Death on Wheels–Jackson, Mississippi

Hinds County Courthouse
407 East Pascagoula Street

For about fifteen years, death traveled on wheels throughout the state of Mississippi. During that time, a portable electric chair crisscrossed the state as counties needed to execute inmates. The chair along with portable generators and an executioner would set up in county courthouses or jails in order to do their gloomy work and then move on to the next date with death.

There’s something cruel and disturbing in how Mississippi seemed to delight in their use of “Old Sparky.” Even how the deaths are reported in the local papers is tinged with a sense of pride. Between 1940 and 1954, 73 people met their fates while embraced in the chair’s wooden arms.

Mississippi's portable electric chair
The state’s executioner, Jimmy Thompson, poses with “Old Sparky” with an assembly of young boys. Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

When the instrument was first used in 1940, photographs were proudly published in Jackson’s Clarion-Ledger showing the inmate being strapped in and then a second photograph as the first surge of electricity surged through his body. One blogger noted that photography during executions has been banned throughout the country and that they are exceedingly rare with this being one of only two such photos, the other being the infamous photograph of Ruth Snyder being put to death in New York’s infamous Sing Sing.

Despite being stored in the state capitol building in Jackson, death did not claim a victim there until the 9th of February 1944. Just after midnight 23-year-old Elijah Parker was led into the basement of the Hinds County Courthouse to meet his fate.

Clarion-Ledger
9 February 1944
Page 1

PARKER DIES HERE
IN ELECTRIC CHAIR

The Wages of Sin Is Death

With the final words, “Yes, Father,” plainly visible on his lips, Elijah Parker, 23-year-old Madison county negro, died in the state’s portable electric chair at 12:27 this morning for his part in the slaying of T. Henry Gober over a year and half ago.

The negro was led to the chair by Deputy Sheriffs J. T. Naugher and Bob Stone, and as he entered the basement where the electrocution took place he clasped a Catholic prayer book tightly between his hand-cuffed hands.

His pearly white teeth shone brilliantly behind a faint grin as he sat down in the chair, and he watched intently as officials strapped him securely in the chair. Just before his left arm was strapped to the chair, he handed the prayer book to Father Mathis.

Father Mathis uttered a short prayer and then leaned over close to the negro and said, “be sorry for your sins,” to which the negro replied, “Yes, Father.” These were his last words.

Switch Thrown

Seconds later the state’s official electrocutioner, C. W. Watson threw the switch that shot 2,300 volts of electricity through the negro’s body. The chair gave a quick lurch and the strap holding Parker’s left leg to the chair broke loose, and his fists clenched tight.

Fifty-five seconds later, Dr. S. J. Hooper stepped forward, held a stethoscope to the negro’s heart and shook his head indicating that the negro was not dead. Seconds later more voltage was sent through the negro’s body and then Dr. Cecil Walley stepped up and examined the negro and indicated that he was still not dead. Dr. Hooper then examined him and pronounced him dead.

Sheriff L. M. (John) Gordon read the death warrant to the negro in the jail before he was brought down to the basement. Officials said that the negro remained calm until the last and offered no struggle as he was led to his death.

Spectators Look-on

Some several dozen spectators watched what was the first electrocution to be held in Hinds county.

Elijah Parker became the twentieth person to die (the first in Jackson) in the state’s portable electric chair since that method of electrocution was first installed in Mississippi several years ago.

Fifteen persons died in the chair while Jimmy Thompson served as the official electrocutioner and five have met death since C. W. Watson has been electrocutioner.

Although the sheriff of Hinds county is the official custodian of the chair, Parker became the first person to die in it in Hinds county.

Parker was convicted in November 1942 by a Hinds county jury for his part in the bludgeon-slaying of T. Henry Gober, well-known Madison county farmer, in the early morning hours of July 23, 1942, and was subsequently sentenced to death in the state’s portable electric chair by Judge Jeptha F. Barbour, then circuit judge.

