This report of the New York Times, Jan. 10, 1899, concerns the forgettable murderer whose electrocution was approved on his first day in office by New York’s new governor — Theodore Roosevelt, soon to become President of the United States.
SING SING, N.Y., Jan. 9 — Bailer Decker, the negro wife murderer of Tottenville, Staten Island, died to-day in the electric chair in Sing Sing Prison. The curren was twice turned on, each time with a voltage of 1,780. He was pronounced dead five minutes after the first shock.
Decker met death without flinching. Just before he started from his cell to the execution room he requested of Warden Sage that the other four murderers in the condemned cells be permitted to sing “Comrades.” The Warden granted the request, and Decker joined in the singing with a clear tenor voice.
The witnesses to the execution included H.F. Bridges, Warden of the Massachusetts State Prison, at Charlestown. That State, it is said, is likely to adopt the electric chair. Mr. Bridges expressed himself as pleased with the method of the execution.*
The crime for which Decker was executed was the murder of his wife, a white woman, on May 25 last. Decker was an oysterman, but spent much of his time in saloons. He was jealous, and shot the woman while in a drunken rage. He then fired a bullet into his own abdomen with suicidal intent.
New York’s electric chair handled record traffic on this date in 1912: seven successive electrocutions.
The first two men committed unrelated and isolated crimes.
John Collins got drunk and started firing a pistol in his Manhattan apartment. Police responded, and Collins shot a patrolman through the chest when they entered his domicile and tried to arrest him.
Joseph Ferrone, a violent wife-murderer who reacted to his guilty verdict by smashing a glass and slashing a juror with the jagged edge before he was restrained.
The last five were the culmination of another record: six people (these were nos. two through six) executed for one homicide. More specifically, and this was their newspaper billing, “Six Italians”.
Ringleader Lorenzo Cali
Lorenzo Cali, Santo Zanza, Vincenzo Cona, Salvatore DeMarco, Angelo Giusto and Filippo DeMarco were all Sicilians who were among the million-plus emigres to leave the island in the wake of the devastating 1908 Messina earthquake, had washed up at Croton Lake outside of New York working on the aqueducts that supplied that swelling metropolis with its fresh water.
It was backbreaking work at less than $2 a day, with tent barracks for recuperation because it was a prohibitive two-hour train ride back to the last stop on the New York subway.
In 1911, Cali caught wind of the passing of a nearby farm owner — Henry J. Griffin, whose comfortable home (usually occupied by boarders from the aqueduct’s managerial ranks) must have looked a fair sight from the muddy workers’ tents. It was said that he had left his wife not only that property but a $3,000 insurance policy. That would be a good four times the average annual earnings of a workingman at the time: had that policy been cashed out, grabbing the proceeds would be a better day’s labor by far than tending the aqueduct.
On the night of November 8-9 of that year, our Six Italians — led by Cali, who had made a point of casing the house over the preceding weeks — stole by moonlight into the woods near the house and waited for the male residents to leave for the day. Once they did, the Italians raided the farm.
Though they easily overpowered the three women left there, they didn’t find any $3,000. One of the women, Mary Hall, the young wife of an aqueduct superintendent, lost her composure in the face of the bandits screaming at her to produce more money; desperate to control her sobbing and shrieking, Santo Zanza stabbed her fatally in the chest.
But as the men fled the house with pennies on their hoped-for fortune and a dying woman at their back, the other two matrons of the house summoned police — Aqueduct Police, actually, a special force detailed to keep order in the unruly laborers’ shanties. Four of the men were arrested in the vicinity that afternoon; Cali, the ringleader, made it back to his Brooklyn tenement but was caught there two days after the murder. Only Salvatore DeMarco, known to his confederates as “Penolo”, remained on the lam.
A speedy succession of four different trials (Filippo DeMarco and Cali opted to be tried together) commenced at the Westchester County courthouse in White Plains before the month was out. Heavy guard (“Black Hand” notes kept arriving at the judge’s door; for fear of a possible rescue attempt by underworld characters, Italians were barred from attending the trial) did not in the least encumber their rapidity.
