Inside a 1939 Execution of 4 Men
Originally Published as: “Want to See an Execution?” by Allen Rankin, Front Page Detective, April, 1956.
Download PDF File of Inside a 1939 Execution of Four Men
It was a bright moonlight night. I was 22, and, as I cruised out the Wetumpka Highway in the new family car, I clicked on the radio. Kay Kyser was playing Stardust. I had a heavy date—to see four men die.
“Want to go to a barbecue?” my city editor had asked me that morning. “If nobody else wants to,” I’d said, trying to look as grave and reluctant as possible, but inside I was elated. By “barbecue” the editor meant an electrocution at Kilby Prison a few miles from Montgomery—and this one was going to be the second largest execution in the history of Alabama.
Millions of people would like to witness an execution if given the chance—or they think they would. This was my chance. The assignment meant I had arrived as a full-fledged reporter, no longer to be considered a cub, but driving out to Kilby on the night of June 8, 1939, I was worried about how I would react to the legal, scientific killing of four men. Some reporters got sick at electrocutions; some fainted.
“This your first barbecue?” asked George Meeker, the police reporter for the opposition paper, who was riding out with me. It was an embarrassing and unfair question, I thought, but I had to answer, “Yes.”
“Then you’d better have a slug of this,” said Meeker as we parked beside Kilby’s high, white wall. He held out half a pint of bourbon. “You’ll probably need it.”
I declined, but watching Meeker, two years older than I, take several long belts of raw whisky to fortify himself made me more uneasy. I began to wish our midnight party was over.
Electrocutions are very exclusive affairs, and only the few guests who “belong” are invited, but at the flash of a press card, many locked doors swing open.
Meeker and I walked in about 11:50 P.M., ten minutes before the scheduled hour. What struck me most was that nobody seemed to look or act as if anything out of the ordinary were happening.
In the starkly-lighted lobby with the red tile floor, 20 or 30 people, stood around like convention-goers waiting to be called into a hotel dining room. Warden Earl Wilson was acting as a kind of host, quietly greeting people, shaking hands. A good-looking, deeply suntanned man with blue eyes, he might have been—except for his informal sports shirt—the chairman and greeter at a manufacturers’ convention.
Wilson looked at his watch. “All right,” he said, “I guess we’d better start up.”
THE second the double gates of the main cellblock clanged shut behind us, we were in a different world. The corridors were almost dark, lighted only by dim bulbs at the end. I felt the usual discomfort of being locked in with convicts, dangerous men. It was three hours past their official bedtime, but they were all awake. I could sense it. Some of them moved around in their cell cubicles like caged shadows as we passed. I asked the warden about it.
“They’re always’ nervous on the night of an execution,” he said. “They wouldn’t think of trying to sleep until it’s over.
Our heels rang on the steel stairs as we started up. The staircase to the death chamber looked like a wide fire-escape. I thought about the four men who had climbed it to death row a few weeks or months before, and how they would never find their way back down again—alive. I knew they could hear us coming up to get them—our feet ringing on the steel– our little group, chatting of the weather and the price of cotton and tomorrow, the probabilities of tomorrow. What did the men at the top of the stairs feel? What did men whose tomorrows had run out think as they beard death approaching?
Cut that out, I warned myself. Don’t think of that. Don’t think of anything.
The stairs were over the kitchen, and the mealtime smells of vegetables, grease and close-packed humanity still hung there, heavy and warm. I felt a little sick.
Suddenly, we left the dark and came into a bright, white, sterile-looking room arranged like a theater. The electric chair itself stood front and center on a kind of stage of bare white concrete. It was made of wood and painted yellow. It had surprisingly appealing arms and a graceful, curving back. The gray restraining harness lay as slackly and as innocently as the straps and catches of an unused garter belt. In the middle of the room was a railing, and behind it perhaps 40 theater-type seats. The seats were there to afford us, the selected guests, maximum comfort and the best possible view. Near the chair was an American flag.
The room was, in a way, like a little arena in which four gladiators would meet the tiger of high voltage, but these gladiators had already done all possible fighting for their lives. Here they wouldn’t be able to fight back. The hopeless, one-sided nature of the forthcoming show was unappealing, slightly nauseating.
It was small comfort to realize just then that my emotions were standard. I noticed that large paper cups had been stacked on the railing for any onlookers who might become upset enough to need them. I wondered uneasily if I was already as pale as Meeker beside me.
The hands of the electric clock on the wall reached midnight. In the soundless room, I remembered I had forgotten something. “The condemned man ate a hearty last meal. . . .” Readers of newspapers always wanted to know that, for some reason.
I tapped the chaplain on the shoulder and asked him. Yes, he said, all four men had eaten hearty last suppers. One had ordered steak, two fried chicken, and one fried fish. All had topped it with ice cream. I jotted the information down.
