Cheating The Death Penalty
Cheating the hangman, the electric chair, or the lethal needle is the dream of everyone on death row. These tales demonstrate how three men – in three very different ways – turned that dream into macabre reality.
WILL PURVIS (1894)
In 1893, a 19-year-old Mississippi farmhand named Will Purvis was charged with the shooting death of Will Buckley, a co-member of the White Caps, a KKK-type organization in Marion County. He had been arrested on the sketchiest of evidence. Two days after the tragedy, bloodhounds had tracked a trail from Buckley's body to the farm where Purvis lived, and he was placed under arrest. The case against Purvis gained weight when the dead man's brother, Jim Buckley, claimed to have seen Purvis commit the murder. Despite Purvis's protestations of innocence, feelings ran high against the young man and on August 5, 1893, he was sentenced to hang.
On February 7, 1894, thousands gathered in Columbia to watch Purvis die. Purvis mounted the scaffold, a minister by his side. He was placed on the trapdoor and then asked if he had any final words. "You are taking the life of an innocent man," he growled, as the sheriff adjusted the noose around his neck and placed a black cap over his head. Moments later the trap was sprung. Purvis plunged through, struggled for a second or two, then tumbled to the ground. The noose had unraveled. A reporter for the Atlantic Constitution dashed forward and asked the motionless Purvis, "Are you hurt?" From beneath his black cap Purvis gasped, "For God's sake get me out of this!"
The crowd, which seconds before had been vehemently anti-Purvis, now turned abruptly in his favor, convinced that Purvis had been saved through divine intervention. There were cries of "Free him," and "Don't let him hang again." Sheriff Otho Magee needed to act quickly. At the urging of assembled clergymen, he decided to poll the crowd. They shouted overwhelmingly to save Purvis. Democracy won. Purvis was returned to his cell, and his fate was placed in the hands of the authorities.
Legal wrangling at the State level upheld the original sentence. Incensed by this, Purvis supporters took matters into their own hands and broke him out of prison. He remained in hiding on a secluded Mississippi farm, until a new governor, Anselm J. McLaurin, was sworn into office. McLaurin had run for office on a platform that included the promise to commute Purvis's death sentence if he surrendered to the authorities. Purvis duly did so, and on March 12, 1896, McLaurin made good on his promise and removed the young man from the shadow of the gallows. He was sent to prison for life.
But doubts continued to linger. Suddenly, two years later, Jim Buckley publicly expressed doubts about his own eyewitness testimony, saying that he could not be certain Purvis was the killer after all. This revelation his sparked calls for a full pardon. On December 21, 1898, Governor McLaurin bowed to popular demand and Purvis was set free.
For two decades nothing more was heard of Purvis, and then, on March 10, 1917, the sheriff of Marion County shocked everyone with the news that a local man, 60-year-old, Joe Beard, while lying on his deathbed, admitted that he and two other White Caps had killed Buckley. There could be no doubting the claim. Beard revealed details of the murder that only the real assailants could have known. In 1920 the Mississippi legislature awarded Purvis $5,000 compensation and completely exonerated him. Purvis became a prosperous farmer and outlived every one of the jurors who convicted him. He died on October 13, 1938, at age sixty-six. In 1920 the state removed the stain from Will Purvis' name but not the rope burn scar around his neck. He took that with him to the grave.
JIM WILLIAMS (1926)
On May 10, 1926, Jim Williams, a resident of Putnam County, Florida, was sentenced to death for murdering his wife, Stella,. He was taken to the state penitentiary at Raiford, there to await his date with the electric chair. When the appointed time for his execution arrived, Jim Williams was marched into the execution chamber and strapped into "Old Sparky." The electrodes were fitted and the black hood placed over his head. In those days it was the Florida custom for the sheriff of the county where the crime occurred to travel to Raiford to pull the switch. On this occasion the Putnam County sheriff was sick and sent two deputies in his stead. With the guards in place and the witnesses ready, prisoner superintendent J. S. Blitch nodded for the switch to be thrown. Nothing happened. It turned out that each deputy thought the other should perform the dread task.
A furious argument broke out, with each deputy adamantly refusing to take official responsibility. All the while, Williams sat quaking in the chair. With the witnesses and reporters becoming increasingly restive, Blitch stepped in and told the men to resolve their dispute. Neither would back down. After 10 minutes of hovering on the brink of extinction, Williams was unstrapped, quaking, from the chair and wobbled back to his cell. Meanwhile the argument in the death house continued to rage. Legal requirements, said Blitch, demanded that one of the deputies had to pull the switch. And then someone pointed at the clock. The time limit on the death warrant had just expired. Williams could not now be legally executed. Blitch, frustrated beyond endurance, had no alternative but to announce that the execution was over, for tonight at least, while he sought legal advice. The bizarreness of the situation required Blitch to meet with the state governor, John W. Martin. When Martin heard how long Williams had been sat in the chair, he immediately declared that no one should have to endure such mental torture, and he commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment.
Williams became a model prisoner and, in time, was allowed out of prison on work details. In March 1933, while being transported to one of the work fields, he saw a woman, Mrs. O. P. Meadows, and her baby being charged by an infuriated bull. Williams leapt down from the convicts' truck, ran across the field, picked up a shovel, and beat the bull back, saving Mrs. Meadows's life. He then returned meekly to the convict truck. This selfless action so impressed the state parole board that on December 20, 1934 it issued a full pardon. A few days later, Williams was freed from prison and promptly disappeared into obscurity.
WILLIAM KOGUT (1930)
Each year more than 30,000 Americans decide to take their own life: few have shown the resourcefulness or imagination of William Kogut, an inmate at San Quentin in California. His crime had been particularly unpleasant, hacking am Oroville rooming house proprietor named Mayme Guthrie to death on May 29, 1930, and the judge had little hesitation in passing the maximum sentence. Like others before him, Kogut was dragged from court, hollering at the top of his lungs that he would never be hanged. "If I die," he cried, "it will be by my own hand."
A suicide watch was mounted on Kogut, customary procedure in all capital cases. His death row cell was searched regularly for items that might be used to fashion a weapon or aid in his own destruction but nothing was found. All day long Kogut played solitaire in his cell, thinking. As the appointed date drew near it appeared as though his courtroom boast would prove every bit as empty as its thousands of predecessors. Until the early hours of October 19, 1930, when a terrific explosion devastated his cell.
Picking among the rubble, prison guards found the shattered remains of William Kogut and the answer to what had caused the explosion. Far from playing solitaire, Kogut had actually extracted all the red spots from the red cards, knowing that they contained nitrate and cellulose – both explosive ingredients. Removing a hollow metal leg from his bunk bed, he soaked the red spots in water and packed them tightly inside. After sealing the ends with chunks from a broom handle he was left with a crude form of pipe bomb. Next, Kogut leant the bomb against the oil heater in his cell. With great deliberation, he rested his head on the device – and waited.
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