Death Chair Demeanor of Murderers

New York Herald/August 8, 1920

Young Hyatt’s Calmness Recalls Others Whose Executions Stirred Great Interest—How Dr. Waite, Becker, Hamby and Harris Faced Ordeal

The great public interest incident to the execution of Elmer Hyatt, the eighteen-year-old Rochester boy who paid the death penalty in the electric chair recently at Sing Sing for the murder of a policeman, brings to mind many other murderers memorable not only for their crimes but for the sensational or otherwise unusual incidents of their last days. On top of the widespread sympathy stirred by Hyatt’s youth came the startling “confession”—only fifteen minutes too late to stay execution—of a man whose attempt to assume responsibility for the crime led the authorities after investigation to announce him demented.

Hyatt, according to reports from the prison, went to the death chair calmly. How some of the murderers whose cases parallel his in public interest faced death is told in the accompanying article.


by Herbert Asbury

There does not seem to be any way of determining how a murderer is going to act when the time comes for him to pay with his life the penalty which the law exacts as punishment for his crime. It would be sound logic for a murderer to face execution with the same calmness and disregard of consequence that he showed in plotting the death of his victim. But the electric chair is no respecter of sound logic.

In Arthur Warren Waite was one of the most remarkable criminals the detectives of the New York Police Department have ever brought to justice. He was a college man, a graduate dentist with sufficient knowledge of medicine to have practiced as a physician had he so desired, and an athlete of no mean order who had distinguished himself as a tennis player.

Scientific Murder

Yet Dr. Waite was a murderer, a double-murderer. He killed his father-in-law and his mother-in-law, both of them old and with only a few years more to live anyway, for no other reason than to obtain quickly a small amount of money which they had accumulated and which would soon have passed largely to his wife in any event.

The New York detectives believe that Waite plotted the murder of his wife’s parents for several years. He studied bacteriology until he became well acquainted with the germs of various diseases which are always fatal. His mother-in-law, Mrs. John K. Peck, came from Grand Rapids, Mich., to visit the Waites in their New York apartment late in 1915. A month later she became ill with pneumonia, and a few days after that she contracted typhoid fever also. She died after two or three weeks’ illness. On the advice of Dr. Waite the body was cremated, after reputable and competent physicians who had attended her had certified that she died from natural causes.

But in reality Mrs. Peck was murdered by Dr. Waite. Her first illness, a slight cold, was a result of exposure when Waite took her automobile riding one chilly January afternoon. the next morning, under pretence of giving her medicine to relieve the congested condition of her lungs, Waite inoculated her with pneumonia germs. He immediately called a physician, who began treating the patient, but as rapidly as the doctor gained headway against the disease Waite inoculated Mrs. Peck with more germs, and when she was almost dead from pneumonia he inoculated her with germs of typhoid fever. The end then came quickly.

By having the body cremated Waite destroyed whatever evidence of his crime might have remained, and it is probable that the murder of Mrs. Peck never would have become known had not the dentist confessed to it later.

Two months after the death of Mrs. Peck her husband came to New York to visit his daughter and son-in-law. He, too, became ill and finally died of natural causes, so the death certificate said. Dr. Waite advised that the body be cremated, but the dead man’s son objected and the body was then embalmed and sent to Michigan for burial. Waite continued to urge cremation, and his plans probably would have been carried out had not a mysterious telegram came to Percy Peck, a son of the murdered man. This message said:

“Suspicions aroused. Demand autopsy. Do not reveal telegram. K. Adams.”

This telegram was one of the great mysteries of the Waite murder case, and to this day the police have not been able to find the person who sent it. It remains an unsolved mystery. But Percy Peck became suspicious also, especially so in view of the fact that both his father and his mother had died in Waite’s apartment within two months, He caused an autopsy to be performed by Dr. Perry Schultz, who found large quantities of arsenic In Mr. Peck’s stomach. Detectives immediately were set to watch Waite, and when the evidence against him began to accumulate he took an overdose of a drug which almost killed him. When he recovered he was arrested, eventually confessed to both murders, and was convicted and sentenced to death. He was electrocuted at Sing Sing prison shortly before midnight on May 24, 1917.