Angelo Giusto had implicated Santo Zanza as the killer (“the confession was wrung from the prisoner by up-to-date third-degree methods,” a newspaper reported) and a cycle of desperately competing confessions and accusations ensued among the lot to easily doom them all. The general thrust of the non-Zanza defendants was that the whole thing was a robbery only, and that Zanza had gone rogue in knifing Mary Hall to death. Even if true, however, those statements amounted to confessing capital crimes under felony murder rules imputing to all participants in the criminal enterprise joint liability for all its consequences. There was one death by one man’s hand, but all six were murderers.
Twenty-six days after Mary Hall’s death, all five Italians stood together in the courtroom to receive their death sentences. The trials had taken just a few hours apiece; jury deliberations consumed less than a quarter-hour for all cases save that of the youngest, Giusto.
New York Times headlines from November 29 (left) and December 6 of 1911. “Less than thirty hours’ actual court time was used in the four trials,” the latter article reported by way of high-fiving the state’s attorneys. “It is believed that Westchester has established a new record for the quick disposal of murder cases in this State.”
Two days after that, the last fugitive Salvatore DeMarco was finally arrested at his East Flatbush apartment. He was tried, convicted, and condemned all in a single day on December 19.
As the short appeals process unfolded over the ensuing months, public pressure for mercy was exerted by the Italian consulate specifically on behalf of the men who had not bloodied their own hands. Even Santo Zanza, who was executed separately from the rest on July 12, climbed aboard, and gave statements designed to accentuate his own culpability and underscore his fellows’ innocence of his design. But considering the sensational nature of the crime, and its context of growing public fear of violent crime rife among New York’s Italian immigrants, this was not one to recommend itself to the governor‘s clemency.
There is a detailed Crime Library summation of this case that begins here; note that most of its navigation links insert a gratuitous (and link-breaking) space after the phrase /croton in the web address; clicking through the 15-page story requires some annoying manual url manipulation.
On this date in 1963, hardened killer Frederick Charles Wood, 51, became the next-to-last prisoner to be executed at Sing Sing Prison in New York.
Although he came from a respectable, law-abiding family, Wood had a terrible temper and was very experienced at homicide. The man’s murderous career makes him the perfect poster child for the death penalty.
He committed his first murder while he was in his mid-teens, poisoning a girlfriend. He was out in only a few years, however, and fell back into crime: in 1933, he committed another horrific slaying. This time his victim, also female, was a stranger. Wood reportedly beat her with an iron bar and crushed her skull, and stabbed her over 140 times.
He served seven years and was paroled in 1940. In 1942, he killed again — for the third time. Wood attacked a man, hit him with a beer bottle, stomped on his head and slashed his throat. The victim, he said, was bothering his girlfriend.
This time he served almost twenty years before he was paroled again in 1960.
Mere weeks after his release from custody, in New York City, Wood beat and slashed a 62-year-old acquaintance to death, supposedly because his victim had made a pass at him. He then slaughtered the man’s 78-year-old sleeping roommate.
(When he was arrested the next day, Wood gave his occupation as “wine sampler.”)
Newspapers condemned the state parole board for letting him go so many times. Wood himself seemed to realize how stupid and pointless it all was, and refused any attempts to put off his much-deserved death sentence. He wrote that he wanted to “ride the lighting without further delay,” and added, “I do not welcome any intrusion into this stinking case of mine.”
Although Wood claimed he had schizophrenia and requested electroconvulsive therapy, three psychiatrists found him sane. A member of the Lunacy Commission asked him, “Is there any way we can help you?” Wood replied, “Let me burn.”
As he stood in the death chamber waiting to be strapped into the electric chair, he grinned at the witnesses and said, “Gents, this is an educational project. You are about to witness the damaging effect electricity has on Wood. Enjoy yourselves.”
In time William felt her a suitable enough helpmate to put a ring on it and make her Ida’s full-time mother.
Honestly, though, some kids are just better off in a single-parent household.
