Which U.S. Governors have overseen the most executions?

2 comments November 3rd, 2012 Headsman

This past week, Texas Governor Rick Perry notched his 250th execution. Writers, movie stars, guys who didn’t do it … Perry has executed them all.

That’s far and away the most for governors under the modern US death penalty regime. But is it an all-time record?

Rick Perry is number one.

The answer appears to be “yes”: a review of state execution data reveals no other governor throughout the U.S. constitutional era who even approaches Perry’s body count, at least not when it comes to peacetime civilian cases. Only two other men — Perry’s predecessor George W. Bush, and Depression-era New York chief executive Herbert Lehman* — appear to have signed off on as many as one hundred executions.

In attempting to explore this question, I compiled this rough list of the U.S. governors who have overseen a large number (35+) of executions. Emphasis on rough. The method I’ve used here is just a quick manual comparison of the historical U.S. executions recorded in the Espy file to U.S. governor terms as reported on Wikipedia. Then, I backed out known federal executions, which for most of U.S. history took place in various state prisons. (For instance, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were electrocuted at Sing Sing in New York … but not by authorities of the Empire State.)

I would not suggest sourcing anything one depends on to the figures in this chart without further investigation and qualification; the list is certain to contain errors, including:

  • Omissions or mistakes by the Espy file itself.
  • Miscalculations or misdating on my part.
  • Governors who served non-consecutive terms who I’ve failed to identify.
  • Any consideration of governors who might have been temporarily incapacitated or absent during their term with another party exercising the relevant powers in their stead
  • Civil War executions, which I simply steered around

Beyond attributing numerical counts to date ranges, this list reflects essentially no state- or period-specific research: it’s worth bearing in mind that the legal context and gubernatorial authority relative to the death penalty vary over time and between states. A name and a number on this list is not the same as judging a governor personally “responsible” for all or any of those executions, not even necessarily to the extent of having signed off on a death warrant. It’s only in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century that states centralized all executions away from localities and into state penitentiaries, with the familiar appeal-for-clemency ritual. A given governor’s personal involvement in a given local execution prior to that (and particularly in antebellum America) is not to be assumed. Even now, some states (present-day Texas included) limit the ability of the governor to extend clemency, or vest that power in an agency.

Caveats aside, here’s that rough (rough!) list:

The large numbers here predictably map to large states (with lots of people to commit lots of crime and generate lots of death cases) and/or long-serving governors. Rick Perry is about to start his 13th year as Texas governor, and this is actually a remarkably long tenure. Most governors in U.S. history have held the office for surprisingly brief periods, just 2-4 years.

For example, post-Reconstruction Jim Crow Georgia executed at a terrific pace (routinely ten or more executions per year, for decades on end) and several of its governors therefore appear on this list … but those governors had what you might call limited upside, as they were term-limited to two consecutive two-year terms. Had Georgia ever put an executive kingpin in the governor’s mansion for a decade or more, that person would easily rank up there with Bush and Lehman. (Not with Perry, though.)

Typical office tenures have somewhat lengthened into the 20th and 21st centuries, but this is just when the execution rate itself has fallen off. Many of the larger (50+) execution totals come from the period when those two trends crossed in the first half of the 20th century, with men (Ann Richards, George W. Bush’s predecessor, is the only woman to show) running large states for five-plus years.

This confluence also leads to the interesting appearance of liberal lions among the 20th century’s most prolific American executioners:

  • Liberal “Rockefeller Republican” Thomas Dewey, with 95 executions as New York’s governor.
  • Dewey’s running mate in the “Dewey Defeats Truman” presidential election, Earl Warren: he sent 82 to the gas chamber in a decade as California governor before he was appointed to leave his lasting legacy heading a left-leaning Supreme Court
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who okayed 51 executions as governor of New York (and then 16 more federal executions as president)
  • Gifford Pinchot, who’s best known as the progressive-era father of the Forest Service, but also spent eight years as Pennsylvania’s governor and oversaw 81 executions.

Feel free to chime in with corrections, data points, musings, and bootless speculations in the comments.

* Herbert Lehman was the son of one of the founders of Lehman Bothers investment bank. Bush was the son of the founder of the inexplicable Bush political dynasty. We’re guessing nobody thought of their prolific-executioner connection when the Bush administration let Lehman Brothers go bankrupt in 2008.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: USA

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1934: Anna Antonio, enough for a million men

1 comment August 9th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

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 day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,Last Minute Reprieve,Murder,New York,Other Voices,Pelf,USA,Women

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1939: Three Men For Murder, But Not Isidore Zimmerman

1 comment January 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Isidore “Beansy” Zimmerman spent the day preparing for death in New York’s electric chair … but was spared by an 11th-hour clemency from New York Governor Herbert Lehman.

Here’s the scene, as laid in the anti-death penalty tome of wrongful convictions In Spite of Innocence:

As dawn broke over Sing Sing Prison, Beansy Zimmerman had every reason to think it would be his last day.

Zimmerman numbly went through the pre-execution rituals. The last meal (choose whatever you want), and music (you get to choose that, too) played on the wind-up phonograph. The barber shaves your scalp so the electrodes can fit snugly against your bare skin. The tailor slits one of your trouser legs for another electrode. Officials treat you with unaccustomed politeness. A final family visit — how do you say good-bye when you know it is forever? What should your last words be? Beansy’s mother stayed away, unable to face such finality.

Two hours before execution, Gov. Lehman commuted his sentence.

In this blog, we lay aside each story day by day, but for those affected, it’s rarely so easy — which is why the mothers of the five men condemned today put in their personal clemency appeals to the governor.

For Zimmerman and a fellow “accomplice” named Philip Chaleff whose respective roles in a robbery/murder were doubted, it had the desired effect. (Dominick Guariglia, Arthur Friedman and Joseph O’Loughlin weren’t so lucky.)

Chaleff, a diabetic being kept alive just for execution, soon succumbed. For Zimmerman, the execution that did not happen was to define the rest of his 66 years. He was alive, but to what end?

“I wasn’t dead, no,” he remembered. “But every day from now on they’d bury me a little more.”

Zimmerman fought, by becoming a skilled jailhouse lawyer and in 1962 finally winning exoneration from the New York Supreme Court, which held that the testimony against him had been perjured with the connivance of the prosecutor.

He’d spent nearly a quarter-century in prison. Now, he was just another ex-con scrabbling after dead-end employment.

For years thereafter, Zimmerman fought for a special bill that would allow him to sue the Empire State for wrongful imprisonment, finally winning approval in 1981.

His suit asked for $10 million. The judge reckoned Zimmerman’s time and trouble were worth a tenth of that.

Expenses deducted, Zimmerman walked away with $660,000 — that, and sweet vindication.

Fourteen weeks later, he dropped dead of a heart attack.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Innocent Bystanders,Last Minute Reprieve,Murder,New York,Not Executed,Notable Jurisprudence,Pardons and Clemencies,USA,Wrongful Executions

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