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.
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.
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.