Martha’s aptitude as a nurturer really can’t have met Bill Place’s expectations. “She felt that her husband loved his daughter more than he did her, and her jealousy rapidly changed into hatred for the little girl,” opined the New York Times. (July 9, 1898) “As the child grew into a pretty young woman and became more and more of a contrast to her, her hatred began to take active form. Place tried to reconcile them, but in vain. For three years Ida and her stepmother rarely spoke to each other, and in her father’s absence the girl was generally away from home.”
On at least one occasion, Mr. Place summoned the police to deal with a death threat that landed Martha in the dock.
On February 7, 1898, there’d be no more need for threats.
William Place arrived home that day to find the vengeful termagant brandishing an axe in his direction, with which she clobbered him twice about the head. Only wounded when she walked away from him, Place managed to pry a door open and call for help. When the police arrived, they found Martha in a gas-filled room attempting suicide (or pretending to) … and they found Martha’s bete noir, the poor stepdaughter, stone dead on her bed with acid burns on her face and an axe-gash from her scalp to her neck.
Public opinion did not take kindly to this destruction of hearth and home by such an unlovely faux-mother. The Times (July 8, 1898, once again) judged her
rather tall and spare, with a pale, sharp face. Her nose is long and pointed, her chin sharp and prominent, her lips thin and her forehead retreating. There is something about her face that reminds one of a rat’s,* and the bright, but changeless eyes somehow strengthen the impression. She looks like a woman of great strength of mind and relentless determination. The only time her expression changed during the trial was when her husband, William W. Place, testified to the attack made upon him. Then her thin lips parted in a sardonic grin, and she fixed her eyes upon him. The smile hardly ever left her face while he was on the stand. He did not look at her.
A greater contrast than that between this husband and wife could not be imagined. He is a man of refined appearance, and speaks in a quiet, pleasant voice. He testified calmly, except once or twice, when the questions of the lawyers bore upon the persecution of Ida. Then his voice trembled with emotion, while, on the other hand, it was impossible to make one’s self believe that Mrs. Place was possessed of any other feeling than that of a mild curiosity.
The criminal conviction was simplicity itself, and if women are generally less exposed to the risk of execution, their most characteristic point of vulnerability will tend to be a violation of the demands of sacred motherhood. Envious rat-faced stepmom acid-burns blooming daughter of refined burgher? That’s as paradigmatic as a female execution gets.
There was, of course, no shortage of attention since executions of women aren’t exactly everyday affairs in American history … and this one in particular would be the very first since New York introduced the industrial age’s death penalty innovation, the electric chair. The Medico-Legal Society of New York had a contentious debate at its February 1899 meeting over whether women ought to be executed at all. (The lone female speaker, Ida Trafford Bell, earned applause from the women in attendance by insisting that the fairer sex should have “just as much right to be electrocuted as a man.” (NYT, Feb. 16, 1899) Probably so, but they were still a generation away from having just as much right to vote.
No more painful case can come before a Governor than an appeal to arrest the course of justice in order to save a woman from capital punishment, when that woman’s guilt has been clearly established, and when there are no circumstances whatever to mitigate the crime. If there were any reasonable doubt of the guilt — if there were any basis whatsoever for interference with the course of justice in this case — I should so interfere. But there is no ground for interference …
The only case of capital punishment which has occurred since the beginning of my term was for wife murder, and I refused to consider the appeals then made to me on behalf of the man who had killed his wife, after I became convinced that he had really done the deed and was sane.** In that case a woman was killed by a man; in this a woman was killed by another woman. The law makes no distinction of sex in such a crime.
This murder was one of peculiar deliberation and atrocity. To interfere with the course of the law in this case could be justified only on the ground that never hereafter, under any circumstances, should capital punishment be inflicted upon any murderess, even though the victim was herself a woman and even though that victim’s torture preceded her death.” (as quoted in the New York Times, March 16, 1899)
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 date in 1936, onetime lovers Everett C. Applegate (referred to in some accounts as “Edward” or “Earl”) and Mary Frances Creighton, who went by her middle name, were electrocuted in Sing Sing Prison for the murder of Ada Applegate, Everett’s wife.
Mary Frances Creighton (top) and Everett Applegate.
