Robert Walsh

Freelance writer from Cornwall

Death on Wheels – Mississippi’s Travelling Executioner.

The retribution roadshow

The retribution roadshow

Execution has long been part of criminal history. Its more hawkish supporters consider it society’s ultimate sanction for the very worst offenders. Less enthusiastic supporters regard it as a necessary evil and a deterrent to other criminals even while acknowledging its distasteful nature. Opponents believe it’s no deterrent at all, is applied on an arbitrary basis and makes society as uncivilised and barbarous as the inmates executed.

We’re not discussing the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, the most humane (or least inhumane) execution methods, wrongful convictions or excessive use of the death sentence. Like it or not it exists and the history of crime is incomplete without the history of punishment. It has to be said that punishment is sometimes delivered by unusual means and unusual people. The State of Mississippi adopted an especially unusual means. Its executioner was certainly one of criminal history’s more unusual people.

Mississippi has a somewhat chequered history regarding crime and punishment. Brutal prison conditions, corruption, racism and an almost-complete absence of rehabilitation were long cornerstones of its penal policy. When rape was a capital crime not a single white Mississipian was executed, although many were convicted. Black rapists, on the other hand, especially those whose victim was white, knew that conviction meant almost certain death. It was only slightly less biased regarding murder. Records show that since Mississippi achieved statehood the vast majority of inmates executed have been black. Even today, a black murderer, especially of a white victim, is far more likely to die than a white murderer whose victim was black. According to statistics released in the 1980’s black murderers are four times more likely to receive a death sentence than white ones, a discrepancy reflecting poorly on the American ideal of all citizens being equal under the law.

How it used to be.

How it used to be.

Mississippi originally employed hanging as its means of execution. Responsibility for executions was left to the county where the crime was committed. During the 1930’s Mississippi had a number of bungled hangings, especially that of murderer Gary Fairley in 1932. These created a strong desire in some quarters for a centralised system where the State took control, with a single purpose-built facility for confining and executing inmates and a newer, supposedly more humane execution method. In the 1930’s Mississippi also had the highest murder rate of any US State, so retaining capital punishment rather than abolition was the prevailing public and political mood.

There were some serious obstacles to this idea. Being Mississippi’s only maximum-security prison at the time the Mississippi State Penitentiary (also known as ‘Parchman Farm’ or simply ‘Parchman’) was the obvious location. Unfortunately Parchman’s chief, Superintendant Marvin Wiggins, was firmly opposed to locating Death Row at his prison. Wiggins was firmly opposed to executions at Parchman, was a shrewd political operator and had friends in high places. He wasn’t alone. Parchman is in Sunflower County and local residents firmly opposed having their county associated with executions. They feared Sunflower would be stigmatized as the ‘death county.’ They loathed the idea of playing host to executions and dreaded an influx of condemned inmates with nothing to lose by rioting and attempting escape. They and Superintendent Wiggins also feared increased unrest at Parchman, already one of the most notorious prisons in the US. According to author David Oshinsky in his book ‘Worse than Slavery’ one local politician stated: ‘Place that thing at Parchman and you’ll have riots and a wholesale breakout to descend hundreds of criminals down upon our people.’ Parchman has long been notorious for the brutality and harshness of its regime and for the high levels of violence by inmates and staff alike. Bad enough that Sunflower was already known for Parchman, but even worse if it became known as the ‘death county’ as well. Residents weren’t alone in that. No other county wanted to be known mainly for executions, either.

Tradition also played its part. Hangings had always been conducted under county jurisdiction. If a prisoner was condemned in a particular county then that was where they also died. Many believed that public hangings performed locally reassured law-abiding communities and intimidated their criminals. Local executions also made punishment more relevant to local communities and less remote than if done in one place alone. If change was to be made, then the State needed to take control of executions while retaining their visibility, avoiding stigmatizing any one county and providing a less inhumane method than regularly-bungled hangings. A compromise solution was needed and Mississippi authorities found one.

In 1940 the change was made. Electrocution replaced hanging as Mississippi’s method of execution. But it didn’t involve a purpose-built facility like the infamous ‘Death House’ at New York’s notorious Sing Sing Prison. It involved, for the first time in American history, a portable electric chair. The chair would be taken from county to county in a large silver truck also carrying a generator, switchboard, cables and all the standard equipment for performing electrocutions that any other prison might use. Mississippi was literally taking its show on the road and providing death on wheels. The equipment for his new job was purpose built. A firm in Memphis constructed a portable generator, 600 feet of high tension cables and the chair itself including electrodes and straps according to the usual specifications adopted by other States. A large silver truck capable of hauling the equipment from county to county was purchased. The equipment and its transporter were far cheaper than a purpose-built ‘death house’ like Sing Sing’s which appealed to politicians and taxpayers alike.

