The Executioner’s Secrets


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.

“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.

Support for the death penalty has always depended on keeping executions out of the public eye. While reporters were permitted to watch Sing Sing’s executions, prison officials revealed little about the Death House’s inner workings. Condemned marks the end of a 25-year excavation of New York’s death penalty records. Perhaps only Christianson—who has worked as an investigative reporter, scholar, and state criminal-justice official—could have put these documents into the public’s hands.

As a Ph.D. student researching prisons in the 1970s, Christianson helped set up the New York State Archives, which collect historical records from state agencies. In 1977, official documents detailing life in Sing Sing’s Death House left the prison’s walls for the first time when a state archivist seized cardboard boxes full of files. Christianson later was able to glimpse some of these records when he held several state criminal-justice jobs.

Three years ago, Christianson finally got a chance to examine the dusty files from the Sing Sing Death House when the New York State Defenders Association gained access to them. Christianson discovered not only official paperwork and personal artifacts—like rosary beads and religious medallions—but also cases in which defendants were convicted after being coerced into confessing. Some were interrogated without an attorney, while others appeared to be mentally retarded. In Condemned, Christianson concludes, “By today’s standards, the overwhelming number of these people—based on the record that exists now—would not have been considered acceptable candidates for the death penalty.”

What keeps the past in the past—and what eases doubts about the nation’s mounting number of executions—is the belief that today the death penalty is better enforced, somehow more civilized and more humane. The lethal injection table has replaced the electric chair as the preferred method of execution. Indigent inmates are assigned lawyers. And appeals wend through the state and federal courts for years, supposedly catching all cases of mistaken guilt before an innocent person is tied to a gurney.

What makes Condemned especially disturbing is the timing of its publication. Recent events suggest that the past is not as different from the present as we might like to believe. Doubts about capital punishment have been spreading across the country. George Ryan, the Republican governor of Illinois, recently called for a moratorium on executions after 13 innocent people were nearly executed. Legislators in 12 states have introduced bills to halt executions. And death-penalty opponents have been celebrating the recent release of Calvin Burdine, who spent 16 years on death row in Texas after his attorney slept through much of his trial.

If the initial response to Christianson’s book and exhibit are any indication, Condemned may further erode support for capital punishment. Hours before Christianson finished hanging his mug shots and other documents, John Jay students were already discussing the exhibit, glancing over the author’s shoulder as he hammered.

Deborah, a part-time student who declined to give her last name, interrupted her study session in the library several times to check on Christianson’s progress. She crouched on the floor to point out the item she found most disturbing—an excerpt from an Associated Press story that Christianson had not yet stuck inside a display case. “Prison authorities said it was the first time in more than 600 executions at Sing Sing since 1891 that a doomed man physically fought to the last moment to prevent his execution,” the article stated.

The “doomed man” in this story was Pablo Vargas, 35, who claimed that his confession had been coerced. “What if this guy who was kicking and screaming and said he was innocent—what if that was true?” Deborah wondered aloud. Deborah, a 37-year-old paralegal, said she had been trying to figure out whether she supported capital punishment. As she stared at the suit-and-tie mug shots, she decided the exhibit would likely transform her into a death-penalty opponent.

Research assistance: Cherie Song

“Condemned: A Documentary Odyssey Through New York’s Sing Sing Death House” is on display at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 899 Tenth Avenue, through April 7.

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