Not so long ago I wrote a piece for Sword and Scale on Gerhard Puff, a member of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list and, in 1954, New York State’s last Federal execution. As a comment was posted asking for a story on what New York euphemistically called its ‘State Electricians.’ Well, ask and you shall receive…
Executioners are a curious breed. Exactly what makes a person take up the profession varies from person to person. Through history some executioners have done the job out of duty. Others have done it for the money. Still others have been condemned criminals themselves whose sentences were commuted on condition that they took the job on because nobody else wanted it. Some have taken the job because they came from families with a history of providing executioners. In France the job was often passed down from father to son, while Britain’s most well-known executioner, Albert Pierrepoint, took the job because his father and uncle had done it before him. Another English family, the Billingtons, provided several hangmen who between them executed hundreds of prisoners.
Prior to the world’s first judicial electrocution, that of William Kemmler at Auburn Prison, New York had employed many executioners to execute many, many prisoners. Most distinctive of these men was the one-time Sheriff of Erie County, a certain Grover Cleveland. Sheriff Cleveland personally hanged two prisoners during his tenure before going on to rather bigger things by being elected President of the United States. While many Presidents have ben asked to issue Presidential reprieves to condemned inmates and thus held those lives in their hands, only Grover Cleveland actually did the deed personally and, unlike many American hangmen, did it properly. It was partly the seeming inability of many of America’s hangmen to do the job properly (that and hanging raised unpleasant cultural implications regarding lynching) that led the State of New York to find something new in the form of the electric chair and, of course, the new method needed new executioners to make use of it. This is the story of those men.
The first ‘State Electrician’ was one Edwin Davis. Born in Corning, New York on May 28, 1846 it was Davis who presided at 240 electrocutions. At the execution of Albert Koepping in 1904, Davis allowed an apprentice to throw the switch under his close supervision. That apprentice was none other than Robert Greene Elliott, but far, far more on him later.
Davis is best known for several things. He conducted the electrocutions of William Kemmler and later Martha Place, the first woman to ride the lightning. He helped finalize the design of the chair, holding several patents on parts of it including Patent No. 587649 for an ‘Electrocution Chair’ issued on August 3, 1897.
Unfortunately, Davis, being the first ‘State Electrician’ was also working in an age of ‘electrocution by experiment.’ Granted, the chair and equipment existed but it took many executions before those involved figured out how to use with the minimum of cruelty to the condemned. The original ‘Old Sparky’ had an electrode placed at the base of the inmate’s spine. Other ideas included placing a prisoner’s hands in containers of brine to aid conductivity. Execution being what it is, there was only one way to evolve the new method into something really workable and that was by trial and error. If a new idea like placing the second electrode on a prisoner’s leg proved successful (it caused the current to circuit between the head and leg via the inmate’s heart) then it would be adopted. The disastrous idea of simply dunking the prisoner’s hands in salty water didn’t last much longer than the first inmate on whom it was tried.
Different voltages were tried, delivered with different ampages to see what proved most lethal, most quickly. Not surprisingly, this involved many botches such as those of Kemmler, William Taylor, and that of Frederick van Wormer who had an abnormally large heart, which he proved by starting to revive when already in his coffin and had to be placed back in the chair and shocked again. After the van Wormer fiasco New York State made it a legal requirement to have an autopsy immediately after an execution, presumably in the hope that he prison doctor would finish what an executioner had possibly only started.
Davis was undoubtedly a strange character. For starters he claimed to disagree with capital punishment, but didn’t mind either doing the job or taking the money. In fact, he was so concerned about being replaced and his designs being stolen that, on his retirement, he demanded (and got) $10,000 for signing over his patents to the State of New York. On his retirement in 1914 he numbered many notable criminals among his victims. These included Kemmler, poisoners Carlyle Harris and Robert Buchanan, the four hitmen employed by corrupt cop Charles Becker who were Harry Horowitz, Louis Rosenberg, Frank Cirofici and Jacob Seidenschmer. They were hired by Becker to murder gambler Herman Rosenthal for refusing to pay Becker sufficient bribes to ignore Rosenthal’s illegal gambling interests and for Rosenthal being suspected of talking to the District Attorney about Becker’s lucrative bribe-taking. August 12, 1912 marked a distinctive day (if not what you might call an all-time high) in his tenure, as that was the day where, at Sing Sing, Davis electrocuted 7 men one after another in what is still the largest multiple execution in New York’s history.