Newspapers of the time referred to Frances as the Long Island Borgia. The murder came about as a result of, depending on your point of view, a Jerry Springer-type sensation or horrific child sexual abuse or both: In 1934, Frances and her husband and their two children were living with the Applegates and their daughter in Nassau County, New York.
By January 1935, Everett Applegate was having an affair with Frances. He was also interested in the Creightons’ blooming teenage daughter, Ruth. By June of that year the thirty-something man was sleeping with her also, with the knowledge of — and in at least one case, in sight of — Ada, whose obesity kept her mostly confined to bed.
Ruth was delighted with her new boyfriend, who drove her anyplace she wanted to go, gave her money and and bought her clothes and other gifts. But when Frances found out about the relationship in July, she was furious and humiliated.
Not only was Everett in the arms of another, but he was making her, Frances, look like a bad mother. Ruth was going to school dressed like a harlot, even wearing lipstick. Suppose she became pregnant? This would bring terrible shame upon the family.
In mid-September, Ada Applegate became violently sick, with diarrhea and bilious vomit. She spent a few days in the hospital and was discharged, without a diagnosis but feeling much better.
Immediately after she got home, however, her symptoms returned, and she died two days later, on September 27. The cause of death was listed as “coronary occlusion” — in other words, a heart attack.
Frances was a bit of a hard case and no stranger to murder. She and her husband John were living with his parents, as well as her teenage brother, Raymond Avery, in New Jersey in 1920 when Anna and Walter Creighton suddenly sickened and died, one after the other.
In 1923, Raymond too became ill with the same symptoms and rapidly expired, and his sister and brother-in-law collected his $1,000 life insurance policy. Frances and John were charged with his murder after the autopsy, held in spite of their objections, found arsenic in young Raymond’s body.
After the autopsy, deeply suspicious investigators exhumed the elder Creightons’ bodies while their son and daughter-in-law were in jail. No arsenic could be found in Walter’s system, but Anna’s contained a lethal dose, and Frances (but not John this time) was charged with murder even before she came to trial for her brother’s death. She’d never gotten along with her in-laws or they with her, and just before Anna became ill, Frances had made ominous statements that the old woman would shortly “destroy herself.”
The Creightons’ four-day trial for Raymond’s murder resulted in acquittal for both defendants. John went home and Frances remained in custody for another two weeks until she faced her next trial, for the death of Anna Creighton. The prosecution was unable to prove she had personally purchased any poison, and the 24-year-old defendant, an attractive nursing mother who was keeping her infant son in her cell with her, presented a sympathetic picture. Once again, she heard a jury announce a murder acquittal.
But she didn’t take warning from her two near escapes.
Twelve years later, Ada Applegate became the third person close to Frances Creighton who died of arsenic poisoning. Goodness knows how many more she might have ventured.
The police knew about Frances’s relatives’ proclivities for mysterious deaths, and were deeply suspicious. An autopsy revealed three times the lethal dose of arsenic in Ada’s corpse, and it didn’t take long for Frances to crack under questioning.
She admitted to poisoning Ada, but also implicated Everett, saying he’d known about the crime all along and had helped her. She also claimed he used his knowledge of her past to blackmail her into having sex with him.
Frances killed Ada, Frances said, so Everett would have a chance to make an honest woman out of Ruth, and because Ada had been gossiping in the neighborhood about her husband’s affair with the girl.
Frances Creighton and Everett Applegate found themselves arrested. Only then did a bewildered John find out about the sexual improprieties that had been going on for months right under his nose. Remarkably, he stood by Frances and said he believed her to be innocent of murder.
He was the only one.
A look into Frances’s past revealed some very additional suspicious incidents apart from the deaths in her family. Relatives of a neighbor she quarreled with got extremely ill after having tea with Frances, and although they pulled through, later on, the neighbor’s house burned down.
The fire was arson and Frances had been the prime suspect, but there was insufficient evidence to arrest her.
As for Everett Applegate, the case against him was far less persuasive.
Frances made three statements: in the first, as told above, she implicated her erstwhile lover. In the second, she said she’d done the murder all on her own and Everett was not involved. The third time she went back to blaming him: he had mixed the poison, and she had given it to his wife.
