Executioners’ Songs

Executioners’ Songs

The Control Equipment such as Voltage Regulators, Auto Transformers, Oil Circuit Breakers, Panel Board, etc., was designed by and supplied by General Electric Company.


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

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.”

After stripping Hose of his clothes and chaining him to a tree, the self-appointed executioners stacked kerosene-soaked wood high around him. Before saturating Hose with oil and applying the torch, they cut off his ears, fingers, and genitals, and skinned his face. While some in the crowd plunged knives into the victim’s flesh, others watched “with unfeigning satisfaction” the contortions of Sam Hose’s body as the flames rose, distorting his features, causing his eyes to bulge out of their sockets, and rupturing his veins. The only sound that came from the victim’s lips, even as his blood sizzled in the fire, were, “Oh, my God! Oh, Jesus.” Before Hose’s body had even cooled, his heart and liver were removed and cut into several pieces and his bones were crushed into small particles. The crowd fought over these souvenirs.
      –Leon F. Litwack, “Hellhounds,”
Without Sanctuary

“A monster in human form” was the name given Sam Hose, a black Georgian, by white Georgians when 2,000 of them–some delivered from Atlanta by excursion train–lynched him on April 23, 1899. If the circumstances of Hose’s execution did not set the prototype for lynching–that was accomplished almost immediately after the Civil War–they surely weren’t unique. Most all the executions documented in James Allen’s collection of lynching photographs, 1870-1960, involved African-American men (often those who had disdained subservience, achieved a level of prosperity); accusations of crimes against whites (particularly white women); absence of any trial or legal proceeding; torture; gleeful witness by a horde of white men, women and children; souveniring; memorialization in the form of postcards (the source of most of the collected photos); after-the-fact assertions of white righteousness (“The people of Georgia are…the descendants of ancestors who have been trained in America for 150 years,” an Atlanta newspaper commented after Hose was sacrificed; “They are a people intensely religious, homeloving and just. There is among them no foreign or lawless element”); and the unconcealed aim of social regulation through terror. (For the most part, the few white victims represented here were also lynched as a warning, to cattle rustlers, strikebreakers, immigrants, uninvited homesteaders.)

Senators, district attorneys, sheriffs, judges, governors, authorities at every level, participated in, sometimes led, these autos-da-fé. Where mob “rowdyism” offended their sensibilities, the gentility would organize “orderly” lynchings–“good lynchings” they were called, conducted without fire or the scramble for body parts, but rather in the “most approved and up-to-date fashion.” Between 1882 and 1968, 4,743 people, three-quarters of them African-American, were lynched. More than 90 percent of those executions occurred in the South, and Without Sanctuary reproduces images of sixty-seven of them, sometimes involving multiple victims, sometimes shown from a variety of angles, more than once, long shot and close-up.

* * *

It might be that the stuff of life, as Adorno suggests, can be seen only in fragments, that there is no final synthesis, that such a “whole” as might exist can be understood only from that which is partial, unfinished–the shards of experience, first one, then another, and another…

So, too, perhaps, with the stuff of death. Both Condemned and Without Sanctuary are creatures of the archive, but only one recognizes that death’s power–and particularly the power of the state or its surrogates to confer death–lies in the memory of the living.

In Condemned, the successive live faces of men and women sentenced to die, a DA’s synopsis of a crime, a warrant of execution, a hand grasping the hair of a man in a straitjacket too crazy to cooperate with death-house admittance procedures, fingerprints, letters home, letters from home denied delivery, letters begging for reprieve, telegrams, rules, surveillance reports, a lone report of final resistance, a prisoner’s diagram of a prison guard’s key, all the mundane bits and pieces of life on death row follow one after the next, like footfalls on a stone floor leading closer to the electric chair–click-clack, click-clack.

Despite the impact of its initial images, and especially of the story of Sam Hose, which opens Leon Litwack’s historical essay, Without Sanctuary has none of that force. It is concerned with memory only in the most vulgar sense. How many suspended lifeless bodies can you bear? How many gruesome stories? How many castrated men, blood running down their legs, lower bodies primly covered with makeshift skirts, will it take to shock? How many faces forgotten or even unnoticed for the horror to their bodies? How many lynchers without histories? How many victims whose only history begins and ends with the tale of their execution? How many of the 4,000 limited-edition casebound copies will so many black bodies sell? How many will it take to forget?

Intentionally or not, the book served as a kind of catalogue to an extremely popular exhibition of Allen’s collection in New York City recently [see “Diary of a Mad Law Professor,” February 14]. One of the functions of catalogues, of course, is to reproduce in exalted form the objects or “works” whose real-life manifestation might be far less visually commanding–here, the works being mainly small postcards, weathered with years and handling, some copyrighted by the photographer either in scrawl or fine type, some with faded tourist greetings (“Well John–this is a picture taken of a great day we had in Dallas March 3…. I was very much in the bunch. You can see the negro hanging on a telephone pole”), but none, in their original state, beautifully printed on heavy paper on a scale befitting a $60 book.

