“Goodbye, Marshall.” – Gerhard Puff to a witness at his electrocution.
Thief, bank robber, murderer, Joe Strummer lookalike, the last Federal prisoner executed in New York. Puff may have looked like the frontman of legendary punk band The Clash, but his career was more rebellious than his doppelganger’s ever could have been. Where Strummer’s instruments were a Telecaster and a voice, Puff’s were a gun and cold-blooded willingness to kill. Ironically, Puff’s willingness to kill saw him take a place in criminal history that lent him immortality.
A German immigrant, he was born in Dresden on February 2, 1914 and lived with his family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Wisconsin was once a State boasting what it called ‘lightning justice’ when convicts could be tried, convicted and be sent to prison in a single day. Gerhard Puff would face Wisconsin justice on several occasions, but not its death penalty as it didn’t have one. New York, however, did have one, used it frequently and Puff would be one of 614 inmates to die in Sing Sing Prison’s most notorious resident, what inmates and guards alike called ‘Old Sparky.’
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little. Puff’s criminal career began long before he walked his last mile in August, 1954. It began in Wisconsin 20 years earlier in 1934 with a charge of disorderly conduct. In 1935 he had his first taste of jail, being handed three concurrent terms of 1-5 years for stealing domestic animals. Several months into his sentence he was transferred to the State Reformatory. The move went sour when he drew an extra 1-10 years for assaulting a guard, to start after serving his existing sentences. He was returned to the State Penitentiary in February, 1937 and not released until May, 1939.
He was back at the penitentiary in December, 1942 serving 1-9 years for assault with intent to commit armed robbery. The small-time thug and animal thief had definitely moved up the criminal ladder and wasn’t going to stop there. In September, 1945 he escaped. Recaptured while in a stolen car, Puff was returned to the penitentiary and wouldn’t leave again until November, 1947.
In June, 1948 he was convicted again, this time of breaking and entering. He was also tried for the 1945 escape, drawing concurrent sentences of 1-4 years and 12-17 months and was returned to the penitentiary yet again until his release in April, 1951.
Between his jail terms Puff could and did seek honest work. At various times as a truck driver, farmhand, labourer, machinist’s mate and in the printing trade. His problem was his expensive lifestyle constantly demanding more money than honest work could provide. Fast cars, fancy clothes, drinking, gambling and sports were his fixations. Crime was his means to feed those tastes and, ultimately, his downfall. In the end Puff would pay early for his pleasures, but perhaps less dearly than the wife and three children of FBI Special Agent Joseph Brock, nor as dearly as Brock himself. But that’s for later.
In May, 1951 Puff was in jail again, this time for armed robbery. His bail was $3,000 and he didn’t have it, but a young prison friend named George Heroux did. Released in August, 1951, Heroux promptly posted Puff’s bail. Puff equally promptly jumped bail, hooking up with Heroux to start robbing banks again.
They started Prairie Springs, Kansas on October 25, 1951 by taking $62,000 from the Johnson County National Bank and Trust Company. Puff was charged in absentia on December 3 and the FBI added Puff and Heroux to their legendary ‘Ten Most Wanted’ list. Heroux was then arrested in Miami, Florida on July 25, 1952 and gave the FBI a lead on where to find Puff. They found him at the Congress Hotel in New York City and put Puff, registered under the alias ‘J. Burns,’ under 24-hour surveillance awaiting their chance to move in.
Around 9am on July 26 their chance came. The day shift of FBI agents led by Special Agent Joseph Brock positioned themselves in and around the hotel. All was going well until Puff spotted Brock waiting in a stairwell. A pistol duel left Brock dying, shot twice through the chest. Puff took the fallen agent’s gun and, with pistols in both hands, shot his way through the lobby and onto the sidewalk. He briefly exchanged shots with agents stationed outside and, this time, their aim was better than his. Puff was rushed to the prison ward of Bellevue Hospital and survived his wounds. Special Agent Brock, husband to one and father of three, wasn’t as lucky. He died shortly after arriving at the hospital. Puff was now facing a charge of capital murder and almost-certain electrocution.
Recovered from his wounds, Puff went on trial in the US District Court of the Southern District of New York with Judge Sylvester Ryan presiding. The result was already in no doubt. Judges and juries don’t like career felons. They dislike even more career felons who murder Federal agents, especially felons who murder agents with a young family. What really clinched a guilty verdict was Puff making a ludicrous plea of self-defense.
Puff, as expected, was convicted of first-degree murder on May 15, 1953. With Puff’s conviction assured it only remained for Judge Sylvester Ryan to pass sentence and that sentence was equally predictable. Death.
Federal authorities lacked their own execution facilities, so when Federal death sentences were passed they were carried out by the methods mandated in the States where sentence was passed. For Gerhard Puff, now Inmate Puff, death house number 113-970, that meant being shipped to Sing Sing where the Federal Government would pay a fee to the State of New York to cover the costs of Puff’s confinement and electrocution in Sing Sing’s purpose-built and notorious ‘death house’ set aside exclusively for the condemned. Puff was brought through the death house door on May 20. He would remain, guarded night and day under maximum security, until he sentence was carried out or commuted. In the meantime Puff’s lawyers would file a mandatory appeal and Warden Wilfred Denno would make the necessary arrangements for his execution.
They included a formal letter to New York State’s last ‘State Electrician’ Dow Hover. Hover, a qualified electrician and deputy Sheriff with his own business (ironically in pest control) had taken over from Joseph Francel when Francel resigned in August, 1953. Francel had electrocuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in June, 1953 and carried out his 137th execution, that of murderer Donald Snyder, in July before resigning in August, complaining bitterly about low pay and bad publicity. Puff would be Hover’s eighth execution since Francel’s departure having by coincidence started his career with a triple execution just like his predecessor. Puff would be Hover’s first and only Federal execution. He would also be New York State’s last Federal execution. Puff’s date was set for August 12, 1954.
Puff’s appeals failed and his lawyers told him there was no hope. They’d done all they could. Early on August 12 he was taken from his regular death house cell to one of the six pre-execution cells only 20 yards from the chair in an area known to inmates as the ‘Dance Hall.’ He was given a bath, his head and right leg were shaved, and he was given his execution clothes. He ate a huge last meal of fried chicken, asparagus tips, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, salad and strawberry shortcake. Warden Denno assembled the witnesses and oversaw the final preparations. Hover arrived at 9:30pm to test the equipment. At 11pm the execution began.
Puff walked his last mile steadily and without flinching. He sat down quickly, even helping to secure the straps before turning his head to one of the official witnesses and giving his last words:
With that done, Hover carefully placed the head and leg electrodes. All was ready and with nothing left to chance. All Hover needed was Warden Denno’s signal. It came quickly. Hover pulled the switch and for two full minutes applied different voltages to his latest inmate. Puff surged in the chair as the voltage rose and fell. At 11:08pm the prison doctor stepped forward to make the official check. Gerhard Puff was dead.
By 11:30pm Hover was already in his car and headed back on the 80-mile trip home to Germantown in upstate New York with another job done. A coldly professional executioner, Hover now had eight executions to his credit and would execute many more prisoners before New York’s last execution, that of Eddie Lee Mays on August 15, 1963. By 1:30am he was in his garage, replacing the false license plates on his car, used only for executions to throw off inquisitive reporters. Gerhard Puff, meanwhile, was in the death house morgue, his State-required autopsy having already been completed.
His fee for the night’s work? Just $150 for the electrocution and $12.83 for his eight cents per mile gas allowance. Exactly the same as Joseph Francel had resigned over, the same as every New York ‘State Electrician’ had received since the chair was first installed.
Not much for a human life, when you think about it.