Texas switches from the noose to ‘Old Sparky’


With the modern and supposedly more humane electric chair due to replace the gallows at midnight, an overflow crowd packed the courthouse square in Angleton on Aug. 31, 1923 for the last public execution in Texas.

The first dose of “manufactured lightning” was administered in 1890 to a convicted wife murderer in New York, but the much-heralded debut was something less than an unqualified success.

The warden cut off the current after just 17 seconds on the advice of the attending physicians, who felt certain the subject must have expired. Upon closer examination, however, the doctors discovered to their astonishment that the man was still very much alive and called for a second jolt.

This time the warden took no chances. Sixty seconds at full power not only finished the job but filled the execution chamber with a ghostly white vapor and the sickening stench of cooked flesh.

Despite this inauspicious start, electrocution was soon accepted as the most efficient and least painful method of capital punishment. By 1920, more than a dozen states had changed from the rope to the hot seat.

Denouncing county-seat executions as a barbaric relic of the frontier past, L.K. Irwin launched a one-man campaign to bring Texas in tune with the times. The state legislator converted many to his cause with the argument that public hangings harmed society almost as much as the condemned.

Irwin insisted executions usually degenerated into bloodthirsty carnivals that did nothing to instill in spectators a respect for the law. All too often, untrained local officials made the spectacle even more gruesome when the drop failed to snap the victim’s neck. On those occasions, he slowly strangled to death in full view of women and impressionable children.

In the 1923 session of the Lone Star legislature, Irwin introduced the Electric Chair Bill. In addition to doing away with the gallows, the proposal relieved county sheriffs of the burden of the carrying out death sentences. Future executions would be held behind closed doors inside the Texas Department of Corrections.

During the debate over the bill, an opponent put the sponsor on the spot. He offered to reverse his vote if Irwin promised to be on hand for the initial execution. The lawmaker agreed, and the measure passed.

Most counties were happy to put their gallows in mothballs and immediately shipped prisoners under death decrees to Huntsville. Not so in Brazoria County, where officials decided to proceed with the Aug. 31 hanging of a convicted killer.

To avoid a replay of the recent mob scene at Waco, where 10,000 gave a mass murderer an unruly sendoff, access to the Angleton execution was severely restricted. A high wall was hurriedly erected around the site in an effort to keep down attendance.

Nevertheless, 150 people squeezed into the 25- foot square while hundreds more searched for cracks in the wooden barrier that might provide a peek at the proceedings. At 11 o’clock in the morning, a wedge of deputies escorted Nathan Lee to the scaffold.

The confessed slayer of an elderly farmer reaffirmed his guilt and urged the sweltering spectators to learn from his fatal mistake. He hummed a church hymn as the traditional black hood was lowered over his head. Moments later, the sheriff released the trap door, and death by hanging became a part of Texas history.

While the electric chair was under construction in a prison workshop, the warden abruptly resigned rather than assume his new duties.

“It just couldn’t be done, boys,” he told reporters. “A warden can’t be a warden and a killer, too. The penitentiary is a place to reform a man, not to kill him.”

A retired lawman volunteered to take his place.

“I have hanged several men while I was sheriff,” he noted, “and to pull the switch of an electric chair means no more to me than pulling the lever of the gallows.”

But opening night for “Old Sparky” was a ghoulish ordeal even the experienced executioner found hard to stomach. Since no one had been put to death in several months, five executions were scheduled back-to-back.

After sending the fourth man to his doom, the shaken warden phoned the governor and pleaded with him to call it a night. Told to finish the job, he wearily ordered the guards to bring in the fifth and final inmate.

The numb witnesses stared at the five sheet-shrouded forms lying side by side on the floor next to the electric chair. Someone finally broke the eerie spell by heading for the exit, and the rest followed in a daze.

A newspaperman caught up with L.K. Irwin in the parking lot and pumped the politician for his reaction.

“It was more humane,” he argued lamely, “but at the next legislature I’m going to sponsor a bill to stop the death penalty.”