It began at 12:09.
“Ray Anderson,” the warden announced, in a tone like a college dean calling the first student on stage to receive a diploma. The green steel door swung open and loosed a skinny little man into the white concrete arena. I glanced at my notes. This would be Ray Anderson, 26-year-old handyman, rapist, assaulter of a Birmingham matron.
He trotted swiftly into the little amphitheater, a nervous, almost jaunty grin on his face. He looked as if he might be bringing us some cheerful announcement.
This is the kind of nerve you read about, I thought. He was gray with fright, but he was well-braced inside. You could see he was determined to die by his own code of toughness —die grinning.
But a man is not always the master of himself, even in such a small thing as choosing to die with a grin.
It was clear now, as Anderson came waddling out grinning, that he thought he had one more room to go before he reached the chair. He was looking for it just ahead of him, and he was ready for it just ahead of him, but, suddenly glancing around, he saw it already behind him. He had not meant to reach it, certainly not to pass it yet. His mouth fell open as if to utter a cry that did not come. By this little accident of timing, his smile crumbled, collapsed into terror and panic. He had to be led, reeling and muttering, to the yellow wooden chair and be lifted into it.
He shook uncontrollably as they strapped him in, rolled up his clean white prison trousers, dampened and scrubbed his ankles with a special solution so that the metal electrodes they buckled on would make perfect contact. They did the same thing to his wrists.
The nurse in the doctor’s office had scratched my wrists and ankles in the same way recently before buckling on the metal electrodes of a machine to test my heart. I hadn’t liked the procedure because I feared the cardiogram would discover something new and dangerously wrong with my heart. How then did this man feel being made ready for a machine he knew would stop his heart?
At this point, four men brought in a pine coffin. Walking two on each side of it, formal as pallbearers, they set it down just in front of the chair, in full view of the man strapped in it. Anderson’s eyes, already wide, dilated in protest as an attendant took off his shoes and tossed them into the pine box. He now realized that, within a minute or so he would be lying in the box on top of the shoes, not hearing them nail the pine lid over him. In the morning, they would take the box and its contents and bury it in the cold red clay of Kilby’s potter’s field, which received the bodies of the executed who were unclaimed by their families.
“Have mercy, Lord!” ‘Anderson cried, his eyes glued to the bottom of the casket. “I think I’m living to meet my fate!” In the South I had heard both expressions uttered a thousand times as exclamations—light, laughing jokes. The way Anderson said them was different.
Out of consideration for the executioner, the room in which he pulls the switch is usually separated from the chair by a wall or partition. This is supposed to make the puller of the death lever feel more clinical and impersonal about it—less guilty.
The warden raised his hand. The executioner in the next room closed the circuit. There was a hum like a diesel train getting underway; an unreal bluish light filled the room. The man in the chair rose as if to get up quickly and run out, but he was stopped abruptly, joltingly in midair by the restraining straps. His body strained against the straps, seemed about to burst them and take flight. His hair sparked and sizzled with bluish flame for an instant. Then the humming sound stopped; 2200 volts dropped out from under him and he slumped back into the chair, no longer a man but a body.
Despite the sponge helmet that had been rammed on his head at the last minute to keep down the stench of burning hair, the sweetish smell of it filled the room, but it was not this that seemed suddenly unbearable. It was the full realization of how easily one man can separate another from his life. I had seen a man die screaming, trapped, burning alive in an automobile, but the simple, sudden, deliberate snuffing out of a man’s life in the electric chair was, in a way, more terrible. This was not something the victim had done to himself, but something that had been done to him—and it was so ordered, systematic and dispassionate. Here the great thumb of Justice and the forefinger of Majority Will closed upon one weak, fluttering life and snuffed it out.
I FELT nausea, an acute need to reach for one of the paper cups. I avoided it by thinking of Kay Kyser playing Stardust on the car radio and the date I would have on my next night off. Still, the thought crept in: how did the next man feel, waiting his turn in the hall, watching that unpainted pine box being carried past him?
I needn’t have worried about that. The next man to enter was Charles (Soothsayer) White, who, a glance at my notes told me, was a fortune-teller convicted of raping a young woman.
He was a physical giant of a man, quietly composed, and, as far as anyone will ever know, ignorant of the meaning of fear.
“Do you realize you are about to die?” Warden Wilson asked him.
“Do I realize it!” said White. He was actually joking. It would have been a funny crack in vaudeville, but here nobody laughed or even smiled, except White. He grinned and climbed up into the chair as nonchalantly as if he were about to get a haircut.
“Do you have anything to say before you die?”
“Yes.” White pulled off the electrode that was being buckled to his head. “This thing is entirely too tight.”
“Your head’s too big for it,” said the attendant. “It has to be a tight fit.”
