Not a name many readers will be familiar with, I know, but this otherwise unexceptional killer made Oklahoma history on December 10, 1915. He wasn’t just Oklahoma’s first convict to take a seat in Oklahoma State Penitentiary’s newly-built ‘Old Sparky,’ but the first of 82 in Oklahoma and the very first inmate electrocuted West of the Mississippi. Unlike back East in States like New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, Old Sparky never caught on as much in the West. Texas didn’t adopt it until 1924. New Mexico seldom used it, either. Western and South-Western States, particularly Nevada, Arizona and California, were far more fond of the gas chamber known to America’s condemned as the ‘Big Sleep,’ the ‘Coughing box’ or, in California, the ‘Little Green Room.’

Oklahoma State Penitentiary near McAlester, AKA 'Big Mac.'

Oklahoma State Penitentiary near McAlester, AKA ‘Big Mac.’

Prior to Bookman the Oklahoma counties were in charge of executing their own inmates and they tended toward the traditional method of hanging. A prisoner was sentenced, the gallows was built, their appeals were filed and frequently denied (especially if they were black) and locals would take the day off work, stop by the county jail and see Oklahoma law take its course. At least they did until Governor Lee Cruce (a noted death penalty opponent) took office.

During his administration 22 out of 23 condemned prisoners received clemency. The exception occurred only days into Cruce’s tenure and he swore there wouldn’t be another execution on his watch. His replacement in 1915, R.L. Williams, wasn’t nearly as obliging. Williams wasn’t a butcher by any means, but he didn’t feel a need to offer blanket clemency to any condemned criminal who wanted it, either.

Williams having taken over on January 1, 1915, Henry Bookman’s timing was way off. If he’d murdered local farmer Rich Hardin with a shotgun on April 2, 1914 then he’d have almost certainly avoided an unwilling place in Oklahoma history. He didn’t. Bookman committed his murder on April 2, 1915 and so was squarely in the firing line.

Oklahoma hadn’t had a hanging since the earliest days of Cruce’s tenure. They wouldn’t have a hanging under Williams, either. But there would be executions, just by a different method and under a different authority. No longer would Oklahoma’s condemned perform the hangman’s hornpipe outside the county jail. Instead they would do the hot squat at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary under the supervision of State, not county, officialdom. Henry Bookman was about to become the first.

On April 2 Rich Hardin had stopped by thee farm worked by George Booth near the ton of Fame in McIntosh County looking to buy a buggy wheel. Bookman, a farmhand, had arrived shortly after him. According to Bookman he’d exchanged harsh words with Hardin who had threatened to kill him and grabbed a double-barrelled shotgun. Bookman claimed to have wrestled the shotgun from him and shot him in self-defence. George Booth’s wife Lizzie, however, remembered very differently.

According to her Bookman had arrived, stated he felt unwell and asked her to mix him a tonic. She went to her kitchen to do so, hearing no sound of a confrontation. What she did hear were two shotgun blasts. Hurrying back outside she also saw Bookman pounding Hardin’s head with the butt of the shotgun. Intending to leave, Bookman was persuaded to stay, possibly with the same shotgun he’d used on Hardin.

Bookman was arrested at the scene. On April 3 the Sheriff had him spirited away to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester after two lynch mobs had tried to take him from the county jail. There he would remain for the rest of his life except for court appearances. Old Sparky, meanwhile, had been installed in a basement building under Warden R.W. Dick’s office in H Block. Witnesses would be separated from the chair by only a chain-link fence bearing a bluntly-worded notice:

‘Crime Does Not Pay.’

It wouldn’t be long before Sparky was called into action…

Oklahoma justice moved a great deal faster in 1915, especially when prison officials were looking to try something new. Old Sparky, of course, wasn’t new in many places but had never been used West of the Mississippi. Bookman might have been an unexceptional criminal, but his demise was considered anything but unexceptional. Warden Dick would have his hands full making the arrangements from finding an executioner to choosing the guest list. The regulations provided for no more than twelve witnesses, but Dick was well aware that, this time, there would be a particularly large number of applications.

Sparky's lair, the basement death chamber at McAlester.

Sparky’s lair, the basement death chamber at McAlester.

