995: Tormod Kark

1 comment July 16th, 2015 dogboy

On an unrecorded date in 995, Norwegian slave Tormod Kark became the first person beheaded under King Olaf I of Norway.

A subsidiary character in a long and brutal struggle for supremacy in Norway and its neighbors to the east and west, Kark had betrayed his lord, the de facto Norweigan ruler Haakon Jarl (“Earl Haakon”), as Olaf Tryggvason’s army searched for him. Haakon had holed up on a farm with Kark and at least one other trusted associate, but when Kark heard of the reward for Haakon’s, he thought it more opportune to kill his lord than to wait to be found.

Kark expected cake. Instead, King Olaf I abhorred his disloyalty and delivered him death.

Olaf grew up a refugee in the court of Kiev Rus’ ruler Vladimir the Great, who, according to some early sagas, had a Norse wife. Regardless of the circumstances, Olaf’s military prowess was such that Vladimir eventually became distrustful of a potentially dangerous guest and Olaf decided to take his leave.

Making his way back to Norway, Olaf married for the first time. When his wife died, he took sail down to the Scilly Isles (south of England), where he converted to Christianity. He then moved to England (Norsemen held sway there at this time). During his time there, he caught wind of Haakon Jarl waning hold on the affections of Norwegians high and low.

Olaf jumped at the chance. He quickly formed an alliance with several local leaders and sallied forth, and practically from the time he hit the fjords, Haakon was a fugitive.

Haakon Jarl — a.k.a. Haakon Sigurdsson — was an old friend of Harald Bluetooth,* the man credited with uniting Norway and Denmark. Haakon’s father was killed by Harald Greycloak, and Bluetooth enlisted Haakon to avenge that death. (He did so, with aplomb.)

With Greycloak out of the way, Bluetooth had solidified his position as effective ruler of Norway, where he installed Haakon — now elevated to Earl Haakon — as his vassal king. Haakon Jarl had wide latitude to subjugate the lands around him. As vassal, though, Haakon was called on by Bluetooth to fight the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, who had made an alliance with Olaf’s father-in-law in an effort to overrun the still-pagan Norse.

Bluetooth et al fought them off initially, but Otto II sent a fleet around to Jutland and bested the Danes and Norwegians. As a result, Haakon, Harald, and their armies were forcibly converted to Christianity.

Unwillingly as he had adopted it, Bluetooth maintained his new Christianity; Haakon Jarl didn’t really go in for that Jesus stuff and stubbornly held to his paganism. When Bluetooth** approached Haakon about really really converting around 977, the Jarl refused to accept the Christian faith, instead taking his Norway and going home. Haakon thereafter ruled on his own for almost 20 years.

Ultimately, it may have partially been paganism that defeated the Jarl, who was never crowned king: Haakon’s enemies cited his distrust of Christianity as a motivator in the initial agitations against him. That may just be spin, too, since Olaf was so adamantly Christian that he insisted those under his rule convert.† And heavenly imprimaturs tend to be a hot commodity for usurpers.

Regardless of the cause, by 995 Haakon Jarl was beheaded by his slave, his slave was beheaded by the king, and King Olaf I sat on the throne of Norway.

And then five years later, Haakon Jarl’s sons deposed King Olaf.

Olaf summoned the people together out in the yard, and standing on the rock which was beside the swine-sty spake unto them, and the words that he uttered were that he would reward with riches and honour the man who would work mischief to Earl Hakon. This speech was heard both by the Earl and Kark. Now by them in the sty had they a light there with them, and the Earl said: ‘Why art thou so pale, yet withal as black as earth? Is it in thy heart, Kark, that thou shouldst betray me?’ ‘Nay,’ said Kark, ‘we two were born on the self-same night, and long space will there not be twixt the hour of our deaths.’ Towards evening went King Olaf away, & when it was night Kark slept, and the Earl kept watch, but Kark was troubled in his sleep. Then the Earl awakened him & asked him whereof he dreamt, and he said: ‘I was now even at Ladir, and Olaf Tryggvason placed a gold ornament about my neck.’ The Earl answered: ‘A blood-red ring will it be that Olaf Tryggvason will lay about thy neck, shouldst thou meet with him. Beware now, and betray me not, & thou shalt be treated well by me as heretofore.’ Then stay they both sleepless each watching the other, as it might be, but nigh daybreak fell the Earl asleep and was troubled at once, so troubled that he drew his heels up under him & his head likewise under him, and made as though he would rise up, calling aloud and in a fearsome way. Then grew Kark afeard & filled with horror, so it came to pass that he drew a large knife from his belt and plunged it into the throat of the Earl cutting him from ear to ear. Thus was encompassed the death of Earl Hakon. Then cut Kark off the head of the Earl and hasted him away with it, and the day following came he with it to Ladir unto King Olaf, and there told he him all that had befallen them on their flight, as hath already been set forth. Afterwards King Olaf let Kark be taken away thence, & his head be sundered from his trunk.