To this shaky accusation add the ill feeling engendered by Everett’s caddish mores, and it was enough for an indictment. (Everett was also charged with criminally assaulting Ruth. At his arraignment he attempted to plead guilty to this, saying, “I want to marry this girl.” The judge refused to accept the plea.)
By the time of the trial, Frances had gone all-in on blaming Everett. She claimed the lothario had “made” her poison Ada. Her defense portrayed her as a weak woman who had been lead astray by an evil, domineering male. But Everett’s lawyer made sure the jury heard about the deaths of her brother and parents-in-law in New Jersey, and her conviction was a foregone conclusion.
The main evidence against Everett was Frances’s testimony, the fact that he was known to have purchased the rat poison that wound up in Ada’s eggnog, and his despoiling the teenage daughter of his paramour. Everett’s defense attorney agreed their client was a scumbag and a pervert, but denied that he was a murderer.
In his concluding arguments, the attorney asked the jury to acquit Everett of killing his wife and convict him instead of the rape of Ruth. It didn’t work: the jury convicted him on both counts.
While the two condemned awaited their fate, Ruth, who had been sent to a girls’ reform school, would later write a letter to the authorities. She said her mother was innocent and she had heard Everett say he wanted to do away with Ada so he could marry her. No one believed her story.
On the day of their executions, Frances was given the first slot in hopes that she might make a final statement exonerating Everett. Alas, she was in no condition to give any statement at all; suffering from hysterical paralysis, she had to be taken to the chamber on a wheelchair, and some reports state that she was completely unconscious when they strapped her into it. She was the first executee at Sing Sing in 45 years who was unable to walk on their own to their death.
Everett, still protesting his innocence, followed her ten minutes later.
A century ago today, 20-year-old Albert Walter strolled the 15 feet from the death cell to the Sing Sing electric chair, calling out “Good-bye boys” to his fellow-prisoners as he died for the murder of 15-year-old Ruth Wheeler in a possible white slavery crime two years earlier.
Wolter left a note steadily — all the reports remark on the youth’s sangfroid; he took a nap while the jury went to deliberate with his life in its hands — avowing his innocence, and indulging the “hope there may come a time when the conscience of the perpetrator will overpower him, and he will come to the front and acknowledge his guilt.” He charitably added for “those who have maliciously prosecuted and killed me, for them I pray God’s forgiveness.”
Lots of New Yorkers would have had to ask it.
Despite his cool under fire, Wolter was overwhelmingly acclaimed the guilty party, the evidence against him being as close to airtight as circumstantial gets.
Newsmen ravenous for virginals despoiled by outlanders instantly sunk fangs into the story of the layabout 18-year-old German immigrant — idle lifestyle the product of parasitism upon the drudgery of a young countrywoman toiling 12-hour days at a bakery — who lured the “saintly” stenographers’ school graduate to his apartment with the promise of work and had her charred and headless trunk bundled up on the fire escape by morning. (Other charred remains, and Wheeler’s monogrammed signet ring, were retrieved from inside the apartment.)
Reporters soon sketched the persona of a burgeoning little pimp who had already routed several girls into prostitution. In amid the decadence and displacement of fin de siecle industrialization, you couldn’t ping a more heart-racing (pdf) moral panic than white slavery.*
Congress was at that very moment in the process of legislating the (still-extant) Mann Act named for the Illinois legislator who sponsored it after a notorious 1909 Chicago case.
But the Big Apple, as the country’s largest city and its gateway for Europe’s polyglot huddled masses, was the reputed center of the whole reputed business.
This illustration from Fighting the Traffic in Young Girls is outstandingly captioned:
“THE FIRST STEP. Ice cream parlors of the city and fruit stores combined, largely run by foreigners, are the places where scores of girls have taken their first step downward. Does her mother know the character of the place and the man she is with?”
The men and the women who engage in this traffic are more unspeakably low and vile than any other class of criminals. The burglar and holdup man are high-minded gentlemen by comparison. There is no more depraved class of people in the world than those human vultures who fatten on the shame of innocent young girls. Many of these white slave traders are recruited from the scum of the criminal classes of Europe.