Bookman, meanwhile, was either shamming insanity or slowly going insane depending on whose opinion you asked for. According to a report in the Tulsa World (which gave plenty of column inches to the impending debut of Old Sparky):

‘He heeds no remarks addressed to him, but keeps in a continuous death chant which, in its weird execution, grates on the nerves. Prison officials are loath to admit that he (Bookman) is crazy.’

Whether he was or wasn’t going mad is open to debate. Granted, he did make two suicide attempts while waiting to ride the lightning. That said, he also retained a surprising degree of awareness of his impending fate for somebody whose mind was allegedly disintegrating around him. In the period before his execution he took great pleasure in sending requests to the prison orchestra, mainly asking to hear spirituals and old classics, especially ‘Mama Don’t Know Where I’m At.’

His first date was set for August 6, only weeks after his conviction and only four months after the murder of Rich Hardin. This was stayed until October 6 to hear his appeal. On October 6, the courts needing a little more time to hear his case, he received another stay until October 11. This time the Oklahoma courts were ready and waiting with a denial of his appeal and a new death warrant. Barring any additional court action (highly unlikely, given that Bookman couldn’t afford a lawyer) or Governor’s clemency (equally unlikely for the black killer of a popular white victim in 1915 Oklahoma) he was slated to die on December 10.

As expected there was no further court action. Governor Williams was equally unforthcoming, stating on December 3 that he wouldn’t interfere in the court’s decision. Preparations at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, already well advanced, picked up speed.

An executioner was found. According to Rich Owens (who replaced him) the original executioner came from Arkansas and was fired after turning up drunk to his first couple of executions. It’s just possible that it might have been the same one who so terribly botched the March, 1922 electrocution of Arkansas murderer and escapee James Wells. Owens, however, had no qualms whatsoever about throwing the switch, nor did he lack the technical skill. The chair was repeatedly tested, a set of lightbulbs attached to a wooden board were used to test both the connection and the flow of current. When all the bulbs glowed brightly the current was right for the job. Warden Dick finally whittled down the witness applications, although the twelve witnesses required under State law had increased to 68 people turning out to watch Henry Bookman die.

Bookman, meanwhile was still either going mad or pretending to. In his last days he made a few requests, most of which were granted. Where possible, prison staff often grant requests from condemned inmates that would be refused to other inmates, especially when their date is near and time is clearly running out. Warden Dick was no exception. Bookman asked, having been in a basement cell since his arrival, for one last view of daylight before he died. Dick agreed. When Bookman asked for the prison orchestra to play some of his favourite songs during his final couple of days, Dick agreed. Dick couldn’t provide the black suit Bookman asked to wear to his death, but a suit was provided albeit of a brown and blue jacket and trousers.

Just after midnight on December 10 the grim ritual began. Bookman met reporters as they stood outside his cell. Talking with them, he shook their hands through the cell bars, saying:

“I’m going to walk right in and walk right through t like a man. Ain’t that the way to do it..?”

He kept his promise to within a few steps of the chair when, his nerve faltering, he was supported by Chaplain A.B. Johnson and Night Sergeant Charles Campbell. As the straps and electrodes were fixed he said:

“Be good, boys. Oh Lord, have mercy on my soul.”

The switch was thrown. Before the 68 witnesses including E.H. Hardin, son of Bookman’s victim, 2400 volts seared through Bookman’s body for ten seconds. The prison doctor waited for Bookman’s body to cool before examining him, only to find he was still alive. Another jolt of 2400 volts was needed, this time for 17 seconds. This time the doctor was satisfied.

Henry Bookman was dead.

In 1915 Henry Bookman was Oklahoma's first electrocution. In 1966, James French was its last.

In 1915 Henry Bookman was Oklahoma’s first electrocution. In 1966, James French was its last.

They kept his body for several days as he’d asked them to send him to his mother’s home in Chico, Texas. With no word from her, her son was instead interred within McAlester’s grim stone walls where he still remains. Old Sparky long outlived Bookman. He was only the first of 82 inmates to walk into that basement room and be wheeled out. The last was murderer James French in 1966 whose suggestion to reporter Bob Gregory (covering his execution) has also entered penal history:

“If I were covering my execution, do you know what I’d say in the newspaper headline..?”

“’French Fries.’ See ya.”