1939: Robert Nixon, Richard Wright inspiration

Add comment June 16th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Illinois electrocuted Robert Nixon for bashing Florence Johnson to death with a brick as he burgled her Chicago home.*


The Chicago Tribune‘s Family Circus-esque May 28, 1938 illustration of the crime scene.

Nixon’s fingerprints would also link him to three previous rape-murders in California; separately, he admitted raping and killing Illinois nursing student Anna Kuchta in 1937, although he would also argue that Chicago police tortured the confessions from his lips.

Crudely nicknamed the “Brick Moron”, Nixon was vilified in shockingly racist terms by a hostile press.

This Chicago Tribune article is one of the worst exemplars and is only the start of a much longer piece in the same vein but even straight-news bulletins routinely went with a casual “savage colored rapist” label. His possible developmental disability (“moron” …) was generally cast not as any sort of mitigating consideration but as the indicator of a superpredator: “It has been demonstrated here that nothing can be done with Robert Nixon,” the sheriff of the Louisiana town where he grew up wrote to Chicago. “Only death can cure him.”

Richard Wright allegedly mined the commentary on Nixon to inform his classic novel Native Son, which hit print the next year … and sees its lead character Bigger Thomas die in the Illinois electric chair.

* It was supposed to be a triple execution but late reprieves spared Steve Cygan and Charles Price, both murderers in unrelated cases.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Illinois,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Theft,USA

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Unspecified Year: Bigger Thomas

4 comments March 3rd, 2011 Headsman

The main character of Richard Wright’s Native Son was condemned to a March 3 electrocution by the state of Illinois.

In Number 666-983, indictment for murder, the sentence of the Court is that you, Bigger Thomas, shall die on or before midnight of Friday, March third,* in a manner prescribed by the laws of this state.

The Court finds your age to be twenty.

The Sheriff may retire with the prisoner.

Readers are not treated to the actual execution scene, but the hopelessness of Bigger Thomas’s situation is the book‘s whole context and theme. There is little room to entertain a reprieve.

“In the first draft I had Bigger going smack to the electric chair,” the author remarked. “But I felt that two murders were enough for one novel. I cut the final scene.”

The first Book of the Month club selection by an African American author was an instant best-seller, but hardly easy reading. Wright tackles the catastrophic “hatred, fear, and violence” suffusing negro life.

Inspired in part by a real-life Windy City murderer, Bigger Thomas grows up wretched and impoverished in Depression-era Chicago and eventually commits an accidental homicide, then rapes and murders his girlfriend. Wright took some heat for staging a character seemingly written to whites’ darkest fears of African-Americans, but it was his object to force the reader to relate to a violent man whose brutality is conditioned by the world he inhabits.

Bigger Thomas’s trial has his lawyer present an overt indictment of structural oppression as the true cause of Bigger’s crime.

“I didn’t want to kill,” Bigger shouted. “But what I killed for, I am! It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill! I must have felt it awful hard to murder … What I killed for must’ve been good!” Bigger’s voice was full of frenzied anguish. “It must have been good! When a man kills, it’s for something … I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em. It’s the truth …”

Whether Wright truly broke out of the existing literary genres may be a matter of debate.

James Baldwin considered Native Son to be of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin tradition, “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality … the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses.”

All of Bigger’s life is controlled, defined by his hatred and his fear … elow the surface of this novel there lies, as it seems to me, a continuation, a complement of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy … Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth. But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.

“Everybody’s Protest Novel” (pdf)

“Protest novel” or otherwise, Native Son‘s mainstream success extended to the stage, where Orson Welles — fresh from the debut of Citizen Kane — directed a Wright-written adaptation in 1941. Less successfully, Wright himself played the title role in a 1951 Argentinian film.

“Bigger Thomas” is also the name of a long-running ska band.

Though the novel is not yet public domain in the United States, it is in some countries — and can be perused free here.

* For the finicky chronologist: Native Son was published in 1940. At that point, the most recent occasions March 3 had fallen on a Friday were 1939 and 1933.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Fictional,Illinois,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA

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