Showing posts with label true crime. Show all posts
Showing posts with label true crime. Show all posts

09 January 2018

James Wells, America's worst botched execution.


Call it whatever you want. Old Sparky, Old Smokey, Sizzlin’ Sally or Gruesome Gertie, the electric chair has always had a troubled history. From its very first use (executing murderer William Kemmler on August 6, 1890) it’s been dogged by failures, mechanical and human

Initial problems involved untried equipment, new ideas and inexperienced executioners. Limited knowledge of inflicting humane electrocution spawned a series of experimental executions. Successive inmates endured different numbers of electrodes, different voltages applied for different durations, electrodes placed on different body parts and so on.

In 1892 Charles McElvaine’s hands were placed in tubs of brine to conduct the voltage. He suffered horribly before the now-standard head and leg electrodes were used instead. Malfunctioning or ill-prepared equipment (in the case of Willie Francis and so many others) has also caused horrific scenes in America’s death chambers.

What happened at the former Arkansas State Penitentiary in Little Rock (since demolished and replaced by public buildings) on March 10, 1922 made Kemmler’s suffering look comparatively minor. Murderer and escapee James Wells endured perhaps the worst-botched execution in American history.

Wells, born in 1904 and hailing from Drew County, was an African-American farmhand. Convicted of murdering white Arkansas farmer Peter Trenz (his former employer) on May 18, 1921 Wells was never likely to avoid Old Sparky. He was a poor, black defendant convicted of murdering a respectable white victim. In those less-enlightened times, many whites considered that reason enough.

(Arkansas Department of Corrections).

Arkansas introduced electrocution in 1913, the State also taking over executions from individual counties. During the chair’s lengthy tenure Arkansas executed 195 prisoners. Of these two were Native American men, one white woman, one Hispanic male and 57 white males. The rest, 143 men, were all African-American. Warden Luther Castling had resigned rather than electrocute the ten men then waiting to die. His successor Warden Dempsey didn't have similar qualms.

(From the Daily Ardmorite). 

Aside from being poor, black and convicted of murdering a white when lynching and legal execution was equally likely for that crime, Wells hadn’t exactly done himself any favors after his conviction. On December 9, 1921 condemned killer, bank robber and serial escaper Tom Slaughter managed a spectacular escape from ‘The Walls’ and Death Row itself.

Overpowering guards, Slaughter took the Warden’s family hostage, escaping in Warden Dempsey’s car. Dempsey, whose job it had been to carry out executions, soon found himself unemployed. That in turn caused an excruciating death for Wells.

Slaughter had invited the other condemned inmates to join him. Wells, believing his appeal would almost certainly fail, escaped with him. Slaughter survived only a day before being shot by fellow-escaper Jack Howard. Howard claimed to have escaped only to help bring Slaughter to justice, a claim accepted by Arkansas authorities. Howard was never charged over Slaughter’s death, being pardoned and released several years later.

Wells, soon recaptured, returned to Death Row. He’d escaped on December 9, been recaptured within days and his appeal was denied on Christmas Eve, 1921. A foolish time to attempt escape and humiliate the Arkansas justice system. Not much of a Christmas present, either. That said, nothing can justify what happened at his execution.

On March 10, 1922 all the usual preparations had been made. All that remained was for the executioner to do his job competently and professionally. With Warden Dempsey gone, the new executioner was an Englishman, a former car salesman whose sole qualification and experience consisted of having (as he himself put it) taken ‘a correspondence course in electricity.’ The State of Arkansas had entrusted a delicate, potentially dangerous task to a man utterly lacking expertise, training or experience. It was suggested at the time that the nameless volunteer arrived drunk.

(Arkansas Department of Corrections).

Wells entered the penitentiary’s death chamber singing a hymn. He was still singing as he sat in Old Sparky and the straps and electrodes were applied. He remained singing right up until the executioner threw the switch. As the Dallas Express described it:

“Going to the chair singing, Wells continued to sing until the first charge of electricity was sent through his body.”

Wells was certainly silenced by the first jolt, but he wasn’t dead. Either the first jolt was far too brief or the voltage far too low. Still alive, Wells needed another. Shocked again, he remained alive. A third jolt was called for.

The witnesses began looking uncomfortable. Inmates were supposed to sit down quietly, say their last words and die. A second jolt might be delivered to make sure, but seldom more than that. The executioner shocked Wells repeatedly. Repeatedly the current crackled, doctors checking between jolts. Wells simply wouldn’t die.

After the first jolts had failed horrified witnesses began leaving the execution chamber. With every unsuccessful jolt the remaining witnesses’ disgust grew. By the eleventh jolt everyone involved just wanted it to end. For the twelfth time the switch was thrown, the current crackled and Wells leapt against the restraints. The power was shut off while doctors checked yet again.
James Wells was finally dead.

As the Dallas Express described it, the execution succeeded at:

“The twelfth attempt, according to witnesses, after terrible suffering on the part of the boy.”

The disaster was publicised in Arkansas, Utah, California, Texas, Tennessee and numerous other States where executions, especially of African-Americans, seldom garnered more than a line or two.
Even the New York Tribune covered it, stating:

‘Wells was examined by the State physicians who pronounced him still alive. Another charge of electricity was sent through his body, with the same result. Witnesses began to leave the death room and only a few were still present when the last charges were sent through his body and Wells finally was pronounced dead. Fully twenty minutes were consumed in putting him to death.’


Had Arkansas employed an expert like New York’s Robert Greene Elliott, the nightmarish exhibition would almost certainly have never happened. Elliott performed 387 executions in six States, perfecting the ‘Elliott Technique’; 2000 volts for three seconds, 500 volts for 57 seconds,, 2000 volts for another three seconds, 500 for 57 seconds and a final burst of 2000 volts. Very rarely did he need to deliver more than one cycle.

