Between 1940 and 1955, Mississippi executions were carried out in a portable electric chair that usually was set up in the same courtroom where a condemned man had been convicted. During my research for The Eyes of Willie McGee, I read once or twice that Mississippi did it this way because the state’s cruel and unusual politicians thought public executions at the local level were the next best thing to a lynching.
That’s not accurate, and it’s not logical, either, since the dreaded device was used on both black and white defendants, though disproportionately on blacks. During the lifespan of the state’s mobile chair, approximately 43 black males and 16 white males went out this way. (These figures are a guess because, as I explained in an earlier post, Mississippi’s death penalty records are incomplete.)
These days, the chair sits in the lobby of a law-enforcement training facility east of Jackson, where you can see a reminder of the not-infrequent white executions that took place: an old, framed magazine article detailing the weird last day of Maurice Simniok and Joseph Lemmon, a pair of young white soldiers who went AWOL and committed robbery and murder. For unknown reasons that are hard to imagine, the two men laughed and giggled during their final hours, appearing to have a great time even as they gave each other haircuts so the electricity could travel more efficiently through their skulls.
Seeing the chair up close is strange. It’s smaller than you’d think, and it looks like it was built in a junior-high shop class. (In fact, it was made under contract by a Memphis-based firm called TriStates Armature & Electrical Works.) What’s left of the old components sit around loose, and they look medieval.
The switch to this system happened back in 1940, after a few years of debate about modernizing away from the previous means of dispatch: hangings, which, by tradition, had taken place in the counties where crimes were committed. The original concept was to permanently place the chair inside the state pen at Parchman, a Delta town, but people in that county, Sunflower, didn’t want their home turf to be known as the “death county,” so there was lobbying against the plan.
The result? A compromise that King Solomon would have loved—that is, if he’d been married to (and henpecked by) the Queen of Hearts: a chair that came to you, not vice versa. The man who originally pulled the switch was an appropriately flamboyant sort: Jimmy Thompson, an ex-con and onetime carnival hypnotist (known as Dr. Alzedi Yogi) who loved to give colorful quotes about his macabre vocation. “I guess I just have a talent for this sort of thing,” he said once. “Condemned men seemed to trust me, and I never let ’em down.”
Thompson was gone by the time McGee was executed in 1951, replaced by a less memorable man. As far as I can tell, he didn’t say anything remotely cute about it, then or later.
Below, an interesting artifact: a bid from a New Orleans electric company that didn’t get the job to build Mississippi’s chair. I wonder where they went wrong?