Here’s another strange but true case, this one courtesy of the State of Louisiana.
It was on May 9, 1947 that a 17-year old black teenager walked his last mile. But not for the first time. As he took his final fifty steps from his cell to the courthouse where he’d been convicted of murder two years prior, in order to be strapped into Louisiana’s infamous portable electric chair notoriously nicknamed ‘Gruesome Gertie,’ Willie must have had a particularly rare feeling of déjà vu.
Of course, it isn’t as unusual as you might think for a condemned prisoner to walk their last mile more than once. Time and again, America’s condemned have been strapped in chairs or on gurneys awaiting the throw of the switch, the push of a lever, or the press of a button, only to hear the death chamber telephone ring and guarantee them a few more days, weeks or months of life. If, that is, you can call sitting in a cell for 23 hours a day watching the calendar remorselessly approaching the next date that you’ve ringed with a red pen. But no other condemned inmate in American history has ever returned to an execution chamber after having felt the searing blast of 2000 volts and managed to walk away from having sat in Old Sparky’s lap.
Willie Francis did.
The murder of local pharmacist Andrew Thomas horrified residents of St. Martinville, Louisiana. He was found shot dead at his pharmacy in 1944 and, for some nine months after the murder, Louisiana police were baffled. They produced no suspects and no murder weapon. Then, in August, 1945, black teenager Willie Francis was arrested in Texas on unrelated drugs charges and according to Texas police, Andrew Thomas’s watch was found in his pocket. The fact that Francis was also from St. Martinsville didn’t escape investigators, judge or jury. Nor, it seems, did the fact that Andrew Thomas was respectable and white, while Willie Francis was both poor and black.
According to Texas police, Francis possessed Thomas’s watch when he was arrested. He also made two written confessions and was able to direct police to where he had disposed of the pistol holster that had contained the murder weapon though not, it seems, the weapon itself. The revolver in question actually belonged to a deputy sheriff who had previously threatened to kill Andrew Thomas and after Willie’s conviction the holster, gun, and ballistics report disappeared from the evidence locker. Still, police had already secured a conviction and death sentence for Willie Francis, so this wasn’t looked upon as a major problem.
Willie’s trial or, to be specific, his defense, was a farce. His court-appointed (white) lawyers altered his plea to guilty without his consent, called no witnesses, made no objections, and didn’t even make an opening statement during the trial which lasted only two days. The all-white, all-male jury’s deliberations, not surprisingly, were even more abbreviated. They heard the prosecution case, heard the non-existent defense, and were out for only fifteen minutes before delivering the entirely predictable verdict. Guilty as charged, with no recommendation to mercy. The trial judge was equally quick to pass the mandatory sentence — death in the electric chair. Willie was held under guard at the county jail to await a somewhat unusual means of execution.
Unlike New York, with its infamous custom-built ‘Death House’, Louisiana and Mississippi both brought Old Sparky’s power to the people. Both States used a portable version of the electric chair. Carried aboard a large truck along with her own generator, straps, electrodes and switchboard, ‘Gruesome Gertie’ rode from town to town, stopping off whenever and wherever individual counties had condemned prisoners.
The State of Louisiana had yet to make executions a purely State affair, preferring to dispense the ultimate penalty where locals could be reassured (if they were respectable and white) and intimidated (if poor and black) by seeing the infamous silver truck pull up outside their local courthouse. They didn’t get to watch the executions themselves, but they did get to see ‘Gruesome Gertie’ unloaded, the heavy power cables being run from the truck into the courthouse or county jail, and usually a crowd would gather around the truck prior to the execution. This was a Retribution Roadshow by any other name.
It was in May, 1946 that ‘Gruesome Gertie’ arrived in St. Martinsville for her date with Willie. Accompanying her were executioner Captain Edward Foster and his assistant, a trustee convict from Louisiana’s infamous Angola Penitentiary named Vincent Venezia. It would be their job to unload and set up the equipment for the next day’s festivities, which would be May 9, 1946. Unfortunately for Willie, they decided to stop at a local tavern for a few drinks before performing their duties.
Witnesses later reported that, in their opinion, both men prepared the equipment and performed the actual execution while so drunk they couldn’t have been fully aware of what they were doing. When they arrived back at the courthouse and set up the equipment, they were very much the worse for wear and too drunk to notice they hadn’t set it up properly. Willie was about to ride the lightning and his ride would go on to make criminal history.
