FROM CHAPTER FOUR - WATCHING THEM DIE

 
I witnessed my first execution on July 27, 1954—a hot, muggy night. I was 26 years old and had been working at the prison for about two years (after the two-year stint in the army). I was working in the mailroom with Adam Menkerell, which I loved because I was out in the front house, and I got to meet all different kinds of people—families of inmates, lawyers, politicians. I wasn’t dealing with only inmates and corrections people all day long. One of our duties was pat frisking (or if a woman was going in, using a metal detector) everyone going into the jail.

A few days before the execution Jack Malkin, now a captain, came up to me and said, “Harry, I need a guard Tuesday night for an execution. Do you want to make some overtime?”

My first reaction was that this was a good opportunity to get four hours of overtime pay because my wife Ginny and I had recently had our first child, Darryl, and my salary was still only about $3,000 per year. My second reaction was a nagging doubt as to whether I would be able to deal mentally and emotionally with watching someone die in front of me. In those days, though, we didn’t say no to a “request” to work overtime, plus I liked the idea of the extra money, so I told Captain Malkin that I would do it.

Since Adam and I were the guys on first shift who routinely screened people for weapons and contraband, Malkin asked us to come in to screen the witnesses (more for cameras than weapons) and then escort them through the prison to the death chamber.

The inmate who was to die that first Tuesday night was a young black guy from Trenton, Theodore Walker. When I was first hired, I had been shown the death row cell block and the death chamber, but since then I hadn’t had any occasion to go back there, so I hardly remembered what the room looked like. I was curious, but I was also apprehensive.

The first witness, a reporter, arrived at about 9:00 p.m. Witnesses for executions were usually members of the press, police officers, or employees in the corrections field. I wondered if maybe victims’ families might be invited to watch the killer of their loved ones die, or maybe even a member of the family of the killer to say goodbye, but I never knew of any relatives of either side attending.

As the witnesses, all men, came in, Adam and I frisked them. We were especially careful to check around the ankles and shins and particularly careful with the reporters. In the forty-six years, from 1907 to 1963, that 160 electrocutions were carried out at Trenton State Prison, no photograph of an execution was ever taken or published. That was also the reason for the sheet of white canvas suspended waist-high between the witnesses and the electric chair in the death chamber—nobody was going to strap a camera to his leg and snap pictures as had happened in New York State when the New York Daily News ran that famous front-page photo of Ruth Snyder being executed at Sing Sing.

After I screened the 16 witnesses that Tuesday night, checking their passes and credentials thoroughly, and then pat frisking and running a metal detector over them, I politely asked them to wait in the warden’s office located just to the right of the prison’s front door. When I had the whole group together, I escorted them through 6-wing past the deathly quiet cells and out into the small yard between 6-wing and the death house.

When I had first started at the prison, one of the inmates, a friendly old-timer, had said to me, “Harry, you hear how goddamned noisy it is in here. If you’re coming to work and it’s quiet, don’t come in. It means that something bad is gonna happen.” I laughed and thanked him for the advice, but his words came flashing back into my mind as I escorted the witnesses through the normally raucous interior of the prison: the silence was eerie. I found out that it was always like this on execution night as the inmates waited for one of them to die.

After we crossed the small exercise yard, we came to the door of the death chamber, a small one-story brick building close to, almost touching, the front wall of the prison. The door that witnesses entered through was near a wide receiving gate used for large vehicles, such as food and laundry trucks, entering and leaving the prison. Next to the big gate was a smaller, solid metal door known as the sally port and up above and to one side of both the big gate and the sally port was guard tower number nine. After the execution was over, witnesses would be escorted out of the prison through this sally port.

Once we reached the death chamber, I opened the door and held it for the witnesses as an officer stationed just inside the door showed them to their seats. All of the witnesses had arrived between 9:00 and 9:30, so we had all of them frisked and into the death chamber by about 9:50.