After his conviction Waite displayed an amazing disregard of what was going to happen to him. He was absolutely unafraid. He actually seemed to be waiting eagerly for the end.

Waite made no apparent spiritual preparations or confession of faith such as men usually make in like circumstances. For days prior to his execution he was in communication with a woman spiritualist and he promised her that after he was dead he would return and give her some message to prove the existence of the world beyond. But so far as has been learned no such message has been received.

The condemned man seemed to be the last concerned person in the prison as the hour of his death approached. He often boasted that the chair would find him as steady and fearless as he had been through the long days when he waited for death. Only a few hours before death he asked the warden, William H. Moyer, if he might make a statement after he was seated in the electric chair.

“I will have time,” he remarked, “while the guards are adjusting the straps and the electrodes.”

Warden Moyer gave Waite permission to say whatever he felt he had to say.

At exactly 11 o’clock Principal Keeper Dorner and Chaplain Petersen walked swiftly down the corridor of the death house to Waite’s cell.. Waite sat on the couch with his head clasped in his hands and his body leaning forward. As the keeper unlocked the door the keys rattled in his trembling hand. The noise aroused the doomed man. He looked up, smiled, rose lightly to his feet and asked:

“Are you ready for me now?”

The instant the lock clicked he pushed the cell door open and stepped lightly iInto the corridor. He almost skipped along, and as he came to the cells of the other nine men who were awaiting execution he stopped before several of them, raised the black curtains which are always lowered when a man goes out to die, and spoke some word to the men who had been his only companions for months. To several of them he gave pencils and fountain pens and other small belongings.

The death procession continued on down the corridor, and as they drew near to the death chamber the clergyman stepped forward, took his place in front and waived backward, repeating the Twenty-third Psalm:

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Waite kept his nerve throughout all the leave-taking of the men who were soon also to die, through all the solemnity of the reading of the Psalm; he kept it until he rounded a turn in the corridor and came to the little green door leading into the death house.

Then his nerve forsook him. He hesitated, almost stopped, and it was only with a great effort that he regained his composure and stepped into the electrocution chamber. As the little green door swung open and the doomed man falteringly approached the death chair three voices were heard to say:

“Goodbye, Arthur! Goodbye! God bless you, Waite!”

Three of the nine inmates of the death house had voiced these parting words, and Waite paused for an instant on the threshold. It seemed as if he were trying to reply. Then his jaw snapped shut, and with staring but unseeing eyes, he marched steadily ahead. In six paces he reached the chair and slumped into it. Had the chair been three feet further he never would have reached it unassisted. He sat there with his shoulders hunched forward, his face ashen and gray, his eyes glazed and his hands twitching nervously.

At last everything was ready. There was an instant during which no sound could be heard save the voice of the clergyman:

“He maketh me to go down in green pastures.”

And then the arm of the prison physician swept downward, and behind a curtain in a corner of the little room the electrician threw a switch. Waite had died without making the statement he boasted he was going to make, and at the last moment he had lost his nerve.

Hamby’s Strange Conduct

Quite different from the behavior of Waite was that of Gordon Fawcett Hamby. Hamby was a two gun burglar and bandit, and after he had been convicted of killing two officials of the East Brooklyn Savings Bank while holding up that institution and stealing $13,000 he confessed that under the names of Hamby, Boyd Browning and Jay B. Allen he had committed thirteen bank robberies, two train holdups and several murders.

Hamby was of unusual interest to criminologists. He fought against being extradited when he was captured in the West. But when he finally was brought back to New York and identified as the bank robber he took refuge in fatalism. From then on he did not display the slightest emotion. He asked that his trial be hurried, he requested the judge to sentence him to death at once and he forbade his attorneys to take an appeal from the verdict of the Jury.

“I committed the crimes,” he said; “it is right that I should pay the penalty.”

Hamby’s conduct was so strange that a lunacy commission was appointed to inquire into his sanity. The commission reported that Hamby had been unusually well educated, that he had a brilliant mentality and that his mind was better and clearer than that of the majority of men.

