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.

Seated in his living room on a recent afternoon, Dow shared what he could remember about his father's decision to become an executioner. "He got paid pretty good," Dow says. "I'm sure that had something to do with it." The way Dow tells the story, his father was conflicted about his work. "He felt bad about it," Dow says. "He'd go see a minister and straighten himself out." Did he think his father's struggle with migraines was related to his work as an executioner? "I'm sure it was," he says.

Eddie Lee Mays was the last person executed in New York State. He died in Sing Sing's electric chair in 1963.
photo: Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House by Scott Christianson

Gladys disagrees. About the Sing Sing job, she says, "He enjoyed doing it." She describes her father as cold and unemotional. "You know how some fathers hold your hand?" she says. "I don't remember that we ever held hands or told each [other] that we loved each other. He just wasn't that kind of person." Taking a job in which he had to execute people "wouldn't have been an issue for him."

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

She adds: "I don't think he was emotional about it, but how can you know what someone feels inside?"

In recent years, the death penalty in New York State has seemed increasingly abstract, more a political slogan than an actual occurrence. Although Governor George Pataki reinstated the death penalty in 1995, nobody has been executed in New York State since 1963. Among some politicians, the death penalty remains a favorite issue. A few weeks ago, in his State of the State speech, Pataki credited the death penalty with helping lower crime rates. He has vowed to bring it back, and the debate over its future continues to roil the state.

If Pataki signs another death penalty bill, and if New York does have an execution, of course he and the state's legislators will not be the ones carrying it out. They are not the ones who will be strapping the condemned prisoner to a gurney, rolling him into the execution chamber, preparing the syringes, searching for a vein to stick an I.V. in, starting the flow of the lethal drugs, eyeing the cardiac monitor, and unbuckling the straps once the prisoner is dead.

Dow B. Hover's former home
photo: Jay Muhlin

The machinery used to execute prisoners has changed, but the ritual is fairly similar. If the death penalty returns to New York, the last person who carried out an execution here will not be around to give pointers. Dow B. Hover died in 1990, at the age of 89, five years after his wife died. According to his death certificate, the manner of death was "undetermined circumstances." The story his family tells seems more conclusive.

On June 1, 1990, in the middle of the afternoon, Gladys's son, Jack, stopped by the house to check on him. "Granddad!" he shouted, as he entered the breezeway. No answer. Jack heard the hum of a car's engine. He twisted the handle of the door leading to the garage and discovered that the garage was full of exhaust.

Dow B. Hover sat in the front seat of his Plymouth, the driver's window rolled down, his arms folded across his chest. At first, Jack yanked at the garage door, trying to pull it open, before remembering that he needed to push a button. It was already too late; Hover's skin was cold to the touch. Here, in the same garage where he had once changed his license plates before driving off to Sing Sing, it appears that the state's last executioner ended one more life: his own.

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