Thereafter to Nidarholm went King Olaf and likewise went many of the peasantry, and with them bare they the heads of Earl Hakon and Kark. In those days it was the custom to use this island as a place whereon might be slain thieves & criminals, and on it stood a gallows. And the King caused that on this gallows should be exposed the heads of Earl Hakon and Kark. Then went thither the whole of the host, and shouted up at them and cast stones, and said that they went to hell each in goodly company, ever one rascal with another. Thereafter did they send men up to Gaulardal, & after they had dragged thence the body of Earl Hakon did they burn it. So great strength was there now in the enmity that was borne against Earl Hakon by the folk that were of Throndhjem that no one durst breathe his name save as the ‘bad Earl,’ and for long afterwards was he called after this fashion. Nevertheless it is but justice to bear testimony of Earl Hakon that he was well worthy to be a chief, firstly by the lineage whereof he was descended, then for his wisdom and the insight with which he used the power that pertained to him, his boldness in battle, and withal his goodhap in gaining victories and slaying his foemen. Thus saith Thorleif Raudfelldarson:

Hakon! no Earl more glorious ‘neath the moon’s highway:
In strife and battle hath the warrior honour won,
Chieftains mine to Odin hast thou sent,
(Food for ravens were their corses)
Therefore wide be thy rule!’

The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason


* Bluetooth is, indeed, the namesake of the protocol that wirelessly unites mobile devices and computers. Scandanavian companies made it, so they gave it both a historically interesting name and a historically symbolic ligature logo (representing the “H” and “B”).

** Bluetooth’s daughter, Thyra or Tyra or Thyri, eventually became a consort to King Olaf I.

† Olaf I became known for his … er … creative executions for heathens.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Early Middle Ages,Execution,Gibbeted,History,Murder,Norway,Power,Treason,Uncertain Dates

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1845: John Tawell, the man in the Kwaker garb

2 comments March 28th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1845, John Tawell was publicly hanged in Aylesbury (while broadsheets were hawked beneath the scaffold to the crowd of thousands) for the murder of his mistress — making history as the first criminal apprehended with the use of the telegraph.

Tawell had had an interesting 60-plus years on the planet. He did well as a young banker on the make to avoid the halter for the capital crime of forging banknotes.*

In those sanguinary days of our penal code, this crime, if brought home, would have led to his certain condemntion and ignominious execution as a felon. The particulars of the affair were, however, suppressed as far as possible, on account of the insuperable disinclination of the bankers to be in any way instrumental in taking away human life.**

Clapped in irons and sent to Australia, he waxed wealthy — “by his fortunate, and, it is to be presumed, honest trading,” our wry biography remarks. (As a pharmacist. That’s what we in the biz call “foreshadowing.”)

Tawell returned to England in 1831, got Sarah Hart as a bit on the side (she’d initially been hired to nurse Tawell’s dying wife), and then married a respectable Quaker woman. To conceal the affair — or perhaps because the payola Tawell was obliged to send for the maintenance of his mistress and the kids he begat with her was chewing into his straitened finances — Tawell poisoned Hart on New Year’s Day 1845.

Unfortunately for him, he was noticed leaving the scene of the crime by a neighbor, who found the victim before she had even expired.

Tawell had hopped a slow train for London ahead of apprehension, but it transpired that the station had installed the newfangled telecommunications device, the telegraph, which was requisitioned to dispatch to Paddington station a famous missive.

A murder had just been committed at Salt Hill and the suspected murderer was seen to take a first class ticket to London by the train that left Slough at 7.42pm. He is in the garb of a Kwaker with a brown great coat on which reaches his feet. He is in the last compartment of the second first-class carriage.