Along with official witnesses, reporters and County Sheriff Resweber, gathered at the courthouse for what was a fairly routine event in Louisiana at the time. Nobody expected this one to be any different to any other electrocution. They were very, very wrong.
Willie was brought from his courthouse cell, strapped into ‘Gruesome Gertie’, and the electrodes were fitted. Resweber asked him if he had anything to say before the sentence was carried out. He didn’t. With a signal to the hung-over executioner, Resweber started the ball rolling. The switch was thrown. Willie, heavily strapped down, simply didn’t die as planned. Nor was he incapable of speech, either — unusual in someone with 2000 volts running through them. After the switch had been thrown his muffled voice was heard from beneath the leather hood.
‘I’m not dying.’
‘Take it off! Take it off! Let me breathe! It hurts!’
Sheriff Resweber’s reply, stunned though he was by this unexpected turn of events, was short and none too sweet.
‘It’s supposed to hurt. You’re not supposed to breathe.’
‘Gruesome Gertie’ herself was rocking and wobbling around the courtroom as she hadn’t been firmly secured to the floor. While appalled onlookers heard Willie being considerably more conversational than he should have been by that point, ‘Gertie’ was performing a ghastly jitterbug around the courtroom floor. It was a scene both farcical and horrific in the same moment.
The executioner kept the switch thrown and the current flowing, but after a couple of minutes had passed and poor Willie was still very much alive, Sheriff Resweber ordered the power be cut. Willie, having just become the only convict in criminal history to survive his own electrocution, was unstrapped and taken back to his cell while officials wondered what on Earth they were going to do next.
It was only a matter of hours before Willie’s non-execution became a national media sensation. Botched electrocutions, sadly, weren’t unusual. Actually, they still aren’t, but botched electrocutions in which the chair wobbles around like a washing machine while its occupant voices loud complaints were unheard of. Regardless, the Governor Jimmie Davis decided that Willie would have to ride the lightning again only a few days later. Enter local lawyer (and friend of Andrew Thomas) Bertrand LeBlanc, who persuaded the US Supreme Court to decide otherwise.
LeBlanc, while both white and personal friend of the murder victim, had been appalled by both the trial with its non-existent defense and Willie’s non-execution. Appalling him still further was Governor Davis’s decision that Willie would face execution again only a few days after such an horrendous experience.
LeBlanc spent months fighting Willie’s case all the way up to the Supreme Court, whose members — after much back-room wrangling and vote-changing — finally ruled by a margin of 5-4 that a second attempt to execute Willie didn’t constitute either double jeopardy or, bizarrely, cruel and unusual punishment. A strange decision in a case where the appellant has just suffered something hitherto unique in criminal history.
Despite LeBlanc’s immense efforts, made on general principle and without hope of any financial reward, Willie was still doomed. After months of wrangling, the Supreme Court declined to either reverse the original conviction (probably because Willie’s trial lawyers hadn’t bothered filing any appeals, either) or to overturn the death sentence. They also set a new date, May 9, 1947, exactly one year to the day since Willie had taken on ‘Gruesome Gertie’ and won. He wouldn’t be winning again.
On that date both Willie and his mobile nemesis were back at St. Martinville courthouse. The witnesses were assembled, along with ‘Gruesome Gertie’, and they’d even assembled her properly this time. It also probably helped that the executioner and his assistant were actually sober. Courtesy of Willie’s remarkable escape the first time and the strenuous, high-profile efforts of Bertrand LeBlanc, the eyes of the world were upon the courthouse and whatever happened therein.
This time it went as perfectly as any State-sanctioned killing could do. At 12:05pm on May 9, 1947, Willie Francis would again walk his last mile. Once again he took his last fifty steps, escorted by guards and a chaplain. For the second time he sat in the chair and was strapped down, the electrodes attached to his head and leg. He was asked for his last words and, once again, he didn’t have any.
The signal was given. The switch, this time operated by a qualified electrician after a change in Louisiana law due to Willie’s first time in the chair, was thrown.
And, this time, Willie Francis, aged only 17, poor, black, under-educated and quite possibly innocent, was dead.