The first 100 people executed in Virginia’s electric chair — a book excerpt
A negro likes nothing better than to be the central figure, be it a cake-walk or a hanging.
-Virginia State Penitentiary Physician Charles V. Carrington, 1910.
IN AUGUST 1827, Richmond Virginia’s Federal Court under Justice John Marshall tried, convicted, and sentenced to death three Spaniards named Pepe, Couro, and Felix for piracy and murder committed on the brig Crawford, bound from Cuba to New York. After their problematic hanging (two of the three ropes broke and two had to be hung a second time) and burial, a military doctor disinterred the bodies and took them to the Richmond Armory, where they were jolted with “galvanism,” or electric current, in the belief they could be shocked back to life. This process had gained worldwide notoriety when described in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus,” which was first published only nine years earlier, in 1818, with a second edition in 1823.
Of course, the galvanism failed, the three Spaniards remained dead, and they were reinterred in a single unmarked grave in Richmond’s Oregon Hill neighborhood.
Eighty-one years later, Virginia would again turn to electricity not to resuscitate life, but to extinguish it.
Putting an end to Black Salvation
Bill 398, which replaced hanging with the electric chair and centralized state executions in the Virginia State Penitentiary “A” building basement, was sponsored by Henrico County Delegate Charles Throckmorton. The bill cleared the House of Delegates on March 16, 1908, on a vote of 60–19, with the law becoming effective July 1 when signed by Governor Claude Swanson. “Arrangements now are being made for the purchase of the necessary apparatus which, it is understood, will cost $6,500 ($181,155 in 2020 dollars),” reported the April 12, 1908 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Doubtless a commonwealth can buy electric chairs on credit, or it may be that the Governor will arrange for the deferred payments.”
Before the passage of this bill, Virginia executions were conducted by hanging in the jurisdictions where the crime allegedly occurred. It was long believed by nineteenth-century Virginia lawmakers that public hangings had virtue, that they were instructive lessons, and were a deterrent to crime, especially to the Black communities, where a disproportionate number were carried out. But over time, White Virginians began to realize they had no control over these “carnivals of death,” where Blacks turned execution days into something they found unsavory, that is, public rituals celebrating Black salvation.
Facing imminent death while standing on the gallows, the young Black condemned prisoner for the first time in his life held a commanding moment in a previously anonymous and subjugated life. He was seen almost as a prophet; his speech, permitted by the Sheriff sometimes for an hour or more, had authority never realized before, even though he had been convicted of a capital crime. Attendees took off from work, and the very presence of Jesus would be displayed in them by shouting, chanting, swaying, and even screaming. Opportunistic vendors frequently hawked watermelon, lemonade, and patent medicine.
The March 26, 1879, Richmond Dispatch described condemned prisoners Patrick Smith and Julius Christian standing at the New Kent gallows, looking out at the gathered throng and being “pleased to see the interest they excited.”
“Great Lord, look at de people,” the article described in minstrel dialect of Smith admiring the fervent crowd of an estimated 2,000 people. “Dey is settin’ up in de trees like turkey buzzards.”
Thus by 1908 the all-White Virginia Legislature, after being impressed by a flyer handed around by the Adams Electric Company touting their “100% reliable electrocution plant,” decided it was time to put an end to these carnivals of death. Virginia then followed New York (1890), Ohio (1896), Massachusetts (1898), and New Jersey (1906) in acquiring an electric chair.
Taming the Miracle of Electricity
While electricity was still a fairly new phenomenon in 1908, especially in the American South, Richmond was ahead of the curve. In 1888 electrical power innovator Frank J. Sprague had developed the Richmond Union Passenger Railway, the first electric streetcar line in the nation. Over the next 20 years, the need for reliable electricity continued to spread throughout the city, and by the mid-1890s a large part of Richmond was electrified. At the same time, however, 96 percent of rural Virginia still sat in the dark.
Electricity had, overall, finally been harnessed. Harper’s New Monthly magazine proclaimed that the “immeasurable strength” of electricity “for thousands of years had been hidden in the universe, waiting for nineteenth-century man to literally find it.”