Davis retired in 1914 and died on May 26, 1923. He was replaced by one of his proteges, former deputy Sheriff and electrician John Hurlburt. Born in September, 1867 in Auburn, New York between 1914 and his enforced retirement in 1926 Hurlburt executed around 140 prisoners but always seems to have loathed the job, only doing it for the money. Former Sing Sing prison doctor Amos Squire reported Hurlburt becoming increasingly depressed as time wore on and the job began taking an increasing toll on his nerves and conscience. Hurlburt’s 140 executions included such criminal lowlights as Charles Becker, Hans Schmidt (America’s only Catholic priest executed for murder), Oreste Shillitoni (the only prisoner to actually escape from Sing Sing’s original ‘Death House’) and the notorious ‘Playboy Poisoner’ Arthur Waite.
Hurlburt’s anxiety and depression finally got the better of him on January 29, 1926. Hours before a double execution, that of Luigi Rapito and Emil Klatt at Sing Sing, he suffered a severe nervous collapse. He recovered enough to do the job, but spent the next week laid up in Sing Sing’s prison hospital. He was immediately replaced by New York’s most well-known ‘State Electrician’ Robert Greene Elliott. Hurlburt himself survived until February 22, 1926 when, worn down by both the job of executioner and the recent death of his wife Mattie, he went down into the basement of his home and shot himself. He lies buried next to her in Soule Cemetery in Sennett, New York.
Third-in-line was Robert Greene Elliott. Born in 1874, Elliott had once been an electrician at Clinton Prison, notoriously nicknamed ‘Dannemora’ where he also served two years as an assistant to Davis for executions. He first threw the switch in 1904 on Albert Koepping under Davis’s supervision but later left the prison service, not returning until he replaced Hurlburt in 1926. He executed 387 people during his tenure between 1926 and his resignation through ill-health in 1939. His resume reads like a Who’s Who of New York’s Jazz Age criminals.
Elliott is credited with perfecting the art of judicial electrocution. It was Elliott who adopted a standard procedure of applying 2000 volts for three seconds, 500 for 57 seconds, 2000 for another three seconds, 500 for another 57 seconds and then a final few seconds of 200 volts again. It usually worked perfectly well, Elliott only occasionally needed to apply another jolt such was his skill. He could also execute a prisoner without excessively burning them, something neither Davis or Hurlburt had always managed.
Some of New York’s most notorious felons were among his victims. Notorious gangster Francis ‘Two Gun’ Crowley (inspiration for James Cagney’s ‘Rocky Sullivan’ in 1939 classic ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’) was one, although Crowley made no pretence at redemption as he walked his last mile. Another was Ruth Snyder (executed in 1928 with her lover Judd Gray). Snyder died hard, screaming:
“Father forgive them, for they not what they do!”
Anna Antonio and Eva Coo were also memorable, given Elliot’s self-admitted hatred of executing women. It was after executing Ruth Snyder that Eliott adopted another standard practice, that of never looking an inmate in the eye when placing the head electrode. Cannibal Albert Fish was another of Elliott’s tally, as were poisoner Frances Creighton (the ‘Lucretia Borgia of Long Island’) and her lover Everett Applegate. Like his predecessors Elliott was employed as a private contractor free to make deals with other States. On January 6, 1927 he electrocuted three men in Massachusetts and three more at Sing Sing the same evening. He also numbered Sacco and Vanzetti and Lindbergh kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann among his victims. After executing Sacco and Vanzetti Elliott’s house was wrecked by a bomb, planted in revenge for his handiwork. For some time afterward the State of New York kept his house under 24-hour guard to deter another attempt.
An electrical contractor, keen gardener and family man when not throwing the switch on people, Elliott claimed that Davis had always seen no useful purpose in the death penalty and that neither did he. But it paid well and somebody had to do it and, in Elliott’s eyes, it was better done by a dispassionate professional than a thrill-seeking pervert. His final and 387th execution was that of Arthur Perry at Sing Sing on August 24, 1939. He then retired, citing ill-health and died on October 10, 1939, being replaced by Joseph Francel.
