Agents of Death

Robert Greene Elliott was the executioner for six states. He was also opposed to the death penalty

I never met my great-grandfather, Robert Greene Elliott, who died long before I was born, but I know exactly where he was at 12:05 am on January 6, 1927. He was in the death chamber of the penitentiary at Charlestown, Massachusetts. He wasn’t sitting in the electric chair—that was Edward Heinlein, part of a trio of young men who had killed James Ferneau, a watchman, during a robbery fifteen months earlier. My great-grandfather was standing behind Heinlein, controlling the switch. But he could see the condemned man; Elliott—who was already, just a year after he began the work, a seasoned executioner—refused to pull the switch unless he had a clear view of the person who was dying so that he could be sure the execution didn’t get botched. After Heinlein was dead, Elliott electrocuted Heinlein’s cohorts: first, John Devereaux, the young man who had actually killed Ferneau (shooting him in the leg once and then pistol-whipping him), and, then, John McLaughlin, another man who had been part of the robbery. Heinlein and McLaughlin, who by all accounts had not attacked Ferneau, were condemned to death because they had been part of the felony robbery during which the murder occurred. 

After those three executions, my great-grandfather slept for a few hours and then took the train into New York, where he met with his wife, Addie Belle, and his eldest daughter, Frances (who would, decades later, become my grandmother). By that time, Frances was grown and living on her own in Manhattan, away from the family home in Queens, working as a secretary at the Waldorf Astoria. She would be married later that year, in the summer, to my grandfather, Gustav Lindtveit. 

The three Elliotts had dinner and went to a movie, a “sparkling light comedy,” according to my great-grandfather. I have long wondered what that movie was. It was a good time for silent movies, early in 1927, right before the talkies arrived. Did they see Louise Brooks in The Show Off? Marceline Day in The Boy Friend? I’ve got no idea. Dinner and a movie were a diversion, at any rate. After the movie, Addie Belle and Frances went home, and Robert got on the train for Sing Sing, where, shortly before midnight, he electrocuted Charles Goldson, Edgar Humes, and George Williams, who, like the men electrocuted in Massachusetts that morning, had killed a watchman in a robbery.  

Robert Elliott had killed six men in one day, his busiest as executioner for the states of New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey; later, he also served Connecticut and Vermont. In total, as official executioner for those states from 1929 to 1939, he electrocuted 387 people, including Sacco and Vanzetti, the anarchists convicted of murdering Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli in an armed robbery; Bruno Hauptmann, convicted of kidnapping and murdering the baby Charles Lindbergh, Jr.; Ruth Snyder, convicted of murdering her husband Albert (although the illicit photograph taken of her execution by a reporter who smuggled a camera, strapped to his ankle, into the witness room, made her more famous than her crime); and Albert Fish, convicted for the kidnapping and murder of ten-year-old Grace Budd, although he was a cannibal and sadomasochist suspected of having killed many other children, more than one hundred by his own count. 

Robert Greene Elliott was opposed to the death penalty. 

I first learned about my infamous great-grandfather when I was five years old and reading methodically, in a self-invented project, through all the books in my parents’ bookcase. (I’d finished all mine, and it wouldn’t be until the next year, when I turned six, that I had regular access to a library.) One of these books, Agent of Death, was Elliott’s memoir. The year before Elliott died at the age of sixty-five, a journalist named Albert Beatty interviewed him for Collier’s Weekly. The articles that Beatty wrote for Collier’s out of those interviews appeared over five issues of the magazine, well-illustrated with photographs of Elliott at home with his roses and his car and his grandchildren, clearly meant to establish Elliott’s kindliness, amiability, normality. The book was published the year after that, in 1940, with the interviews providing its foundation.  

When my mother found me with her grandfather’s memoir, she turned to a photograph in the middle. “That’s me,” she said, pointing to the tallest child in a photograph showing a lanky gray-haired man holding hands with five children, all of them walking toward the camera, smiling shyly. The caption identified them as Elliott’s grandchildren. My young soul was tied to that book forever by that photograph. I recognized both my mother and my uncle Bobby, but it would be years before I met her cousins—actually, they were double first cousins, the products of two marriages of Elliotts and Lindtveits. At the time the photo was taken in 1939, the children had all been growing up near each other on Long Island. Within a year, R. G. Elliott was dead. Soon after that, my mother’s immediate family moved south, to the Texas Gulf Coast area, to help found the Dow Chemical Company city of Lake Jackson. Then, however, they were having what my mother remembers as an idyllic childhood, even if their beloved grandfather was the state executioner.  

