Joseph ‘Mad Dog’ Taborsky holds a singular place in Connecticut’s criminal history. Not only was he the 18th and last man electrocuted in Connecticut (and New England as a whole), but was also the only man in the State to have been sent to Death Row twice for two separate crimes. Nobody walked the last mile in Connecticut until Michael Bruce Ross in 2005, by which time Old Sparky sat in storage, replaced by lethal injection. Connecticut abolished the death penalty a few years later. Taborsky’s killing spree even caused Connecticut to change the opening hours of its liquor stores, forcing them to close at 8pm instead of 11pm to hopefully avoid a repetition of his crimes.
Born on March 23, 1924 in Hartford, Connecticut, Taborsky’s first murder was that of liquor store owner Louis Wolfson in West Hartford on March 23, 1950, also Taborsky’s 26th birthday. With his younger brother Albert, Taborsky went in to rob the store and came out having committed murder. According to Albert, his brother came out of the store claiming:
“The guy jumped me, now get out of here.”
Albert, never the strongest nor toughest of people to start with, was wracked with guilt and paralysed with fear. He knew full well that both of them were facing electrocution for the crime. Wolfson had survived for three days after being shot in the head and, while he couldn’t identify his murderer, he could and did give a description matching Joseph Taborsky who was already well-known to Connecticut police. Under pressure from his mother he called police and turned himself in in January, 1951. Both he and Joseph were promptly arrested and, on June 6, were convicted. Albert drew a life sentence in return for testifying against his brother. Joseph, on the other hand, drew the ultimate penalty. He was shipped to Wethersfield Prison with his execution date set for November 7. The wheels of justice turned rather fast in the 1950’s compared to today.
At least they would have, had Albert not suffered a mental breakdown before his brother’s scheduled execution. Albert’s testimony was the only eyewitness account of Joseph’s first murder. Without it, Taborsky would could appeal for a retrial and possible release as there was nobody else to testify against him.
He did exactly that. After three years on Death Row fighting his case, watching three other men walk their last mile and being assigned to clean the execution chamber after their deaths, you might think that he’d been cured of his fondness for murder.
He wasn’t. This wasn’t the end of his killing spree, it was only the beginning.
The Connecticut Supreme Court reversed both his conviction and his death sentence. Without Albert’s testimony Joseph walked free from Death Row, stating:
“I’m not even going to get a parking ticket.”
He wasn’t, but he would pick up another death sentence and be permanently known as ‘Mad Dog.’
Hooking up with a fellow felon, one Arthur ‘Meatball’ Culombe — who, as his name implies, was more burdened with muscle than intellect, Taborsky went on a 10-week robbery and killing spree. Only months after his release, the gruesome twosome killed six more people and brutalized many more while robbing a series of gas stations, liquor stores and other small businesses.
Their first murder victims were gas station attendant Edward Kurpewski and customer Daniel Janowski on December 12, 1956. Both were shot in the back of the head, signifying a deliberate intent to kill execution-style. Kurpewski was working late while Janowski, like so many murder victims, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On December 26 liquor store owner Samuel Cohn received his last customers, the ‘Mad Dog’ and the ‘Meatball.’ They left him dying, having been robbed and shot in the chest.
Bernard ‘Buster’ Speyer and his wife Ruth also had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They’d decided to go shoe shopping when Taborsky decided to rob the store and walked in as he was busily pistol-whipping the proprietor. Changing the habit of a lifetime, Taborsky didn’t kill the storekeeper (which would come back to haunt him later). He did, however, leave the Speyers lying on the floor having both been shot in the head.
The shoe store robbery was the beginning of the end. The proprietor gave police a full description of his assailant, adding that he had unusually large size-12 feet and had arrived on the pretext of buying a pair of shoes. Detectives promptly searched their files for every ex-convict in Connectcut with size-12 feet and weren’t even slightly surprised when a particular name popped up:
There would be one more murder before authorities finally put the ‘Mad Dog’ back in his cage. Pharmacist John Rosenthal was murdered on January 26, 1957, shot in the chest and left to die on the pharmacy floor. He was Taborsky’s final murder, although he and Culombe had committed a string of other robberies leaving many people injured and traumatised. That too would help seal Taborsky’s fate.
