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.