If the method seems curious then that’s because it had never been done before. In fact, nobody had even built a portable electric chair, let alone used one. The State of Louisiana adopted a similar arrangement and the US Army also adopted it, although the Army retained professional hangmen as a second option. The method, however, was infinitely less unusual than the new executioner.

The new ‘State Executioner’ was Jimmy Thompson, an ex-convict, ex-merchant sailor, frequent drunkard, carnival showman, stage hypnotist and ex-Marine only recently pardoned in 1939 after serving time at Parchman for armed robbery. He also had a violent past. During the 1920’s Thompson had shot a neighbour for insulting his mother, escaping prosecution only via an unwritten law of Southern life that said a man was allowed to shoot another man to defend a woman’s body or personal reputation. Needless to say this law only extended to white men and certainly didn’t extend to black men shooting white men on similar grounds.

Thompson was a curious character to put it mildly. He’d scratched a living on the carnival circuit as a stage hypnotist performing under the aliases ‘Doctor Zogg’, ‘Doctor Alzedi Yogi’ and, appropriately, ‘Doctor Stingaree.’ Like many former sailors and soldiers he was heavily tattooed. He was a natural performer and exhibitionist. He loved to entertain friends and acquaintances with hypnosis, often while sharing copious amounts of illegal moonshine. He secured the job through political patronage as it was awarded by then-State Governor Paul Johnson. Thompson and Johnson were old friends and often went shooting together so it was no great surprise that Thompson was chosen from six applicants, five of whom didn’t know Governor Johnson personally.

By September, 1940 the equipment was ready for its public unveiling in the State capital at Jackson. Thompson arrived, set up his grim equipment, fired up the generator and worked the controls, cycling the voltage up and down to the deafening sound of the generator and unnerving whine as the current wound up and down . According to an article in Life magazine dated October 7, 1940: ‘Crowds saw a big silver truck, a portable generator and a sturdy chair complete with helmet straps and electrodes. Beside it stood Mississippi’s new executioner, Jimmy Thompson, ex-sailor, marine, carnival man and high tension expert. No less proud of his chair than of the black cat, snakes and strawberries tattooed on his velvety skin, he explained that he and his volts would travel from county to county as business required’

Other press reports were far less favourable. The Memphis Commercial Appeal bitterly criticized the exhibition as barbaric and tasteless, stating: ‘The only thing lacking at Thursday’s formal and public exhibition of the State’s new electric chair was a victim.’ At $100 per execution plus expenses Thompson was as keen to start work as the State was to demonstrate its new concept. It wasn’t long before both would be satisfied.

Thompson's first 'customer.' Note Thompson's hand working the switch,.

Thompson’s first ‘customer.’ Note Thompson’s hand working the switch,.

Like most of Mississippi’s condemned Willie Mae Bragg was black. He’d been convicted of murdering his ex-wife in Lucedale . With the State keen to demonstrate its new method and Bragg inspiring no sympathy in appellate judges it was no great surprise that he was first in line. His date of execution was October 11, 1940. Bragg fully expected to die, but didn’t know he was about to make State and penal history. He would be the first convict to die in a portable electric chair. Another black Mississipian, Hilton Fortenberry, was executed on the same day in Jackson. Hortenberry was the last Mississipian to hang. As a black murderer of a white retired police officer, Hortenberry knew full well his appeal was only a formality. While Fortenberry hanged in Jackson, Bragg ‘burned’ in Lucedale. It was an historic day for Mississippi. Out with the old, in with the new.

With his appeal denied, Bragg’s execution was assured. Thompson arrived at Lucedale Courthouse on October 10 to set up what he nicknamed ‘My killing machine.’ After some fairly basic tests to ensure all was ready, ‘Dr. Stingaree’ and Willie Mae Bragg were all set to make history. Press interest was considerable both within and outside Mississippi. Electrocutions themselves were nothing new and Bragg was a typical Death Row inmate, but a portable electric chair was a world first. If all went well Mississippi could trumpet the effectiveness and reliability of its new invention. If things went badly then the press would have an even bigger story. Either way, Jimmy Thompson would be centre stage and nobody involved was especially concerned about Willie Mae Bragg.

It’s also highly unlikely that anybody considered the dreadful fate of William Kemmler at New York’s Auburn Prison in August, 1889. The world’s first judicial electrocution had been a nightmarish exhibition of just how badly wrong untested methods can go. Whether the portable version would be equally appalling remained to be seen. By this point Hilton Fortenberry was largely ignored. Journalists were far more interested in this latest innovation whether it worked properly or not. Death on wheels was far more newsworthy than yet another hanging. So newsworthy, in fact, that a photographer from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger was on hand throughout, taking a series of pictures while standing only feet away from the chair itself.

