Courtesy of W.Va. Division of Culture and History
John Hardy, center, was hanged in Welch before a crowd of thousands in 1894.
John Hardy, center, was hanged in Welch before a crowd of thousands in 1894.
by Justin D. Anderson
When Cecil Underwood was first elected governor in 1956, there were four men sitting on death row.
"Three of them were executed and one I commuted," Underwood said this week. "He was a Clarksburg boy who sexually attacked and murdered a teenager. A doctor's report said he was hopelessly insane."
Underwood, a Republican, couldn't recall the commuted prisoner's name. But he remembered having the inmate examined by three different medical teams in West Virginia and one out-of-state physician.
The day after he let the prisoner off the hook, Underwood said the victim's mother held a press conference to denounce the decision. Then she committed suicide.
"I got more criticism for that one than any of the other three," Underwood said.
Ninety-four men were executed within the walls of the West Virginia Penitentiary at Moundsville from 1899 to 1959.
Underwood was governor during the last state-sponsored execution.
Now, more than 40 years after lawmakers abolished the death penalty, it has appeared again on the state's legal landscape.
A federal jury in Charleston last week recommended that two Mingo County residents -- Valerie Friend and George Lecco -- be put to death for their parts in the murder of Carla Collins, who was working with investigators looking into a cocaine-dealing ring headed by Lecco and run out of his pizza shop in Red Jacket.
Jurors said Lecco ordered Friend to murder Collins so she couldn't talk to investigators.
During Underwood's watch in the late 1950s, he said, on execution days he ordered that the telephone lines be kept open to the penitentiary until the very last minute "in case there was some circumstance to commute the sentence."
While he generally opposed the death penalty as governor, Underwood said he had to carry out the law as it was.
Eugene Linger, Larry Paul Fudge and Elmer Bruner all were electrocuted for their crimes during Underwood's watch.
Bruner was the last to die by state-sponsored execution in 1959. Underwood said there was no indication at the time that Bruner's execution was that significant.
Bruner had been convicted of beating a Huntington woman to death with the claw-end of a hammer. Fudge was convicted of kidnapping the wife of a Huntington city council member and then driving her to a park where he raped and stabbed her.
Linger was the first to be executed during Underwood's watch. Linger was executed for killing a handicapped door-to-door salesman in Weston shortly before Christmas in 1956.
As a member of the House of Delegates from 1949 to 1955, Underwood said he voted in favor of at least one bill that would have abolished the death penalty.
Nowadays, Underwood said he's inclined to support the death penalty.
"Some of the crimes have been so hideous I think there's no other punishment," he said.
The only other living governor serving during the state's 60-year history of capital punishment is Hulett Smith.
Smith still stands by his decision to sign the law that abolished the death penalty in West Virginia in 1965.
Smith, a Democrat who now lives in Beckley, doesn't regret his decisions one bit, said his former press secretary, Jack Canfield. Smith still considers his signing of the bill that banned capital punishment in West Virginia a great moment in the state's history, Canfield said.
Smith, 88 and in poor health, was not available for an interview.
During Smith's 1964 campaign for governor, he told a group of ministers he was against capital punishment by "mature belief and faith," Canfield said.
"He didn't go out and pound the podium and say, ‘If I'm elected governor, I'll abolish the death penalty,' " Canfield said. "But he gave his position."
Bills abolishing the death penalty had been introduced in the state Legislature as early as 1955, Canfield said. Press coverage of executions was causing a stir in the public realm.
"It was a highly visible public issue going into the 1960s," Canfield said. "Newspapers were involved. Key legislators were involved."
Smith signed legislation ridding the state of capital punishment in 1965. He cited the possibility of judicial error resulting in an irreversible punishment.
Smith's action ended a practice reaching back to the state's earliest days.
Before the state took over, county sheriffs were responsible for carrying out the hangings of criminals, according to a report compiled by the West Virginia Historical Society.
Lawmakers in 1899 passed a law that transferred all executions to the Moundsville penitentiary under the state's supervision because the hangings were starting to turn into public spectacles.
The hanging of triple-murderer John F. Morgan in Ripley in 1897 is credited with prompting the new law.
Morgan's hanging drew nearly 5,000 rambunctious people, who, according to a New York Sun reporter, were gathered "on foot, on horseback, in wagons, up trees and on fences."
Onlookers came from 60 miles in each direction, the reporter noted. Some had started on their journeys to Ripley over muddy state roads two days in advance of the hanging. They packed every hotel room and camped out in the town square and in pastures surrounding the town.
Salesmen hocked jewelry, knick-knacks, silver teaspoons and corn salve.
