They Died For Their Sins

by Bob Gregory


On August 10, 1966, just after 10 p.m., James French walked to the electric chair.

Escorted in by two guards, French wore a black suit, dark tie, and black shoes, looking fit enough to give a sermon to an impoverished congregation. He briskly took his seat, where 82 others had died before him, and said not a word.

Warden Ray Page, like everyone else watching — and there were more newsmen there than had attended any other execution in Oklahoma history — expected a melodramatic, maybe even an eloquent statement, extending probably from the efficacy of capital punishment to the emotional weaknesses of pre-Raphaelite poetry. But French, customarily garrulous and passably articulate, stayed mute, not inclined to even criticize his tailor. Page was so surprised that he asked French to stand.

“James, do you have any last words?”

“Everything’s already been said,” came the accurate, whispered reply.

He then shook hands with Page and the captain of the guards, B.E. Mann, and sat back down. Leather straps were fastened to his arms, chest, waist, and ankles. There was stress about his eyes, but no tears; he looked stoically doomed, as though almost relieved that after several years of waiting he was finally getting his death wish. A black rubber mask was put over his vaguely handsome face, and a heavy copper skullcap was placed on his shaved head. An electrode was attached to the calf of his left leg and the ritualistic preliminaries were over. He had heroically refused the final counsel of a priest, consonant with his posturing toughness, but he had indulged in a last meal, his one concession to privileges of the condemned. And it was a fairly decent spread, prepared by the warden’s wife: shrimp salad, French onion soup, braised pheasant under glass, small onions, baby lima beans, creamed potatoes, and, for dessert, Cherries Jubilee. The warden said that he had never had a meal like that before; French said that he was rather sad that he would never have another again.

Inside the prison — now sounding like jammed radio signals — French sat there waiting. The newsmen, in a large but stuffy area, were seated right across, looking straight ahead at the electric chair and separated from French only by a grisly barricade of wire from which hung a crudely lettered sign: Crime Does Not Pay.

French had vowed that he would pull the switch if necessary, but his help wasn’t needed. Mike Mayfield, who worked in the prison’s carpentry shop and who had been conscripted for the task, since the penitentiary had no payroll executioner, threw the switch. French was knocked unconscious immediately. The lethal charge of 2,200 volts sizzled through him for 45 seconds, although some witnesses said it seemed like hours. French was dead, all right. But the prison doctor, James D. Moore, looked him over to make it official. Then four inmates scurried in with a stretcher, as if under strict orders to get rid of the corpse quickly. They plopped his body down, obscured it carelessly with a white sheet, and lugged him off to hell.

James French was the most genial psychotic that I have ever known. We talked at great length on several occasions before he died. And the conversations, in the office of Warden Ray Page, were purgative for French, or so he said, and intriguing for me. I knew about his background, that he had committed murder twice and had professed an impatience to sit in the electric chair; that’s what he wanted to talk about, along with philosophy, poetry, the death penalty, television, prison reform, and insanity.

When we first met, after asking for a cigarette (“I left mine behind and would like a Marlboro, if you have one”), French rambled on about his early years in Peoria, Illinois, and the three mental institutions to which he had been committed, only to have each pronounce him sane. “I may be a little crazy, but who isn’t?” He talked also about his two visits for observations to Eastern State Hospital at Vinita, and there, too, he had been ruled sane. “So you see, I know what I’ve done.”

That included the murder that first put him in McAlester. He was thumbing a ride near Amarillo, Texas, and was picked up by Franklin R. Boone of Morgantown, West Virginia. Boone’s body was later found in Oklahoma, near Stroud, in 1958:

I repaid his kindness with a bullet. I didn’t have to kill him to take his money. But there are violent impulses in violent men. I’m one of them.

French was caught, he confessed, and in 1959 was sentenced to life. “Why not? I was guilty as hell.”

His cellmate at McAlester was Eddie Lee Shelton. On October 27, 1961, French choked him to death on the arguable grounds “that he wasn’t fit to live. He deserved to die. And now because of what I did, I deserve to die, too. I don’t want to die. Who does? But the ruled are clear: to take a life is to forfeit your own.”