In so mannered a form, the challenge to consciousness raised by the solitary, unhurried act of sifting through an archive is lost, and, transmuted into art, the brittle relics of what one black observer of the time called “folk pornography” remain only that. By the end of the book, one has been inoculated against suffering.

If this posed merely an aesthetic problem–or, better, a problem of spectacularizing what is already too much a spectacle–one could leave it at that. But history is not something over there, separable by its simplest component parts, complete in the past tense except insofar as it can prompt the empty vow “Never Again.”

Witnesses routinely report that, when the switch is thrown, the condemned prisoner “cringes,” “leaps,” and “fights the straps with amazing strength.” “The hands turn red, then white, and the cords of the neck stand out like steel bands.”… The force of the electrical current is so powerful that the prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes pop out and “rest on [his] cheeks.” The prisoner often defecates, urinates and vomits blood and drool…. [Electrocution is] nothing less than the contemporary technological equivalent of burning people at the stake.
      –Justice William Brennan, dissenting
Glass v. Louisiana, 1985

Even as mobs continued to mete out hideous tortures, the majority of lynchings were straightforward hangings along lines approved by the better classes, who worried about the image being conveyed to Northerners, particularly Northern investors. In his classic book Rope and Faggot, Walter White notes that the worst atrocities increased around the turn of the century (just as, incidentally, US soldiers in the Philippines were describing their mission as “nigger killing”). Of 416 lynchings of African-Americans between 1918 and 1927, White says, 62 involved “abnormal savagery.” Another researcher, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, estimates that in Georgia 34 percent of lynchings involved at least some of the maniacal barbarities visited upon Sam Hose. There can be no “only” attached to 62, to 34 percent, to even one–had Hose alone been so mutilated–but, however unfathomable, these are shorts in the system. The 354, the 66 percent, testify to the superior results of “normal savagery.”

Just so, as Northern agitators intensified their calls for federal laws against lynching, the Southern elite moved toward regulating the practice through law. As Douglas Colbert put it in Challenging the Challenge (quoted by Stephen Bright in a damning paper, “Discrimination, Death and Denial”), by the 1920s Southern states began to “replace lynchings with a more ‘[humane]…method of racial control’–the judgment and imposition of capital sentences by all-white juries.” Instances of homely slaughter dropped from 315 between 1920 and 1929, to 130 between 1930 and 1939, but the fundamental objective was unchanged. As Colbert writes, “The process of ‘legal lynchings’ was so successful that in the 1930s, two-thirds of those executed were black.” Third-degree burns from the chair began to substitute for “barbecues” from the mob, and in time General Electric would wrest from the wielders of rope and fire the Southern franchise on ritual murder.

In 1924, according to Bright, director of the valiant Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, the state of Georgia, which had ranked second in extrajudicial lynchings, embarked on its career as “the nation’s primary executioner, carrying out the most executions in the twentieth century before the death penalty was declared unconstitutional in 1972”–337 blacks between 1924 and 1972, as against 75 whites. Today, 80 percent of those who walk to their death do so in the South. Their number is rising fastest in Alabama, where court-appointed attorneys spend, on average, only three days defending their clients at trial in capital cases, and which–like Texas, Virginia, Georgia and Mississippi (Number One in the old days of lynching)–has no state public defenders. Just since January, fourteen people have had their lives snuffed legally, thirteen of them in states that once provided the lynch mob’s most licentious theaters.

And so, as it happens, death knows no difference, because from 1930, the point at which lynching concluded its most precipitous drop, it took the legal system sixty-nine years to kill 4,457 people. It took the lynchers eighty-six years to kill 4,743. And, as Bright notes, in the South the typical scenario for an African-American facing the death sentence continues to be trial by a white prosecutor, before a white judge, with an all-white or mostly white jury–and, in Georgia, facing the Confederate battle standard, the dominant feature of that state’s flag.

Every one of Georgia’s elected district attorneys–who have absolute power in determining whether the state will seek the death sentence–was white until recently; now all but one are white. In 1995 those DAs joined the state’s white Attorney General in successfully arguing that even though 98.4 percent of Georgians serving life sentences for narcotics offenses were black–and even though less than 1 percent of whites eligible for a life sentence for narcotics offenses actually received it–there was no evidence that the disparity constituted racial discrimination. Their central argument? If that disparity was held discriminatory, then the same might be true of disparities in death sentencing; and if that was true, the court would be taking a “substantial step toward invalidating” the state’s death penalty law–which, they said, would “paralyze the criminal justice system.”

What is it about America’s tradition of death that makes it so persistent? The procession of names on Sing Sing’s roster of the condemned is more illuminating than numbers. In the early years, McElvaine, Cotto, McGuire, Pustalka, McDonald, Zachello, O’Laughlin, Strollo, Governale, Garfalo, Hampartjoomian, Samarco, Candido, Zanza, McHenry, McKenna, Hing, Wing, Draniewicz, Kushnieruk, Jankowski, Levandowski, Boyanowski; on a single day in 1914, Horowitz, Cirofici, Seidenschmer, Rosenberg; until about 1930, with given names Archangelo, Albito, Antonio, Giuseppe, Giovanbatista, Pasquale, Ludwig, Carrl, Pietro, Oreste, Johan, Eulogia, Eng, Enrique, Matteo, Lorenzo, Luigi, Petrius, Saito, Alric, Kasimir, Israel, Yun Tieh.