The potential for horrendous problems was large. Granted, judicial electrocution had been considerably refined since William Kemmler, but that had been done using permanently-sited and largely-standardised equipment operated by experienced professionals. Furthermore, New York and many other States using electrocution insisted on employing only executioners who were already qualified, experienced electricians. Many ‘State Electricians’ worked in the electricity industry prior to their appointment as executioners. Mississippi on the other hand was about to test a generator, switchboard, cables and electrodes that had been bounced around in a truck for hundreds of miles before its first use. They were also employing an executioner with no electrical repair or maintenance skills who, as far as we know, had never performed an execution. Electrocution was a familiar concept, but this way of using it was anything but familiar.

It was totally untested, nobody knew if it would work. The generator, cables, switchboard and electrodes could malfunction. If any of the equipment malfunctioned Bragg might receive no current, receive too much (and be burnt to death) or receive too little (and be slowly cooked alive). Thompson himself claimed that both he and his assistant had been trained by experienced ‘electrocutioners’ but he’d never actually electrocuted anybody and had a reputation for excessive drinking. Even if the equipment functioned perfectly, the man operating it might not. Anybody worried about potential problems had ample reason to be.

As it was their worries were unfounded. Thompson did his job, the equipment worked perfectly and Bragg died as quickly and cleanly as he could have done. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger thoughtfully provided explicit captions with its photographs. As Bragg was being prepared the caption read: ‘At the left Bragg sits in the chair and watches as guards strap his arms.’ Accompanying a photograph taken while the current was switched on another caption read: ‘The picture at the right was made as the first flash of electricity surged through his body. Note Bragg’s hands gripping the chair and his neck bulging in death’s throes.’ Thompson, always ready to supply a grim, attention-grabbing comment, stated that Bragg had died: ‘With tears in his eyes for the efficient care I took to give him a good, clean burning.’ It wasn’t until the remarkable failed electrocution of Willie Francis in Louisiana in 1946 that the technical pitfalls of portable electrocution would be shown in horrifying fashion.

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger had its banner headline and exclusive photographs, Thompson had his first fee and the new method had been proved sound. The Clarion-Ledger also managed something very rare in criminal history by photographing the execution. Previously, the only live image of an electrocution had been taken secretly at New York’s Sing Sing Prison in January, 1928 by newspaper photographer Tom Howard. His secretly-snapped image of Ruth Snyder, taken only seconds after executioner Robert Elliott threw the switch, clearly shows Snyder as 2000 volts flowed through her body and is still one of the most famous images in media history. After the Snyder execution, prison officials in many states thoroughly searched witnesses before executions and even today it’s strictly forbidden to  photograph or film an execution in any US State.

Thompson himself was effusive about his successful debut and subsequent ‘fry parties’ as he charmingly called them. True to form, an interview given to Craddock Gains (writing for the American Mercury) Thompson supplied some choice comments. Thompson seemed to think condemned inmates were grateful for his apparent skill at killing them, stating that he told each of them: ‘Brother, I sure appreciate your trade. I’m going to show my appreciation by giving you a nice clean job. I’m going to give you the prettiest death a guy can have.’

Describing how he thought inmates regarded him Thompson delivered a curious response. Mississippi had several inmates already condemned to hang when electrocution replaced the gallows. These inmates were given a choice between being hanged or electrocuted and, according to Thompson, it was a measure of their faith in his ability that all those with a choice chose electrocution. He even believed that the condemned were grateful to die at the hands of so skilled an executioner, stating: ‘You can’t imagine how much that helps a poor peckerwood in the death chamber unless you have seen the grateful eyes these men turn upon me when they place themselves in my hands. I guess I just have a talent for this sort of thing. Condemned men seem to trust me, and I never let ’em down.’

Mississippi authorities were far more co-operative with the press than elsewhere in the country.. The angle, distance and clarity of the pictures prove the photographer was only feet away from the chair and obviously photographing quite openly. They not only co-operated but actively encouraged the photographer in his work. The images, unpleasant though they are, are valuable in their rarity. Thompson, being a natural showman, seems utterly unaffected by his grim work and to positively revel in the notoriety he attracted. Future events showed that those in authority had no problem with his professional skill, but were probably far less enthused by his self-publicising antics between executions.

Thompson continued as ‘travelling executioner’ for several more years, but his lucrative notoriety didn’t last. In December, 1944 a new State Governor was elected, replacing his close friend and original employer Paul Johnson. Governor Thomas Bailey lost no time in finding a replacement, although his reasons remain unclear. No official records exist of Thompson’s being hired and fired but in December, 1946 a report appeared in the Jackson Daily News detailing a shooting accident in which Thompson was slightly wounded. The report also describes him as the ‘former State executioner.’ Thompson could have been replaced for several reasons. Political patronage was an important factor in being employed by the State and, without a patron, finding or keeping State employment was difficult. The new Governor might have employed a friend or acquaintance as his predecessor had done. Thompson’s heavy drinking and perpetual exhibitionism could have been distasteful enough that Bailey wanted somebody less bizarre and more discreet or Thompson himself may have simply decided to move on. We’ll probably never know whether Thompson resigned or was fired, nor of who replaced him. There are no official records of either his appointment or his departure. The most likely replacement would have been his assistant (whose name has never been revealed) or possibly an executioner from another State.