(The telegraph didn’t have a “Q”, so they had to improvise a phonetic spelling. k l8r.)


Dot dot. Dash dash.

(This landmark police event is not to be confused with the first use of wireless telegraphy to apprehend a criminal — the next century’s very similar philandering-apothecary-on-the-lam case of Dr. Crippen.)

Caught, convicted,† condemned. (And confessed, secretly, to the prison chaplain.) The usual. Botched strangulation hanging. Hardly unusual. Love triangle murder? Downright trite.

But still: Tawell’s strange and variegated life left a strange and variegated legacy. (pdf)

In Australia, the memory of Tawell lingered for many years after his death because considerable legal argument took place about the validity of the Crown’s hndling of his property there. The Governor, Sir William Denison, affixed the Great Seal of the colony to the grant documents on his own initiative, which creted a serious difference between him and his chief minister. Known as the “Great Seal case”, it dragged on for some 16 years before it was resolved. It provided a dramatic epilogue to Tawell’s activities.

John Tawell had pharmacy qualifications of a sort, and he was no better or worse than many of the doctors around Sydney at the time who had received no regular professional instruction. When Tawell ventured into competition with the medical establishment in the colony it was a huge gamble because until 1820 many government doctors saw private patients and had clerks to do their dispensing, usually from hospital stores. He showed that independent pharmacy could thrive away from the medical shadow, but the commercial nature of his success also showed that the founding of independent pharmacy in Australia occurred as a retailing activity rather than as a needed profession.

* As a teen, Tawell was friends with a Quaker linen-draper who was himself ultimately executed for forgery, Joseph Hunton.

** This claim for bankers’ gentility is advanced in the context of the story of a banker who in fact went on to commit murder. Aside from that obvious paradox, it will come as no surprise to any denizen of the post-bailout neoliberal era that bankers proved more than ready to involve themselves in human misery, sufficiently remunerative. If Tawell’s sweetheart plea bargain reveals anything about the financier class, it’s that bankers aren’t keen on precedents for taking away bankers’ lives.

† John Tawell’s trial lawyer, the eminent jurist and politician Sir Fitzroy Kelly, disputed the coroner’s poisoning conclusion by arguing that Sarah Hart might have just eaten too many apple seeds. (Prussic acid, aka hydrogen cyanide, does occur naturally in many fruits.)

This attempted Chewbacca defense earned the barrister the nickname “Apple-pip Kelly”. However, since the cutting-edge technology of the day was only telegraph and not Twitter, the case does not appear to have launched any of Apple-pip Kelly’s progeny into lucratively pointless careers as famous-for-being-famous socialites.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Public Executions,Sex

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1890: William Kemmler, only in America

27 comments August 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1890 the iconic symbol of the American death penalty made its grisly debut upon the person of William Kemmler at New York’s Auburn Prison.

The long New World tradition of hanging condemned prisoners came under fire as a barbarism in the late 19th century, leading reformers to look for killing procedures less likely to result in a horrendously protracted strangulation or a midair decapitation. As Empire State Governor David Hill put it,

The present mode of executing criminals by hanging has come down to us from the dark ages, and it may well be questioned whether the science of the present day cannot provide a means for taking the life of such as are condemned to die in a less barbarous manner.

On this stage, Executed Today presents a rogues’ gallery of homo Americanus, the salesmen and swindlers who would help the U.S.A. ride the lightning.

The Dentist

A true renaissance man, Buffalo dentist Dr. Alfred Southwick, applied his active mind to the need to better kill a fellow, and soon hit upon an inspiration — that is to say, a town drunk hit upon an electrical generator and died instantaneously, and the observant Southwick said “eureka!”

Without the subsequent industry of this neglected gentleman, who added to his repertoire scientifically-minded electrical butchery of animals alongside political gladhandings to bring a flutter to a busybody’s heart, the Chair’s entire oeuvre of machismo-sadism might have missed the country altogether. Just imagine living in a world where New York had pioneered its other leading reform alternative: lethal injection.

(This, incidentally, is why the chair is a chair, and not a bed or a stake or a St. Andrew’s Cross: because the guy who thought of it spent all day administering his own tender mercies to seated penitents.)