And in this lies the revolting side of the situation. On the one hand the victims, pure, innocent, unsuspecting, trusting young girls — not a few of them mere children. On the other hand, the white slave trader, low, vile, depraved and cunning, — organically a criminal.
While the Empire State enacted its own Wolter-inspired law charging schools with vetting the employers who recruit their graduates, Wolter entered the criminal justice system on greased lightning (just like he left it). He was a condemned murderer within five weeks of Ruth Wheeler’s death.†
Wolter himself (evidently surprised to learn that he was old enough for the death penalty; that may not have been the case where he was from) tried to put the blame on a phantom Teuton, one “Frederick Ahner” who was the mastermind in Wolter’s own fall and who must have done the Wheeler business while Wolter was out at the park. That’s “the perpetrator” to whom Wolter’s last letter refers: his conscience never led Ahner to so much as materialize, much less to confess.
The fate of Wolter’s bakery-girl cohabitant — and, one might think, prospective accessory — Katchen “Katie” Mueller was very different. She precipitously aligned herself with her lover’s prosecutors, urged “My dear Al” to confess (almost successfully), and got respectable patronage “to break away from the life she had been leading”. A year after Wolter’s electrocution, Mueller’s redemptive next marriage made the society pages.
** Similar dubious (pdf) vice-crusader porn is to be had in (among many other period pieces) a 1911 tract by another Chicago prosecutor, Clifford Roe. Though The Great War on White Slavery is in the public domain, I haven’t been able to locate a complete text online — only this excerpt.
† On the other hand, the then-protracted period of 22 months required to proceed from conviction to execution made Wolter “dean of the death house” by the time he died.
After its famously inauspicious debut the previous summer, this date in 1891 marked the second, third, fourth and fifth uses of New York’s pioneering electric chair.
Having grotesquely botched its maiden execution of William Kemmler, there was a considerable sentiment to retire the electric chair immediately.
The second round of “electrocutions” — 19th century papers still put this then-neologism in quotes — were closely watched as an acidelectric test of the chair’s staying-power. If these men burned to death, slowly and horribly, as Kemmler had, that might have been it. And had New York reverted to hanging or moved on to lethal injection,* the chair’s subsequent adoption by other states and its journey into the iconic popular culture would likely have been aborted.
But, they fixed up the chair, tested it on some more large animals, and moved the electrode combination from head+spine to head+leg … and voila!
There was nothing about the executions of the horrible nature that shocked the country when Kemmler was made the first victim of the law. If the testimony of a score of witnesses is to be believed, the executions demonstrated the use of electricity for public executions to be practical whether or not it is humane. While the Kemmler butchery, with all its terrible details cannot be forgotten, against that one awful failure the advocates of the law now point with unconcealed pride to four “successes.”
“Unconcealed” pride would be an interesting choice for these advocates, since these prophets of brave new death technology had themselves feared a calamitous failure of their apparatus as much as anybody — well, as much as anybody except the condemned.
every witness of the execution was made to pledge himself in writing never to reveal any detail of it unless requested to do so by the authorities. No newspaper representative was admitted. As THE TIMES has repeatedly stated, it was the intention of the advocates of the law to keep the public from knowing anything about these executions … Therefore, Gov. Hill** and his henchman, Warden Brown, made up their minds that these experiments with the law should not go before the public as anything else than successes, and they packed the jury accordingly with picked men.
The Times dilates considerably in this vein; ever the helpful courtier, it is concerned principally that the state’s orchestrated public relations campaign would have had more credibility had the successful executions been witnessed by third parties who have newspapers to sell. You know?
But … if only the state’s handpicked friendly witnesses were allowed to see what went down, do we actually know that it wasn’t another dog’s breakfast? The July 8, 1891 London Times — for the executions had a global audience — cobbled together a less reassuring wire report.
There are, however, many conflicting statements current as to what actually occurred, and it is extremely difficult to discriminate as to which are true and which are false … Dr. Daniels, one of the witnesses of the executions this morning, said, in an interview this afternoon, that he might tell a great deal about the affair if he were not bound to silence. He added that the Kemmler scene was practically repeated in each case, there having been two shocks given to each of the condemned men. The truth, Dr. Daniels said, would make a thrilling story.
