The Last Executioner

Dow B. Hover was paid by the state to run its electric chair in the 1950s and '60s. The job may have cost him more than he earned.

By 11:30, Hover was back in his car, heading north. This time he appears to have sped more quickly along Route 9G. According to Hover's travel log, he pulled into his driveway at 1:30 a.m.

A few days later, Hover received a letter from Sing Sing's warden with two checks—"one in the amount of $150.00 and the other in the amount of $12.80 covering your services at this institution in the case of Gerhard A. Puff." The language in these letters was always the same—exceedingly formal and intentionally cryptic.

By the time Hover began his work at Sing Sing, both of his children were fully grown and out of the house. Gladys Bohnsack, then 28, had attended Albany Business College and lived with her husband in town. Dow C. Hover, 23, was off fighting in the Korean War. The children did not get the chance to weigh in on whether they thought their father should be an executioner; by the time they learned about the job, he had already accepted it.

Dow B. Hover in his deputy sheriff's uniform
photo: courtesy of Dow C. Hover
Dow B. Hover in his deputy sheriff's uniform

All the children knew was that their parents had consulted with their minister. As Gladys recalls, "My mother had a problem with it when he was offered the job, because she knew morally it wasn't right: You're not supposed to kill people. . . . She went to our minister to find out. . . . I don't know what the conversation was, [but] the minister must've said it was all right to do it, that he wasn't going to go to hell because of it."

A news article Hover clipped about his work
clippings: courtesy of Gladys Bohnsack

Everyone in Germantown knew the Hovers. There is a Hover Avenue in town, and Dow B. Hover had grown up on the street, in a family of fruit farmers. He married at 20, and he and his wife, Nellie, became regulars at the Dutch Reform Church. In the late 1930s, he started raising mice in the family's cellar and launched Dow B. Hover Laboratory Animals. After he sold the company in 1952, it became Taconic Farms, which today is one of the world's largest providers of lab mice and rats.

Hover's name regularly appeared in the local paper, including in 1961, when he helped rescue two people from the Hudson River after their sailboat capsized. But his role as executioner was hidden. With very few exceptions, nobody in Germantown knew.

The name of Gerhard Puff or anyone else he had executed never came up at the dinner table in the Hover home, at least not when the children visited. Hover didn't talk about his long, lonely drives to Sing Sing and back. He didn't talk about what it was like to see a teenager strapped into the electric chair (which happened twice in 1954, once in 1955, and twice in 1956). He didn't describe how he felt about killing three people in a single night (which occurred in 1955). He never mentioned the smell of burning flesh, the hissing of electrodes, the scent of singed hair, the sparks circling the prisoner's head. Nor did he express any doubts about whether the people he executed truly deserved to die.

Dow B. Hover's daughter, Gladys Bohnsack, at her home in Germantown, New York
photo: Jay Muhlin

During the years of Hover's tenure, 44 people died in Sing Sing's death house, ranging from nine in 1954 to zero in 1962. That year, Hover did oversee two executions in another state: New Jersey. It had become common practice for Sing Sing's executioner to freelance elsewhere; Hover's expertise was in demand. On the night of August 15, 1963, the man seated in Sing Sing's electric chair was 34-year-old Eddie Lee Mays of Harlem, who had been convicted of murdering a woman with a pistol while robbing a tavern on Fifth Avenue. Hover didn't know it at the time, but this execution would be the last one in New York State.

Hover's children thought their father's work at Sing Sing hadn't changed him much. Despite having to write frequent letters to the warden about execution dates, he still typed with just one or two fingers. He still lived with their mother in a two-story Cape Cod-style house on Maple Avenue. And he still sat down at the kitchen table every day at precisely 5 p.m., knife and fork in hand, waiting for her to serve him dinner. There was one way Hover had changed, however: He seemed to have migraine headaches all the time.

"I'd go visit them and Dad would be on the couch with one of his headaches," Gladys says. "Sometimes he'd get up, have his breakfast, and go lie on the couch, and get up and have lunch and then go lie on the couch. They were severe for a long time." Dow adds: "He used to take medicine, but nothing seemed to work. It just went on for years and years. It seemed like he had headaches all the time."

For at least eight years after the Eddie Lee Mays execution, mail from Sing Sing continued to arrive. The letters concerned upcoming executions; each one of them was stayed or else canceled because the governor commuted the inmate's sentence to life in prison. In April 1971, Hover received a letter from the superintendent of Green Haven prison in Dutchess County: "This is to inform you . . . that the electric chair was moved from Sing Sing to this facility last summer. We have, at the present time, three (3) inmates presently awaiting execution. . . . I have been advised by Sing Sing that you have rendered a service in previous executions. Will you please inform me if you are still available."

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