Excerpt: A New Book About the State Penitentiary Explores How the Electric Chair Came to Virginia

Virginia executed Ricky Javon Gray by lethal injection at the Greensville Correctional Center near Jarratt on Wednesday night, Jan. 18.

His final breath came 11 years after he and his nephew, Ray Dandridge, both then 28 years old, killed the Harvey family — Bryan and Kathryn Harvey, and their young daughters, Stella and Ruby — as well as Mary Baskerville-Tucker, her husband, Percyell Tucker, and her daughter, Ashley Baskerville.

Like most all roads to executions, the one leading to Gray’s was filled with legal arguments and political debates. A central discussion concerned the availability of drugs used in lethal injections — the method that must be used unless an inmate chooses death by electric chair. At the General Assembly, as in previous years, legislators have attempted to change that.

The use of the electric chair has been a tipping point for people on both sides of the death-penalty debate. Richmond-area author Dale M. Brumfield, as part of a new book on the history of the Virginia Penitentiary, set out to learn more about the history of its use in the commonwealth, since it was introduced here in the early 1900s. The stories are a painful reminder of the injustice and racially based motivations that spurred its implementation.

On Aug. 6, 1890, in New York’s Auburn Prison, convicted murderer William Kemmler was the first American to be executed in the electric chair.

It did not go well. It took three jolts to kill him, with the final jolt an agonizing four minutes. Smoke poured from Kemmler’s mouth, and the stench of burning hair and flesh sickened the witnesses.

An autopsy showed a severe burn at the base of the condemned man’s spine — the location of the second electrode — the size of a man’s hand. The muscles reportedly were “baked clear to the bone.” The scalp was burned away and Kemmler’s brain “was baked.”

Virginia legislators showed no interest in embracing that mode of capital punishment until early February 1908, when a flyer from the Adams Electric Company of Trenton, New Jersey, was passed among the representatives.

It described their enhanced “Electrocuting Plant,” which showed much improvement over the early haphazard applications used in New York. The ad also assured that all the equipment used in the construction of this electrocuting device was designed with great care, and that the makers “guarantee absolute reliability.”

Henrico County Delegate Charles W. Throckmorton apparently took a keen interest in the flyer. When Bill No. 398 — “An act to establish a permanent place in the State Penitentiary at Richmond, Va. for the execution of state felons upon whom the death penalty has been imposed” — passed the General Assembly, he added an amendment to change the method of execution from hanging to the electric chair.

Another amendment offered by Page County Sen. C. Parks (who a year later tried to outlaw football in Virginia) provided that the body of the executed criminal be returned to relatives upon payment of all transportation costs. This amended bill passed 60-19. It was signed by Gov. Claude Swanson on March 16, 1908, and became law July 1.

Newspapers across the Commonwealth were near unanimous in their approval of the new law, which they saw as having profound implications in the black communities, effectively shutting down the party atmospheres and long speeches attending the hangings of black men.

The move from public hanging to private electrocution was made to remove black influence from the execution process, forcing the condemned to pay for their crimes not before large crowds of praying, singing and chanting peers, but before small, somber white audiences of jurors and prison authorities.

The Oct. 14, 1908, edition of The Richmond Times-Dispatch contended that:

… The publicity, the excitement and the general hurrah-and-holiday air attending the old-time hanging were a positive allurement to the negro. … The electric execution wholly does away with that. The time set for turning on the death current is unannounced, the public is rigorously eluded, and the whole affair is conducted with secrecy and mystery, well calculated to inspire terror in the heart of the superstitious African. … We have a very strong hope that the privacy and mystery of the execution of the death sentence will tend to make the law more terrible and to diminish crime.

1908: Henry Smith

The first execution under the new statute that substituted electrocution for hanging took place Oct. 13, 1908, in the penitentiary basement.

Henry Smith, also known as Oscar Perry, a black Portsmouth man convicted of rape and robbery, was Virginia’s 1,041st person to be executed since 1608. Smith, 22, was described by the news media as “below average in sense, but pleasant-faced and seemingly docile.”

On Aug. 11, 1908, this “pleasant-faced” man robbed, raped then beat “into a state of insensibility” a 75-year-old white Portsmouth woman, Catherine Powell.

As the crime was occurring, a young grocery delivery boy named Pope approached the house, and he testified that he heard the voice of a woman, “as if she was praying for mercy.” He also said that Mrs. Powell called to him from an upstairs window to “catch that negro.” Running around to the back of the house, Pope saw Smith run from the back door.

Smith and an alleged accomplice, William “Brack” King, were arrested and held in the Portsmouth Jail. A few days later, 14 men stormed the jail in an attempt to lynch the prisoners. They were unsuccessful, and 10 of the 14, including two black men, were charged with rioting and fined $100 each with 60 days in jail.

At the Sept. 8 trial, Smith pleaded not guilty but Mrs. Powell positively identified him in describing the attack. Smith was found guilty of first-degree assault, and after being sent back twice by Judge Bain, they finally agreed on the death penalty.

While in the Portsmouth City Jail, Smith constantly requested more food. In one note to the Keeper, Smith wrote:

Mr. Hybirt — Will you please get me 2 scramblet eggs, some cheese, 2 or 3 biskits and a cup of coffee, and oblige, Henry Smith.

On Sept. 30 from his cell, Smith made a full and complete confession of the rape, saying that he alone was responsible, exonerating “Brack” King, who was still held. King was later acquitted in his trial on the basis of Smith’s confession.

On Oct. 1 Smith was taken to the Penitentiary, where he did nothing on death row but sleep and eat. “I never saw a condemned man with such an appetite,” a penitentiary officer told a Roanoke Evening News reporter on Oct. 6. “The negro does not seem to be worrying about what is going to happen to him Tuesday.”