French was found guilty of Shelton’s murder three different times in Pittsburg County and was given the death penalty three times. Twice the convictions were overturned because of technicalities — one was his being brought into court in chains before the jury — and each time French denounced the actions of the Court of Appeals, saying that they were wasteful, useless, and only prolonged the inevitable.

“I killed him, right? Now they kill me, right? Simple.”

French also complained that the death penalty, though having his rather aggressive support, was often unfair:

“Have you ever heard of anybody dying down here that was rich? Have you ever wondered why? The system, the courts, the juries: they’re all to blame. They think that only the poor should die. The wealthy are too important. And if I had my way every jury that handed out the death penalty would have to come down here to watch. Maybe that would change their bias. But I doubt it. And I don’t care. It’s somebody else’s worry. I have my own.”

The third time the State Court of Criminal Appeals reviewed French’s case, it was sustained. He said that he was pleased.

French wanted more than anything else, I believe, to be considered intellectually competent. But he wasn’t by far. Not only did he lack a discipline of reasoning, a substantive base, he also could never untangle the abstract. His head had a few words in it, but very few ideas. Moreover, he was forever confusing names that he had doubtless heard about but obviously hadn’t read, names that were supposed to certify that he was a pretty sharp guy. To him, Browning was a philosopher, not a poet; Donne was a romantic, not metaphysical; Aristotle wrote the plays, not Aristophanes. But he faked it bravely, confidently, knowing that it made precious little difference. And it didn’t.

His voice was slightly husky — about a three-packs-a-day gruff — and he asked me, if things worked out better for him early on, could he have made it in radio. I said perhaps. He had the voice, but his hands were the problem. Could he have ever kept them from someone’s throat? French giggled a little and, raising his finely tattooed fingers, he said, “These were made to strangle, not to play Elvis records.”

We dropped the matter there. And then shaking hands as French prepared to return to death row, he leaned over to say: “If I were covering my execution, do you know what I’d say in the newspaper headline?”


“ ‘French Fries.’ See ya.”

He did not know, of course, that he would be the last person to die in the electric chair before the Supreme Court’s ruling that it was cruel and unusual punishment, and probably wouldn’t have cared, since he thought his time had come. But French would have been pleased for all the others affected by that ruling. He was always telling one reporter or another that most of his death-house companions either got sentences too harsh or were innocent; he argued every case but his own.

Today, there are 27 men on McAlester’s death row, and in the women’s section there is the first woman ever to be sentenced to die, Janet Miller. Warden Richard Crisp says that all 28 will have their sentences commuted to life; none will die under the old statute that the court struck down. So their tension is manageable, knowing that their lives are not about to end and that they will ultimately be eligible for parole.

For now, they live in 5-by-8 cells, which are so narrow they can stand in the middle and touch either side. They get clean clothes and showers twice weekly and exercise one weekly, the only chance for fresh air or direct sunshine. They are allowed magazines and books, and read mostly about religion. Other favorite themes are Westerns, crime and mystery, science fiction, and psychology. Each inmate has a radio, but Charlie’s Angels, I’m afraid, is out. Television has been discontinued, not on the grounds of its alleged violence, but because it’s too much of a luxury.

Were French still alive, his heart would be heavy. He used to say that what kept him pure on death row was the vicarious pleasure of television. And his favorite program? “What else, man? The Fugitive.”

If death row has changed, so has the death dungeon. The electric chair is boarded up; its old protective wire has been covered with sheetrock. And Crisp says that when capital punishment is restored (not if but when), he’s in favor of constructing a gas chamber. It’s more humane, in his opinion. And besides, extensive renovation and repairs would be necessary before the electric chair could even be used.

