It could never be said that the electric chair has had a particularly happy history. From its first use on murderer William Kemmler on August 6, 1890 its history has been marred, initially by a complete lack of knowledge of how to use it to bring about as humane a death as possible for condemned prisoners. It’s also been marred by malfunctioning equipment (as in the case of William Taylor), incorrectly prepared equipment (in the case of Willie Francis and others).
What took place at the former Arkansas State Penitentiary in Little Rock (since demolished to make way for public buildings) on March 10, 1922 made Kemmler’s botched electrocution look like it ran as smoothly as a country stream. The executioner and prison staff didn’t even have the excuse of never having done it before or lacking anybody else’s experience as in Kemmler’s case. The execution of 18-year old murderer and escapee James Wells was a nightmare of truly gargantuan proportions caused by nothing short of the very grossest incompetence.
Wells, born in 1904 and hailing from Drew County, was an African-American farmhand convicted of murdering his former employer, white Arkansas farmer Peter Trenz and was never likely to escape the worst consequences of his crime. He was a poor, black defendant convicted in 1920’s Arkansas of murdering a respectable white victim. Records show that since Arkansas introduced the electric chair in 1913 and the State had taken over executions from individual counties, Arkansas executed 195 prisoners. Of these two were Native American men, one white woman, one Hispanic male and 57 white males. The rest of the total, 143 men in all, were all black.
Aside from his being poor, black and convicted of murdering a white man at a time when lynching rather than legal execution was every bit as likely for such a crime, Wells hadn’t exactly done himself any favors after his conviction for the murder he committed on May 18, 1921. On December 9 fellow condemned killer, bank robber and serial escaper Tom Slaughter managed an unlikely and spectacular escape from ‘The Walls’ and Death Row itself by overpowering guards, taking the Warden’s family hostage and using them as human shields while he drove out of the prison in Warden Dempsey’s own car.
Before leaving, Slaughter had invited the other condemned inmates to join him and Wells, probably thinking that his appeal would almost certainly be denied, opted to go with him. Slaughter was at liberty for only a day before being shot by fellow-escaper Jack Howard. Howard, also recaptured, claimed to have escaped only to help bring Slaughter to justice, a rather unlikely claim that was believed nonetheless by Arkansas authorities. Howard was never charged in connection with shooting Tom Slaughter and was in fact pardoned several years later.
Wells was one of the escapers who were picked up and brought straight back to the prison. He’d escaped on December 9, 1921. Records show that his appeal was denied on Christmas Eve, 1921. Not exactly the best time to be escaping in spectacular circumstances that thoroughly infuriated the Arkansas penal system. Not much of a Christmas present either, come to think of it. That said, there can never be any justification for what would happen to Wells on March 10, 1922.
The fatal day dawned and all was ready for Wells to end his brief existence. The Warden had made all the usual preparations. The official witnesses were all in place and prison staff had done all that needed to be done. All that was required for James Wells to be the 331st inmate executed in Arkansas history was for the executioner (who was doubtless extremely grateful to remain nameless) to arrive on time, be sober and competent to do the job. He arrived on time, was alleged to be drunk before he got to the prison and was, as newspaper reports politely put it, ‘inexperienced’ in working an electric chair. In short, the State of Arkansas had entrusted a delicate and potentially dangerous procedure to a hillbilly drunkard who hadn’t actually done the job before and presumably hadn’t received training from an expert.
Disaster beckoned. Disaster would undoubtedly follow.
Wells entered the death chamber singing a hymn. He was still singing when he sat in Old Sparky. He remained singing right up until the executioner threw the switch. As the Dallas Express described it:
“Going to the chair singing, Wells continued to sing until the first charge of electricity was sent through his body.”
Granted, Wells was silenced as the first jolt scorched his skin and seared his central nervous system. But he wasn’t dead.
Not by a very long way…
After the first jolt, one that must have been far too brief or the voltage far too low to do anything other than stun Wells into silence, prison doctors checked for signs of life and duly found them. Wells would have to be shocked again, was shocked again, was checked again, and remained stubbornly still alive (albeit presumably in great pain).
The witnesses began looking uncomfortable. This wasn’t supposed to happen. A prisoner was supposed to co-operate with the execution process. They were supposed to walk in under their own steam, not fight and struggle with their guards, sit down quietly, say their last words and die. A second jolt might be either needed or delivered simply to make sure, but no inmate was supposed to be this unhelpful and refuse to co-operate by simply not dying according to the Law.
The executioner reached for the switch and shocked Wells again.
Time after time the executioner threw his switch. Time after time the prison physicians made their checks. And, time after time, they encountered the same vexatious problem.
James Wells simply would not die.
After the first two or three jolts had failed to deliver what was expected, witnesses, disgusted by the horror show in front of them, began leaving the execution chamber. With every unsuccessful jolt and every warning that Wells still wasn’t dead, their disgust grew. So did the number who walked out of the death chamber presumably never to forget what they’d witnessed. This was a scene out of a horror movie. It was something that made Stephen King’s ‘The Green Mile’ look like nothing scary or perturbing. It was, above all, something that was never supposed to happen.
By the eleventh unsuccessful jolt, all involved were desperate for their communal nightmare to simply end. For the twelfth time of asking, the executioner threw the switch. The current surged. His scorched body rose once more in the chair and strained against the heavy leather straps. The power was shut off and the traumatized doctors began checking for the twelfth time to see if the prisoner was finally dead.
At last he was. Their ordeal was over.
James Wells was dead.
As the Dallas Express described it, the execution succeeded at:
“The twelfth attempt, according to witnesses, after terrible suffering on the part of the boy.”
The disaster made newspapers in places far afield. Not just in Arkansas, but also in Utah, California, Texas, Tennessee and numerous other States where executions, especially those of black inmates, were seldom seen as being worth anything more than a few lines. Even the New York Tribune had a piece on the execution and New York, being during the 1920’s and 1930’s the leader in American executions with an average of around 20 every year, felt obliged to acknowledge the horror of what had happened.
The New York Tribune described the affair bluntly stating that after the first jolt:
“Wells was examined by the State physicians who pronounced him still alive. Another charge of electricity was sent through his body, with the same result. Witnesses began to leave the death room and only a few were still present when the last charges were sent through his body and Wells finally was pronounced dead. Fully twenty minutes were consumed in putting him to death.
Arkansas had managed the previously inconceivable. Their drunken incompetent had managed to create an even greater nightmare than the first-ever judicial electrocution, that of William Kemmler at Auburn Prison in New York on August 6, 1890. He’d also managed to achieve this without even the excuse of nobody ever having done it before so nobody could have known how to, as had been the case for Kemmler. There was also no excuse for Arkansas not hiring in an experienced executioner from another State. When South Dakota performed its only electrocution, that of murderer George Sitts, they borrowed an electric chair from Nebraska and the executioner from New York. With the right equipment and an experienced hand on the switch, all went smoothly. Arkansas could have done the same. But they didn’t.
Had they employed an expert such as New York’s Robert Greene Elliott the results would almost certainly have been entirely different. Elliott performed 387 executions in six States during his career and is credited with perfecting judicial electrocution. He developed a two-minute cycle of jolts and seldom need more than one. He delivered 2000 volts for three seconds, 500 volts for 57 seconds,, 200 volts for another three seconds, 500 for 57 seconds and then a final seconds of 2000 volts just to make sure. Very rarely did he need to deliver more than one cycle of jolts.
When I initially discovered the case of James Wells I was as appalled as you might expect. I also thought it might make an interesting piece at some future point and, with that in mind, emailed the Arkansas Department of Corrections for further information.
For some reason they never got back to me.