Executions normally took place on Tuesday nights at 10:00 p.m. If only one person was being put to death, the proceeding was over within a few minutes; executions were carried out with an almost mechanical efficiency. Of the 13 executions I witnessed from July 1954 to July of 1962, I never saw any of the high drama of that 1938 Jimmy Cagney movie, Angels With Dirty Faces. In the movie, Pat O’Brien, playing the priest, has convinced the gangster played by Cagney to do something to discourage the kids back in the neighborhood from a life of crime. In the end of the movie, Cagney drops his tough guy image and, supposedly terrified, is dragged crying and yelling to the chair. When I saw the movie as a kid, that scene always stuck in my mind, but I never saw anything like that happen in the Trenton State Prison death chamber.

Before I saw Walker executed, I thought that the condemned men would at least be upset, maybe crying and pleading; or that they might resist being put into the chair, even try to bolt from the room when they saw the chair. In fact, none of this ever happened, and every one of the men I watched die walked, sometimes quite nonchalantly, straight to the chair, sat down, said nothing (with one exception) and was pronounced dead by the attending physician within four or five minutes of entering the death chamber.

At this first execution, I went into the death chamber with a mental image that this would be a dramatic, formal, somber ceremony—that the condemned man would be asked if he had any last words, that he might make a long speech, that the warden would read the death warrant and maybe intone “And may God have mercy on your soul” or something like that. In fact, the process was so smoothly choreographed, it was over before I had chance to come to grips with the idea that a life was being snuffed out in front of me.

The death chamber itself was a stark room, and, surprisingly, quite small—approximately 18 feet by 24 feet—for the significance of what occurred there:. When all of the witnesses, officers, warden, executioner and condemned man got in there, it was packed; it seemed as if we were all on top of one another—a closeness that I found oppressive and depressing. The front row of witnesses, separated from the chair by a rope that went from wall to wall and from which hung the white canvas sheet, was startlingly close to the condemned man and the chair—maybe six or seven feet. The room was dimly lit by a few fluorescent lights suspended from the ceiling, and the windowless interior walls of the brick building were painted a dull green. The witnesses entered through a solid metal door at the south end, and the condemned man, escorted by four officers, entered from the prison wing designated as death row through another solid metal door with a peephole on the west side of the room. The chair, a large straight-backed wooden apparatus with a metal skull cap, sat on a slightly raised concrete slab about eight feet from the door through which the condemned man entered. From the witnesses’ perspective, the executioner and the control panel, in plain view, were just behind and slightly to the right of the chair. The door through which the execution party with the condemned man entered was to the left of the chair.

Upon entering the death chamber, the condemned men almost always seemed to first glance to their right and look at the witnesses. They would then look beyond the seated witnesses at us, the 10 or 15 cops standing along the back wall with batons held diagonally across our chests. Since the condemned were so quickly guided to the chair and strapped in, they didn’t see the executioner until he approached them from the side to put the mask over their faces and the sponge on their heads.

When Captain Malkin had first asked me to do death house duty, I had started wondering what the executioner would look like. I had a mental image of a big, burly guy with muscular, hairy arms and a black hood over his head so that nobody would know who he was if they saw him on the street. Actually, the executioner was about five feet-seven inches tall, balding, kind of meek-looking and dressed in a rumpled, dark business suit. His name was Joseph Francel from Cairo, NY, and he had the execution contract for New York State, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. At the time of the Walker execution, he had electrocuted over fifty people at $150.00 “per head” (at least that’s the way we referred to it) and had somewhat of a claim to fame in that he had executed atom bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in June of 1953. He was very proper-looking, very “English.” Francel was a licensed electrician, the sole requirement for being New Jersey’s executioner.

