Hidden History

He Killed 140 Men in the Electric Chair. Then He Took His Own Life.

The man who operated New York State’s “Old Sparky” was calm, collected and always professional. No one knew that every flick of the switch was tearing him apart.

He Killed 140 Men in the Electric Chair. Then He Took His Own Life.

It’s eleven p.m. on Thursday, September 17, 1925 – “Black Thursday” to the residents of Sing Sing prison in New York’s Hudson Valley. The inmates are locked down for the night, unable to leave their cells. All except one.

Prisoner Julius Miller, with four guards as well as the chaplain in tow, just walked twenty paces from the pre-execution waiting cells, called the “Dance Hall,” to the legendary “Death House.” He’s standing next to the electric chair inmates long ago nicknamed “Old Sparky.”

The warden asks him for any last words. He has none.

The guards quickly seat him, buckling black leather straps round his limbs and torso.

The “State Electrician,” John Hurlburt, a grim-faced man in his late fifties, of average height and wearing a dark suit and spotless black shoes, steps forward. His job has all but destroyed him. But Hurlburt’s disposition betrays nothing as he carefully checks the electrode strapped to Miller’s right leg. The electrode is in working order, and the sponge it contains is soaked in brine, just as it should be.

Hurlburt is calm, impassive, and entirely professional. But he’s gritting his teeth and a thin sheen of sweat adorns his stern face. He doesn’t want to do this, to keep on doing it. But he has no alternative. He also doesn’t know that this, his 140th execution, will be his last.

Hurlburt slides a leather helmet over Miller’s carefully-shaven head. It contains another electrode and another sponge. He connects a cable, ensures the wingnut is finger-tight, that the electrode is flush against the skin. He wraps a black leather mask round the prisoner’s face and pulls it tight, buckling it round the back of the chair.

Miller’s eyes are now obscured, but Hurlburt, slowly coming apart, makes a point of never looking a prisoner in the eyes. It’s hard enough to throw the switch, harder still if he accepts in the slightest that he’s about to kill in cold blood. All Hurlburt chooses to consider are the technical aspects, reflecting a deep desire to get it over with, collect his check, and go home.

With that, he takes a few steps to the alcove where the switchboard waits. All that remains is for the warden to give the signal.

He does so immediately, and Hurlburt jerks the lever. A dynamo hums, the sound rising and filling the silent room. Miller jerks forward and up, strains against the straps. Hurlburt watches and works the dials, bringing the voltage up, down, then up again. The prisoner spasms as the voltage rises and falls. Tendrils of smoke rise from his head and leg. Hurlburt cuts the power and the doctor steps forward, stethoscope in hand.

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“I pronounce this man dead,” he says flatly.

A scent of burned flesh hangs in the air amid a deafening silence.

Justice has been served.

The electric chair in the death chamber at Sing Sing prison, 1923.
The electric chair in the death chamber at Sing Sing prison, 1923.

Or perhaps not. Sing Sing Warden Lewis E. Lawes, who supervised Miller’s electrocution, when asked if execution was really any better than murder, responded scornfully with: “As if one crime of such nature, done by a single man, acting individually, can be expiated by a similar crime done by all men, acting collectively.”

From dime novels to Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy to movies like “Angels with Dirty Faces” and “The Green Mile,” “Old Sparky” has provided the denouement in countless, beloved American stories. “In the hot seat,” a phrase derived from the notion of death by the electric chair, now describes unpleasant personal or professional predicaments. Old blues standards name-check “the chair,” the final destination for many an African-Americans through history.

Capital punishment has destroyed prison staff and executioners as well. They’ve suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and depression. John Hurlburt, the second of New York’s five “State Electricians” through history, was one of them.

Born in Auburn, New York in September 1867, Hurlburt was initially hired as an electrician at Auburn Prison – the first prison to host an execution by way of electrocution, that of William Kemmler on August 6, 1890. It was botched so horrendously that George Westinghouse, a pioneer of the electrical industry and Thomas Edison rival, remarked: “They would have done better with an axe.”

Kemmler’s inhumane death did not deter New York and other states from carrying out more executions via the electric chair. To date over 4,300 people – 695 of those in New York – have walked their “last mile” to “ride the lightning.”

While executing 140 of Sing Sing’s 614 “thunderbolt jockeys,” Hurlburt was, emotionally, slowly deteriorating.

A prisoner is strapped to the electric chair at Sing Sing prison, circa 1900. (Photo by William M. Van der Weyde)
A prisoner is strapped to the electric chair at Sing Sing prison, circa 1900. (Photo by William M. Van der Weyde)

At Auburn Prison, Hurlburt met Edwin Davis, the world’s first “electrocutioner.” Like Hurlburt, Davis was a dour, quiet, and taciturn man. Enormously secretive about his work, Davis executed 240 inmates between 1890 and 1914. Though Davis himself claimed to have no faith in the death penalty, before retiring he trained two assistants: Hurlburt and Robert Greene Elliott. Both assisted at executions, themselves performing several under Davis’s supervision.

Despite this, it was Davis who conducted the busiest Black Thursday in Sing Sing’s history when, on August 12, 1912, he electrocuted seven men consecutively, a single-day’s state record. Those of the seven waiting to die wreaked havoc in their cells as they saw the others led away, one by one. The horror lingered long in the mind of Sing Sing doctor Amos Squire, who described it thus:

All of us in the execution chamber – witnesses and officials – could hear them, as could those of the seven who went first. The shrieking and wailing I heard that day is indescribable. The whole thing was like a nightmare, unreal and yet horrible.

