Morbid Fact Du Jour for January 20, 2018

Today’s Overconfident Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

On July 18, 1933, sixteen-year-old Edgar A Gibson of Tulsa, Oklahoma was visiting Yellowstone National Park with a party of his peers.  There are two conflicting accounts of what happened on this fateful day.  The superintendent’s version says Edgar’s party was touring the Steady Geyser area in Lower Basin, when another boy dared Gibson to walk across what appeared to be a solid formation but was really hot mud. Gibson sank to his thighs, receiving severe burns from which he later died. This version is corroborated by the Old Faithful logbook that states Gibson fell through hot mud at Steady Geyser, and was burned severely on his legs and thighs.

The newspapers reported that Gibson’s touring party of teenagers stopped at Old Faithful to walk around the geyser basin. Gibson stepped onto what he thought was a stone at the edge of a hot spring. Instead, it was a thin crust of sinter which gave way and precipitated him into the scalding water.

Steady Geyser circa 1958

Regardless of which version happened, forty percent of Gibson’s body was scalded and that was enough to cause his death on July 25, after he lay in agony for a week at the Livingston hospital. The newspapers also reported that overconfidence might have played a part in Gibson’s death, as he had been in the park a year earlier and “no doubt believed himself to be familiar with the section being visited.”

Culled from: Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park  (Oooh – there’s a second edition out!!!)


Crime & Punishment Photo Du Jour!

The book Deadly Intent, Crime and Punishment: Photographs from the Burns Archives, like most of the excellent Burns Archive books, is usually good about documenting its photos, so I found it surprising that this image has only the following caption:

Man in an Electric Chair
circa 1940

Ready to be executed, this man’s head has been totally immobilized by leather straps. One electrode is wrapped around his bare right foot.

I did an image search to see if I could find more of the story and found an excellent article by Robert Walsh about this execution.  It turns out this was the first execution performed after Mississippi changed from hanging to electricity as a primary execution method. Instead of building a “death house” for executions like “normal” states do, Mississippi elected to create a portable electric chair: “The chair would be taken from county to county in a large silver truck also carrying a generator, switchboard, cables, and all the standard equipment for performing electrocutions that any other prison might use.”

And the executioner?  “The new ‘State Executioner’ was Jimmy Thompson, an ex-convict, ex-merchant sailor, frequent drunkard, carnival showman, stage hypnotist, and ex-Marine only recently pardoned in 1939 after serving time at Parchman for armed robbery. He also had a violent past. During the 1920’s Thompson had shot a neighbor for insulting his mother, escaping prosecution only via an unwritten law of Southern life that said a man was allowed to shoot another man to defend a woman’s body or personal reputation. Needless to say, this law only extended to white men and certainly didn’t extend to black men shooting white men on similar grounds.”

And Thompson acted like a circus master with his “toy”: 

“By September, 1940 the equipment was ready for its public unveiling in the state capital at Jackson. Thompson arrived, set up his grim equipment, fired up the generator and worked the controls, cycling the voltage up and down to the deafening sound of the generator and unnerving whine as the current wound up and down.  According to an article in Life magazine dated October 7, 1940:

‘Crowds saw a big silver truck, a portable generator and a sturdy chair complete with helmet straps and electrodes. Beside it stood Mississippi’s new executioner, Jimmy Thompson, ex-sailor, marine, carnival man and high tension expert. No less proud of his chair than of the black cat, snakes and strawberries tattooed on his velvety skin, he explained that he and his volts would travel from county to county as business required’

“Other press reports were far less favourable. The Memphis Commercial Appeal bitterly criticized the exhibition as barbaric and tasteless, stating: ‘The only thing lacking at Thursday’s formal and public exhibition of the State’s new electric chair was a victim.’ At $100 per execution plus expenses, Thompson was as keen to start work as the state was to demonstrate its new concept. It wasn’t long before both would be satisfied.”

Which brings us to this photo: the first victim of the chair.

“Like most of Mississippi’s condemned, Willie Mae Bragg was black. He’d been convicted of murdering his ex-wife in Lucedale. With the state keen to demonstrate its new method and Bragg inspiring no sympathy in appellate judges, it was no great surprise that he was first in line. His date of execution was October 11, 1940. Bragg fully expected to die, but didn’t know he was about to make state and penal history. He would be the first convict to die in a portable electric chair.”

If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking that this execution was botched and Willie Mae died a prolonged, horrible death, right?  But surprisingly, the execution went off as well as can be expected.  And here we have the summary of what is happening in the photograph above: 

“‘The picture was made as the first flash of electricity surged through his body. Note Bragg’s hands gripping the chair and his neck bulging in death’s throes.’ Thompson, always ready to supply a grim, attention-grabbing comment, stated that Bragg had died: ‘With tears in his eyes for the efficient care I took to give him a good, clean burning.’”

Er, okay.  Whatever you say, Thompson.

Additional photos:

Prepping Willie Mae Bragg

Checking the vitals, I assume, though he could still be alive here.  Doesn’t look too …  er…  “damaged”… does he?

And this one shows the executioner just before pulling the trigger:

Funny what you can find out on the internet, isn’t it?

The Traveling Executioner

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