Electric Chair Justice in West Texas from 1923 – 1973 (Part One)

Justice for capital crimes was fast in Texas’ early years – often these cases were completely handled within a year’s time.  The trial was conducted, an appeal filed and decided upon with the convicted facing their sentence in less than 365 days.  If the offense was rape, robbery or murder the condemned man was sentenced to death or life in prison.

A convicted Texas felon that committed crimes between 1819 and 1923 were hung, often with a hemp rope.  Hangings were public affairs in those days with crowds gathering to witness the criminal’s death.  Spectators witnessed seeing and hearing the criminal’s neck fracture causing instantaneous death through the snapping of their jaw and rupturing of their spinal cord.

Prior to 1923, Texas counties were responsible for conducting their own executions of convicted criminals.  This justice method changed in 1923 when Texas State Senator, J.W. Thomas passed a bill for capital punishment to be switched from hanging to electrocution.  With this bill passage an electric chair soon became installed at the Huntsville prison and changed the counties responsibility for carrying out their own executions and put in it the hands of the state.  Additionally, the bill ceased public viewings of executions and took away even the victim’s relatives and close friends ability to witness the convict’s final death.  In a twist of irony, Texas inmates built the electric chair that later became known as “Old Sparky.”

The first offender to die by electrocution was Charles Reynolds in February 1924 from Red River County who was convicted of murder.  Texas electrocuted four more black men in succession on that day all convicted of murder.

In the arid, dry West Texas region where battling the next sandstorm and lack of rain was always a continual problem for its residents; these problems did not deter criminal activity from 1923 to 1973.  A combination of murders, rapes and bank robberies sent 20 regional convicted men to meet their deaths with “Old Sparky” with 1,800 electrical volts coursing through their bodies for the crimes they committed.   For this less populated Texas region, four county sheriffs’ were murdered between 1923 and 1973.   Probability wise this was a high number of men killed in service to their communities.    In February 1928, convicted murderer George Hassell was the first man electrocuted from the region.

When these 20 convicted felons arrived in Huntsville in their short judicial journey, what awaited them was a death row corridor of seven tiny cells that became their last earthly address.  At the end of this corridor was the little green door that each of them would walk through to meet their judicial fates with Old Sparky.

Life for these men on death row in those early years was unforgiving.  Lights were never dimmed in the corridor.   Inmates had no privacy because the front of each cell was open with solid walls on the sides.   Only a small corner area in each cell gave the men a retreat to where they could not be seen from anywhere in the corridor.  Lavatories were in the rear of each cell and a bathtub was brought into the corridor for men to bath in front of everyone.  An unarmed guard sat in the corridor locked in with them and carried no keys.

As their execution date neared, the men heard the sayings of “Paying their debt to society” and “Walking the last mile” more often.  As they entered the room behind the little green door on their execution day they heard the warden’s formal words “have a seat, please.”  Then each man was escorted to the oaken chair and strapped into “Old Sparky.”

They were prepped and given one last chance to speak any last words.  The execution began immediately after with electricity knocking them unconscious and paralyzing their brain.  Voltage was briefly reduced to prevent the body catching fire or exploding and then decreased to 500 volts for one minute.

For over 40-years electrocution was more humane and ultimately considered a more civilized means of putting a criminal to death.  However, it was far from perfect. Gruesome stories arose about burning flesh and eyeballs’ popping out of sockets.

Prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes would pop out and rest on their cheeks. Most often they defecated, urinated, or vomited blood. The bodies turned bright red as its temperature rose.  The prisoner’s flesh swelled and the skin stretched to the point of breaking. Sometimes a prisoner caught fire.  Witnesses often heard a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and then the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh permeated the chamber.

The last offender to die by electrocution was murderer Joseph Johnson from Harris County on July 30, 1964.  By the last electrocution, 361 inmates were electrocuted in Texas with a breakdown of 229 blacks, 108 whites and 23 Mexican Americans.  No woman was ever executed by “Old Sparky.”

Considering the crimes that these regional men committed, the victims’ families thought these executions’ was the perfect justice.  The 20 men electrocuted from this region all committed horrific crimes of murder, rape and robbery.   Part two will go into these convicts and their crimes that lead to their end in “Old Sparky.”

Offenders Electrocuted by County 1923-1973

County

Number of Electrocuted Offenders

Crosby

2

Dawson

1

Donley

1

Floyd

1

Gray

1

Hansford

1

Lamb

1

Lubbock

1

Lynn

2

Midland

2

Parmer

1

Potter

2

Roberts

1

Swisher

2

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