Another misconception that I had carried around for a long time was “throwing the switch.” I always thought that the chair was activated by a large knife switch thrown when the warden nodded his head. At Trenton State Prison, it was actually a metal wheel about eight to ten inches in diameter with spokes. The warden did nod his head, and at that signal, the executioner quickly spun the wheel counter-clockwise. The wheel was a type of rheostat that, when 2,000 volts was reached, released the current, and the condemned man was hit with the deadly jolt of electricity. The law required 12 witnesses, but usually a few more than that attended, maybe 15 to 20, depending on who was being executed. If he was a nobody from the sticks, like James Beard, who had killed his mother with a tire iron in an argument over a bottle of wine, there weren’t as many witnesses as there would be for a well-known bad-ass like Hot Dog Roscus from Newark, who had grabbed a few headlines by constantly disrupting his trial. Since Walker was from Trenton and had killed a local woman, there were a few more witnesses than usual.

Walker’s case is a good example of the speed of the criminal justice system back in the fifties. He had gone into 45-year-old Mollie Schlesinger’s uniform shop on Montgomery Street in Trenton on the night of August 18, 1953, to rob her of the day’s receipts. When Schlesinger resisted and tried to fight him off, Walker slashed her with a butcher knife. He grabbed $11 out of the till and ran but was captured almost immediately. Schlesinger died the next day from shock and loss of blood. Walker was convicted of first-degree murder on November 23, 1953 and was executed July 27, 1954—11 _ months from crime to execution.

On the night of Walker’s electrocution, by 9:55 all of the witnesses were settled on narrow wooden folding chairs that, appropriately enough, looked as if they had been borrowed from a funeral parlor. The chairs were arranged in four rows of six chairs with an aisle dividing two groups of twelve chairs to the left and to the right. At exactly 10 p.m., the solid metal door at the west end of the death chamber opened and Walker, head shaved, stripped to the waist (it was a hot, humid July night), and wearing a pair of khaki cutoff shorts, was escorted in by four officers, two in front of him and two behind. Walker looked resigned to his impending death and puffed on a cigarette while two of the prison chaplains, the Rev. L.M. Case and the Rev. H.C. VanPelt, walked in front of him;. Reverend Case was reading the 23rd Psalm. Walker was a big, well-built guy, about 6 feet, 180 pounds; while he had been on death row, he had been lifting weights regularly and was in great physical shape—ironic given the circumstances. He had also “gotten religion,” on death row (as did many of the men I watched die) and was wearing an outsized metal cross dangling from a metal chain around his neck.

Lloyd McCorkle was the warden at he time, and he was standing near the chair along with four officers. The escorting officers moved Walker directly to the chair, and he sat down. I remember thinking that this guy ought to look terrified, but his expression was more of an interested curiosity than fear. I think that was one of the reasons the process was carried out so fast—to keep the condemned man from thinking about what was happening to him.

The four officers standing near the chair, one assigned to each arm and leg, quickly buckled three-inch-wide leather straps around Walker’s arms and legs. Then the executioner stepped over next to Walker, reached into a bucket of water sitting on the floor next to the chair and took out a small sponge—about two-inches by two or three inches. He placed it on Walker’s head and placed the metal skull cap down over the sponge; the weight of the metal cap pushed it down snugly onto Walker’s head and held it there. Simultaneously, an officer who had strapped one of Walker’s arms produced a leather mask with a two-inch diamond-shaped opening to let the nose protrude through. He handed it to the executioner who slid it down over Walker’s head, covering his face. One of the officers who had strapped a leg cinched another leather strap around Walker’s chest. Everyone then stepped back away from the chair. The warden moved a few steps closer to the chair, looked Walker over, and stepped back. He then did a half turn toward the executioner, who had moved over to the big electric panel with the wheel and dials, and nodded. The executioner turned toward the panel with the wheel, grasped it and gave it one sharp counter-clockwise turn.

I expected to hear some kind of loud buzzing or whirring of a dynamo (Cagney movies, again), but the only thing I heard was the loud slap of Walker’s bare chest smacking against the restraining strap as the jolt of electricity caused him to lunge forward. The executioner must have done a silent “one, one hundred; two, two hundred” count for about three or four seconds, and then he smartly spun the wheel back to its original position. He did this quickly four more times, and each time Walker’s bare, sweaty chest smacked against the restraining strap.