Two teen-age accomplices of Parker were tried at the same time and sentenced to life imprisonment in the state penitentiary. Since that time one died at Parchman.

The Hinds county judgement was affirmed by the State Supreme Court when an appeal was taken to that body, and later when the case was carried to the U. S. Supreme Court that body declined to hear it.

The case was returned to the State Supreme Court and the date of execution was reset for February 9, today.

_____

Elijah Parker’s last request was to have the following song words published:

LET MY LAST DAY BE MY BEST
CHORUS

Lord let my last day be my best.
Lord let my last day be my best
And I know good Lord,
You will do the rest.

If I was dying without Jesus,
On my side it would be miserable,
To think about the death I died.

But I have found Jesus,
And now I am satisfied,
Going to work right on;
Until the day I die.

When I am dying friends and relatives
Standing at my bedside crying then
Lord let my last day be my best.

The appearance of the Hinds County Courthouse is foreboding. It is faced with limestone giving the impression that it is a single carved piece of stone rendered in the Art Deco style. Construction commenced in January 1930 and ended in December of that year. The building contained not only courtrooms, and county offices, but a jail and an apartment for the jailer.

Hinds County Courthouse Jackson Mississippi
The Hinds County Courthouse, 2018, by Michael Barera. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

With such a history, the building is no doubt haunted, though there are no modern published reports of paranormal activity within this building. However, an article appeared in a 1947 Clarion-Ledger noting that several custodians had encounters here.

Clarion-Ledger
20 February 1947
Page 1

Do State’s ‘Chair’ Victims Return?

GHOST HAUNTS HINDS
COUNTY COURT HOUSE

Laugh if you will and scoff if you must, but a ghost last night made its grim appearance in the basement of the Hinds County Court House.

The eerie apparition was seen at about 8 p.m. by P. E. Brent, custodian of the building. The ghost has been reported by several negroes during recent weeks as roaming the basement in the vicinity of the spot where the state’s portable electric chair claims its doomed. But last night was the first time a white man actually saw the melancholy, shadowy figure.

Brent had just left the boiler room where he makes an hourly check. He walked toward the stairway and suddenly halted, sweat forming on his forehead, his muscles tense. Standing a few yards away, facing him, was the transparent outline of a man, about 5 feet 9 inches in height. A black hood covered the figure’s head and shoulders. There were no slits for the eyes or nose.

Brent gathered courage and walked slowly toward the immobile figure, amazed at what he saw and determined to solve the mystery. But as he approached, the figure slowly disintegrated before his eyes, leaving nothing but a vivid memory in the custodian’s mind.

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Brent said after the strange experience. “But I’m convinced that some sort of apparition in the form of a man with a black hood was standing near the stairway when I emerged from the boiler room.”

Several colored janitors have quit their jobs at the court house during recent months because of their belief that the basement is haunted.

The three present employees, however have taken rather philosophical views of their shadowy colleague. All of them claim they have seen the ghost several times.

On one recent occasion, Ben Britton, one of the negro janitors saw a man walking toward the door. He followed him, since it was late at night and no one was supposed to be in the building. The figure neared the door, opened it and walked out. When Ben got to the door he said he found it locked.

On another occasion, Alec Pools, his co-worker, saw a figure which he said looked like a boy. He told him not to play in the basement. The “boy” turned around and started walking toward him. As Alec started to run, the “boy” disappeared.

Pleas Britton, the third janitor said he saw the ghost practically every week, but added that he “knew he won’t hurt me.”

“He’s one of us,” the negro said. “He couldn’t make heaven or hell and he’s just wandering around. He never does anything. He just wanders around sort of mournful-like. I know he won’t hurt me.”

I pray that if the spirits of any of those who died by way of Mississippi’s death on wheels remain in the Hinds County Courthouse, I sincerely hope they are at peace.

This is not the only spirit from a victim of “Old Sparky” that may continue to haunt the location of their execution. Please see my coverage of Marty’s Blues Cafe in downtown Philadelphia, Mississippi.

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