Police arrested Taborsky and Culombe on February 23, 1957, only a month shy of the 7th anniversary of his murdering Louis Wolfson. Culombe, presumably less terrified of his crime partner than of going to Old Sparky, immediately ratted him out. He confessed to being involved in eight robberies with Taborsky, but only as the getaway driver and claimed never to have killed anybody himself. He also mentioned Taborsky’s preference for headshots (which implied a definite intent to kill) and recounted a robbery during which Taborsky had ordered him to kill a 3-year old girl who was at the scene. Culombe had faked her murder, telling her to hide while he fired a shot into the floor and told told Taborsky that the deed was done.
In return for his testimony, considering his low IQ and for not having murdered a child, the judge tempered justice with mercy. Culombe drew a life sentence for his crimes. Taborsky, hardly surprising given his laundry list of murders, wasn’t so lucky. He was shipped back to Wethersfield Prison with a second death sentence hanging over him. He was back on Death Row where, given his crimes, he was highly unlikely to leave again except feet first.
Taborksy knew it and accepted it. He waived his right to appeal, choosing instead to simply wait for time and his own life to run their course. In the meantime, he gave his life story to journalist Gerald Demeusy who also witnessed his electrocution. Demeusy’s book Ten Weeks of Terror: The Chronicle of the Making of a Killer was a commercial success.
Taborsky’s time was rapidly running out. His date was set for the night of May 17, 1960 and he did nothing to delay his execution. Prison authorities were concerned that, perverse as he was, Taborsky might wait until the end and then invoke his right to appeal, forcing a serious delay to an execution that many Connecticut citizens considered long overdue. But, when the time came, Taborsky was as calm and accepting as ever.
He’d always remained tight-lipped about his many crimes, even steadfastly denying the murder of his first victim Louis Wolfson. But, with the end only a couple of days away, he changed tack. He confessed to all his murders, including that of Wolfson and, in an uncharacteristic moment of virtue, willed his eyes to an eye bank.
When the time came Taborsky was allowed to say his goodbyes before walking his last mile. He stepped quietly from cell to cell, saying goodbye and even shaking hands with Culombe, whose testimony had secured life for him and death for Taborsky. To fellow Death Row inmate Benny Reid he said:
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll be back as a fly right after it’s over.”
As Taborsky was led on his final walk Culombe shouted down the Row:
“Joe, good luck to you tonight, no matter where you go!”
Executioner Dow Hover (also New York’s last ‘State Electrician’ and executioner of Gerhard Puff, Eddie Lee Mays and many others) was already prepared. In line with Connecticut tradition things moved quickly. Gerald Demeusy was one of the reporters witnessing the execution, himself sat with his colleagues only five feet from the chair and with nothing to separate him from the smells of burnt hair and scorched flesh. It was wasn’t Demeusy’s first execution, he attended six during his career, but he was especially interested in Taborsky’s. As Taborksy was seated and strapped he waved his right hand, securely strapped to the armrest and said simply: “Hi.”
With that done, Hover quickly applied the leg electrode and carefully positioned the helmet containing the electrode that would shoot three 30-second jolts of 2000 volts into Taborsky’s body. He stepped over to his switchboard awaiting a signal from Warden Mark Richmond. It came without further delay.
Hover stepped to the control panel. Connecticut didn’t have a lever like many other States. Instead, a wheel on the panel was spun hard clockwise three times. Taborsky leapt against the straps with each jolt. His hair caught fire and his flesh was burnt by the searing power of 2000 volts ripping through his body. With Connecticut’s customary three jolt delivered, the prison doctor waited for Taborsky’s body to cool down enough to be examined. At 10:36pm on May 17, 1960, Taborsky was certified dead. The ‘Mad Dog’ had finally been put to sleep.
But not for fellow condemned inmate Benny Reid. Before his execution Taborsky had told Reid he’d be back immediately as a large fly. Hearing a buzzing sound above his head, Reid looked up at the ceiling of his cell and saw he had a new, unofficial and doubtless highly-unwelcome cellmate.
A large black fly had appeared above his head.
Reid immediately went berserk. He screamed, yelled and had to be physically restrained before being removed from Death Row and given three months in a psychiatric unit. As it was, that may have saved his life. Others would be tried, condemned, and committed to Connecticut’s Death Row after Taborsky, but none would walk their last mile until Michael Bruce Ross in 2005. By then Old Sparky had been consigned to a storage room, replaced by lethal injection. A few years after Ross’s execution the State of Connecticut had pulled the plug on Old Sparky and abandoned capital punishment entirely. It was abolished thereafter.