Freelance writer from Cornwall
Meet Henry Flakes. Chances are that even if you’re a boxing fan you’ve probably never heard of him, but you might have done if things had gone differently. Henry was a young up-and-coming heavyweight during the plate 1940’s, tipped by many in boxing and in the press as a future champion and the best young heavyweight in the country at that time. He had the technical skill and a lethal right hand that could (and probably should) have seen him become a champion.
But he didn’t.
Originally from Alabama, Henry made his way to New York to pursue his dream of becoming a world heavyweight champion. Right from his first fight on January 21, 1947, knocking out forgotten journeyman Al Rogers in one round, Henry showed promise. He won early in his career, he kept winning and he frequently won by knockout. He fought all over New York State and was a regular marquee fighter at the Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo. He fought at famed venues like the Armory in Newark, New Jersey, the Hyde Park Stadium near Niagara Falls and his last fight was at the legendary boxing Mecca of Madison Square Garden. He fought in Canada at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and even twice defeated the fearsome Pat Commiskey, once by unanimous decision and again by knockout. No less a writer than Oscar Fraley (co-writer with Prohibition Agent Eliot Ness of ‘The Untouchables’) tipped him for definite stardom. After his win at Madison Square Garden in a rematch with Lee Oma (another fancied prospect) he should have been on the verge of stardom.
It was the last fight of his career.
Henry had an Achilles heel that had nothing to do with his boxing ability. He suffered from cataracts. Naturally, being punched in the face for a living isn’t likely to improve that particular medical condition and it certainly didn’t improve Henry’s. Instead, just when he was on the verge of big-league championship fights, it ended his career. And that was where it all started going horribly wrong.
After his enforced retirement Henry held down a few low-wage jobs to pay the bills. Unfortunately several other problems arose. He lost his right eye to the cataracts, having to have it removed in an expensive operation he couldn’t really afford to pay for. He was in surgery again having his appendix removed (according to his autopsy report) and he also had some skin grafts taken. Surgery in the US is very, very expensive and also often involves large amounts of drugs. Drugs that Henry (according to his prison admission report) had become addicted to. He scraped some vague semblance of a living out of being a car mechanic, spent most of it on drugs and by 1958 he was in desperate need of both cash and dope. An associate, Walter Green, suggested a quick means of gaining both; Armed robbery.
Flakes, being desperate, went along with the idea. Together with Walter Green and getaway driver Dewitt Lee he secured a gun and went into a men’s haberdasher in Spring, 1958. They took the whopping sum of $96, not exactly a King’s ransom. What they left behind was proprietor Joseph Friedmann. Lying on the floor having been shot dead during the robbery, by Flakes, as the robbers were leaving the store.. It wasn’t long before both Flakes and Green would be joining him. Lee, sat outside in their car, escaped a death sentence, receiving life imprisonment (a suggestion was made that dating a white college student might have somehow aided his case.
They were picked up by detectives, remanded, tried and, on March 6, 1959, Flakes and Green were given the mandatory sentence under New York law at the time. Death by electrocution. The next day they were transferred from their holding cells to Sing Sing Prison’s notorious ‘Death House’ to await their date with Sing Sing’s most infamous resident, ‘Old Sparky,’
Justice moved a lot quicker then than it does now, even in capital cases. On May 19, 1960 Flakes and Green underwent the traditional pre-execution preparations. They ordered their last meals (Flakes not only ordered a huge dinner and supper, but also had the courage to face eating it), took a shower each, had their heads and legs shaved and donned the traditional condemned clothes. Black trousers, black socks, a white shirt with non-metallic buttons and shower shoes. Nothing fancy, but nothing likely to burn when the switch was thrown. While they ordered their last meals and went for their haircuts ‘State Electrician’ Dow Hover was testing his equipment. It was working perfectly.
May 19 was a Thursday which, in the grim rituals at Sing Sing before abolition, mattered. Like the traditional last meal, the traditional clothes and the traditional shaven head and shower, Sing Sing executions were always done on Thursdays. ‘Black Thursday’ as the staff and inmates so quaintly called it. New York State death warrants didn’t specify a certain day, only a certain week in which an execution should be carried out so the traditional day was Thursday and the traditional time was 11pm, barring any last-minute stay of execution. There wasn’t one for Flakes or Green. Just after 11pm Green walked his last mile. According to one report he walked to the chair silently, looked round at the official witnesses, sat down in silence and died. Another suggested that Green fought and had to be forcibly sat in the chair and strapped down.
Flakes was a little less reserved. He walked in smiling beside prison chaplain Father McKinney, smiled at all the witnesses, shook McKinney’s hand and told him simply “Thanks…” Then he sat down, was strapped in and Hover earned the remainder of his night’s fee. Henry ‘Snow’ Flakes, who could and possibly should have been one of the all-time great American heavyweights, died with a smile on his face and not a penny in his pocket. The day after he died his family had to inform Warden Wilfred Denno that they didn’t even have the money to bury him. Like so many of his fellow convicts he lies in Sing Sing’s ‘Potter’s Field’ reserved for those deceased inmates left unclaimed by their relatives.
Green and Flakes were the 607th and 608th inmates to die in Sing Sing’s electric chair and the and the eighth and seventh-to-last respectively before New York’s last execution, that of the 615th inmate Eddie Lee Mays in August, 1963. They were also victims of New York’s last executioner, Dow Hover, a sheriff’s deputy and electrician from Germantown. Like his predecessors Edwin Davis, John Hurlburt, Robert Elliott and Joseph Francel, Hover got the standard rate of $150 for the first inmate and an extra $50 for the second. If his glory days at Madison Square Garden had continued, Henry Flakes would have earned far more for a night’s work.
He’d probably not have found himself paying Hover’s wages, either.