After all, it’s 61 years old, built in 1915 of wood and welded steel, the unaesthetic but utilitarian creation of a prison employee, Richard Owens. And Owens made sure that it would sting. Rigged for 2,400 volts in its infancy, the electric chair would so violently assault its victims that they were spared just this side of cremation. Later, the voltage was reduced to 2,300, then to 2,200. But, its location has stayed consistent, underneath the warden’s office in the half-basement. And there, on December 10, 1915, at 12:42 a.m., the first electrocution took place, changing forever the state practice of giving each of the 77 counties the right to hang anyone convicted of capital offenses. Thereafter, 51 whites, 27 blacks, and four Indians were to die to the eerie accompaniment of whirring dynamos. “Bad music,” said one of the executed.

Not only did Owens artfully construct the electric chair, he was the state’s executioner from 1915 until his death in 1948. It was a job whose responsibilities he embraced with relentless fidelity, having presided at the switch during the deaths of 67 men. He never lost a night’s sleep, never was plagued by ghastly memories of terrified, half-crazed victims mumbling prayers and asking God to make ready their imminent destiny.

The first man executed, Henry Bookman, was black. He had been found guilty of murdering a white farmer in McIntosh County in May of 1915. Six months later, he was murmuring to himself on death row.

“I’m ready. I’m goin’ to walk right in like a man. Ain’t that the way to do it?”

Bookman, 28, protested his innocence, and had barely escaped a mob lynching by feverish advocates of law and order near Eufaula. “I didn’t even know the white man they says I killed, and I don’t remember killing anybody. Nah, I ain’t guilty. I never done nothin’ to get killed for. Don’t know why they going to kill me less it’s best because they got me in here.”

And Bookman, aside from being in retrospect a dream case for the American Civil Liberties Union, acted tough, ashamed to say that he was scared, apprehensive, and unsettled. There is no doubt that he was, for he tried to kill himself twice. Yet, he had tried to be brave: “I ain’t afraid to die. Everybody’s got to die. When I’m dead, I’m dead. That’s all.”

When he started for the electric chair, though, he faltered. The prison chaplain and a guard had to support his wobbly walk, the shuffling steps merging mournfully with the incoherent biblical passages that he was trying to remember. Once seated, his voice quivering, Bookman sang one stanza and a chorus of the favorite spiritual, “I Am Going to Meet Jesus Over There.” All the while he was being prepared, being strapped for execution.

“Be good, boys,” he told the crowd. And then, “Oh, Lord, have mercy on my soul.” His lips kept moving, but the words were silent. The 2,400 volts abruptly shot through him; his body stiffened and just as quickly relaxed. Bookman was still alive. His weary eyes slowly opened; the pupils rolled about arduously as though in empty sockets. There was a second charge, surging with shattering electricity for 17 seconds, and Bookman again stiffened, his hands squeezing hard to the arms of the chair. He leaned slightly forward, limply, lifeless. The 68 witnesses thought that Oklahoma’s first formal execution had gone well, and they were pleased that Bookman had not created a scene. Many of them had bet that he would crack and go out screaming.

But he did not. Nor did he get his final requests. One was to see the daylight one last time; the other was to die in a nice black suit. But since the prison didn’t have any black suits, Bookman decided to go with a pattern of blue and brown. When his body was carried out, the blue and brown looked almost black, and had been practically burned up.

Despite the gruesome circumstances of Bookman’s death, aside from the obvious repugnance of delightedly watching a man die, state officials saw nothing wrong with it. They even had tickets printed so that anyone could attend. In time, that was changed to exclude everyone but prison authorities and journalists. But for a while: come on, come all. And in 1933, they could have watched 14 executions, the most ever in a single year. It was also in 1933 that George Oliver became the youngest person to die in the electric chair, his Uncle Claude dying along with him.

George, 18, and Claude, 28, were convicted of murder in Murray County, having been found guilty of beating Claude’s wife to death. They used tire tools to kill her — then left her body in a wrecked car to make it look like an accident. They later confessed that $5,000 in insurance money was the motive.

George went first, telling the crowd of 200:

“I did a crime and now I must die for it. I feel like I am going to heaven.”

