Freelance writer from Cornwall
August 15, 1963 was an historic day in New York’s penal history, although nobody involved knew it at the time. New York’s lawmakers didn’t know it. the Warden of New York’s infamous Sing Sing Prison (now the Ossining Correctional Facility) didn’t know. Dow Hover, New York’s last ‘State Electrician’, didn’t know it. Eddie Lee Mays, armed robber and murderer of no particular note didn’t know either, but he was well beyond caring at the time.
At 10pm Mays would walk his last mile. He would leave his pre-execution cell in the ‘Dance Hall’ of Sing Sing’s notorious ‘Death House’, walk no more than twenty feet down a corridor with two prison officers and a prison Chaplain, take a seat in ‘Old Sparky’ and ‘ride the lightning.’ He would be New York’s 695th inmate to do so since William Kemmler at Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890 and Sing Sing’s 614th.
He would also be the last.
Mays was 34 years old and an ex-convict from North Carolina where he’d already served a sentence for murder. He’d been lucky to avoid North Carolina’s gas chamber then, especially as North Carolina used their chamber frequently in 1940’s and 1950’s and being black wasn’t going to work in his favour. Sing’s Sing’s electric chair would prove unavoidable. Not that Mays himself was especially bothered by the typical Death Row inmate’s standards. He’d already stated that he’d rather ‘fry’ than spend the rest of his life in prison.
Along with two accomplices (neither of whom ended up in the ‘hot seat’) Mays had embarked upon a string of armed robberies during 1961. Resident in Harlem, in the six weeks prior to the murder Mays and his gang had committed no less than fifty-two armed robberies. Having already shown in North Carolina that murder wasn’t beyond him, it’s no great surprise that another murder was about to happen. On March 23, 1961 it did. Mays and his friends entered the ‘Friendly Tavern’ at 1403 Fifth Avenue, showed their guns and demanded that the owner and his customers hand over every cent they had. One of them was Maria Marini, known to her friends as ‘Pearl.’ Maria didn’t open her purse as quickly as Mays demanded and, when she did, it was empty. Mays, enraged by her tardiness and lack of cash, bellowed ” I’m going to kill somebody! I mean it! I’ll show you!”
Turning to Maria he then bellowed “I ought to kill you!” And then he did. He put his pistol directly against her forehead and squeezed the trigger in a totally unnecessary murder before running away with $275 in cash. It wasn’t long before Mays and his accomplices were in custody awaiting trial. New York had already discarded the mandatory death penalty for murder but, under New York’s Felony Murder Statute defining murder during a robbery as capital murder and given his previous murder conviction, it wasn’t long before Eddie Lee Mays was on the fast-track to a disinterested, if not unwilling, place in penal history. His accomplices could also have been condemned but, as it was Mays who fired the shot, they were lucky enough to escape with their lives. Mays wouldn’t be so fortunate.
So, Mays had his one mandatory appeal granted by law. Neither the State Court of Appeals or State Governor were ready to intervene. Warden Wilfred .L. Denno, appointed in December, 1950, received his latest ‘thunderbolt jockey’ and already knew the drill backwards. Eddie Lee Mays would be his 62nd execution since taking charge at Sing Sing. He gave the usual orders instructing the ‘Death House’ staff to make the usual preparations. He also sent a letter to New Yorks fifth and final ‘State Electrician’, Mr. Dow .B. Hover, to set August 15, 1963 in his diary and drive down from his Germantown home a few hours before the scheduled time of 10pm.
Dow Hover was the last of five men to hold the title of New York’s ‘State Electrician.’ The principal qualifications were being a fully-qualified electrician, being prepared to kill people for $150 an inmate (with an extra $50 per inmate for multiple executions, not unusual events at Sing Sing) and not minding the measly 8 cents an hour fuel allowance. Edwin Davis, John Hurlburt, Robert Elliott and Joseph Francel had all pulled the switch many, many times. It was Hover who replaced Francel when Francel unexpectedly resigned in 1953 shortly after executing the atom bomb spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Francel hadn’t liked the publicity he’d received and wasn’t satisfied with the money either, which hadn’t changed since Davis first pulled the switch on William Kemmler at Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890. But Hover wasn’t bothered about the money or the work. A cold and unemotional man, he saw executions as a professional job to be properly done and then forgotten about. The low pay didn’t bother him either. He was extremely careful to avoid being publicly identified as the ‘State Electrician’, however. He’d change the number plates on his car before leaving his home and change them back again on his return. He also never talked about his work with anybody and did all he could to keep out of sight. This would be the last time he drove a car with false number plates.
