This isn’t a Freedom of Information Act thing so much as a Frustrating Lack of Information thing, but here’s an undeniable fact: Mississippi officials cannot and will not supply you with a list of all the people who’ve been legally executed in the state’s history.
To be honest, I have no idea whether this problem exists in every other state as well—if anybody knows, enlighten me—but it’s definitely the way things are in the Old Magnolia. And it’s weird. You’d think that, of all the subjects for which records are kept, this one would be well-nailed by public officials.
This came up because quite a few executions are featured in The Eyes of Willie McGee, and I needed to augment the skimpy information I had on several of them. As I learned during the early days of my research—and confirmed again towards the end—there’s no rock-solid list kept by the state. They can tell you pretty accurately who’s been killed under state auspices since Mississippi started using the gas chamber in 1955. And the current, creepy death row roster is easy to find. But before that—during the eras of Mississippi’s “traveling” electric chair and the earlier days of hanging—they really have no idea.
“Thank you for your inquiry,” a state official replied when I asked about this in January. “The death row information I have . . . is as follows. I do not have further information, but the Mississippi Department of Archives and History may be able to assist you further.” I was then directed to this lame site, which wrongly states that Hilton Fortenberry was the first man to die in the electric chair. That title belongs to Wille Mae Bragg. (See the faded old clip from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, below.) Bragg’s execution was covered nationally at the time . . . accompanied by a wire-service photo distributed by A.P.
Thanks to Jan Hillegas, a former civil rights activist, death penalty opponent, and tireless researcher based in Jackson, a partial list of old executions does exist, which I’ve put in a PDF at the bottom of this post. Unfortunately, there are errors in it, as Hillegas is well aware. I was able to update her with better information on a few cases, ones for which I found local newspaper stories that had more accurate details. But some I couldn’t find. So there’s a case or two that still seem mysterious to me.
I approach this not as an activist but as a researcher—I have mixed-up feelings about the death penalty and always have. Nor am I criticizing Hillegas—she’s a great person and this is a huge and thankless task—but here’s an example of the discrepancies that crop up. In her list, black males named Ernest McGehee, Johnny Jones, and Isaac Howard were executed on the same day in 1934, but in three different counties. In fact, they were executed on the same day in the same town (Hernando) for the same alleged crime: the rape of a 17-year-old white schoolgirl.
Meanwhile, it would be nice to have a roster that contains more than just names, because there are sometimes amazing stories behind these listings. McGehee, Jones, and Howard were charged with the rape in early 1934 and were dead within 80 days, because the nature of the accusation—black-on-white rape—inspired officialdom to hustle them to the gallows.
After they were arrested, they were packed off to Jackson to shield them from a likely lynching. When they were brought back to Hernando in February, they were protected by 400 National Guard troops armed with rifles, pistols, grenades, and gas guns. They were kept in a vault until they were hauled out just long enough to plead guilty. When they were hanged a month later, they were still under heavily armed guard, because plenty of people would have preferred to ferry them off to a lynching, even then.
This problem could be fixed, of course: All it would take is a few dozen people volunteering to look up a few cases each. Any takers?