When I was a young boy in my early teens in the Mississippi town of Columbus, an East Central city located a few miles from the Alabama state line, people knew when an execution was scheduled. Executions were not common events and they were well publicized by our local papers and radio—no television, of course—that was still some years in the future. The news spread far and wide by mouth when the portable electric chair arrived in town from the Mississippi State Penitentiary, located in Sunflower County in the Mississippi delta.
The chair was housed at the penitentiary, the state prison known as Parchman, named after the first warden J. M. Jim Parchman. When the need for an execution arose, the chair was transported in a truck to the county in which the condemned had committed the crime. The citizens of Sunflower County tolerated the convicts in their county but objected to executions being carried out there fearing that it would stigmatize Sunflower as the death county.
Mississippi went from hanging to the electric chair in 1940, then to the gas chamber in 1954 and finally to lethal injection, with the first execution in 2002. For a brief history of Mississippi’s methods of execution over the years, click here to read an overview of capital punishment in Mississippi, written by Donald A. Cabana, superintendent of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and author of Death at Midnight: Confessions of an Executioner.
I made my way uptown to the courthouse when I learned that the truck from Parchman had arrived. It was parked on the street in front of the courthouse. The back was open and I could see a huge generator, the source of power for the execution—a long black cable snaked over the sidewalk up to the courthouse and disappeared inside. Apparently the chair had already been taken to the place of execution. I found nothing really remarkable about a truck, a generator and a cable, so after a few minutes I left the throng that had gathered in the area and sought more interesting and beneficial things to do.
Okay, I didn’t see the execution, but I saw the truck that brought it to Columbus, the generator that furnished the electricity and the cable that carried it to the room in which the chair was housed, and that’s getting pretty close to the actual execution—not that I especially wanted to see it, of course.
Mississippi is one of many states that, in search of a more humane method of executing those condemned to die, have progressed from hanging to electrocution to gassing and finally to death by lethal injection, a process in which the condemned person is strapped to a gurney and a lethal cocktail of drugs is administered.
Humane? You make the call—as of this date we have not heard from anyone that was relieved of life by one of the above methods. The late Steve Allen—actor, author and late-night television host—wrote a short story titled The Public Hating, the account of an execution in which a prisoner was placed in the center of a stadium filled with people and was hated to death by the spectators, shriveling and dying from their combined intense hatred focused on the condemned. Click here to read a synopsis of the story, one somewhat biased but still an excellent analysis. Here, as in the various methods of execution, you make the call!
The image at right shows the actual electric chair that was used by the state of Mississippi—the man standing on the left is the executioner, Jimmy Young, and that’s me on the right—I’m the good looking kid with the school books under his arm.
Okay, that’s not really me—that kid looks very much as I looked at the time, but it isn’t me—honest! I never carried school books home, and as a result I was frequently required to submit to corporal punishment, administered because of my failure to submit the homework prescribed by various teachers.
Click here for current information on corporal punishment in the United States—yes, Mississippi is in the forefront of states that still allow application of a paddle to the mid-aft section of the bodies of wayward students. As one that has been there on multiple occasions, please know that I bear no scars from corporal discipline applied to that portion of my anatomy, neither physical nor psychological, at least none of which I am aware.
No, that’s not me in the image at right. In my school, punishment was meted out in the teacher’s lounge—in those years it was called the teacher’s cloakroom—with the aggriever bending over the arm of a stuffed lounge chair with a firm grip on the opposite arm while the aggrieved applied a wooden paddle to the nicely exposed and legally authorized area for retribution—I mean, punishment! Besides, it couldn’t be me—in my school days, bell bottom trousers had not yet been invented.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!