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Books: Executioner

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AGENT OF DEATH—Robert G. Elliott with Albert R. Beatty—Dutton ($3).

In the execution chamber at Sing Sing prison, on a fine June morning in 1904, a lanky, 30-year-old electrician named Robert Greene Elliott (son of a New York farmer who had intended him for the Methodist ministry) was testing current and equipment. With him was Executioner Davis. “Bob,” said Davis casually, “I want you to throw the switch on one of the fellows this morning.” Young Elliott turned hollow inside. “I’ve got to train two men to be executioners,” Davis explained rapidly.

Pasty-faced witnesses began filing into the bare, dead-white death chamber. The doomed man, flanked by guards, came last, shuffled calmly toward the electric chair. Elliott fastened the head electrode in place, felt the doomed murderer shudder, joined Davis at the switch ten feet away. His head pounded. The prison physician waved his hand. “Now,” whispered Davis.

Elliott threw the switch. The murderer stiffened epileptically; 1,700 volts crackled; smoke spurted from his head. Few minutes later Electrician Elliott unfastened the head electrode. Guards hoisted his handiwork onto a table, wheeled it into the autopsy room. So hard had young Elliott concentrated on doing a clean job, he forgot to feel any emotion at all.

That was Executioner Elliott’s first “case.” Subsequently he became official executioner for six Eastern States. At his death, three months ago, 65-year-old Executioner Elliott had done 387 executions.

At $150 per person he had executed about $50,000 worth. They included Ruth Snyder, Judd Gray, Sacco & Vanzetti, Hauptmann. On his biggest day—Jan. 6, 1927 —he executed three in the early morning for Massachusetts, three that night for New York.

His memoirs, Agent of Death, finished shortly before he died, describe the mechanics of the job, how it affected his personal life (hardly at all), how his victims acted. Opposed to capital punishment but unemotional as a surgeon, Executioner Elliott wrote as matter-of-factly as though he were describing the operation of an electric toaster. Few readers would wish for creepier reading.

As an apprentice Elliott was once strongly tempted to quit when a mulatto screamed and kicked while being strapped into the chair. But such goings-on, he found, were rare. A few doomed men balked momentarily at the door of the death chamber, but subsided quickly. Two men shut their eyes through it all. A few acted as though in a trance (he denies that they are ever doped). But the commonest reaction was bravado. Said wisecracking Gangster George Appel: “Well, folks, you’ll soon see a baked Appel.” Gangster Michael Sclafoni ran his hand over the chair arm. “Dust,” he said finically. “They at least, could give a man about to die a clean chair.”

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