Francel was born in Cairo, New York on September 2, 1895. Like all his predecessors he was a qualified electrician and performed 137 executions in New York with another 100 or so in other States. Unlike his predecessors he was dissatisfied with some aspects of the job right from the start. Elliott hadn’t particularly like publicity and avoided it wherever possible. Francel positively hated seeing his name in the papers. Where Hurlburt had hated the job, but been happy to take the money, Francel was dissatisfied with the pay as well. All of New York’s ‘State Electricians’ got a standard deal paying $150 for a single execution, with an extra $50 per inmate to perform double, triple or multiple executions on the same night. Francel wasn’t happy that the deal hadn’t changed since Davis was employed.
That didn’t stop Francel from unwillingly attracting publicity by executing high-profile inmates. For instance, senior members of Syndicate enforcement arm ‘Murder Incorporated‘ met their ends at his hands. Martin ‘Buggsy’ Goldstein, Harry ‘Pittsburgh Phil’ Strauss, Frank ‘The Dasher’ Abbandando, Harry ‘Happy’ Maione, Emmanuerl ‘Mendy’ Weiss and Louis Capone (no relation) were all Murder Inc. bigwigs until the law and the State Electrician caught up with them. Like their most regular customer, pioneer labor racketeer Louis ‘Lepke’ Buchalter (the only top-ranking American mobster to be legally executed) they all had cause to regret their brief meetings with him.
Francel’s other notable victims included Edward ‘The Ravisher’ Haight, Helen Ray Fowler, waterfront crime czar Johnny ‘Cockeye’ Dunn and his sidekick Andrew ‘Squint’ Sheridan the legendary ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’ Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez. But, while the money wasn’t good according to Francel, the publicity he got for executing atom bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the summer of 1953 finally caused him to quit. His final and 137th job in New York was that of prison escapee and murderer Donald Hugh Snyder on July 16, 1953. After his retirement Francel was only too happy to drift into obscurity where he remained until he died on January 25, 1985.
It made the papers in August, 1953 that Francel had resigned citing the bad pay and bad publicity, but nothing made the papers about his replacement. The fifth and final ‘State Electrician’ would be another deputy Sheriff and electrician, Dow Hover from Germantown. Hover would be the last in the line although, while executions in New York became increasingly rare, he still managed to make some of his 46 executions notable. It was Hover who executed Gerhard Puff, an armed robber, murderer of FBI Special Agent Joseph Brock and denizen of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Hiver also threw the switch on freelance hitman Elmer ‘Triger’ Burke, Angelo la Marca (who committed the Weinberger kidnapping), Virgil Richardson (Sing Sing’s 600th electrocution) and finally that of Eddie Lee Mays on August 15, 1963.
Hover was a highly secretive man concerning his work at Sing Sing. He avoided even mentioning his role as executioner to anybody he thought didn’t need to know (which was almost everybody he knew). He always drove his car with false license plates when travelling to or from an execution and never, ever spoke to the press.
As he returned home from executing Eddie Lee Mays he probably didn’t realise it would be his last trip to Sing Sing. New York didn’t fully abolish the death penalty until the historic US Supreme Court ruling in the 1972 case ‘Furman vs Georgia’ and Hover continued semi-regular correspondence with New York and a couple of other States (Hover executed Joseph ‘Mad Dog’ Taborsky in Connecticut in 1957 and in 1956 he’d executed Ralph Hudson in New Jersey, both the last electrocutions in those States), but the end was near. With the Furman ruling and a certain sense of irony, it was now executioners who were for the chop.
After his retirement, Hover kept up his secretive attitude regarding his now-former occupation. His family knew of his late-night excursions to Sing Sing, Wethersfield, Trenton and other prisons, but were under the strictest orders never to discuss it with anybody. It wasn’t until the 1990’s when Hover’s name and resume came to public notice. Former corrections employee Scott Christianson published a book on the Sing Sing ‘Death House; in which Hover’s name appeared. It wasn’t long before reporters contacted his children about him
Daughter Doris remembered her father as being cold, unemotional, distant and the sort of person for whom performing executions wouldn’t have been a problem. Hover’s son (also named Dow) felt differently, suggesting that his mother disapproved and that Hover himself (a Catholic) was also emotionally conflicted about the job. Either way, it made no difference. Hover, New York’s fifth and final ‘State Electrician,’ took the same route as his predecessor John Hurlburt, but by a different method. On June 1, 1990 he was found sat in his car in the garage. The engine was running. It seemed as though the last executioner had added his own name to his long list of victims.