Because of the heavy humidity and the perspiration on Walker’s chest, the metal crucifix must have picked up the current and the cross started to glow; it looked like it was burning and embedding itself in Walker’s chest—a grisly, but I have to admit, fascinating, sight. I thought, “God. What’s happening? Is he splitting open?”

As the current was hitting him, Walker’s powerful weightlifter’s body strained against the thick straps, as if he was trying to get up out of the chair to escape the electricity. I told myself that Walker was knocked unconscious by the first jolt and he was not feeling anything; I still believe this to be true. Recently I have seen some scenes from TV dramas, one of them the execution of Ethel Rosenberg, in which the condemned person vibrates wildly in the chair for many seconds as the current is applied. In the electrocutions that I witnessed, the person was violently thrust forward against the straps, more like being shot in the back with an elephant gun at close range. Bam! Then, each time the executioner spun the wheel, the man’s body was thrust forward for a couple of seconds and sagged back until the next jolt. About twenty to thirty seconds, five shots of electricity, and it was over.

When the current was cut after the last jolt, Walker’s head dropped forward onto his chest, and his body sagged heavily against the straps. The prison doctor, Dr. Howard Weisler, had been standing between the warden and the executioner. He stepped forward and placed a stethoscope on Walker’s chest. I’ll never forget those words—the first of thirteen times I was to hear them: “This man is dead.”

I looked at my watch. It was 10:05 p.m.

I helped escort the witnesses out of the death chamber and then turned back to glance at the officers unstrapping Walker’s body so that they could lift it onto a Gurney with a heavy slate slab on top. Between executions, the Gurney was stored in a small room directly behind the electrical control panel that held the wheel. In that room ran all of the heavy electric cables that carried the power from the outside, through the panel and into the chair. I left the death chamber before the four officers who had strapped Walker into the chair removed the skull cap, the mask, and the straps, but the next day a couple of them told me what always happened after the execution.

After the witnesses left, the four officers took Walker’s body, lifted him up and laid him on the Gurney, his head fitting into a melon-sized depression in the slab. They then wheeled him into the small room to wait until a detail of inmates from the hospital would come down with another, lighter Gurney and take the body back to the prison morgue, adjacent to the hospital. The next morning he would be put into a plain wooden box made in the prison repair shop and be picked up by a local undertaker.

Usually the body of the executed man would be claimed by his family from the Trenton funeral home that had the contract to pick up the corpses from the death house, but sometimes nobody claimed them. In those cases, we had a mold out in the repair shop to make little rounded grave markers like on Boot Hill in the old West. Then the inmate’s number, no name, would be cast on the cement marker, and he would be buried in the prison cemetery on Cedar Lane in Hamilton Township just outside of the City of Trenton.

That night when I got home, I was drained and, I guess, depressed, maybe even in some kind of a state of shock. I couldn’t put a finger on how I felt, but it wasn’t a good feeling. Ginny, asked me how it had gone, and I described it to her in broad terms—I didn’t think at the time that she would be able to handle all of the details.

She said to me, “Honey, if you don’t want to work there . . . .”

And I told her, “I’m not a carpenter or a plumber. This is what I am—a prison guard—and this is what I do.”

Then we went to bed and I tried to go to sleep. Darryl was about eight months old, and he was sleeping in a crib in our room next to my side of the bed. The crib had one of those rubber sheets that are used in case the baby wets through the diaper. It was probably about three or four in the morning, and I was just starting to drift off to sleep when the baby turned over and slapped his arm against the rubber sheet; it sounded exactly like Walker’s chest smacking against the strap across his chest! My eyes flew open, and I sat bolt upright in bed, unable to sleep for the rest of the night. . . .