He was pronounced dead at 12:13 a.m., August 25, 1933. Removed from the chair, his body was taken out as Uncle Claude was brought in. He only talked to himself, muttering the final dark secrets of an unlearned farm boy, and was dead at 12:19.

Multiple executions had begun in April 1917 and happened again in 1921; 1924; 1928; 1930; in May, August, October, and November 1933; 1935; and the last in 1937. Of all these, which were either two or three, never more, the most infamous was in September 1935.

It was the state’s fourth triple play and took only 14 minutes. The victims were Chester Barrett, 36, from Creek County; Bun Riley, 28, from Pittsburg County; and Alfred Rowan, 29, from Jackson County.

Barrett came first, wearing a grey suit and prison-made shoes. His record did not inspire sympathy. Barrett had been found guilty of killing three of his children, putting rat poison in their milk. But Barrett had also been accused of trying to kill off his entire family, which included his wife and four other children. They all drank the poison, but a quick team of Sapulpa doctors saved their lives; only three died — Betty, 6; Mary Catherine, 3; and Wanda, 2.

Again, the motive was insurance money. And Barrett was also nuts about another woman. But it was her testimony that put him away. Then he confessed, saying that the “goddamned depression” was to blame, and that he had intended to kill himself too after he had finished off his family. Somehow he never got around to it, and the speedy verdict was death.

Barrett’s wife then wrote to the governor, E.W. Marland, saying that she feared for the lives of herself and children if Barrett were not either kept in jail or executed.

“I hope he dies,” she said. “He’ll be getting exactly what he deserves.”

Shortly before her dreams came true, Barrett told a preacher that he was leaving a Bible, and that the name of the real murderer of his children would be found in it. The Bible is still missing.

Seated in the electric chair, Barrett said: “I forgive you all. Make it as quick as you can.”

He was struck with a current that lasted 67 seconds, and as he squirmed and struggled, trying to hold on to a depleted life, the top of his shaved head was singed with smoke.

Efficiently, the prison staff unstrapped Barrett and he was placed on a stretcher near the entry passage. And his body, draped with a sheet, was the first thing that the next victim saw. Bun Riley had to walk right by it, his eyes dropping in sickness as he sank at the knees. It was 12:15 a.m.

Riley had killed three partners in his liquor smuggling gang; now, standing in front of the electric chair, he asked for understanding and forgiveness. He recited a perfunctory Bible verse and was seated. After 109 seconds, during which he, like Barrett, helplessly strained his few free muscles, it was over. And his scalp was similarly burned.

Now there were two bodies on stretchers. And at 12:21, in came Alfred Rowan; he briefly staggered and then walked upright to the wired cage.

“Keep Jesus in your mind and follow him always,” Rowan said, and then died in 95 seconds.

The three bodies were removed; only two were claimed. Riley’s and Rowan’s. The body of Chester Barrett, who had given rat poison to his children, was wanted by no one.

Prisoners and prison officials have long wondered about what is worse: death itself or waiting for it? In July 1930, Tom Guest put the argument in perspective. A bank robber found guilty of murder, Guest arrived at McAlester on December 14, 1927, and then spent two and a half years living eight steps away from the electric chair.

“From the day I got in here I thought only on one thing. Burning in the hot seat. I was scared stiff. The longer I stayed the more I thought and the less afraid I was. Sure I want to live. But I’ll be glad when it’s over. Looking at the same thing all the time. Doing the same thing all the time. Three paces forward. Three paces back. Thinking of the same thing all the time. It’s enough to drive a man crazy.”

On July 17, 1930, near midnight, Guest was scheduled to die in about a half-hour.

“Thank God. The next 30 minutes can’t be as bad as the last couple of years.”

Guest went gladly. Others went insane, knocking their heads against bars on the sides of their cells, trying to kill themselves. They were usually removed from death row and taken to Vinita for observation; if they were ruled sane, back they went. If not, they stayed at Vinita, under the provision that were they to get well, they would return to McAlester to await execution.