For all the South’s murderous history, it was New York that, in 1835, privatized state-sanctioned murder, removing from public view the brute force of a life extinguished while, under the shroud of procedure, further legitimizing its use against those targeted for the most repressive control: the poor and, especially, immigrants.

The great wave of immigration to the United States occurred between 1845 and 1924, with many of the newcomers settling in the Northeast. They suffered most in the depressions of the late nineteenth century but were also the easiest to brand an undesirable class. In 1891 a Buffalo reporter reviled Italian immigrants, characterizing their desperation–e.g., salvaging cigar butts from the street to boil, unwind and recycle as “new” cigars–as another of their “un-American codes and modes.” New York had introduced the electric chair to the nation in 1888; on July 7, 1891, Sing Sing held its first execution, a quadruple one. We know only the prisoners’ names and “races”: Harris Alonzo Smiler (W), James Slocum (W), Joseph Wood (B), Shibayo Jugiro (A). Throughout its history Sing Sing would specialize in multiple executions, the same day or over the space of a week–a signal to “un-Americans” made most plain on 6-19-53, the night the Rosenbergs were electrocuted ten minutes apart.

Around 1947, after the second great migration of blacks South to North, and following the return of white workers to the factories, the names on the death roster give way sharply to Johnson, Washington, Jones, Sims, Jackson, Davis, Bunch, Walker, Richardson, Daniels. Where blacks had accounted for 14.5 percent of Sing Sing’s condemned from 1891 to 1929 (a span including the first great migration) and 21 percent from 1930 to 1946, their representation leapt to 41 percent from 1947 to 1959, and to 80 percent in 1960-63, start of the modern civil rights movement, and closing years of the Death House. The question Who is American? had been simplified to Who is white? Eddie Lee Mays (B), 34, laborer, was the last to die, 8-15-63.

Race may be the main thing one notices coursing through these statistics, but it is never the only thing. Lynching reached its highest point (for people of both colors) in the Populist era, when poor blacks and whites made efforts to ally against the elites. As illustrated in Orlando Patterson’s Rituals of Blood, the occurrences of lynchings of African-Americans plunged in the 1920s but saw an uptick in the mid-1930s, coincident with renewed efforts, by Communists and socialists in the South, to organize workers across the color line. (Nationwide, in the period before the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, the socially volatile 1920s and ’30s toted up the highest number of state-sanctioned murders, these peaking in 1939.)

It is possible, too, to correlate, as some scholars have, the periods of intensification of lynchings with downturns in the cotton industry, when poor blacks and whites would be in fiercest competition, rich planters in greatest fear of black-white solidarity, and the basest passions inflamed by the original poison, the sodality of the skin. It is likely that those postcards of lynchings were made not just to terrorize blacks but to reaffirm that sodality.

* * *

[Consider the] relationship between the organized death of living labour (capital punishment) and the oppression of the living by dead labour (the punishment of capital)
      –Peter Linebaugh,
The London Hanged

Contemplation of execution is different from contemplation of ordinary death, even violent death. Power, not suffering, is the essential focus, although the imposition of suffering, at whim and as example, may be the greatest of oppressive powers. The faces in Christianson’s Condemned are unlike the faces of the condemned now appearing on public phone boxes, selling some vague consciousness while advertising Benetton. They are, also, unlike the mugshots from death row that feature on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s website, together with criminal histories, descriptions of last meals–an exposition that, through relentless repetition, erases the prisoner in the very act of disclosure. In these other cases, who pauses to think about the iron-handed industrial control over Benetton’s contract workers, for instance, in the face of those individuals subject to the ultimate state control? Who wonders at the institutional machinations behind the Texas website’s implicit command–scroll down, drop out, drop dead?

Christianson’s book does not go so far as to make those sorts of connections explicit, but it masterfully opens pathways for thought. What is the meaning of this regimen of death? Why was this one condemned and not another one? What was the purpose of this arbitrary decision or that? How did it feel to be the worker who took stock of the “July 4th, 1951 copy of Declaration of Independence, Cardboard with 6 of children’s pictures,…Two pictures of Ethel cut from newspapers,…A complete listing of each and every visit with Ethel, Family and Lawyer,” things left in Julius Rosenberg’s cell, and of all the things left in all the other cells of the dead? Why were General Electric’s contributions so methodically set forth and so worthy of preservation? How, now, does it feel to be the worker who searches for a vein in the one strapped to a gurney?

Allen’s book, on the other hand, suppresses thought to elicit pity. And pity, as Hilton Als points out in an interesting essay that groans with ambivalence over its inclusion in Without Sanctuary, comes down to “white people exercising their largesse in my face as they say Tell me about yourself, meaning Tell me how you’ve suffered? Isn’t that what you people do?”

Sometimes, oftentimes, people resist rather than suffer. It is the necessary answer to the click-clack, click-clack sounding in remembrance of those killed as a lesson.

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