Henry Bookman, on December 10, 1915, was the first convict in Oklahoma to die in the electric chair. Fast forward to 1966, 51 years and 80 convicts later, and James French was the last. French was also an unusual character. He was the last in Oklahoma to face electrocution. His was the penultimate execution before an unofficial moratorium on executions in the USA, Luis Monge (in Colorado’s gas chamber on June 2, 1967) being the last American executed before the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in Furman vs Georgia in 1972. He was also the only Death Row inmate who was actually executed in 1966 throughout the entire country.
What particularly sets him apart, though, is that he turns the death penalty’s usefulness as a deterrent on its head. French actually wanted to die despite being too afraid to take his own life. The State of Oklahoma, however, wasn’t as concerned about the logic of killing somebody who already wanted to die in the hope of discouraging further killing. French had killed once already and escaped a death sentence. With French’s second murder conviction, Oklahoma seems to have adopted the old carpenter’s principle of ‘Measure twice, cut once.’
Born in 1936, French was a career crook, having been in jail more than once already. While hitch-hiking through the Texas Panhandle in 1958 he was lucky enough to get a ride from Frank Boone. Boone, however, wasn’t lucky in picking up James French. French let Boone take him as far as Oklahoma before shooting him, robbing his body and stealing his car. It wasn’t long before Oklahoma cops caught him driving Boone’s car and he drew a life sentence for Boone’s murder. French confessed to the murder, stating:
“Why not? I was guilty as Hell.”
Locked up for life in the much-feared Oklahoma State Penitentiary, French conceived a plan. Apparently he wanted to die and, if he couldn’t summon the nerve to destroy himself, he knew that with a second murder conviction the State of Oklahoma would willingly do it for him. A second murder conviction meant a quick trial, an equally quick conviction and French being shipped from McAlester’s general population to the Death Row cells in the basement near to where Old Sparky awaited Oklahoma’s condemned.
Enter (and just as abruptly exit) French’s cell-mate Eddie Lee Shelton…
French disliked Shelton intensely which, as you can probably appreciate, is a bit of a problem when the gruesome twosome spent most of their lives sharing a cell the size of a parking space. Shelton, though, did have one redeeming feature in French’s eyes. He was within arm’s length, not overly popular among other inmates and, if French strangled him, French would get his wish. On October 27, 1961 French did exactly that.
He also described Shelton as a rotten tomato that, left alive, would ruin the other tomatoes in society’s barrel. Warming to his theme of being Shelton’s self-appointed executioner, he also admitted to letting Shelton breakfast with him before the murder as a condemned prisoner is traditionally entitled to a last meal. Not behaviour likely to convince an Oklahoma judge and jury that he was deserving of a second life sentence when Old Sparky was waiting in the wings.
As French himself later described Shelton:
“He deserved to die. And now because of what I’ve done, I deserve to die too.”
Score another one for Old Sparky.
Die James French certainly would, but not as quickly as he’d hoped. Granted, Oklahoma isn’t in the habit of allowing murderers to commit the same crime twice and expect to get away with a second life sentence. It didn’t then and it doesn’t now. But Oklahoma wasn’t (and isn’t) New York in the 1920’s and 30’s or California in the 1940’s when judges handed out death sentences as though they were giving out Christmas presents. For French, though, the resulting death sentence was a gift. The only thing he really minded was how long they were taking to give it to him.
French was as keen to die as the State were to kill him. A curious character of above-average intelligence, his IQ being 117, French had a record as long as McAlester’s razor wire fence. He’d completed high school and two years of a college degree while serving time in a Federal prison on unrelated charges. He was, all things considered, a very odd and seemingly very troubled young man.
Despite his self-professed desire to die and his claims to be unafraid of a seat in Old Sparky, Oklahoma authorities seemed, in his view, annoyingly reluctant to get it over and done with. Between his crime in 1961 and his walking the Last Mile in 1966 French’s conviction was overturned and his case retried twice, along with numerous stays of execution. After his third conviction he even begged his family not to intervene, to simply let his case and the law take their course and just let him die.
As French put it to reporters:
“I killed him, right? Now they kill me. Simple.”
‘Suicide by cop’ where a person forces police to use lethal force is well-known and widely reported. ‘Suicide by executioner’ however, isn’t. It’s not nearly as rare as people might think, even if you separate those who kill in the hope of being executed from the ‘volunteers’ who give up their appeals and want to end their lives rather than spend the rest of them in a cell. California serial killer Harvey Glatman was convicted in 1958 and gassed in 1959, largely because he refused any attempt to secure a commutation or reprieve.
Glatman walked into San Quentin’s ‘Condemned Row’ in January, 1959 and was carried out of its gas chamber on September 18, 1959. Largely because Glatman decided he wanted to die. He still holds the record for the shortest time spent by any condemned inmate in 20th century California between sentencing and execution. James French seemed to be of a similarly impatient disposition, although reluctant to comprehend that the Oklahoma justice system wasn’t being run for his personal convenience.
Still, as the days passed into months, French’s wait within H Block before his dates with death and destiny grew ever shorter. The courts were tired of French. Prison staff were tired of French. French was tired of life and, especially, people he viewed as making entirely unwanted efforts to prolong his even when he’d made it abundantly clear he didn’t actually want them to. With that in mind, by August, 1966 practically everybody concerned just wanted the James French Show to finish its run.
It would do just after midnight on August 10. But, like all good Death Row dramas, it would have one final, particularly memorable twist in the tale. It wouldn’t be last-minute proof of innocence, the Governor wouldn’t call just as the executioner’s hand grasped the switch, it would come in the form of French’s, shall we say, rather unique sense of humour.
Bob Gregory was one of many reporters with an interest in the French case. He visited French at McAlester more than once to talk with him about his crimes and his bizarre motive for committing them. After French’s death sentence was confirmed for the last time he interviewed French and came away with a scoop that still appears in Internet list articles and memes even today, fifty years after French died.
French asked him:
“If I were covering my execution, do you know what I’d say in the newspaper headline?”
Gregory said to him:
“‘French Fries.’ See ya…”
Fry he would. The saga finally ended on August 10, 1966. French was prepared for execution, his head and leg shaved for the electrodes. He walked firmly from his cell to the grim basement room in H Block below the Warden’s office where, 51 years before, Henry Bookman had inaugurated Old Sparky. While Bookman was there at the beginning, James French would be there at the end. He stood before the chair as the Warden asked him for any final words, stating simply:
“Everything’s already been said.”
With that he sat down to be strapped and capped. At a silent signal from the Warden 2400 volts ripped through his body for 45 seconds. A second, similar jolt was delivered to be certain that French had indeed finally got his wish. He had. It would be the last time an Oklahoma convict rode the lightning.