There was not the slightest doubt that he was sane.

Hamby was cheerful all during the time that he was waiting in the death house to be executed, even to his last day.

On the morning of the day of his execution Hamby was visited by both the Protestant and the Catholic chaplains of the prison, hut he asked that neither of them accompany him to the chair.

“It seems such mockery,” Hamby told the chaplains, “after the life that I have been leading to go to the chair with a priest or a minister by my side. Let me walk alone.”

Last Hour Spent With Ouija Board

The bandit and self-confessed murderer spent his last hour playing with the ouija hoard, and when the keepers came to lead him to his execution he jumped up, saluted them with a flourish and said:

“I’ll be right with you!”

He calmly lighted a cigarette, stuck both hands in his pockets and actually swaggered down the corridor, He never faltered when he came in sight of the little green door, the sight that had unnerved so many men before him. He came on steadily and confidently, puffing calmly on the cigarette, and bowing cheerfully as he entered to the newspaper men and the other official witnesses who sat silently on the wooden benches facing the electric chair. Hamby stopped before the chair, pinched the fire from his cigarette, and spoke to the warden:

“May I say a word?”

“Certainly,” replied the warden, “anything you like.”

“Thank you,” said Hamby. He turned to the witnesses.

“I Just want to say. gentlemen, that any man who stood in front of Jay B. Allen’s gun had a chance. That’s all ”

He sat calmly in the chair and motioned to the guards.

“Go ahead, boys!”

The guards busied themselves adjusting the electrodes and the straps and the prison physician came nearer to see that everything was done properly. Hamby noticed him and smiled.

“Where is the red handkerchief, Doc?” he asked.

This referred to a joke, as he termed it, which he had been having with the physician. He had suggested that the latter obtain a new, bright red bandana handkerchief with which to signal the electrician when everything was ready for throwing the switch.

And these were the last words that Hamby ever spoke.

The doctor made an almost imperceptible motion with his hand; behind the curtain the electrician threw the switch, there was a low humming sound and Gordon Fawcett Hamby was dead with a smile on his face and a joke on his lips.

He was young, somewhere in the early twenties, but he left behind him a criminal record that has been equaled by few. Guards who had been at Sing Sing for many years and who have seen many men die say that Hamby faced the electric chair more courageously than any other man who ever passed through the little green door, with the possible exception of two—Carlyle Harris and Sam Haynes.

Haynes was a negro, and he was executed for murdering a woman near Patterson, N. Y. He died only a few minutes before Charles Becker, the New York police lieutenant, who was executed for instigating the murder of Herman Rosenthal, the gambler, for which four celebrated gunmen and gangsters also paid the supreme penalty. Haynes walked firmly to the chair, sat down and said in a strong, clear voice: “Gentlemen, I die strong in Christ!”

Becker’s Execution

The execution of Charles Becker was the final episode of one of New York’s most famous murder cases, and his death and the story of how he died probably got more space in the metropolitan newspapers than any other execution in the history of Sing Sing.

Becker was a powerful man physically and a powerful man mentally as well. He kept his nerve throughout all the racking period of doubt and anxiety, when he and his attorneys and his friends and all of the members of his family were petitioning Gov. Charles S. Whitman and all the courts for clemency. But they failed, and finally there came the night when Charles Becker was to die. He stepped firmly from his cell when the keepers unlocked the door and bade him walk to his death, and he walked firmly enough down the corridor.

But the little green door was too much for him as it had been for scores of other men who had gone through it and into the terrors of the room and the electric chair beyond.

He came into the electrocution chamber with has checks gray and ashen, with his tongue rattling loosely in his half open mouth and his lips quivering like the lips of a frightened child. He seemed to have lost all sense of direction. He stumbled forward, with glazed eyes staring ahead, his feet pounding flatly on the floor. He walked beyond the chair and then turned, and with an awkward sidewise glance he backed and sat down in it, or rather he slumped into it. He would have fallen out onto the floor had not the keepers hurriedly begun adjusting the straps and applying the electrodes.

