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
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
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
(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
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.
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.