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For 51 years, a family in upstate New York has closely guarded one of the most explosive, and unusual, secrets any family could have: Its late patriarch, Dow B. Hover, was New York State's executioner. Hover held the job in the 1950s and 1960s and was the last man in the state to activate the electric chair. He left behind evidence of his workletters from Sing Sing's wardenhidden in a filing cabinet in his house.
Hover, who lived in Germantown and worked as a deputy sheriff for Columbia County, took extreme precautions to ensure no newspaper would ever reveal his identity. On the nights he drove to Sing Sing to carry out an execution, he employed a novel strategy in order to elude pesky reporters: He changed the license plates on his car before he even left his garage.
Hover worked in the infamous Sing Sing death house, where 614 people perished between 1891 and 1963more people than at any other prison in the nation during that time. New York's last execution took place almost 42 years ago, yet the debate over the death penalty continues. Last summer, the Court of Appeals ruled that the state's death penalty was unconstitutional, and now the public debate has grown even louder. Just in the last week, the state assembly convened two public hearings, in Albany and Manhattan, on the future of New York's death penalty.
Maintaining public support for the death penalty has long depended on keeping the act of killing prisoners shrouded in secrecyno television cameras, no interviews with the execution team, no revealing of the executioner's identity. Conversations about the death penalty often remain abstract, focused on issues like "justice" and "deterrence." Rarely do they focus on how the death penalty affects those most intimately involved, transforming everyday people into professional killers. The voices and stories of the people who carry out executions are almost never heard.
Dow B. Hover had two children, both of whom are now in their seventies and still live in Germantown. They have not paid much attention to the political debate swirling around the death penalty. In fact, neither likes to think much about the issue at all. But on a recent Saturday, Hover's children finally decided to discuss their family's secret. They spoke to the Voice about their father, his execution work, and his own life's end.
On August 5, 1953, a headline in The New York Times declared: "State Executioner Quits." At the time, the executioner's name was well-known. Joseph P. Francel had held the job for 14 years; his name regularly appeared in the media. Just two months earlier, he'd pulled the switch that sent 2,000 volts of electricity into the bodies of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The married couple, convicted of conspiring to steal atomic secrets for the Soviets, were the most famous of the 137 people Francel executed.
Dow B. Hover, 52, replaced Francel, securing the job through his contacts at the Columbia County sheriff's office. Like his five predecessors, Hover was a trained electrician. Now, in addition to his work as a deputy sheriff, Hover would earn $150 every time he put on a suit, made the 160-mile round-trip to Sing Sing, and pulled the switch for the electric chair. (Adjusted for inflation, this $150 payment is equivalent to about $1,000 today.) Hover would also receive gas money, usually eight cents per mile. Soon, typed one-page letters from Wilfred L. Denno, Sing Sing's warden, began arriving at his home, notifying him of every scheduled execution.
Gerhard Puff, who killed an FBI agent and was executed by Hover at Sing Sing in 1954.
photo: Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House by Scott Christianson
One of the first people Hover was hired to execute was 40-year-old Gerhard Puff. In 1952, Puff traveled from Kansas City to Manhattan with his 17-year-old wife, Annie Laurie. By then, Puff's résumé as a bank robber had already earned him a spot on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. Shortly after Puff and his wife arrived at the Congress Hotel on West 69th Street, FBI agents flooded the lobby. The agents were waiting for Puff to emerge from an elevator. Instead, Puff snuck down the stairs, then approached one of the agents and shot the man, killing him.
Puff's execution was scheduled for Thursday, August 12, 1954, at 11 p.m., the usual appointed time for executions. That night, Hover left his Germantown home at 6:30 and arrived at Sing Sing at 9:30, according to travel records he kept. In the meantime, guards had already brought Puff his last meal: fried chicken, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, asparagus tips, salad, and strawberry shortcake. Shortly before 11, two guards led Puff down a 20-foot corridor to the electric chair and ordered him to sit. They fastened five leather straps across his body. A mask was placed over his face and electrodes were attached to his leg and head.
Standing in an alcove adjacent to the death room, facing a switchboard, Hover could see Puff. It was his duty to lower the lever, but not for so long that the body began to cook. Not so long that the reporters and other witnesses seated out front could smell burning flesh. Some men required more shocks than others, and there was a certain skill involved in making sure that Puff was electrocuted just long enough to kill him. At 11:08 p.m., a doctor pressed a stethoscope over Puff's heart and declared him dead.