declare death from outside the cell.

Good enough for government work.

The gas chamber would win a fair following in the American South and West, notably California.

However, the gas chamber’s questionable “humaneness” — including some stomach-churning dying panics by suffocating prisoners, and the paranoia of prison staff that a leak in the seals could give them a snort of HCNnever matched the dream of the zipless kill, and the Zyklon-B associations Nazis later provided did not boost public relations. With the onset of the (seemingly) more humane and (definitely) much cheaper method of lethal injection, the gas chamber vanished from the scene in the 1990’s.

Though it still remains a backup option in Arizona, California, Maryland, Missouri and Wyoming, next month will mark a full ten years since the most recent — and quite possibly last ever — gassing.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,History,Milestones,Murder,Nevada,Organized Crime,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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