Among the electrical miracles on display at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was an original “electric chair” straight out of the death chamber at Sing Sing State Prison in Ossining, New York. Tourists curiously scrutinized the sleek, oddly modern device presented in a pristine exhibition inside the fabled White City. Conversely, a seventeenth-century guillotine was also on display not in the same sterile environs as the electric chair, but outside on the Midway, emphasizing that even with the “destructive machinery of death,” mankind had made impeccable technological progress.
Of course, looks could be deceiving. 1893 Fairgoers were dazzled by the chair’s cutting-edge technology and genteel display but were most likely not familiar with the horrific execution of William Taylor that July in a similar chair at New York’s Auburn Prison. The first jolt of 1,700 volts only stunned Taylor, a 27-year-old Black man, making him lurch and gasp for breath. When a second jolt was dialed up, nothing happened — the generator had shorted out. Guards unstrapped the moaning Taylor and carried him into the cool-down room, where they gave him a shot of morphine and held him while electricians feverishly strung wires from the city’s electric plant through a window into the death chamber and connected them to the chair panelboard. Finally, a full hour after the first unsuccessful jolt, Taylor was brought back in, seated and re-strapped, then successfully electrocuted.
Capital punishment methods notwithstanding, comparisons between the backward crudeness of the old ways and the progressively efficient new ways abounded at this fair. In startling contrast to the exhibition’s futuristic and aptly-named White City, “authentic” villages from other cultures presented on the old-fashioned Midway were chronologically and cynically arranged to trace the superiority of the more refined and technologically advanced “White” American civilization. These included “living museums” of “primitive” human beings “displayed to fairgoers as objects of anthropological inquiry.” Fair organizers imported groups of Samoans, Hawaiians, Algerians, Dahomeans, and even Native American Indians for the sole purpose of reassuring White Americans of how far they had societally progressed over those vulgar colored “objects.”
Prominent racist Georgia matron, lynching advocate, and infamous one-day Senator Rebecca Latimer Felton furthered this notion historically by designing for the Chicago Fair a whitewashed tableau of the horrible realities of Southern slavery, choosing to display “the ignorant contented darky — as distinguished from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s monstrosities (in the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin).” As the last former slaveholding member of the U.S. Congress, Felton wanted to exhibit what she described as the “true story of slavery,” complete with a shack and “real colored folks making mats, shuck collars, and baskets — a woman to spin and card cotton — and another to play banjo and show the actual life of [the] slave — not the Uncle Tom sort.”
On a side note, Felton delivered on August 11, 1897, an incendiary speech to the Georgia Agricultural Society near Savannah, warning among other things that White farm wives faced no greater danger than “the threat of black rapists.”
“I say lynch,” she bellowed to a standing ovation, “a thousand times a week if necessary!”
Accordingly, Alexander Manley, editor of the Black-owned Wilmington (North Carolina) Daily Record newspaper responded with a fiery editorial of his own innocently titled “Mrs. Felton’s Speech.” This article, coupled with the withdrawal of Federal troops from Southern cities, resulted in the Wilmington race riot, the only coup d’état in United States history. The massacre killed 100 Black men, women and children and wounded over 250 others.
That same Fall of 1893, not at the White City but at Virginia’s State Fair, only a few miles from the penitentiary’s “A” basement, White people paid five cents to throw three baseballs at a Black man’s head stuck through a hole in a piece of canvas in a game called the “African Dodger.” Sociologists, scientists, religious leaders, and politicians all justified the game by reminding Whites that as sub-humans, Blacks didn’t mind such humiliations, that they were “less evolved,” and had “heavy and massive craniums” that resisted such punishment.
All these fallacies further dehumanized people of color, rendering them unworthy of humane treatment and convincing Whites it was perfectly acceptable to brutalize, lynch, and execute them.
#Blacklivesmatter #endthedeathenaltynow #BLM
Dale Brumfield’s book “Railroaded: the true stories of the first 100 people executed in Virginia’s electric chair” is available at all online sellers. Read more at www.dalebrumfield.net.