Op-Ed

In October 1947, NC’s gas chamber took a grim toll

Although the state of North Carolina has gone more than 11 years without an execution being carried out at Raleigh’s Central Prison, there were years when executions were far more frequent in the Tar Heel State.

This October marks the 70th anniversary of the deadliest month of executions in state history.

On Halloween, Oct. 31, 1947, four men were put to death in Central Prison’s gas chamber. With six more October 1947 executions – including a single-day record of five on Oct. 3, the total of 10 executions in a single month is a state record. The 23 executions in 1947 also tied the state record for a year. There were also 23 executions in 1936.

Not only were executions more frequent in the 20th century, but the time elapsed from crime to conviction to execution was swift. And that time period was even shorter for some African-Americans, who were also the victims of vigilante lynchings that often occurred in response to rumors or lies.

Executions have waned in the U.S. and far fewer people are being sentenced to die. In North Carolina, however, the death penalty is an option still embraced by a majority of state legislators, most of whom would like to see executions resume.

Today, there are inmates who have resided on the state’s death row for 20 years or more. In 1947, a person accused of a capital crime could be convicted and executed in just a matter of months.

North Carolina has carried out 405 executions since Walter Morrison, a laborer from Robeson County, became the first person to die in the state’s electric chair on March 18, 1910. Prior to 1910, executions were carried out by individual counties. More often than not, the victims were young black men. In fact, the 299 Central Prison executions of African-Americans account for 74 percent of all executions.

Of the 23 executions in 1947, 17 were carried out in just five days, and 19 of the 23 victims were African-American. Three of the executed were black men convicted of rape, and one, Willie Cherry, 25, of Northampton County, was executed for burglary of a white couple’s home.

N&O reporter James Whitfield covered most of the 1947 executions. For the most part, Whitfield’s accounts focused on the actual executions with descriptions of the final minutes of the lives of the condemned men.

The N&O headline on the bottom of page 1A on Oct. 3, 1947 stated: “State to Take Five Lives through Executions Today.” Whitfield’s report opened with: “Five young North Carolinians who stirred their communities by murder and burglary, will file down Death Row into the gas chamber at Central Prison this morning in the largest execution yet – conducted by the state.”

Because one of the condemned men, Earl O’Dear, 23, who was white, jammed the lock on his cell door, two African-Americans – Jethro Lampkins, 20, and Richard McCain, 21 – were executed together in the gas chamber’s two wooden chairs. A sub-headline in the Oct. 4 N&O account of the executions read: “Negroes First.” The report stated that Lampkins and McCain, “Negroes and natives of South Carolina led the death march and gave their lives for the murder of Thomas F. McClure.”

Whitfield wrote: “Lampkins entered the gas chamber at 9:37, stared through the glass partition at the witnesses and sat calmly as attendants adjusted the straps and placed the death mask over his face to black out light from his eyes for all time.”

Also executed that day was Robert Messer of Jackson County. He and O’Dear were strapped into the execution chairs next.

On Halloween 1947, four African-American men – J.C. Brooks, 29; Grady Brown, 27; and Thurman Munn, 25 all of Henderson, and Lester Stanly, 27 of Edgecombe – were executed for murder.

Whitfield reported that Brooks and Brown, “who died hard,” could be heard singing hymns in the cells as witnesses waited for the executions to begin. One witness to the executions of Brooks and Brown, C.E. Livingston of Hendersonville, “left the gas chamber two minutes after the men began dying with the comment that, ‘I’ve seen enough of this,’” Whitfield wrote.

Cherry, who was described as illiterate, was sentenced to death for breaking into the Rich Square home of J.G. Tarrant, who was a district manager of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. An account of his case was reported in The Jackson News, a Northampton County weekly that is no longer published.

By today’s standards, Cherry’s case is shocking, not only because his primary charge was burglary, but because his arrest (April 25, 1947) trial (June 25) and execution (Oct. 3) all took place in less than six months. Cherry may have also escaped being lynched after the local sheriff moved him to Central Prison for “safekeeping” following his arrest. The Jackson News reported the failed lynching attempt.

Testimony from Cherry’s two-day trial states he stole $15.11 in cash and a “partly-filled,” three-year-old bottle of brandy from the Tarrant home, items that were recovered. Cherry, who testified in his defense, told the court that he was under the influence of alcohol and did not remember the crime.

N&O reporter Whitfield gave this account of Cherry’s execution, the fifth of the morning of Oct. 3.

“The gas was released at 11:18 and Cherry was pronounced dead at 11:27 and a half, causing only nine and a half minutes to be consumed in paying for a crime that shocked Eastern North Carolina, especially Rich Square where Mr. and Mrs. Tarrant were held in the highest esteem.”

Whitfield said Cherry never made eye contact with the witnesses – most there to support the Tarrants – “and kept his head toward the floor,” which “brought the remark, ‘He can’t face us’ from one North Hampton County man.”

Whitfield also quoted a prison chaplain who said: “Cherry took the reality of impending death more calmly than the other four.”

The days of executing people for burglary and rape are over in North Carolina, but with 140 men and three women still on death row, there’s no guarantee that the Republicans in the General Assembly won’t bring back this brutal and racist practice. There’s no place for state-sanctioned killing in a civilized society.

Patrick O’Neill is co-founder of Garner’s Fr. Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House, a community that provides hospitality to the poor.

  Comments