A name long forgotten, even by anybody that heard of him in the first place. Largely forgotten for his crime, anyway, but not for the manner of his punishment. Riley was nothing special as a criminal, just another bottom-feeding stick-up artist. He was virtually deaf, had lost an eye, could barely read, was only five feet tall and weighed only eighty pounds. His sanity was highly debatable as well. But, like so many little men, he became bigger, taller and scarier with a gun in his hand and could take what he wanted without asking or paying for it. And, like so many low-rent crooks of his kind, eventually he turned from brandishing a gun to using one which turn put him in line for a death far worse than shooting.
Riley’s second-rate thieving finally caught up with him in Sacramento, California in 1949. After committing armed robbery of a Sacramento restaurant he ran into a laundryman named Walter Hill. Not wanting to face a long stretch for armed robbery Riley came up with a simple solution. He grabbed Hill and shot him dead before running away and later being arrested. With Hill in his grave Riley, albeit not the most intellectually-minded felon, didn’t have to spend much cell time thinking too hard about his future. The reason was very simple.
He didn’t have one.
Murder was (and with ‘special circumstances’ still is) a capital offence in California. In 1940’s California, the authorities very much liked using the San Quentin gas chamber known to inmates as the ‘coughing box,’ the ‘little green room,’ ‘the big sleep’ and the ‘time machine.’ Built in 1937 to replace the gallows, the octagonal green-painted, airtight cell averaged around a dozen inmates a year, sometimes more, when the quivering wreck named Leanderess Riley arrived at San Quentin’s infamous ‘Condemned Row’ in 1949. He was arriving during the busiest period in the chamber’s history. Not a good time to be a condemned prisoner.
Riley knew it and so did the staff at San Quentin. Chaplain Byron Eshelman wrote best-selling memoir ‘Death Row Chaplain’ after over 20 years ministering to prisoners, condemned and lesser inmates alike. Eshelman took a particular interest in condemned inmates and Riley he found especially concerning. To be exact, Eshelman thought Riley was insane and wrote as much to then-Warden Clinton Duffy. Duffy and his successor Harley Teets, were both known for their compassion for the condemned and their dislike of having to supervise executions. When Duffy left San Quentin in late-1951 Teets took charge and Riley’s impending death became his personal responsibility.
There was nothing either Eshelman or Teets could do for Riley. He sat on Condemned Row until December 20, 1953 when his final execution date rolled round. On the afternoon of December 19 he was taken from Condemned Row, down in the elevator to the ground floor of North Block and lodged in the Holding Cell’ or ‘Ready Room.’ He spent his last afternoon and night in the cell, only steps from the gas chamber, while his lawyers fought for a reprieve and prepared last-ditch appeals. In the death chamber the execution team were making some preparations of their own.
Gas chambers are notoriously the most complicated execution devices to operate and also the most dangerous. Gas chambers have complicated operating procedures and have been known to leak hydrocyanic gas even while an inmate is slumped inside them literally gasping their last. The clean-up procedure after a gassing is complicated and messy, but not as messy as a gassing gone wrong. At 10am the next morning Leanderess Riley would prove this in abundant and appalling detail.
The San Quentin chamber had a nine-page operating manual detailing the procedure from preparation to clean-up and it was followed to the letter. Cheesecloth bags containing cyanide briquettes were suspended on hooks below the twin chairs marked ‘A’ and ‘B.’ Below the perforated steel chairs were small vats into which a precise mix of sulfuric acid and distilled water would flow at the turning of two valves. With the valves turned and the vats full, the executioner would remove a safety pin and push a lever lowering the bags into the diluted acid and a thin cloud of lethal hydrocyanic gas would fill the airtight chamber. Death, once claimed by the chamber’s manufacturers to be within fifteen seconds, usually took nearer fifteen minutes although, to be fair, the inmate was usually choked unconscious within four or five minutes.
A special stethoscope was fixed to the inmate’s chest before they were strapped into the chair and was monitored by the prison doctor. With the inmate restrained they were given the traditional San Quentin goodbye, a pat on the shoulder accompanied by the words:
“When the pellets drop count ten, breathe deep and don’t fight the gas. Good luck…” When the heartbeat slowed, faltered and finally stopped, the inmate was finally dead.
Leanderess Riley would meet that fate, but not without an enormous struggle and definitely without a friendly parting gesture. I’ll let Chaplain Eshelman describe the scene, his words being better than mine:
“A guard unlocked his cell. He gripped the bars with both hands and began a long, shrieking cry. It was a bone-chilling, wordless cry. The guards grabbed him, wrested him violently away from the bars. The old shirt and trousers were stripped off. His flailing arms and legs were forced into the new white shirt and fresh blue denims. The guards needed all their strength to hold him while the doctor taped the end of the stethoscope in place.”
“The deep-throated cry, alternately moaning and shrieking, continued. Leanderess had to be carried to the gas chamber, fighting, writhing all the way. As the witnesses watched in horror, the guards stuffed him into a chair. One guard threw his weight against the struggling little Negro while the other jerked the straps tight. They backed out, slammed the door on him.”
“Leanderess didn’t stop screaming or struggling. Associate Warden Rigg was about to signal for the dropping of the gas pellets when we all saw Riley’s small hands break free from the straps. He pulled at the other buckles, was about to free himself.”
“The Associate Warden withheld his signal. San Quentin had never executed a man raging wildly around the gas chamber. He ordered the guards to go in again and re-strap the frenzied man. One of the guards said later he had to cinch the straps down so tightly the second time that ‘he was ashamed of himself.’
“Again the door was closed. Again Leanderess managed to free his small, thin-wristed right hand from the straps. Rigg gave the order to drop the pellets. Working furiously, Leanderess freed his left hand. The chest strap came off next. Still shrieking and moaning, he was working on the waist strap when the gas hit him. He put both hands over his face to hold it away. Then his hands fell, his head arched back. His eyes remained open. His heartbeat continued to register for two minutes, but his shrieking stopped and his head slowly dropped.”
This horrendous display made no difference whatever to the State of California. Leanderess Riley was one of 196 inmates gassed there between the chamber’s installation in 1937 and the final gassing, that of multiple murderer David Mason on August 24, 1993. Of those gassed 192 were men and four were women.
On October 5, 1994 Federal District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled the gas chamber unconstitutional. No more would San Quentin’s inmates ride the elevator down from ‘Condemned Row’, while away their final hours in the ‘Ready Room’, walk their last mile and sit in the dreaded ‘coughing box.’ But that wasn’t the end of the story for the chamber itself. Instead, the chairs were removed and replaced by a gurney and lethal injection equipment. 11 inmates have since been executed within its cold steel walls, still painted apple green and still with the viewing windows for witnesses to watch them die. But none has fought like Leanderess Riley and no witnesses have fainted or vomited at the sight.
In the words of former death watch guard Joseph Ferretti, himself a veteran of 126 executions, the death of Leanderess Riley was:
“The nastiest execution we ever had.”
It’s hard to see how it could have been anything else and, frankly, I’m not inclined to dwell on how exactly it could have been.