The caption to the photograph doesn’t name Elliott’s grandchildren, and my mother is the only grandchild to appear by name in the book, which describes how she once ran home, at age nine, crying to her own mother, my grandmother Frances, after playmates told her that her beloved “Bampa” was a bad man. Elliott writes that my grandmother explained to her that it was better for someone like Bampa to do this job of killing for the state, because he was kind and didn’t like to kill people. Apparently this helped my mother absorb the information, though she doesn’t remember the incident; she only remembers being told about it, she tells me, though I’m not sure I believe that. Rather than admitting she doesn’t want to talk, she’ll often say she doesn’t remember. But that’s the story, and the family belief is that this was an excellent explanation. Elliott himself says it was this incident that caused him to break his years of silence and start to give the interviews to Beatty. More people, he says, might be lacking Frances’s “careful explanation,” which he hoped the book might provide. So my mother was useful to history, whether she remembers the incident or not. 

“My hand has thrown the electric switch that has sent 370 persons to meet their God,” Elliott writes. “But I have not killed these people. You, who read this and are voters of these six states, have done that.”  

I’m one of those voters. And though my great-grandfather’s explanation that it is the voters in death penalty states who do the killing seems clear enough on the surface, it gets murkier the further I follow it down. Like R. G. Elliott, I am against the death penalty, but I live in Pennsylvania, where, at this writing, 186 people are on death row. Our last execution was that of Gary M. Heidnik, in 1999, who died by lethal injection for murdering Sandra Lindsay and Deborah Dudley, two of six women he had kidnapped and tortured. We’ve executed only three people since 1976, when the moratorium on American executions was lifted, though the majority of people in my state consented to it the last time the state as a whole decided on the death penalty. I wasn’t here, so I didn’t vote against it. But I was here in 1999 when Heidnik was executed, and according to my great-grandfather’s logic, I’m culpable in that death—not legally culpable, as were the two men who were in on the felony robbery when their friend decided to pistol-whip the watchman, no, but morally culpable. No matter how I vote, no matter what signs I carry, no matter what letters I write to newspapers, no matter what I post on Facebook, my hand is, like my great-grandfather’s, on the switch. And it gets murkier; though he says voters pulled the switch, not he, he was indeed a voter in New York.  

Well, OK. We are all culpable. We are all connected. In a country in which humans are legally killed, we are all killers. And yet, if we put our minds to it and imagine ourselves in the shoes of either Heinlein or Elliott, I suspect most of us can more easily imagine pistol-whipping a watchman in the heat of an armed robbery than we can imagine standing calmly behind an electric chair and pulling the switch. Executioners are law-abiding outcasts. Liminal, border-walkers, shunned by all. 

Even those who are carefully inclusive, respectful of the variety of human experience, can feel just fine about disparaging executioners. At my Unitarian Universalist church, for instance, we have little meetings for special interest groups in between the two Sunday services. These groups discuss spirituality and science, social justice, paganism, Emersonian traditions. I used to go to the poetry group; we would all bring poems on some given topic and talk about them. 

I don’t go to that group any more, though. One month, when the topic was “work,” another member brought in the Carl Sandburg poem “The Hangman At Home.” Sandburg was a Unitarian, so his poems are especially prized in our church. The poem was read aloud: the hangman’s baby girl sleeping, the hangman easily disconnecting his murderous job from his domestic life. “Anything is easy for a hangman,” Sandburg writes.  

There was a lot of praise for what the rest of the group saw as Sandburg’s courageous examination of the executioner’s inability to connect the various aspects of his life and to see the innate immorality of his work. The level of unconsciousness that the hangman must live in—going home and playing with his little children, making jokes about rope! Divorcing the rest of his life from the moment he inflicts death! Oh, if only we could all be conscious, we would never do such evil things! We would refuse to cooperate with the state! We would stand firm! 

My church loves that poem. I heard it again during services, a few months later. 

But I am appalled by Sandburg’s easy, smug assumptions about executioners. According to him, the executioner is shallow and brainless. Clearly, according to Sandburg, one would have to be, to be an executioner and not be a sadist.  