Just days prior to the execution Superintendent Morgan received a handwritten note from Smith’s mother thanking him in advance for turning the body over to her after the electrocution:

I was very glad to know that I can get my boy’s body by paying all expenses and furnishing coffin so I will come up after him Tuesday. Yours truly, Pampey Smith.

On Oct. 11, Smith addressed a statement to Mr. R.C. Marshall, Commonwealth’s Attorney of Norfolk, confessing that he and an accomplice named Robert Jourdan were responsible for a highway robbery committed sometime in the recent past, and that a man named Joseph Smith, who had been convicted of that crime, was innocent.

On Oct. 13, the day of execution, Smith was accompanied by the Rev. W.H. Dean, pastor of Leigh Street Methodist Church, and Mr. S.C. Burrell of the Colored Young Men’s Christian Association, in prayer and singing hymns. It was not 10 minutes from the time Smith left the condemned cell at 7:20 a.m. before he was pronounced dead.

While no details of the electrocution were provided by prison authorities per the new law, Penitentiary Physician Charles Carrington praised the chair’s performance, writing in the 1908 Penitentiary Annual Report:

[It was a] swift, sure, solemn and awe-inspiring mode of punishment, and to my mind is infinitely more humane than hanging. Absolutely nothing of the spectacular is permitted in an electrocution, and when you eliminate the psalm-singing-forgiving-your-enemies that usually, I am told, preceded a hanging, and in its stead institute a solemn, very swift mode of inflicting the death penalty, you have taken a step which will in time be powerfully deterrent on the criminal classes.

An autopsy was performed by Dr. Carrington. He found the right side of Smith’s heart had ruptured during the electrocution due to violent muscular contractions.

1908: Winston Green

Winston Green, a mentally disabled 17-year-old black youth, was put to death Oct. 30, 1908, at 7:30 a.m., for attempted criminal assault on 12-year-old Alice Larsen.

On Sept. 11, Larsen and two friends were driving a small buggy on the main road in Chesterfield County between Dry Bridge and Hallsboro when Green stepped in the road, stopped them, grabbed their horse and ordered Larsen out of the wagon. As she got out Green grabbed her, but her screams frightened him and he ran into the woods. Two posses of 25 men each were organized and captured Green within a few hours. He was taken before Larsen and she positively identified him.

Two weeks later, at a special term of the Chesterfield County Circuit Court, Green strenuously denied his guilt but after his conviction of attempted criminal assault he finally made a complete confession. He was sentenced to die in the electric chair.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported, “The youth had no legal counsel.”

On Oct. 18, Green was taken to the penitentiary and placed in solitary confinement. His family was allowed to visit him to say goodbye the day before he died.

On the day of his execution Green was accompanied in his walk to the death chamber by two local black ministers. He entered the chamber at 7:29 a.m., and after a few minutes his body was removed from the death chair and turned over to his father for burial.

1947: Amon J. Gusler

Amon Gusler was a 52-year-old, mild-mannered, glasses-wearing, electrical foreman at the Bassett Furniture plant in Martinsville. He went to the electric chair Jan. 3, 1947, for rigging a dynamite booby-trap that killed a co-worker because he was scared of reprisal after kissing the victim’s wife.

Gusler, a married father of two daughters, told the Henry County Circuit Court on July 13, 1946, that he had planned J. Russell Smith’s death for months after he stole a kiss from Smith’s wife after drinking heavily at a party two years earlier. Gusler said Smith was angry with him for his act, and once threatened to kill him for it.

One May morning, Gusler arrived early at the Bassett plant and rigged a dynamite charge under Smith’s desk, wiring it to the room light switch through the electrical panel. Days later, Smith entered the room, flipped the switch and was literally incinerated by an enormous detonation that also heavily damaged most of the plant.

Despite testimony from a psychiatrist that Gusler suffered from a paranoiac condition at the time of the crime, the Virginia Board of Pardons refused to commute his death sentence to life imprisonment.


1984: Linwood Briley

On Oct. 12, 1984, a crowd of about 500 demonstrators divided for and against capital punishment gathered outside the penitentiary to await the execution of Linwood Briley for the murder of radio DJ Johnny “Johnny G” Gallaher.

Among those holding a candlelight vigil protesting the death penalty on the east side of Belvidere Street was Nancy Gowen, whose 76-year-old mother, Mary Gowen, had also been brutally raped and murdered by the Briley gang.

“I think it’s something wrong with our system,” she told a UPI reporter. “I don’t think to murder someone for a murder committed is the answer.”

On the west side of Belvidere the pro-death crowd was twice as large and the mood decidedly different. A middle-aged man in a windbreaker held a sign that read, “Kill the negro.” Another nearby sign said “Fry ’em.” Rednecks and beer guts mingled with Mohawk haircuts and leather jackets in a loud, Confederate-flag fueled street party.

Two teenage girls danced around in plastic shower caps, saying, “We’ve got Linwood hats,” as the crowd started chanting, “Burn Briley Burn.”


One man told Throttle magazine writer Jeff Lindholm: “We think justice today is screwed. Nobody should get appeals. The Confederate flag was from back when we had segregation, not all this integration we have now.”

One older woman told this writer that she had unplugged her refrigerator and turned out all her lights at her Oregon Hill home so “more electricity would get to the penitentiary.”

At 11:05 p.m. Linwood died claiming he was innocent. Those in front of the penitentiary blew out their candles and removed their nametags, each bearing the name of a death row inmate and their victim or victims.

Across the road, the several hundred drunkenly shouted racial epithets, laughed and flipped the finger at the others before many left for a crab feast in Oregon Hill.

One young man looked over his shoulder at the rowdy crowd and said, “I’m losing a lot of friends tonight.” S


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