“All right,” said White. “Now I have something else to say if everybody’s listening.” His big, calm rumble filled the little execution room. “I know that I’m an innocent man. I know that a lot of people here tonight know I’m an innocent man. I am glad that I can go up to Jesus an innocent man.”
Was he telling the truth? Was he innocent, as some men who die in the chair undoubtedly are? Had his case been investigated thoroughly enough? Had every one of the 12 good men and true on the jury been sure of his guilt? Was each juror’s judgment perfect? Is any man’s? If he was guilty was he any more so than the rest of us in various ways?
These are the most uncomfortable kind of questions that can occur to the observer of an execution, and they usually do occur. But White himself did not linger upon them or dramatize them. At the moment, he was interested in showing that a man can face one of the worst things that can come to him—death by decree of his fellows—without the sign or shadow of fear—and that he did.
White was spared the long look into his own coffin that the first man had got. Outside, his family was waiting to do his remains the honor of tears and a good silk-lined casket placed in a family plot.
But the 2200 volts lifted his massive frame as easily as it had lifted the smaller man’s. The few seconds of lightning converted him into the same worthless, lifeless doll of clay.
Officials felt his pulse, found none, but gave him a second jolt anyway, as they always do in order to be on the safe side. Some men miraculously have survived hangings; none survive electric chairs or gas chambers.
12:38. By now I felt anything but good, and there were still two to go. This was all necessary, I told myself; something that had to be done “as an example to other criminals,” but I had read enough to know there was no real basis for such reasoning. History proves that the most terrible penalties do not prevent crime. As a rule, the more severe a society’s punishment has become, the greater the increase in the crime rate.
I remembered reading how, in old England, pickpockets had thrived, operating in crowds assembled to watch the execution of pickpockets, and in defiance of the beheading of killers, the murder toll had risen.
The last thought brought me back with a start to where I was—at just such an execution—in a room in the middle of a grim prison. We were surrounded on all sides by desperate and rebellious men. What were they doing new? What was that noise? For some minutes, I realized, I had been half aware of a low murmur beginning to spread through the prison. Now it was rising to a discordant babble, now a clamor!
Were the men rioting?
For a moment my imagination went wild. The sound was now definitely a great racket, rising in waves from every wing and cell and niche of the prison.
Then I realized it. The other prisoners were singing, Silent Night, Holy Night.
It was weird and off key in the hot June night, but it must have been the only song all of them knew, and upon some prearranged signal they had burst out with it in ragged unison. It pushed back the muggy stale smell of turnip greens and burning flesh. It floated into the white, sterile room of the chair and out across the fields heavy with the scent of cotton blooms and honeysuckle.
All is calm, all is bright….
The other prisoners seemed to be saying to the two left in the death cell: “By this song we will reach you and you will know we are with you. We have come a long way from childhood where we first heard this song, and we haven’t amounted to much, any of us, but we can still sing this song and try to push back the blackness that surrounds us all tonight.”
These were the criminals who were all around us, and this was their answer, their plot, their rebellion against what we were doing. This song:
Round yon Virgin, mother and child,
Holy Infant, so tender and mild. . . .
This and the rest of the song came up louder and louder as Grady Tubbs, 27, convicted of the roadside slaying of Horace J. Nash, was escorted to the chair and taken limp from it —as Joseph Frazier, 22, received his two jolts for the shooting of his grandmother. With the song going, the attendants somehow forgot to present the last two men with a preview of their coffins.
It was over! I had got through the whole ordeal without once having to reach for one of the paper cups, as had a few older and perhaps more sensitive onlookers. I had stood the test, and there would be no jokes back at the paper about my having a weak stomach or being chicken-hearted.
As we descended the steel stairway, every light in the prison went off and the escape siren screamed out: It was later explained there had been some mis-switch at the powerhouse. Ordinarily, I would have been frightened to be plunged into darkness in the middle of a prison, but the singing of the inmates went on in the blackness:
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace. . .
When the lights came on again, Meeker and I looked at each other sheepishly, unhappily.
“We’ll get used to this one day,” he said. “These electrocutions, I mean. We’ll get used to them and then we won’t feel dirty and guilty, and afraid any more from watching them. . . .”
But we never did. We never did get used to them or feel right in ourselves about any of them.
After that night I was never again in favor of capital punishment. Since then, I have often wondered if there would be any executions if judges and jurymen personally had to pull the death-switch, or even had to watch the results of its pulling.
Do men ever get so hopeless, useless and lost as to justify extermination by their “betters”? I will always doubt it after seeing 2000 prisoners (many of whom had committed greater crimes than those who were executed) show more understanding and compassion than we who were “seeing justice done.” I will always believe that the “worst” people deserve the chance to live, and will prove to be of more use alive than dead. For that night, I heard 2000 “lost men” sing Silent Night in the deep summertime for the encouragement and consolation of their more unfortunate fellows.