By late-afternoon, all was ready. Warden Denno had screened the official witnesses and reporters to be present that night. The prison officers had rehearsed their already well-rehearsed routine for escorting Mays on his last mile, strapping him down securely and the general running of the execution. Mays had consulted with the prison’s Protestant chaplain and, refusing a last meal, simply asked for a carton of Pall Mall cigarettes. Under ‘Death House’ rules he wasn’t allowed matches in his condemned cell, so whenever he wanted a smoke (which was increasingly often) an officer had to light it for him. His head was shaved, his leg was shaved for the second electrode, he was given the traditional execution clothes, specially made with a slit right trouser leg and wooden buttons that wouldn’t catch fire when the switch was thrown. The Warden and witnesses gathered while Hover tested his equipment thoroughly and found it all in working order. All that was left was to watch the clock and wait until 10pm when the final act would begin.
It began promptly and worked like a well-oiled machine, like clockwork. Mays gave no trouble as he walked his last mile. Before a small audience of prison staff and a few disinterested reporters he quickly seated himself, declining to make any final statement. Officers swiftly applied thick, heavy leather straps rounds his wrists, ankles, waist and chest. Hover attached the electrode to Mays’s right calf muscle and then slid the leather helmet containing the head electrode down over Mays’s head. A thick leather strap with a hole exposing his nose went over Mays’s face and was buckled tightly round the back of the chair. Mays was strapped down tight, the electrodes were firmly attached, the generator was running properly. All was set.
Warden Denno gave the signal, his 62nd since assuming command of Sing Sing in 1950 and the last in New York’s history. Like Hover, Denno was no stranger to the grim ritual. In the thirteen years since taking over he’d stood in front of ‘Old Sparky’ on sixty-one previous occasions involving some of New York State’s most notorious criminals. In 1951 it had been the ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’ Raymond Fernandez and Martha Jule Beck. In 1953 it had been Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, their publicity had caused Joseph Francel to quit and Dow Hover to be throwing the switch that night. In 1954 it had been German immigrant, armed robber, murderer and resident of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, Gerhard Puff, for murdering FBI Special Agent Joseph Brock. In 1958 it was notorious hitman Elmer ‘Trigger’ Burke (for murdering bar-owner Edward ‘Poochy’ Walsh) and Angelo LaMarca (for the kidnap-murder of Peter Weinberger). Then in 1960 Henry ‘Snow’ Flakes had died in front of him, the former heavyweight boxing contender had fallen on hard times and killed a store-owner during a robbery. Like Mays, Flakes died without leaving a final statement, although he did have an enormous last meal.
Warden Denno gave the signal, Hover worked the controls in a pre-determined cycle perfected by his predecessor Robert Elliott. 2000 volts for three seconds, then 500 volts for fifty-seven seconds, then 2000 again for three seconds, 500 for fifty-four seconds and 2000 again for the last few seconds. Hover shut off his controls, Denno signaled to the prison physician to make his checks and all waited quietly for the outcome. Eddie Lee Mays was dead.
New York abolished the death penalty almost entirely in 1965. The only exceptions were prison inmates who committed murder while already serving a life sentence and anybody murdering a police officer or prison officer. ‘Old Sparky’ was uprooted and transferred to the maximum-security Green Haven Correctional Facility in 1969. The last Death Row inmate in New York condemned prior to abolition had their sentence commuted in 1972 when the US Supreme Court struck down all existing State death penalty laws in its historic ruling on the case of Furman vs Georgia. New York did reinstate capital punishment in 1995 when then-Governor George Pataki signed the new law using the pen of a murdered police officer (and made sure the media knew who the pen had previously belonged to). But New York’s State Courts struck down his law, ruling it unconstitutional. There were no executions during its brief existence. Even the infamous Sing Sing ‘Death House’ star of so many books, movies, radio dramas, TV documentaries and now blog posts, has lost its grim purpose. Today, it’s a vocational training centre used by inmates wanting to learn a trade..
The last word on New York’s last execution goes to Warden Denno, who remained in charge at Sing Sing until 1967. In 1965 he went over to the ‘Death House’ and informed the last remaining condemned inmates that the New York lawmakers had (almost) abolished the death penalty. Aside from a couple condemned for murdering two police officers (Anthony Portelli and Jerry Rosenberg, both later commuted), all the condemned were now lifers, no longer dead men walking. Denno arrived with the good news during a baseball match and commented afterward:
“It may sound incredible, but they seemed more interested in the ball game.”
If the death penalty is a deterrent intended to strike dread into the hearts of the criminally-inclined, that’s not quite the reaction he’d expected.