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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The Devil’s Alphabet: A is for Arsenic

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The Devil’s Alphabet is a series of short articles, some scholarly and others tongue-in-cheek, offering a slightly darker perspective on the South Plains back in the Good Ol’Days. Grandma probably never told you about all the murders, suicides and unpleasant things…

A is for Arsenic

Arsenic was a common household poison found in many cupboards across the South Plains in the 1920s and 1930s. Not only was it cheap, but it also was quite effective for killing prairie dogs, grasshoppers and neighborhood pets. And as one family living outside of Spur discovered, it was also quite lethal when consumed by small children.1

A grasshopper plague put carloads of arsenic into the hands of desperate farmers. Throughout that long Old Testament summer of 1924 the region’s newspapers published helpful articles on how to make arsenic laced bran mashes to entice the grasshoppers to devour the poison with the same zeal they showed for vegetable gardens, feed crops and shade trees.2

The prevalent poison also found its way into biscuits and a Big Spring farmwoman’s family of five dined like grasshoppers. The accidental poisoning did not exterminate any of the hapless biscuit eaters, but it is doubtful that the survivors ever trusted their mother’s cooking again.3

As suggested by the poisoned toddler and nearly deadly biscuits, naturally, the household ubiquity of arsenic facilitated its use for nefarious purposes. The front page of the Lubbock Avalanche Journal for February 2, 1933 proclaimed “Rodent Poison Blamed for the Death of Man”.  The following paragraphs elaborated on the demise of seventy-year-old Emory M. Butler. According to his wife, sometime before noon on February 1 the Lubbock county rancher told his wife he planned to eat an entire box of rat poison. Unable to stop him on her own, the elderly woman sought help from a neighbor across the highway. It was too late. A local physician was called and Butler was sent to the Lubbock Sanitarium where he died later that night. The newspaper subtly points out that eleven months earlier Butler’s suicidal tendencies had prompted him to inhale a large quantity of chloroform before abruptly concluding with a brief assessment of his accomplishments, “At one time he was considered moderately wealthy, and at his death owned Lubbock county property.”4

While Mr. Butler’s rationale for taking his own life might have died with him, the 64th District Court conducted a rather extensive inquiry into the reasons why a Lamb County woman might poison her husband.  It appeared that the stage was set for a tantalizing tale of domestic poisoning, however, appearances are often deceiving.  Following the death of Tom Cook on 15 July 1934, the newly widowed Bera Cook told her neighbors that for the first time in years she “felt free”. The optimistic widow also stated that she planned to wait at least thirteen months before she remarried. The unnerving statements struck the neighbors as odd, yet were dismissed as more inappropriate than malicious.  Mr. Cook was quickly embalmed, buried and would have remained so had some of his relatives not raised their own concerns about their former in-law’s innocence.

The Lamb County sheriff gathered enough evidence to serve an arrest warrant before Christmas. Prior to arresting Mrs. Cook, authority’s disinterred Tom Cook’s body and medical experts found miniscule amounts of arsenic in the contents of the deceased stomach. A much more detailed examination by the state chemist in Austin confirmed that there were small amounts of arsenic, in addition to a larger quantity of strychnine. The presence of strychnine raised new questions about the partially empty bottle of poison found in the couple’s dresser drawer. Arsenic poisoning takes time, whereas strychnine kills quickly.  Since Mrs. Cook was the only person with her husband when he died, she found herself a prime suspect.

