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March 1996

Letter from the West Virginia Penitentiary warden to House of Delegates

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following letter was printed in the Journal of the House of Delegates, 1905. (Charleston: Moses W. Donnally, 1905), 291-92. It is reprinted here as a interesting companion to the foregoing article on executions in West Virginia.


Moundsville , W. Va. Jan. 23, 1905.

To The Members of the House of Delegates:

Late Saturday afternoon while in Charleston I learned for the first time that a bill had been introduced in the House of Delegates abolishing executions by hanging and substituting therefore, electrocution or execution by the electric chair. Subsequent inquiry revealed that this bill was reviewed by the committee on humane institutions and public buildings (instead of the Penitentiary Committee, to which it surely belonged) and that the committee had recommended passage of the bill. I was compelled to leave town early the next day and accordingly address you this letter.

This bill effects materially the official force of this institution, and we view its possible passage with grave concern. Let me say that no greater mistake could be made than the passage of this bill, from the standpoint of humanity, efficiency, safety and economy.

No doubt, the gentleman who prepared and offered this bill was actuated by a feeling of humanity and desired to do what he considered would be a great improvement, with less pain, and less distress, but the very opposite of this is the case.

The present system of conducting executions here is by all means the most humane, the safest and least painful and is less expense [sic]. From the time the subject is started from his cell until he reaches the scaffold, steps on the trap, is bound, strapped, the noose adjusted, the black cap placed, the brief prayer said, and the subject dropped and dead, is less than sixty seconds.

There have been twelve executions here since the law requiring executions at the penitentiary passed, three under my predecessors--nine under my administration. In every case there has not been the slightest hitch or error, and the subject has been subjected to no delay, so terribly hard to stand. Our people know exactly how to do this work and it is done quickly.

But the electric chair is the very opposite. It takes ten minutes to adjust the electrodes (which seems like ten hours), the sponges, and arrange for everything, for everything has to be done with the most absolute precision, and in the only two states that have this system, there have been recently the most unsatisfactory results, and the current has had to be applied over and over, to the great horror and disgust of the officials.

That is not all. Electrocution is the most horrible death known. Every nerve is shattered, every blood vessel bursted, the bones crushed and broken, and in ten minutes after, every particle of the victim's body is black and blue, a most gruesome sight--exactly what occurs to parts of the victim of a stroke of lightning.

To maintain an electric chair would involve a large expense, where as the present system involves no expense whatever.

In Ohio and New York they employ an expert electrician at a salary of $1,200.00 per year, who does nothing else but look after the necessary electrical machinery for this purpose alone.

The voltage of the electric current of our dynamos is not sufficient to use for this purpose, at all. We would be forced to purchase a powerful transformer, at a great expense.

The electric chairs are made by only one concern on earth, and cost a fabulous price. The installation of the equipment would cost at least $2,500.00 and the expert would cost $1,200.00 a year, all of which is saved under the present system and is far superior.1

I regret very much to have to annoy you with the discussion of the details of a painful subject, but it seems necessary for you to know the facts in this matter.

Previous to having an execution here under my administration, I supposed, like the author of the bill, that electrocutions were more humane and better. But after hearing from their own lips the experiences of the Warden of the Ohio Penitentiary and the Superintendent of Prisons in New York, both of whom denounce their system, and after my subsequent experiences here, I am unalterably opposed to the electric chair. We use electricity to spring the trap, and that it [sic] all the need we have for electricity.

I desire to urge you in the most earnest manner of which I am capable, to vote against this bill, in the interest of humanity, propriety and economy. Our officers are quick to ask for improvements here and had this been regarded as an improvement, we should ourselves have asked for it long since.

I shall thank you to make as much of these views public as in your opinion is necessary and advisable.

Yours truly,

C. E. Haddox,


1. The penitentiary's entire power plant was replaced in 1905 at a cost of $9,500, "the expenditure of which is fully justified by the improved conditions, the greatly enhanced efficiency, the economy of operation and the certainty of results." Biennial Report of the Board of Directors of the West Virginia Penitentiary, 1905-1906 (Charleston: Tribune Printing, 1906), 15.

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