The Plutocrats

As Southwick nagged his senator and shocked stray cats into the great hereafter, the gears of commerce strove relentlessly ever-onward. The business of America was ever business, and never more so than the Gilded Age.

And the business of killing people was about to become the biggest business there was.

The age of electricity was buzzing into incandescence, and two rival standards were at currents amped over eventual dominance of this stupendous industry. Thomas Edison’s earlier Direct Current (DC) standard was being challenged by Nikolai Tesla’s Alternating Current (AC), backed by the financial muscle of George Westinghouse.

Cheaper and more efficient, AC tilted the playing field against Edison. Seeing his days numbered, the Wizard of Menlo Park fought back the way any dinosaur industry would: dirty.

AC, Edison said, was too dangerous for consumer use — a lurking killer. “Is this what your wife should be cooking with?” And he started taking up traveling road shows zapping large animals with AC to demonstrate the rival product’s deadliness. (This press coined the term “electrocution” from these spectacles.)

This clip of the electric demise of a circus elephant — don’t hit “play” if you’re not up for animal cruelty — is from some years later (Edison kept tilting at windmills and megafauna carcasses as his DC empire disappeared), but it’ll give a sense of the horrifying spectacle.

(Topsy, it should be noted, was being put down as a danger and not strictly for kicks.)

Elephants? Horses? Dogs?

How about a human?

With the New York legislature’s embrace of Southwick’s seated voltage people-eater, Edison turned his PR gears on the state, demanding they adopt his competitor’s “deadlier” current for the contraption. And they did, reflecting a widespread belief inculcated by Edison’s experiments — as this New York Times article on an Edison crony’s public livestock-killing show in the days leading up to the advent of the electrocution law indicates:

The experiments proved the alternating current to be the most deadly force known to science, and that less than half the pressure used in this city for electric lighting by this system is sufficient to cause instant death.

After Jan. 1 the alternating current will undoubtedly drive the hangmen out of business in this State.

Too bad for Edison that the business he was really trying to kill was made of sturdier stuff.

The Alcoholic Vegetable Merchant

As the 1880’s wane, we come at last to our subject — in several senses of the term — an illiterate nobody of German stock who chanced to kill his common-law wife with just the right timing to join in a new kind of experiment.

William Kemmler mounted a “cruel and unusual punishment” appeal against his sentence funded by Westinghouse himself: no dice. Perhaps appreciating the odd foothold on history he was about to attain, he showed little worry as he entered the execution room and sat himself — “undoubtedly the coolest man in the room,” a journalist present reported.

The End of the Beginning

That reporter’s description for the New York Herald graphically captures humanity’s first horrible encounter with this “humanitarian” machine, beginning with the prisoner’s parting remarks.*

Doubtless he knew that his words will go down in history and he had his lesson well learned. He addressed his audience [in] a commonplace way and without hesitation.

“Well, gentleman, I wish everyone good luck in this world, and I think I am going to a good place, and the papers have been sa[yi]ng a lot of stuff that isn’t so. That’s all I have to say.”

And so with a parting shot at what he was good enough to refer to not long ago as “those d—d reporters,” William Kemmler took his leave of earth. The quiet demeanor of the man as he entered had made a strong impression on those in the room. His self-possession after his oratorical effort simply amazed them. He got up out of his chair as though he were anxious to try the experiment, not as though he courted death, but as though he was thoroughly prepared for it. …

There was no delay. Kemmler constantly encouraged the workers at the straps with “Take your time; don’t be in a hurry; do it well; be sure everything is all right.” He did not speak with any nervous apprehension.

Warden Durston leaned over, drawing the buckle of the straps about the arm. “It won’t hurt you, Bill,” he said, “I’ll be with you all the time.”

A minute later Kemmler said, “There’s plenty of time.” He said it as calmly as the conductor of a streetcar might have encouraged a passenger not to hurry.

Kemmler was pinioned so close that he could hardly have moved a muscle except those of his mouth.

The Warden took a last look at the straps. “This is all right,” he said.

“All right,” said Dr. Spitzka, and then bent over and said, “God bless you, Kemmler.”

“Thank you,” said the little man, quietly.

“Ready?” Said the Warden.

“Ready,” answered the doctors.

“Goodbye,” said the Warden to Kemmler. There was no response.

GAVE THE SIGNAL.

