The Execution of Willie Francis. By Gilbert King. Basic Books. 2008.
This week the Supreme Court ruled that death by lethal injection does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. With the death machine was back in business, the five pro-execution Catholics on the court—Scalia, Alioto, Kennedy, Roberts and Thomas—went off to sup with the pope.
Sixty years ago, FDR’s Supreme Court heard a horrifying death penalty case out of Louisiana and reached the same miserable conclusion. Here’s the story in brief.
In 1944, a philandering white pharmacist named Andrew Thomas was shot and killed after a returning home from a tryst with a married woman in the Cajun town of St. Martinsville on Bayou Teche. The gun used to murder Thomas was later identified as belonging to one of the town’s police officers. Two years later a 16 year old black man, named Willie Francis, was arrested and charged with Thomas’s murder. A confession was extracted from Thomas, after an abusive interrogation conducted by a deputy with ties to the KKK, who even Hoover’s FBI considered to be a serial murderer of blacks. Thomas’s trial lasted only two days. His defense attorneys, both with their own ties to the Klan, asked no questions and presented no defense. The all-white jury deliberated for less than an hour before returning the expected guilty verdict. The judge, another Klan symp, sentenced the young Thomas (who had never before been arrested) to death by electrocution in Gruesome Gertie, Louisiana’s portable electric chair manufactured by International Harvester.
On May 3, 1946, the International Harvester truck pulled into St. Martinsville with the death chair. The two executioners repaired to a local bar and proceeded to get staggeringly drunk. A few hours later Willie Francis was strapped to the chair and the executioner pulled the switch. The chair began to bounce up and down. Willie’s lips bulged grotesquely and his legs spasmed. Smoke seeped from beneath the death hood. The current stopped. The doctor felt for Willie’s pulse. “He’s still breathing!” the doctor exclaimed.
The drunken executioner flipped the switch again. Willie’s body writhed with convulsions. Then the crowd attending the execution was shocked to hear Willie’s voice crying out beneath the death mask: “Let me breathe! I’m not dying!”
The execution was finally halted and Willie was removed to his jail cell to await another rendezvous with the chair. When word of the botched execution leaked out to the press, it sparked a national outcry against the death penalty and Willie became a cause celebre of the growing Civil Rights Movement, led by the NAACP’s A. P. Tureaud and a young Thurgood Marshall. But Willie needed a local lawyer and his father found a courageous one by the name of Bertrand DeBlanc, a Cajun with deep roots in the Bayou country. Even though it stigmatized him in his hometown, DeBlanc took Willie’s case all the way to the supreme court, arguing forcefully that return Willie to the chair for a third time would constitute “cruel and unusual” punishment.
Willie’s fate was in the hands of two justices venerated by liberals, Hugo Black (a former member of the Klan) and Felix Frankfurter, former dean of Harvard Law School and outspoken opponent of the death penalty. The ruling was 5 to 4 in favor of sending Willie Francis to his death. Both Black and Frankfurter voted for execution, with Frankfurter writing a despicable concurring opinion, where he held that the Supreme Court had no right to deny “Louisiana its pound of flesh.” If this sounds callous and bizarre, it was at least consistent with Frankfurter’s ante bellum view that the state’s couldn’t be forced by the federal government to incorporate the Bill of Rights into their own constitutions. Frankfurter immediately tried to assuage his guilt over the Francis case by attempting to convince Louisiana Governor “Singing” Jim Davis to grant clemency. But Davis was unwilling to do what Frankfurter wouldn’t. He ignored the pleas of the self-righteous justice and on May 9, 1947 Willie Francis was once again strapped into the electric chair. The switch was flipped and 2,500 volts of current jolted through his body until he was pronounced dead.
Gilbert King tells this horrifying story of murder, racism and systemic political corruption that stretched from Baton Rogue to Washington, DC with the narrative skills of a novelist and a historian’s sharp eye for detail and cultural context. The Execution of Willie Francis is almost certainly the best book on capital punishment in America since Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. If you want to change someone’s mind about the death penalty, send them this book. Be forewarned: this is a disturbing and unremittingly grim story with precious few rays of light. But that’s just the way it was—and the way it continues to be.
Far Tortuga. By Peter Matthiessen. Random House. 1975.
Yes, it’s April and that means it’s winter in Oregon. After being teased with one day of sun and near 70 degree temperatures last week, we are now gripped by record lows. There was snow here in Willamette Valley this morning. There’s no end in sight to the clouds, wind and rain. Enough is enough. Longing for sun, I picked up one of my favorite novels last night and nearly finished it in one sitting. It’s Peter Matthiessen’s sun-drenched tale of a doomed turtle-fishing expedition along the cays off the coast of Honduras and Nicaragua in the early 1960s, with a hurricane bearing down, Far Tortuga. The novel deepens with each reading. It is a thrilling adventure story, written in a spare, poetic voice, about a place, a species and mode of existence that were gradually being driven toward extinction. In the end, only the sea itself endures. Think Moby Dick narrated by Bob Marley.
Life is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days. By James Salter. Knopf. 2006.
James Salter, one of America’s most sensual novelists (Light Years, Solo Faces), offers up a lusciously written book of days. Days spent eating, drinking, cooking, and reading about the same. Life is Meals is also plump with juicy gossip, high brow table talk, the history of cooking, anecdotes about restaurants and diners from acorss the world (special emphasis on Provence) and at least a dozen fantastic recipes.
The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer. By John Haines. Graywolf Press. 1996.
If you think that the clanking rhymes of Robert somehow captured the experience of life in Alaska, then you’ve never read John Haines, the World War II vet who gave up a promising career as a sculptor in New York and in 1954 moved to the remote wilderness of the Alaskan tundra, 70 miles from Fairbanks. There he lived in a small cabin for the next 15 years, where he produced one of the most evocative and unique cycles of poems of the 20 century. Thankfully, we have The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer, a fat (but not fat enough) sampling of his best work spanning the last 40 years. In Haines’s Alaska, life must be lived on the land’s own terms and even then daily life is freighted with risk, of freezing, of an encounter with a mighty grizzly, of getting lost in a darkness that has settled over the land for weeks. His poems feature sharply cut lines and vivid details of wind, snow and the shimmering Aurora. Haines forces nothing. These are profound mediations that read easily. Animals and Inuit myths flow as naturally as daylight through his poems. Here is “Smoke,” an elusive and slightly other-wordly poem that hints at a deep totemic experience but is also so tangible that you can almost smell it:
An animal smelling of ashes Crossed the hills That morning. I closed the door And the windows, But on the floor A smoky light Gleamed like old tin. All day that animal Came and went, Sniffing at trees Still vaguely green, Its fur catching In the underbrush. At sundown, it settled Upon the house Its breath Thick and choking …
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, will be published this spring. He can be reached at: email@example.com.