Saturday, May 8, 2010

Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair from NPR

Apropos of the Ray Towler exoneration NPR features, this week, a documentary on the execution for rape of Willie McGee (picture) on their program Radio Diaries.   McGee was put to death a couple of minutes past midnight on May 8, 1951 in Laurel, Mississippi.  The U.S. Supreme Court rejected his death penalty appeal.

McGee was publically executed in a "traveling" electric chair (pic) with an audience of 1,000 on the courthouse lawn.  There is a radio recording of the execution which is featured in the documentary.  The crowd's celebration at the moment of McGee's death is clearly evident from the tape recording.  A book, The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex and Secrets in the Jim Crow South is due out from Harpers, next week.

From about 1940 on,  the mobile electric chair went county to county throughout Mississippi providing "closure" in capital cases.  We can only wonder at how many innocent men and women met their fate in this apparatus. 

We're so much more humane nowadays with the needle and gurney, don't you think? 


  1. I recommend Michel Foucault's amazing book, Discipline and Punish, which is about the historical shift in punishment--the movement of punishment, esp, capital punishment, from public arenas to secret rooms. He makes a good argument that this is actually worse than the good old "honey, let's go get a bite and check out the hanging" days.

  2. Gayle--
    Thanks for the tip, the NYT had a obit on the archivist who had obtained the original audio recording that's the subject of the radio documentary.

    I wonder about the "good old days," seriously I find it all so horrifying. In Japan where the death penalty is still carried out they do it in complete secrecy and with an arbitrariness that is demonstrated to drive inmates subject to the punishment to complete and utter madness before the hanging is carried out within a weird contraption similar to a jail cell itself. The great Japanese film director Kurosawa who remade King Lear in his movie RAN--made a movie in which his was graphically set out in the denounement of a film called THE LOWER DEPTHS. It's a very powerful movie from 1957 that I still rank up there with M as one of the greatest films I've ever seen.

    Great to see you on Bad Lawyer.

  3. I thought Willie McGee and a farmers wife were just having an affair. When they were caught on the job the woman cried "rape!" The result was that her lover was executed. How can that be justice? A posthumous pardon is the least that they could do but knowing what goes on in the deep south, hell would freeze over before that happened.

  4. Anonymous, that guy was a criminal rapist. Period.
    What about if the victim was some of your relatives?