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Executioners' Songs

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The Control Equipment such as Voltage Regulators, Auto Transformers, Oil Circuit Breakers, Panel Board, etc., was designed by and supplied by General Electric Company. Prior to the Institution going to Alternating Current, a Consulting Engineer, Mr. G.M. Ogle, aided the design of the Electric System. The design for the present system using the Institution supply of Alternating Current was by a Mr. H.M. Jalonack in 1931, an engineer employed by General Electric. --J.J. Shanahan, chief engineer, April 10, 1942, on the electric chair, Sing Sing Prison, Ossining, New York, quoted in Condemned

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JoAnn Wypijewski
JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes The Nation’s “Carnal Knowledge” column, has been traveling the country...

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Sex, or the fear of it, has been almost as important in the construction of this nightmare as racism.

We can pretend the politics of liberation can be tracked along clearly marked lines, or we can remember that history is like desire.

The "living body" was the name given a condemned prisoner by authorities at the Sing Sing death house. "It" was measured, numbered, photographed, accounted for by age, crime, personal claims as to the crime (innocent, etc.), trial judge, sentencing date, receiving date and, ultimately, date of execution.

Sometimes this curriculum mortis included as well its accomplices, next of kin, marital status, habits, rap sheet, education and, almost always, the occupation at which it might also have been considered a "living body," with the difference that, as a worker, it would have been measured in terms of its productive value.

Most all the men represented in Scott Christianson's excavation of Sing Sing's long-sealed archive of the dead, 1891-1963, have by way of identification only their conviction and their former status as "laborer," "stamper," "laundry worker," "machinist," "button maker," "button-hole maker," "waiter," "messenger boy"--age, 17; education, fifth grade; crime, strangulation; claims, innocence; execution, 1-9-56--"counterman," "truck driver," "handyman," "transient," "unemployed." The only representatives from outside the conventional working class are Louis "Lepke" Buchalter and his lieutenants in Murder, Inc., and Julius Rosenberg. The only women represented are a "housewife, rooming house" and the notorious: Martha Jule Beck (a k a the "Miss Lonely Hearts Killer"), Ruth Brown Snyder (adulteress/spouse killer and subject of the only known photograph of an electrocution) and Ethel Rosenberg.

As routine, the administrators of the death house filed reports from guards and from the Governor's Lunacy Commission. They archived letters from the Bureau of Prisons and from the prisoners' advocates, enemies and loved ones. They authenticated the prisoners' papers--"this is to certify that the attached marriage certificate submitted in the above case has been examined under the office detectoscope and appears to be without alteration"--and recorded their last meal. They sent out invitations to witnesses and filed the replies. They noted a clergyman's administration of the sacraments. They divided the labor:

Warden Denno.
Assignments for executions scheduled for tonight--August 12, 1954
Lt. Toploski   -   leg electrode
Sgt. Tautenham   -   left side
Sgt. Werber   -   right side
Sgt. Goldfarb   -   Legs (ankle straps)
Sgt. Taylor   -   Dinner
P.K. Kelley   -   Usual

When it was over, they filled out "Legal Execution" forms with Time In/Time Out, and released the now-dead body for autopsy:

The brain weighed 1270 grams and is normal on sectioning.... The cerebellum seen from the posterior surfaces is opaque and greyish in color. It has a boiled appearance. The whole brain is uncomfortably warm to the touch.
...
The body lies on the table in the usual position after execution. The head is back, the mouth is open, the eyes are staring and the right leg is drawn up about half-flexion. There are the usual seared marks revealing 2nd and 3rd degree burns on the dorsal part of the neck, and 2nd and 3rd degree burns on the dorsal part of the right knee.
      --Autopsy reports, March 1, 1951,
        and May 19, 1960, respectively

After that, the administrators had only to inform the family, dispense with the remains (either to kin or, where kinfolk were unknown or indigent, to Sing Sing's own graveyard) and settle accounts with the executioner--fees, transport mileage and the like. Between 1891 and 1963 the directors at Sing Sing enacted this ritual 614 times, more often than at any single American prison. In their procedural exactitude, these death-house performances established, as Christianson writes, "the prototype for modern legal prison-based executions."

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