A bitter irony that, as his executioner, Wells couldn’t have been in safer hands.


The Daily Ardmorite, Oklahoma.

Arkansas Department of Corrections.

The New York Tribune.

The Dallas Express

Gruesome Spectacles; Botched executions and America's Death Penalty, Austin Sarat, 2014, Stanford Law Books.

25 June 2017

June 25, 1906: Murder at the Garden

On this date in 1906, prominent architect Stanford White was shot and killed at the rooftop theater of Madison Square Garden. The shooter was Harry Kendall Thaw, of Pittsburgh. Thaw, the heir to a multimillion dollar fortune, held a grudge against White, whom he blamed for thwarting his efforts to achieve the respect of high society. White was also the former lover of Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbit. Nesbit had been a popular model and chorus girl and was the inspiration for the movie The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.
At trial, Thaw went with a temporary insanity defense (“temporary” probably being the only part that was exaggerated). The jury wound up deadlocked. At the second trial, Evelyn Nesbit took the stand and testified that Stanford White had abused her and that Thaw was just acting in her defense. She performed this task in exchange for the promise of a divorce and a million dollars from Thaw.  The jury found him not guilty by reason of insanity. Thaw received a sentence to the state mental hospital at Matteawan. Nesbit received her divorce, but not the money.
Thaw escaped from Matteawan in 1913 and fled to Canada. He was eventually apprehended and extradited to New York. After receiving a new trial, he was found sane and not guilty of murder. He was released from state custody in 1915.
Thaw was arrested again in 1916, this time for the abduction and sexual assault of 19 year old Frederick Gump (no relation to Forrest). He was found not guilty by reason of insanity (it’s like déjà vu all over again). In 1924, Thaw was judged sane and released from the asylum where he had been incarcerated.
Harry Thaw died of a heart attack in Florida in 1947. In his will, he left Evelyn Nesbit ten thousand dollars, about one percent of his estimated net worth.
Further reading:
Murderpedia – Harry Thaw  
Wikipedia – Harry Kendall Thaw

29 December 2016

Behind the Mug: Lucky Luciano's 1931 Arrest... There's more to the story!

Charles 'Lucky' Lucania, 1931.
Charlie Lucky’s name and reputation had certainly garnered the attention of some media entities and law enforcement by spring of 1931, yet to the public and many police departments outside of Manhattan - he was still largely an unfamiliar figure. Lucky's infamy began to grow exponentially following the events that unfolded later in the year.  Our story today addresses an incident that occurred just two months before he kick-started that career-boosting rise in notoriety (we are of course talking about the underworld housecleaning of sorts (which included the murder of Joe 'The Boss' Masseria April 15, 1931 and Salvatore Maranzano on September 10, 1931)

On the evening of February 2, all hell broke loose in Manhattan, or so it has been implied, when two Jersey cops decided to spend their day off in Big Apple, and crossed paths with one Charles Lucania, aka Lucky.

No News is Good News?

To jump forward a bit, the altercation ultimately provided one of the baddest of badass mugshots the world of organized crime had seen to that point, but oddly – very few details of the incident have ever surfaced to accompany the sinister picture. So then, what happened?  If one were to fill in some blanks with their own theories, then perhaps it's safe to say that fate, destiny, and possibly a lot of mouth-running and temper-flaring led to an physical altercation, subsequent arrest, unusual dismissal, and most peculiar - barely a damn thing ever mentioned in the media. Therefore, this little anecdote is rife with theoretical possibilities. Here's the lowdown on facts, hearsay and outlying oddities:

As Luciano's lengthy rap sheet clearly discloses, he was arrested on February 2, 1931 and charged with two first-degree felony assaults. On February 4, he stood before Judge Joseph F. Mulqueen in the Court of Common Sessions, whereby both felony indictments were discharged; case dismissed.Seems fairly cut and dry, but here's where it all gets interesting...

A sinister photograph with an elusive tale lurking behind it.  The 1931 mugshot of Charles 'Lucky' Luciano hadn't been publicly displayed until 1935, when the press began circulating it (in lieu of current photos, which did not exist) following the murder of Arthur 'Dutch Schultz' Flegenheimer in 1935. Luciano and John Torrio were considered 'of interest' to investigators following the murder.

Fight Club...

Lucky's arrest came at the hands of the two aforementioned off-duty New Jersey police officers, but not before some serious ass-kicking took place, and according to one so-called 'in the know' reporter of the time - it wasn't Luciano on the receiving end of said ass-kicking.  Hickman Powell, author of  'Lucky Luciano: The Man Who Organized Crime, shed a little light on the melee, albeit brief and underscored by era-commonplace journalistic over-sensationalism.

"Lucky was accused of participating in a vulgar street brawl, beating up two Jersey City policemen who had ventured across the river into Manhattan." - Hickman Powell, from Lucky Luciano: The Man Who Organized Crime

Back of mugshot. Luciano's chosen alias of the day was 'Charles Reed'.

Further adding intrigue to the entire scenario was the controversial judge who dismissed the charges.  Joseph Mulqueen had chalked up a high number of dismissals during his time on the bench, which was certainly an issue raised by his detractors.  That fact, paired with a documented denial of gang existence, makes for all the more conspiratorial fun and conjecture.

Notwithstanding the Judge's record and often-contentious reputation, the case may have been in Luciano's favor simply because the two  out-of-town, off-duty cops may have rather saved some face than explain why they were involved in a fight in the first place. Or perhaps the duo of Officers Phillips and Henshaw did appear in court and Mulqueen heard the explanation, dismissing on principal.  The answer we do not know... yet.  Rest assure, there's one crime historian who's definitely going to dig for the facts, and hopefully divulge a 'part two' to this little underworld mystery.

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