The Executioner’s Secrets

A New Book and Exhibit Reveal the Inner Workings of Sing Sing, New York’s Most Notorious Death Chamber.

Scott Christianson picked up a hammer and began nailing fragments of history to the walls of John Jay College. Mug shots of former death-row inhabitants, hand-scrawled letters to loved ones, and wardens' telegrams decorated the college's lobby in midtown Manhattan. Working from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. on a recent Saturday, Christianson slowly transformed eight glass display cases into windows onto New York State's conscience, onto its past as the nation's leading executioner.

It is not a claim to fame that New York state's Division of Tourism publicizes, but between 1891 and 1963 more people were executed at Sing Sing Prison, located 35 miles north of New York City, than at any other prison in the nation. During that period, the electric chair at Sing Sing ended the lives of 614 prisoners, sometimes killing two or three—or once even eight—people in a single night. Despite its busy schedule and worldwide notoriety, the execution chamber has always remained shrouded in secrecy as prison officials sought to perform their duties while minimizing public scrutiny.

Now that is finally about to change. Christianson cracks open the gate to this long-hidden world with a new book, Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House (New York University Press), and accompanying exhibit, which mark the first time documents relating to the prison's executions have been made public. By publishing a paper trail of the state's oft-forgotten past, Christianson removes capital punishment from the realm of protests and polls and politics. The effect is powerful. Condemned shows how Sing Sing's officials created their own rituals for carrying out the death penalty, and along the way developed a carefully scripted routine that has become the blueprint for executions across the country.

top: Harley LaMoor, 19, executed for murder, January 11, 1951bottom: Sing Sing Death House exterior
top: Harley LaMoor, 19, executed for murder, January 11, 1951
bottom: Sing Sing Death House exterior

"Most people think it's a Texas thing, an Alabama thing, that it happens in former slave states," Christianson says. "They don't realize that for many decades New York was the leader in capital punishment."

To New Yorkers today, capital punishment can seem more abstract than real, more of a campaign sound-bite than an imminent occurrence. Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, there have been 623 executions—503 of which took place in the South. Only three occurred in the Northeast, and none were in New York. Years will likely pass before a New York prisoner receives a lethal injection. Of the 38 states that have adopted the death penalty since 1976, New York was the last.

If Condemned had been published before capital punishment returned to New York in 1995, it might have seemed little more than an intriguing peek into the past. But now New York seems poised to repeat its own history, building the same sort of capital-punishment industry it dismantled in the 1960s. Today, there are five men occupying cells on the state's death row, located at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, close to the Canadian border. Across the state, seven defendants are awaiting trial in death penalty cases, while prosecutors are currently considering bringing capital charges in 65 other cases. While New York's death-row population is minuscule compared to those of states like Texas (454) and California (564), it will undoubtedly keep growing.

Almost everyone wears a suit and tie in the black-and-white mug shots of Sing Sing's condemned, as if they are heading off to sit in a church pew rather than the electric chair. These outfits make the prisoners look far more respectable—and human and sympathetic—than the disheveled, strung-out faces in the mug shots that pop up nowadays on the local news. The photographs of Sing Sing's death-row residents were taken only a few hours after they received their death sentences. They are still wearing their courtroom attire, but the news of their impending deaths leaves them wearing expressions of anger, bewilderment, fear, and defeat.

There are few familiar faces here. Perhaps the best-known mug shot belongs to Louis Lepke Buchalter, the leader of Murder, Inc., a Brooklyn-based organized-crime gang believed responsible for 21 murders. Though Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the accused Cold War spies, were executed at the Sing Sing Death House, their photographs do not appear in Condemned. (Many documents from the Sing Sing Death House still have not been made available.) Eight women died in Sing Sing's electric chair, and Condemned features two female mug shots, including Martha Jule Beck, one half of the "Lonely Hearts Killers" whose sex-and-murder tale captured headlines in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Almost as jarring as these photographs of the condemned are some of the documents Christianson uncovered. Typed letters from would-be witnesses thank the warden for inviting them to attend an execution. A note from the warden requests a payment for the executioner of the "usual fee" of $150. And a memo outlines the assignments for an upcoming execution, specifying who is in charge of the inmate's legs, right side, left side, leg electrode, and his final meal.

Seen together, these memos and letters reveal the efforts of Sing Sing's officials to wrap their grim duties in the comforting rhetoric of officialdom. Perhaps such a strict routine was needed in order to enforce a policy that even Lewis E. Lawes, Sing Sing's warden, publicly denounced. While overseeing Sing Sing from 1920 to 1941, Lawes supervised the nation's busiest execution chamber while also penning several bestsellers that argued against the death penalty.

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