One of the last inmates to whom that happened was Gerald Pate. I saw him several days after he had tried to kill himself, ramming his head repeatedly against a wall and screaming that he couldn’t take it anymore. Pate sat down and was offered a cigarette. His hands shook so badly, he couldn’t hold it; nor could he answer a question. Indeed, he couldn’t form a sentence. Just unclear, uncollected words, gentle grunts. Eyes that were blank, that never looked up. But it was his hands that conveyed his sense of terror. Never still, moving about without purpose, dragging fingernails across the surface of a table. With me was the late Tulsa attorney Rhome West, and a former member of the Pardon and Parole Board. West just looked at Pate, and then me, saying nothing, but slowly shaking his head. Rhome hated the death penalty and he later expressed relief when Pate was removed to Vinita. He’s still there.

Rhome used to talk for hours about the “barbarity” of procedures at McAlester that attended an execution: the shaving of a man’s head so his hair wouldn’t burn; the shaving of his ankles; the four guards, one for each arm and leg, that were assigned to strap an inmate in the electric chair; the heavy copper headgear; the sponge, soaked in brine water, that was placed between the shaved head and the copper plate; the ear-splitting roar of the hideous dynamo and its cackling like a witch; the bubbles that escaped from a dead mouth; the vacant eyes — he loathed it all.

He also believed that Carl Austin DeWolf was innocent. DeWolf died about 10 minutes after midnight, November 17, 1953, after 15 stays of execution, two appeals to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, and one to the United States Supreme Court. He had been on death row more than four years.

No other execution has been as controversial, nor has divided the state more.

DeWolf was found guilty of the murder of a Tulsa policeman, Jerry St. Clair, in 1946, mainly because of a gun found on DeWolf that the FBI ballistics report identified as the murder weapon. DeWolf maintained that he had been given the gun by Victor Everhart, a Tulsa hood who was later killed after escaping the Tulsa County jail in 1947. Another DeWolf argument was the trial’s conflicting testimony on his description. Taken together these factors kept the courts busy and DeWolf calmly confident of vindication, right up until the night of his execution. He even expected a last-minute stay, but after being told that he had been turned down for the final time, DeWolf accepted it in the pacific style that had become his most attractive virtue.

He walked to his execution, devoid of apparent anxiety, and before he sat down in the death cage, he addressed the spectators:

I want you people to know that I’m innocent, that I never saw Jerry St. Clair in my life. I couldn’t kill anyone that I didn’t see. Why I’m here I can’t understand.

I’m going to die now. Some people will suffer over it; my people will, but for me it will be over within a few minutes.

There stands a man who helped put me here. Are you happy?

He was talking to Roy Hanna, the police reporter for the Tulsa Tribune, whose articles on the case had struck DeWolf, as well as others, as decidedly biased. Hanna was a typical crime reporter, indifferent of dress, envious of anyone whose salary was larger than his, and menaced by unwarranted self-importance.

DeWolf then recognized friends: Howard Cowan, at the time editor of a McAlester newspaper, now a Tulsa executive for Public Service Company; Kirksey Nix, a state senator and DeWolf supporter, later a member of the Court of Criminal Appeals and a close friend of Rhome West’s, who probably influenced Rhome to forever believe that DeWolf had been framed; and DeWolf said of Nix: “There is one of the best men in the state.”

DeWolf’s closing words were, “There isn’t much more to say. I never had a chance to prove my innocence in court. I believe I have been a Christian since 1946. The people who were against me must of had some kind of an axe to grind.”

DeWolf denounced Elmer Davis of Tulsa, who had prosecuted him, predicting that “you will never rise higher in politics than the judgeship you now hold.” And he was right.

DeWolf was finished at 12:08 a.m., having turned from his audience to casually place his claim, as though he were saying this seat is taken. When the current was shut off, DeWolf’s body was slumped forward, restrained by the thick straps.

Appeared in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 5 on March 1, 2015. Originally published by Oklahoma Monthly magazine in 1976. This version has been edited and condensed.