Execution Broadcast

Willie McGee Execution 1 of 3

Willie McGee Execution 2 of 3

Willie McGee Execution 3 of 3

About This Broadcast

Willie McGee was executed in Mississippi’s “traveling” electric chair just after midnight on May 8, 1951, with most of the activity surrounding the event—final legal appeals and so forth—happening during the day on May 7th, which was a Monday.

The electric chair was set up on the second floor of the Jones County Courthouse in downtown Laurel, Mississippi, with a crowd of official spectators inside and a larger crowd—numbering somewhere between 500 and 1,500—assembled on the lawn, sidewalks, and streets on the south side of the courthouse. A generator truck supplied the chair’s current, which was fed through long lines that came out of the truck, snaked across the yard, and went up the side of the building and on through a window.

Laurel courthouse

The Jones County Courthouse, west side

The execution was broadcast by a small crew from Hattiesburg station WFOR, who used a portable generator transported by automobile and set up outside the courthouse, on the porch of the Laurel jail, which back then was right next door to the east. The on-air voices are Granville Walters, a famous Mississippi radio man from that era, and Jack Dix, a native of Minnesota and an on-air newsman.

Jim Leeson in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, early 1950s

This tape was made in 1951 by Jim Leeson, who at the time was a 20-year-old student at Southern Mississippi College, in Hattiesburg. He was not at the scene. He had a reel-to-reel tape recorder that he often used to record things that interested him, including music in African-American churches. That night, he simply held up a mike to a radio and taped the broadcast. As far as I know, this is the only audio copy that survived.

My interest in the McGee case began back in 1979, when Leeson—who by then was the student-journalism advisor at Vanderbilt University—played it for me and several other students. The tape is now owned by The Center for Oral History and Cultural History at the University of Southern Mississippi. Special thanks to Louis Kyriakoudes, director, for giving me permission to use it here.

ALEX HEARD

4 responses to “Execution Broadcast

  1. Al-Tony Gilmore

    This book will, perhaps, make its mark by the journey it takes us to another time and place not so far in our distant past. I learned a lot from Dan Carter’s book on the Scottsboro Boys, Howard Smead’s book on Mack Parker, and Eric Wise’s book on the Martinsville Seven. If the website “Eyes of Willie McGee” is any indication of the complex issues the book will raise and examine, it will be equally as special.
    After six decades, there still remain lessons to be learned from past injustices such as the tragic fate of Willie McGee.
    Al-Tony Gilmore
    Visiting Scholar of History, George Washington University
    and Director of the Archives of the National Education Association

  2. Dear Alex , know you got in touch with Chris Carroll as I did . In one of my last chat ‘s with Jim I commented on how you and Eric , were obviously influenced by him, and he corrected me by adding ” by osmosis “. Hope to see you on 13th . Dan P.

    • Hey, Dan: Great to hear from you, awful circumstances aside. Looking forward to seeing you next week. Could you make sure to get the word to people from the earlier generation of VSCers? There are lots of people I don’t know about, I’m sure.

  3. Pingback: The Eyes of Willie McGee

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