When her case came to trial, Mrs. Cook maintained her innocence arguing that she bought the poison for potato bugs and contended that Tom Cook consumed the poison on his own. Her defense was bolstered by testimony from others acquainted with her husband and a much darker portrait of the poisoning victim emerged. One of the witnesses reported that while driving him Lubbock about two weeks before his death, Cook had behaved irrationally, told the driver “turn the car over” at seventy miles an hour before explaining that he “wanted some dope” and “might as well kill himself” if unable to get any. The defense’s witnesses raised an important question for the jury, could Tom Cook’s drug addiction have led to his suicide?  However, there was still the issue of the Cook family suspicions and her nonchalance about becoming a widow. Other neighbors were called upon to help restore the wife’s creditability that the deceased family and sheriff’s office seemed to vehemently doubt.  Another neighbor was called to the witness stand and his testimony challenged the image of the calculating poisoner.  He reported that as he helped Mrs. Cook prepare the body she had not attempted to hide the bottle of poison and pointing to it said, “It looks like I’m losing everything I love.”5

At the conclusion of the trial, the defense attorney had worked his magic well enough to deadlock the jury. Unable to reach a verdict, the judge dismissed the hung jury and declared a mistrial. The new trial was to be scheduled for August, yet it never materialized. Most likely, enough evidence surfaced to enable the state to drop their charges against Bera Cook.

Arsenic poisoning could be accidental or intentional and, despite the Hollywood excitement of arsenic laced soups and custards, quite often, if intentional, it was suicide and not murder. However, the inherently intimate nature of a poisoning in the home does raise questions about the domestic climate. The original jury had been unable to determine if the death of Tom Cook was a drug addict’s suicide or wife’s opportunistic murder. Maybe they wanted a more exciting trial or perhaps they could see something in Mrs. Cook that newsprint could not grasp. Maybe Tom and Bera were just those kind of people…

Oddly, no one made any allegations against Lubbock County’s Mrs. Butler whose suicidal husband died intestate with an estate of over $35, 0000.

 

M.Nicholson-Preuss, Ph.D.

Notes:

1. Lubbock Avalanche, 1 September 1921.

2. Morning Avalanche, 6 June 1924.

3. Big Spring Herald, 9 January 1927.

4. Morning Avalanche, 2 February 1933.

5. Morning Avalanche, 8 March 1935.

6. Morning Avalanche, 10 March 1935.

Post Script:

On 17 August 1935, the following advertisement appeared in the Morning Avalanche:

Bera Cooke sells her house.

Bera Cooke sells her house.

Organic Cotton vs. Roundup Ready Cotton here in West Texas…

Organic Cotton vs. Roundup Ready Cotton here in West Texas…

Did you know this interesting fact: that 41 counties on the Texas High Plains produces 90% of the organic cotton grown in the U.S.?  One local farmer is fighting for the right to continue to grow her organic cotton without contamination from herbicides being sprayed on Roundup Ready cotton in other nearby fields.

Why is this important you ask?  A large percentage of the public does not understand chemistry or the fate of chemicals in our environment or in our bodies.  In all honestly, chemists and environmental toxicologists do not fully know what the ramifications of chemicals will be over an extended time, especially when chemicals interact with other chemicals.

Roundup Ready cotton is bioengineered cotton crop seeds making the cotton tolerant to applications of glyphosate.  Glyphosate, the main chemical in Roundup, is considered one of the safest herbicides on the market.  The growth of glyphosate in the mid to late 1990s was seen as a positive creation to allow farmers to spray non-selective herbicides onto cotton, corn or soybean crops to achieve weed control without damaging these crops.  This foliarly applied herbicide acts by inhibiting the synthesis of aromatic amino acids making it toxic to all green plants and is almost nontoxic to other living organisms.  Overall, it is a non-selective herbicide can kill all green plants.

So are chemicals good when even the companies themselves cannot offer answers to questions posed to them?  During my graduate training, Monsanto representatives gave a presentation at Texas Tech University.  The talk was very informative on how they created the seeds and while I cannot remember the entirety of the presentation what I remember most was the answer to this question: “What is the long-term effects of these seeds in our environment?” The representatives could not offer an answer to that question.  The only answer was that it would provide for better corn, soybean and cotton production worldwide in the face of starvation.

While I have no argument with that I believe the fewer chemicals we have in the environment the better our lives will be… Monsanto should not be so controlling with its bioengineering.

In retrospective now when I drive down rural West Texas roads and I see workers out chopping weeds in a cotton field that I am looking at organic cotton not bioengineered cotton and that is the cotton I want to be wearing.