But even the hardened keepers were affected, so much so that they forgot to fasten the buckle in the strap across his great chest, the one of them all which was counted upon to hold his body in the chair when the current was applied. They worked quickly, while the prison chaplain stood before Becker reciting the office of the dead, and the lips of the doomed man moved in quavering prayer:

“Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my –.”

He never finished. He never said the word “soul.”

The physician signaled that all was ready and the electrician threw the switch. But the chest strap gave way, and the big body of Becker, hurtled forward by the force of the current, flung itself halfway out of the chair. The keepers hurriedly adjusted the straps again and another shock was applied. Then Becker died.

Last Days of the Famed Gunmen

The four men who were executed for actually murdering Rosenthal, the gunmen who fired at him from the security of a motor car while he stood on the sidewalk in front of the Hotel Metropole, were Frank Cirofici, known as Dago Frank; Harry Horowitz, known as Gyp the Blood; Jacob Seidenshner, known as Whitey Lewis. and Louis Rosenberg, known as Lefty Louie. None of them was strong mentally, and the constant strain under which they had been laboring while waiting in the death house had so unnerved them that they were pitiful spectacles when they finally received the shock of electric current that ended their careers on earth.

Dago Frank died bravely enough in that there was no outcry from him, but his step faltered as he came through the little green door and he fairly dragged himself the last few feet to the chair. Lewis was next. He was the most stolid of the four. He walked to the chair without assistance, sat down and appeared to be calm. But as the keepers advanced to adjust the straps and electrodes he brushed them aside. “Gentlemen”‘ he shouted, loudly, waving his arms excitedly. “I want to make a statement, gentlemen; for the sake of Justice I want to make a statement, gentlemen! Them people on the stand who said they saw me shoot; gentlemen, I want to make a statement! They are perjurers, gentlemen! I swear by God I did not fire a shot at that Rosenthal!”

His voice rose louder, almost to a shout and at the height of his harangue the current was turned on and he died.

Gyp the Blood, for all of his terrifying name, was the weakest of the lot, and had to be assisted into the chair. He seemed utterly dazed and bewildered, and said nothing and made no resistance when the straps and the electrodes were adjusted.

Lefty Louie Runs to the Chair

Lefty Louie did an extraordinary thing when his turn came. He came bounding out of his cell, stepping swiftly, and led the way down the corridor. Within sight of the green door he broke into a run, and came running into the death chamber and seated himself in the chair. He said nothing, but his face was gray and his fright and agony of mind were apparent.

Within the memory of Sing Sing keepers there is but one man, with the exception of the negro Haynes, who went to the electric hair with courage comparable to that of Gordon Fawcett Hamby. This man was Carlyle Harris.

Harris was the principal figure in a murder case which attracted great attention in the early ’90s. He was convicted of having murdered Helen Potts, 19 years old, by poisoning her with morphine. Harris was a medical student, and when he heard that the girl’s mother had accused him of being responsible for her daughter’s death he demanded an investigation by the District Attorney. Evidence developed which caused his arrest, and he was executed after a trial which possessed remarkable features. Not the least of these was the speech which Harris made when the judge asked him if he had anything to say before sentence was pronounced.

Relatives of Harris, particularly his mother, exhausted every hope in trying to obtain a new trial for him, or at least having the governor commute his sentence to life imprisonment. But nothing could be done, and on May 8, 1891, Harris was electrocuted in the death chamber at Sing Sing.

Whatever Harris had been during his years of freedom he was a good deal of a man at the end. Veteran keepers of the prison said they had never seen a man with more nerve.

“I can have no motive now for concealment,” Harris said after the keepers had strapped him into the chair. “I die absolutely innocent of the crime for which I have been convicted.”

Five minutes later the black flag, rising to the head of the prison mast, told his mother, waiting in a little house on the hillside nearby, that her son was dead.

And yet she was not content. On that very day she had graven on his coffin this inscription:



Murdered May 8. 1893.

Aged 23 years 7 months and 15 days.

“We would not if we had known.” –Jury.


The last line was Harris’s own the words he had used in his speech in the courtroom when he was sentenced. But the second line was his mother’s.

(Source: Library of Congress, Chronicling America,

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