This wouldn’t be unusual. Executioners at the time were often private contractors employed by multiple States. Most of New York’s executioners did brisk business with neighboring States like New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Connecticut. Robert Elliott was employed by all those States at the same time. Elliott was so busy that on January 6, 1928 he executed six men in two different States on the same day. Elliott performed three electrocutions at the Massachusetts State Prison that morning before taking a train to New York and another triple execution that night. We don’t know whether Thompson resigned or was fired. What we do know is that his being replaced coincided almost exactly with Bailey’s election and Johnson’s departure.

Jimmy Thompson was gone. His ‘killing machine’ wasn’t. During its 15-year tenure the chair executed 73 inmates. 56 black men, 16 white men and 1 black woman died in courthouses and county jails all over Mississippi. Nearly a dozen were still juveniles aged under 21. Willie McGee, convicted of rape in what many still consider a blatant injustice, achieved international attention. His case went to the US Supreme Court 3 times during his eight years awaiting execution. Celebrities such as William Faulkner, Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker spoke out against his execution and President Harry Truman came under international pressure to commute McGee’s sentence. Even Soviet spy Julius Rosenberg, himself awaiting execution in Sing Sing Prison for espionage, publicly condemned McGee’s case as a demonstration of all that was wrong with American society.

McGee was executed at the Laurel County Courthouse on May 8, 1951 in the same courtroom in which he’d been convicted in 1945. True to form, the Mississippi media made an impression. There were no photographs this time, but a local radio station broadcast a commentary that was syndicated nationwide. The recording of McGee’s final half-hour is available online for those who can stomach listening to the generator noise rising and falling at the moment of McGee’s death while locals cheer and shout the Civil War-era ‘Rebel Yell’ in the background. It’s not easy listening but, like the Willie Mae Bragg photographs, is still an important part of the historical record.

Jimmy Thompson died in a traffic accident on October 12, 1952. He was a passenger in a pick-up truck when it crashed and Thompson was thrown from the vehicle, suffering fatal injuries. He was 56 years old when he died. He left a sister and five brothers, but no children of his own. His life and work later formed the basis for the movie ‘The Travelling Executioner’ starring Stacy Keach as Jonas Candide, a very-thinly veiled version of Thompson himself. Released in 1970 it performed poorly at the box office, being widely considered as simply too unusual to be a mainstream hit. Nor was it an entirely accurate portrayal of Jimmy Thompson and his occupation. That said, Thompson himself would have been highly gratified to be portrayed by so famous an actor and the dialogue makes it absolutely clear that Thompson’s life and work inspired the movie.

Mississippi's first 'gassee' Gerald Gallego Senior. Gerald Junior also ended up on Death Row.

Mississippi’s first ‘gassee’ Gerald Gallego Senior. Gerald Junior also ended up on Death Row.

Mississippi continued using the portable electric chair until James Johnson was executed on November 10, 1954. In 1955 it was replaced by what Superintendent Wiggins and the residents of Sunflower County had always feared. A gas chamber was installed at Parchman and a unit of the prison set aside to house only condemned inmates. The first Mississippi convict to die by gassing was Gerald Gallego, a double-murderer and escaped convict. Unlike the portable electric chair, Mississippi’s gas chamber had a nightmarish debut and Gallego suffered for over 45 minutes before dying. Despite this disaster Mississippi continued using the gas chamber until 1989 when the method changed again to lethal injection. Prisoners condemned prior to the change were given the option of choosing gas or injection and today lethal injection is the sole method used in Mississippi. The location was still Parchman. Death Row had finally come to Sunflower County and business was still reasonably brisk.

The then-new gas chamber at Parchman.

The then-new gas chamber at Parchman.

Local residents and even prison staff at Parchman still adhere to a curious tradition reflecting the long battle to keep executions out of Sunflower County. Mississippi’s condemned are housed at what prison staff call the ‘Maximum Security Unit’ or ‘MSU.’ Even today, despite executions and their location being public knowledge, Parchman still doesn’t officially have a Death Row If you visit, you’ll probably be told they don’t have one and be directed to the ‘MSU’ instead. Even today the ghosts of long-dead Mississipians, local residents and condemned inmates alike, still dispute one of the darkest aspects of Mississippi’s history.

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