Hurlburt took Davis’s place and Elliott replaced Hurlburt. The State of New York, meanwhile, reduced the number of electric chairs, if not the usage. Originally using three, those at the Auburn and Dannemora correctional facilities were discarded. By 1915, Sing Sing had a custom-built, maximum-security facility solely used to confine and execute New York’s condemned. Officially named the “Condemned Cells” this facility earned world-wide infamy as the “Death House.” Sing Sing’s inmates called it something else: “The Slaughter House.”

Hurlburt’s first official engagement saw him take on double duty – executions of George Coyer and Guiseppe DeGoia at Auburn prison on August 31, 1914. Hurlburt drew $150 for a single job, with an extra fifty per head for the second inmate onward. Twice he executed five, earning himself $400 for the night’s work.

His wife Mattie was chronically ill. Medical bills piled up, so, long after Hurlburt began to abhor the job, it was executions that paid them off. The stress simply never ceased.

He tried desperately to remain anonymous, never discussing executions with family or friends. The press constantly tried to sneak a photograph, though they were never successful. Hurlburt had demanded his name be kept secret, but that only encouraged reporters, and it wasn’t long before his name made the papers.

High profile executions made secrecy even harder and there were plenty of those. Notorious inmates attracted big press interest. Hurlburt executed New York’s notorious killer cop Charles Becker and the four hitmen Becker hired to kill gambler Herman “Beansie” Rosenthal. He threw the switch on “Playboy Poisoner” Arthur Warren Waite. When Hans Schmidt became America’s only Catholic priest executed for murder, Hurlburt executed him. The “Paper Box Kid,” Oreste Shillitoni, the only successful escapee from Sing Sing’s legendary Death House, died at Hurlburt’s hand when recaptured.

The greater the interest, the harder it became for Hurlburt to remain anonymous, and like Davis before him, he feared vengeance. The more executions he performed, the more enemies he figured he had.

Worse still were botched executions. Very few executioners go their entire career without mistakes and Hurlburt’s was not one of them. Charles Becker convulsed so violently he popped the restraining chest strap and needed three jolts before dying. Thomas Tarpey, the second of the five Hurlburt executed on September 3, 1915, needed five jolts.

An illustration that appeared in the June 1888 issue of the magazine, Scientific American, announcing the electric chair as a new form of execution.
An illustration that appeared in the June 1888 issue of the magazine, Scientific American, announcing the electric chair as a new form of execution.

Then, there were the surreal executions. When Hurlburt executed Leo Jankowski and Walter Levandowski in 1920, Jankowski, in constant misery, stood beside the chair sobbing with relief that his life would soon be over. Another inmate made a curious last request, wishing to perform his final walk on his hands. Hurlburt’s first sight of him came as he entered the execution chamber upside-down.

But the bills kept coming. So did executions in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and further afield. Hurlburt conducted Nebraska’s first when Alson Cole and Allen Grammer “burned” in 1920. So too, almost, did Hurlburt. He fled a party of outraged death penalty opponents threatening to lynch him.

Hurlburt’s temperament increasingly worsened. Prison staff reported regular yelling and the throwing of equipment around the death chamber before executions.

Hours before a triple execution on April 30, 1925 Hurlburt finally collapsed. Recovering enough to throw the switch, he spent a week in Sing Sing’s hospital. After two more executions – of John Durkin and Julius Miller – he suddenly resigned on January 16, 1926. (Prisoners John Slattery and Ambrose Ross were delighted. Scheduled for execution on January 20, their sentences were later commuted, thanks in part to the delay.)

When asked about his sudden resignation, Hurlburt said, “I got tired of killing people.”

Emil Klatt and Luigi Rapito weren’t. By January 29 New York had appointed Davis’s other apprentice Robert Elliott. State law required executioners be qualified electricians of good character and preferably experienced. From over 150 applicants Elliott was the only option. With Elliott appointed, Klatt and Rapito were doomed. Serving until 1939, Elliott had notched numbers one and two of his eventual 387. Despite having been co-workers, Elliott was critical of Hurlburt, ascribing problematic executions like Tarpey and Becker to Hurlburt’s alleged lack of technique.

As Elliott became New York’s best-known, most prolific executioner, Hurlburt’s decline only accelerated. His wife Mattie died in September 1925. On February 22, 1929, grief-stricken and haunted, Hurlburt entered the basement of his Auburn home. In his hand was the revolver he’d carried while Auburn Prison’s ordinary electrician two decades earlier. His body was discovered by his son Clarence. The official cause of death was suicide.

Dr. Squire had endured 138 executions. He also resigned, stating: “The horror of that one duty grew on me until I could no longer bear it.”

Prison Chaplain Father Cashin abruptly departed to an ordinary parish, his reasons officially “unspecified.” Principal Keeper Fred Dorner – leader of the execution team – also suffered a nervous breakdown.

Hurlburt was dead, but “Old Sparky” wasn’t. Thousands more “fried” before the gas chamber, then lethal injection, rendered it obsolete. Sing Sing’s last electrocution, of murderer Eddie Lee Mays, was in August 1963. The former Death House is now a vocational center where inmates learn a trade before parole, scratching days off their calendars more hopefully than their predecessors. The chair is now an exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.