Freelance writer from Cornwall
Robert Greene Elliott, ‘Agent of Death’ for six US States.
Meet Robert Greene Elliott. Family man, devout Methodist, Sunday school superintendent, electrical contractor and pipe smoker. He also personally executed 387 people (including 5 women) working as a freelance executioner for six US States. Elliott was (and remains) the most experienced ‘State Electrician’ in penal history. He became notorious Statewide, easily as well-known in New York as any of his victims and considerably better-known than most of them. Here we look at his busiest day in a 13-year career when American executioners were at their busiest, at a time when business was so brisk that Elliott himself executed six men in two different States on the same day.
On the morning of January 6, 1927 Elliot performed the first triple electrocution at the Massachusetts State Prison in Charlestown. Afterward he took a train down to New York City, spending a few hours with his family before taking another train to New York’s notorious Sing Sing Prison. At 11pm three men were taken from their cells in Sing Sing’s purpose-built ‘Death House’ and escorted one-by-one along their ‘Last Mile.’ Elliott, promptly and professionally as usual, electrocuted them all. His standard fee was $150 an inmate, earning himself $900 that day alone.
In his native New York, Elliott was as familiar a name as Ruth Snyder, Bruno Hauptmann, Sacco and Vanzetti, Albert Fish or Francis ‘Two Gun’ Crowley. The Snyder case spawned the famous play ‘Machinal’ and film classic ‘Double Indemnity.’ Bruno Hauptmann was convicted of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Sacco and Vanzetti are still discussed as a miscarriage of justice. Albert Fish was a serial killer and cannibal and Francis Crowley inspired James Cagney’s most infamous screen villain ‘Rocky’ Sullivan in the crime classic ‘Angel with Dirty Faces.’ Elliott also claimed to be opposed to capital punishment and that it served no useful purpose. Odd really, considering his achieving notoriety in New York and 5 other States as their ‘Electrocutioner.’
Elliot took the job in 1926 when his predecessor suddenly resigned after 140 executions. He held it until 1939 when he resigned and was replaced by Joseph P. Francel. Elliott died in 1940 shortly after publishing his memoir ‘Agent of Death.’ The book covers some of his most notorious victims, the technical aspects of electrocution and his personal musings on both condemned inmates and capital punishment itself.
‘Agent of Death’ is long out of print. Original copies are both very expensive and equally hard to find. It’s not as unusual as you might think for executioners to publish memoirs. Albert Pierrepoint, John Ellis and Syd Dernley all left memoirs of their time working Britain’s gallows. In the US former Warden Don Cabana’s ‘Death at Midnight: Confessions of an Executioner’ is compelling if difficult reading. Mississippi’s ‘travelling executioner’ Jimmy Thompson never tired of interviews and photo opportunities involving his portable electric chair. But, generally speaking, executioners tend more to keep their lives and careers to themselves, shunning publicity in the same way that many people might shun executioners.
Sing Sing’s most famous inmate, the dreaded ‘Old Sparky.’
In Massachusetts Elliott ‘burned’ John McLaughlin, John Deveraux and Edward Heinlein for murdering nightwatchman James Ferneaux during an attempted robbery in October, 1925. The then-infamous ‘Waltham Car Barn murder’ attracted great publicity at the time, not least because only Deveraux had fired the shot. Despite this all three were convicted of the murder as they’d committed the robbery together. Legal concepts of ‘common purpose’ meant that if one member of a criminal group committed murder during some other crime (such as bank robbery, burglary or kidnapping) then all involved were guilty. The fact that Ferneaux hadn’t died from the gunshot wound, but had been finished off by being pistol-whipped made their appeals a formality.
At 7am Charlestown Prison, normally as rowdy and loud as any prison at breakfast time, was silent. Inmates and staff alike knew that this was the first time the State of Massachusetts had executed three men at once. Staff were worried about potential technical problems at the execution or unrest among the general population. Inmates sat in their cells, silently watching the clock tick down to 7am. At the appointed time the three men died one after another without a hitch. Elliott had just made Massachusetts history, earning himself a whopping $450 ($150 an inmate) for his first job that day. Three down, three to go.
According to one report Elliott simply returned to New York City and spent the next few hours with his family. They had dinner and saw a movie before Elliott headed for the railroad station. At Sing Sing executions were traditionally performed on Thursdays at 11pm, a grim tradition known to staff and inmates alike as ‘Black Thursday.’ Elliott reported to Sing Sing’s infamous ‘Death House’ (one of the few purpose-built Death Rows in the country at the time) and prepared ‘Old Sparky’ for a ‘triple-hitter.’ He was ready to double his money..
Charles Goldson, Edgar Humes and George Williams were all condemned for joint involvement in a 1926 robbery and murder. While robbing a silk warehouse they murdered nightwatchman William Young. Goldson and Humes were only 22, Williams wasn’t much older at 26. Being over 21 they were still adults and liable for the death penalty. Nothing really separated their crime from Elliott’s victims early that morning and neither New York’s appellate judges or State Governor thought them worth saving.
Like Charlestown, Sing Sing was quiet and not because it was late at night. Prisoners tend not to enjoy being near executions any more than most people. Executions often make prison staff uncomfortable as well. Inmates might riot in sympathy and not every prison officer supports the death penalty. Elliott arrived in mid-evening, inspected and tested the equipment and at 11pm did his job as professionally as at Charlestown. Three more down, six in total, job done. Elliott earned himself $900 that day, plus travel expenses. As a private contractor he had agreements with New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Connecticut. With six States and little sympathy among judges and Governors for the condemned, his tenure was a busy one.
Elliott was also technically skilled and is credited with perfecting the technique of judicial electrocution. He routinely shocked a prisoner with 2000 volts for 3 seconds, 500 volts for the remainder of the first minute, up the voltage to 2000 for 3 more seconds and then another 57 seconds at 500 volts before a final 3-second burst at 2000. Today’s executioners simply push a button and a computer-controlled process raises and lowers the voltage automatically. In Elliott’s time the equipment was manually operated, meaning that Elliott had to stand at his controls, carefully watching the prisoner die while doing his job. If the voltage was excessive the inmate burnt alive. If it was insufficient they were slowly cooked, so a skilled and experienced executioner was essential to avoid nightmarish mishaps. For doing that 6 times in one day $900 doesn’t seem like much.
A pretty curious abolitionist, really.