The Warden stepped to the door leading into the next room. It was then forty-three and one-half minutes past six o’clock by the prison clock. “Everything is ready,” said the Warden to some one hidden from view in the next room.

The answer came like a flash in the sudden convulsion that went over the frame of the chair. If it seemed rigid before under the influence of the straps, [it] was doubly so now has it strained against them.

The seconds ticked off. Dr. McDonald, who was holding the stopwatch, said “Stop.”

Two voices near him echoed, “Stop.”

The Warden stepped to the door of the next room and repeated the word “Stop.”

As the syllable [passed] his lips the forehead of the man in the chair [grew] dark [in] color, while his nose, or so much of it as was exposed, appeared a dark red.

There was very little apparent relaxation of the body, however. [A] fly lighted on the nose and walked about unconcernedly. The witnesses drew nearer to the chair.

“He’s dead,” said Spitzka, authoritatively.

“Oh, yes, he’s dead,” said McDonald.

“You’ll notice,” said Spitzka, “the post-mortem appearance of the nose immediately. There is that remarkable change that cannot be mistaken for anything else, that remarkable appearance of the nose.”

The other doctors nodded [assent]. They looked at the body critically for a minute and then Spitzka said, [“]oh, undo that now. The body can be taken to the hospital.”

“Well, I can’t let you gentlemen out of here until I have your certificates,” said the Warden.

FOUND SIGNS OF LIFE.

It was while this businesslike conversation was going on that Dr. Balch made a discovery.

“McDonald,” he cried, “McDonald, look at that rupture,” he pointed at the abrasion of the skin on Kemmler’s right thumb. In the contraction of the muscles the figurehead[?] scraped against it and removed the skin, and from that little [wound] blood was flowing-[an] almost certain indication of life.

A low cry of horror went through the assemblage.

“[Turn] on the current,” excitedly cried Dr. Spitzka. “This man is not dead.”

The crowd fell back from the chair, as though they were in danger. The Warden sprang into the closed door and pounded on it with his hand.

“Start the current!” he cried. As he spoke of fluid began to drop from Kemmler’s mouth and to run down his beard; a groaning sound came from his lips, repeated and growing louder each time.

It seemed [an] age before the card was again turned on. In fact it was just seventy-three seconds from the end of the first contact when the first sound was heard to issue from Kemmler’s lips, and it was not more than a half [minute] before the card was again turned on.

RECOVERING CONSCIOUSNESS.

But every second to that time the horrible sound from those groaning lips was becoming more distinct, [a straining] of the chest against the leather harness stronger and more evident.

The man was coming to life. The spectators grew faint and sick. [Men] who had stood over dead and dying [men] and had cut [men] to pieces without an emotion [grew] pale and turned their heads away.

One witness was forced to lie down while one of the doctors fanned him.

But [the end] came at last. There was another convulsion of the body, and … it became rigid with the rigidity of iron.

“That man wasn’t dead,” cried Spitzka excitedly. As he spoke the body twitched again. The electrician had given the current gain new alternation and now 2,000 volts [were] playing in short, successive shocks down Kemmler spine. The sound ceased with the first convulsion, but the fluid continued to trip from the mouth and down the beard, making the body a sickening spectacle.

“Keep it on now until he’s killed,” said one of the doctors. …

“Keep it on! Keep it on!” Cried Warden Durston through the door.

Silence reigned for a moment. A bell without began to [toll] solemnly. …

BURNED BY THE CURRENT.

Then from the chair came a sizzling sound, as of [meat] cooking on hand. Following it immediately a billow of smoke came from the body and filled the air of the room with the odor of burning hair.

There was a cry from all the members of the little group, and Warden Durston cried through the door leading to the next room to [turn] the current off.

(Also of interest: the New York Times‘ (non-eyewitness) report on the affair.)

More shocking — so to speak — papers ran the next day’s headline “Kemmler Westinghoused,” the verb “to Westinghouse” being another shameless Edisonian bid to stamp his marketing project onto the Queen’s English. This fine, rounded, archaic neologism the right sports anchor could resuscitate as a fresh synonym for thrashing, horsewhipping, poleaxing, or else (in greater justice) for moderation and decency as the only principal in the sordid affair that rejected death-dealing by electricity.

(Officially, Edison also opposed the death penalty. Like Dr. Guillotin, he was doing his part for humanity in the meantime … just with a little skin in the game. Did we mention the business of America is business?)

