Revolutionary German playwright, and former political prisoner, Ernst Toller chronicles the thoroughly barbaric executions of California prisons after visiting James McNamara serving life for the 1911 Los Angeles Times bombing, in San Quentin. McNamara would die in prison in 1941. If anything, the situation today is even worse.
‘Chicken Dinners and Gallows’ by Ernst Toller from Labor Defender. Vol. 5 No. 2. February, 1930.
(This is the second of two articles written especially for the LABOR DEFENDER by Ernst Toller. The first, appearing in the January issue, described his interview with Tom Mooney in San Quentin.)
I THEN spoke with McNamara, who has already been in prison for nineteen years. He belonged to that group which blew up the building of the Los Angeles Times in 1911. The court had no proof that he was guilty. A bribed employee of the defense lawyer stole documents from the attorney’s safe proving McNamara’s participation. To save twenty-five workers accused of the bombing, he declared that he, his brother and Schmidt were the only ones who had participated. For nineteen years they have remained in prison. In all other cases the prisoner would have been pardoned after serving so long a term. They have no hopes and yet they remain unbroken.
McNamara told me that his job was to bring food to those sentenced to death. How many had been sentenced to death in this prison? Sixteen! On December 9 a few more were hanged.
Later I went through the prison. It was meant for 2,400 prisoners, but 4,300 are jailed there. The American public does not ask about the reasons for this cruel crime. It believes that all those in jail are “bad people” and is satisfied with that.
It does not see that the economic conditions which cause unemployment bear the greatest part of the guilt.
All the prisoners wear the same grey uniforms. They work in various shops. Every prisoner has to do a certain amount of work before he leaves his work bench.
All the prisoners must work at first in dirty, noisy weaving shops. “Here you are to be cooked to a pulp,” say the prisoners.
In the free hours they may play football, baseball, or smoke. But only the few enjoy these privileges, those prisoners who “behave,” because for the others there is no place in this overcrowded prison. They crouch in the courtyard, where not a single speck of green is to be seen, while outside the. beautiful landscape blooms.
The most dreadful disciplinary punishment is the dark cell. The punishment cells are underground. Fresh air is pumped into the corridor from the outside through a ventilator.
Before we left the prison the guard took us to the death cells and the gallows. A day before the prisoner is hung, he is transferred to the death cell, a large wooden cage in a room controlled from all sides. In this room there are guards day and night to see to it that the prisoner does not do himself any harm and steal the privilege of the law. A few years ago a prisoner, two days before he was to be hung, tried to commit suicide, He was taken to the hospital, carefully cured and made strong and healthy again. Then they hung him.
In the same room there is a compartment in which hangs a stock of ropes. I counted about twenty ropes. A heavy weight hung on each one to avoid the stretching of the rope at the hanging. Every man gets his own rope, which is afterwards burnt. The loop is knotted with seven rings. It is called the “hangman’s knot.”
In another corner of the room is an harmonium. To my question a guard answered: “There are prisoners who want to be hung with music. Oh, they have it good,” continued the guard. “Whatever they want they get. One wants jazz music, and the prison organist plays jazz dances for him. They get better food than we guards, even chicken dinners.”
I went into the cage. On the table blotter two names were written in ink- Johnny Malone and Frenchy Lapiere. Both had been hung a few
months ago. One because he had killed his wife, the other because he had beaten a policeman. One of the last to have waited in this cell to be hung was the 19-year old Edward Hickman.
A sliding door separates this room from the execution chamber, in which the gallows are built, A stairway leads you up to it. It has thirteen steps. Before the prisoner goes to the gallows his arms and hands are bound to his body and when he stands on the trap-door of the gallows his feet are bound. This is done to prevent the body from twisting when hung.
Should a prisoner become unconscious another contraption is ready for use. A black board about a foot wide is fastened to the bonds which tie his arms and tied to his back so that his body remains erect.
Two men can be hung at the same time. As soon as the prisoner steps on the trap-door a black rape is thrown over him. The hangman places the loop around his neck and draws it fast near the ears. In a small room on the platform of the gallows you see three threads fastened on a table top. One of them is fastened to a rope weighted by an iron ball, which lets down the trap-door on which the prisoner stands and thrust him into the air. Before these three threads stand three guards who, at the command, cut the threads. None of the guards is to know who had given the death blow. On the table can be seen the notches of many executions.
The guard who showed me about told me that he had seen many executions.
“In what conditions are the people when they go to the gallows?”
“Good. I only saw a few unruly. Most of them walk up the thirteen steps very erect.”
“Do they die immediately?”
“Hanging is a wonderful method, much more human than the electric chair. In one moment his neck is broken. His limbs still wiggle, that lasts from fourteen to sixteen minutes, for that reason we tie his arms and feet with bonds, so that they do not beat around but they do not feel that.”
As we left the prison we went by the cells of those sentenced to death. Before every cell- the cells are only narrow square holes separated from the corridor by a lattice-work-hung a flower pot.
Flower pots, chicken-dinners and gallows with music–in this mixture twentieth century civilization expresses itself. A prisoner sentenced to death winked at me, another, as I remained standing, laughed loudly.
Before the prison the Golden Gate sparkled in endless blue.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/labordefender/1930/v05n02-feb-1930-ORIG-LD.pdf