If Dr. Daniels actually said anything like that, someone got this electric chair proponent rewrite (pdf) pretty quickly.
I was misquoted. I simply said that if I were at liberty to give a detailed account of the scenes in the death chamber the public would no doubt be interested in knowing that the executions had been a pronounced success.
You could totally see how the guy would say “pronounced success”, and this British rag would hear, “the Kemmler scene was practically repeated in each case.” Separated by a common language and all that.
For the record, the chair salvaged itself upon these unfortunates:
James Slocum (a former minor league baseball player†), for murdering his wife
Levy Smiler, for murdering his mistress
Joseph Wood, for murdering a fellow-laborer
Shibuya Jugiro, a Japanese seaman, for murdering one of his comrades
History has all but forgotten them … save that their deaths were officially ruled a great technological triumph, sufficient to rescue “the chair” from abortive 19th century penal cul-de-sac and set it on its way to becoming a pop culture icon.
* The modern-seeming method of lethal injection was actually one of the options vetted to replace the rope in the 1880s.
** Hill at this time was flirting with a presidential run, which ultimately didn’t happen: he won a Senate seat instead.
On this date in 1951, the made-for-tabloids killer couple Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck were electrocuted at New York’s Sing Sing prison for murder.
He was a toupeed middle-aged lothario with a knack for conning personal ad denizens. She was a lovelorn obese single mother* with a serious dark side. Together — through a chance meeting through the personals — they became the Lonely Hearts Killers.
Martha Beck started off as just another of Raymond Fernandez’s targets: charm them, promise engagement or undergo a faux-wedding, and then rob them. He’d pulled this off a few times before; he might have even killed at least one of them.
Fernandez did the love ‘em and leave ‘em routine with Martha, whom he soon realized was penniless. But their passionate hotel rendezvous had been spied by the local bluenoses, who promptly got Martha fired for her indiscretions. She showed up unannounced at Fernandez’s door, and pushed her way right into his life.
Ere long, they were cohabiting — lurid media accounts would later savor their “abnormal sexual practices” and their, er, lifestyle relationship. She caused near-riots among the crush of spectators at their circus trial when she got into specifics of freaky stuff like voodoo fetish play.
“A request from Mr. Fernandez to me is a command,” Martha testified. Since this was so — though the power dynamic between them really seems to have run in the other direction — she willingly joined in Mr. Fernandez’s scam, posing as his “sister” when he went to meet and charm his next mark.
Once such assets as could be had were signed over, the pigeon was disposed of: often, they’d just make the “honeymoon” so unbearable that the target got the picture and left, so humiliated she wouldn’t dare come forward with the story.
And sometimes — nobody seems to know exactly how many times — Raymond and Martha killed together.
Martha (whose own sob story of ostracism and childhood neglect is really quite sad) supplied much of the vengeful energy that impelled the murders. One of their victims was a woman Beck attacked in a jealous rage when Fernandez actually slept with her. (The “sister” would often impose on the sleeping arrangements to obstruct consummation.)
The Lonely Hearts Killers’ crime spree is thoroughly covered elsewhere. It carried them to Michigan, a non-death penalty state where they were arrested. There, they confessed in a ploy to draw a local sentence and avoid execution.
Michigan instead extradited them to New York to stand trial in a sweltering courtroom and on every Gotham newspaper’s daily headlines for the murder of a Long Island widow. That confession given in Michigan helped seal their fate in New York.
Though separated from one another on death row (but they kept up the treacly correspondence), Martha and Raymond were joined in death.
On International Women’s Day of 1951, both were executed in New York’s electric chair, along with two unconnected, run-of-the-mill murderers.
My story is a love story. But only those tortured by love can know what I mean … in the history of the world, how many crimes have been attributed to love?
Given the newspaper ink spilled over these two, it’s no surprise that they’ve inspired plenty of subsequent writers and directors. The Honeymoon Killers (review) is a creepy 1970 classic, with a couple of latter-day imitators.
* She abandoned her two kids to the Salvation Army when she hitched her wagon to Fernandez.
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.