The reporter quoted one local as saying: "Well, now, I reckon, they ain't no two county fairs has ever drawed like this here hangin'."
Most of those who gathered for the hanging were drunk and throwing money at the salesmen. The local prosecutor wasn't amused.
"One after another he tackled the fakirs and denounced them," the article said.
Henry W. Deem, the editor of the Jackson Herald at the time, said the story was accurate on the details but an "extremely extravagant exaggeration of weird wonders."
The new law passed because of this scene put any further executions behind the walls of the penitentiary out of public view and into the hands of the warden and his officials, who were paid $25.
Republican Gov. George Atkinson signed the law on Feb. 18. Soon afterward, the Wagon Gate was built at the penitentiary for $6,000, the report said. The hanged fell through trap doors built into the roof of the building.
Shep Caldwell from McDowell County was the first man hanged at the penitentiary wagon house in 1899 for killing his mistress, according to the state historical society.
Eighty-four more prisoners were executed by hanging over the next 50 years.
Bud Peterson from Logan County was the last man hanged. Peterson was sentenced to death for killing a woman over a poker debt.
According to an Associated Press account of the 1949 execution, just before the trap doors of the wagon house dropped open, Peterson said he got good treatment at the prison.
He then addressed about 10 witnesses who had gathered.
"Look what sin has brought me," Peterson said. "You folks should stay on this side with Jesus."
Peterson's family refused to claim his body, so he was buried in the penitentiary cemetery.
Meanwhile, legislation circulated in the Statehouse that would switch the method of execution to electrocution.
Another such bill had circulated as early as 1905, according to a letter of opposition to lawmakers by Warden C.E. Haddox.
Haddox urged lawmakers to reject the notion of using the electric chair, saying penitentiary officials had "grave concerns" about the switch and there could be no "greater mistake" than their passing the bill.
"The present system of conducting executions here is by all means the most humane, the safest and least painful and is less expensive," Haddox wrote.
"From the time the subject is started from his cell until he reaches the scaffold, steps on the trap, is bound, strapped, the noose adjusted, the black cap placed, the brief prayer said, and the subject dropped and dead, is less than sixty seconds."
In the 1940s, however, the debate on execution had changed. A lot of states had gone to the electrocution and lethal injection as more humane ways of carrying out the sentence.
West Virginia lawmakers followed the trend, passing the electrocution bill in 1949.
The first two inmates to sit in the electric chair were Harry Burdette and Fred Painter on March 26, 1951. The men were convicted of stomping a soft drink salesman to death at the corner of Washington and Summers streets in downtown Charleston.
The men held off a gathering crowd that tried to intervene with a knife as they kicked the man lying on the pavement.
Robert Ballard Bailey, a Charleston glass worker, was supposed to die in the electric chair on the same day as Burdette and Painter.
But Gov. Okey Patterson commuted his execution to life in prison because new information cast doubt on Bailey's guilt -- namely, that South Charleston police were chasing a drunken driving Bailey at the time he was supposed to have been murdering a tavern keeper.
Bullet holes in Bailey's car backed up the story.
Patterson didn't pardon Bailey because he was not convinced of Bailey's innocence.
Reporting on Burdette and Painter's execution, Daily Mail staffer Chuck McGhee described the new electric chair as having "golden oaken arms, polished like a ballroom floor and fitted with the copper coils of death."
"The chair, a beautiful work of the carpenter's art, and one fitted with a loving touch of fine appliances, sits almost directly beneath the nine-foot-high scaffold where 85 men have plunged downward to their death on a rope," McGhee wrote.
Two trustees working at the penitentiary coal mine escaped on the day of the men's executions, taking advantage of the hullabaloo surrounding the preparations.
Once penitentiary officials got down to business, it took a little more than three minutes' worth of electricity to execute Burdette.
Painter, however, had to be jolted twice after two physicians found that he was still alive after the first round. Painter was pronounced dead more than nine minutes after sitting in the chair.
"The whirring of the death apparatus died down, the whistling and the sizzling noise of a man being killed in an electric chair was silenced, a guard stepped forward, lifted the mask and wiped away the sputum, again opened the shirt of Painter and the doctors applied their stethoscopes," McGhee wrote.
Some of the men who witnessed the executions turned their heads from the scene. One left the death chamber. Two men from Ohio "never took off their hats in the presence of death."
U.S Senator Robert Byrd was in attendance. He was a member of the state Senate at the time.
Also witnessing the executions was Herb Schupbach, the Wetzel County delegate who sponsored the electrocution bill.
After the executions, Schupbach said, "It looks like it was a good bill."
Contact writer Justin D. Anderson at email@example.com or 348-4843.