Westinghouse, for his own part, thought the Kemmler debacle would nip the electric chair in the bud, and he was scarcely the only one.

Official reviews for the “art of killing by electricity” were, ahem, mixed.

“They could have done better with an axe.”**
-George Westinghouse

“Strong men fainted and fell like logs on the floor.”
-New York Herald

“Revolting … a disgrace to civilization.”
-New York Times

“We live in a higher civilization from this day on.”
-Alfred Southwick

Books (remarkably numerous!) about the creation of the electric chair

It should, in fairness, be noted that the U.S. was not the only country (pdf) to mull an electrocution chair in the 19th century … but it was (and for a long time remained) the only one to actually use one.

* The Herald excerpt, along with several other articles from the same paper about the Kemmler execution, is here, but the text has obviously been generated from a scan with uneven results. As I do not have access to the originals, [bracketed] remarks in the excerpt indicate this author’s own interpretations or interpolations of seemingly mistaken transcriptions.

** Some sources make it “would have done better with an axe.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Language,Mature Content,Milestones,Murder,New York,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Pelf,Popular Culture,USA

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1999: Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis, the end of the road for Old Sparky

46 comments July 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1999, America’s obesity epidemic met Florida’s death penalty politics in the ugly electrocution of Allen Lee “Tiny” Davis.

The reader will discern that Tiny earned his nickname ironically. Reportedly 159 kg (350 pounds) at his death, he’d put his ample heft to work bludgeoning a pregnant mother of two beyond recognition with a revolver handle back in 1982 … and then shooting to death the now-motherless two.

As his appeals meandered through the courts, Davis got fatter — and got high blood pressure, arthritis, hypertension and a wheelchair. Meanwhile, the death penalty was meandering its own way across the weird political chessboard of the Sunshine State.

For the American death penalty nowadays, it’s Texas and then everyone else … but time was that Florida was the capital of capital punishment.

It conducted the first “modern” involuntary execution in 1979. It had carried out three executions before anyone else had more than one. And when the the drip-drip-drip pace of one or two execution nationwide per year in the early 1980’s finally burst into a torrent, Florida led the way with eight of the 21 executions in 1984.

Not until late in 1986 did Texas overtake Florida in the body count sweepstakes.

All that time, Florida was happily using its vintage electric chair, Old Sparky (one of several electric chairs with that moniker), built in 1923 of 100% oak wood and prison labor. And the more the chair’s quasi-medieval ickiness drove other states to lethal injection, the more Floridians cherished electrocution.

Law-and-order Tampa mayor Bob Martinez won the governorship in 1986 on the promise that “Florida’s electric bill will go up.” There was a high-profile botch in 1990, and another in 1997 — flames shooting from the inmates’ heads. What was the state’s Attorney General going to do about it? “People who wish to commit murder, they’d better not do it in the state of Florida because we may have a problem with the electric chair.” Under pressure to move to lethal injection — the chair’s unsightly malfunctions were spawning legal and public relations nightmares that were gumming up the gears — the legislature voted nearly unanimously to keep Old Sparky.

And then along came a giant.

After three-quarters of a century and 266 jobs, Old Sparky was “falling apart” … and that was going to be a problem for a man of Davis’ carriage.

The killer’s lawyers argued that Davis was so fat he couldn’t conduct electricity efficiently and would be slowly cooked to death. According to Slate, Florida authorities were nervous that he’d break the chair during his electrocution and send a disconnected live cable scything into someone else in the room.

It was time for the unthinkable: Florida retired Old Sparky and built a new chair … and supersized it. (Image, from the Florida Department of Corrections)

And it worked, in that it killed Tiny. But what a mess — especially when an ensuing Florida Supreme Court opinion once again upheld the constitutionality of electrocution, and a dissenting judge attached the photos on this page to his opinions. Naturally, they became a grisly Internet sensation.

Old Sparky’s custom-built successor would only manage this single execution before Florida finally got on the lethal injection bandgurney.

Or at least, it’s only managed one so far. Old electric chairs don’t die, they just fade away … and in Florida, Tiny Davis’s chair remains available for condemned prisoners who choose it. Since this date in 1999, none have.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Florida,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Calendar

June 2019
M T W T F S S
« May    
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!