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 now Hover was 70 years old. He wrote back the next morning, punching out yet another letter with two fingers on his typewriter. "I am available if needed," he wrote. Hover never did get to perform his "service" at Green Haven. The following year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the way the death penalty had been enforced was unconstitutional.

The term executioner stress describes the toll that carrying out the death penalty takes on those closest to the process. The term appears in Who Owns Death? Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions, by Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell. In this 2000 book, former execution team members report suffering numerous psychological symptoms: nightmares, emotional numbness, depression. A former executioner from Mississippi likens his work to "being in a car wreck that's going on forever."

The history of New York's own executioners is equally grim. John Hulbert, the state's third executioner, had the job from 1913 to 1926. One night, right before Hulbert was about to pull the switch on two men, he collapsed. Revived by Sing Sing's doctor, Hulbert finished the job, then spent a week in the prison hospital.

Hulbert oversaw 140 executions before he abruptly quit in January 1926. "His health has been rather poor and he disliked the all-night ride he had to take from Auburn to Sing Sing and back," the state's superintendent of prisons told The New York Times. Hulbert himself said, "I got tired of killing people." Three years later, Hulbert, then 59, ended his own life in the cellar of his house in Auburn. His son found him crumpled on the floor by the furnace, a .38-caliber revolver by his side.

The state's best-known executioner was Hulbert's successor, Robert G. Elliott. From 1926 to 1939, Elliott oversaw 387 executions in six states. He had been New York's executioner for less than a year when his identity became public; a reporter followed him home from Sing Sing to Queens. Angry letters began filling his mailbox. Somebody firebombed his house. In 1939, he wrote Agent of Death: The Memoirs of an Executioner, which concludes: "I hope that the day is not far distant when legal slaying, whether by electrocution, hanging, lethal gas, or any other method is outlawed throughout the United States."


image
Sing Sing's electric chair
photo: courtesy of New York State Archives

New York's executioners played a pivotal role in the state, enabling New Yorkers to support the death penalty without ever having to do the killing themselves. Each executioner came to embody the public's conflicted attitudes; people were alternately fascinated with and repelled by them. Decade after decade, New York's death penalty turned ordinary men into professional killers, and despite the ritualized aspects of the work, it took a tremendous personal toll. While Hover's predecessors all became fairly well-known, Hover did not. However, his name did appear in Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House, which was published in 2000. The author, Scott Christianson, obtained access to 153 inmate case files from Sing Sing. The book features black-and-white mug shots, copies of telegrams, last-supper menus, letters from inmates, and some of the warden's correspondence, including one letter mentioning Hover's name.


Last year, Gladys Bohnsack, Hover's daughter, got her first ever call from a reporter. Staffers at Sound Portraits—a nonprofit that produces radio documentaries—had seen Hover's name in Condemned, and an intern, Brett Myers, tracked her down. Gladys, now 78, told Myers she'd been expecting to hear from the media for decades. "I was so surprised no one found him," she said.

She moved into her father's house 15 years ago and had recently discovered a file in the basement that contained letters from the 1960s between her father and Warden Denno. She sent the file to Myers, who later shared it with the Voice. For decades, the letters had been in a metal filing cabinet, buried amid all sorts of other paperwork her father had left behind: assorted bills, his marriage certificate, operating instructions for various appliances, manila files labeled "Fishing Reels," "CB Radio," and "Retirement." There were also folders filled with yellowed newspaper stories he'd saved about the death penalty. In a few cases, these stories were about the same men he had executed.

On a recent Saturday, several other execution-related files turned up, labeled "New Jersey," "Massachusetts," and "Connecticut." Unbeknownst to Gladys, all three states had asked her father to work for them. He'd agreed, but in the end only New Jersey needed him. Unlike Elliott, Hover did not write a memoir. Nor did he leave a diary. The only documents he left behind are those in his home and a few letters hidden in prisoner files from Sing Sing's death house, which are now housed at the New York State Archives in Albany.

Most of what's known about Hover's work as an executioner is stored in the memories of his children. His son, Dow, 73, lives across town from Gladys, in a second-floor apartment on Main Street, above a former gas station. While Gladys still works—she has been Germantown's tax collector for the last 20 years—Dow is too sick to hold a job. A former electrician, he suffers from Huntington's disease. He spends his mornings watching The Price Is Right and waiting for his lunch to arrive from Meals on Wheels.

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