Of course, Sandburg is hardly the only writer to question how executioners can do their jobs and remain human. In 1929, spurred by an AP dispatch covering the execution of Paul Jaworski for his part in a felony robbery that included a murder, the journalist Waldo R. Browne wrote a commentary for The World Tomorrow, wherein he imagined questioning Elliott, asking him how he could stomach his work. But though he could imagine questions, he couldn’t imagine answers. Surely, his article implied, Elliott was not human: “I cannot realize you at all,” he writes, “cannot conceive of you as made in the semblance of other men.” Browne finishes his essay by saying, “So long as we uphold or tolerate the jungle law which still permeates our conception of justice, so long as we deny the Galilean by flouting His most fundamental precept, just so long must we all share with you, Robert Elliott, the badge of that high office—official executioner for several States.” But I don’t find that to be a compelling finish. It’s a shallow conclusion. Nothing in the article has in any way connected the rest of us to Robert G. Elliott. We may all share the badge, but only Elliott wears it. 

The executioner is a chimera—monstrous, implausible, slammed together out of disparate and disconnected bits. He is a family man. He is a murderer. He loves his roses and his grandchildren. He is not human. He speaks out against the death penalty. He is thoughtless. 

After looking for him for decades now, listening to my family, searching the archives, I have found such contradictory reports of my great-grandfather that I now feel further away from truly understanding him than I did when I was five and first came across his mediated voice. 

Some of the contradictions stem from the various interpretations we have of the material; some of it appears to be, simply, entirely fabricated. Denis Brian, for instance, in Murderers Die, a true-crime thriller, quotes Elliott as saying, after his first victim vomited on him, “He was a killer, and it didn’t bother me too much.” This quotation appears nowhere else. In his memoir, Elliott certainly discusses his first execution. He doesn’t mention the man throwing up, but he does discuss how disconcerted he was at pulling the switch for the first time. He had attended executions before as a helper but had never been the executioner. His boss had sprung it on him so that he could have the experience; they needed someone to be able to take over the job when necessary. I tracked down Brian to ask him where he had heard the story of the vomiting criminal and the calloused executioner. He told me he’d gotten it from Elliott’s book. Not true, I e-mailed back; it’s not in there. Well, then, he replied, he must have gotten it from a British newspaper. But it’s been too long; he says he doesn’t remember. I left it at that. I haven’t found the news item yet, but I’m willing to believe some newspaper printed that story rather than that Brian made it up entirely. And maybe they even believed it. Really, the point is, you can say anything about an executioner.  

The executioner is an easy target. We may say we understand that he, or very occasionally she, is merely an instrument of the state, that each citizen in a state that practices execution has his or her hand on the rope, the switch, the syringe, the gas chamber door, but we don’t really believe it.  

After all, why, if not out of sadism, would a person choose to perform executions? Maybe for money, but in Elliott’s case, I don’t think that was the primary motive, either. I don’t doubt the extra money was useful, but my great-grandfather owned a thriving electrical company in Queens. I think his motive was partly moral; he was appalled at the number of people who pleaded to be allowed to perform his executions for the fun of it or out of hatred for the condemned. But I think it was primarily an issue of craft. The condemned humans were going to die, and they were going to die in the electric chair. He wanted those deaths to be as merciful as possible, and he had devised a method meant to make sure that’s what they got—a series of jolts of electricity to make the condemned unconscious first, and then finish them off. 

In my Irish drama class, I have my students read Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow. Near the end of the second act, the guard Regan, the moral center of the play, explains to a new guard why the hangman needs to get a look at the prisoner, the “quare fellow” who’s to be executed in the morning. The science involved is difficult and crucial, as is the artistry. “If he gave him too much one way he’d strangle him instead of breaking his neck, and too much the other way he’d pull the head clean off his shoulders.” The hangman is aiming for a clean snap of the neck. Quick death, head attached. Though the doctor gives him the man’s height and weight—the science—the hangman needs to see the man to judge his build—the artistry. My students are discomfited by the play, which is exactly what Behan intended; like my great-grandfather, he wanted his audience to think deeply about the death penalty. His indictment of the death penalty is aimed at us, not at the hangman, who is clearly taking his job seriously, intent on doing it well. Frankly, I ask my students, if you were to be executed, wouldn’t you want an executioner who knew what he or she was doing and intended for you to suffer as little as possible? I’d want that. Indeed, I’d just as soon have an executioner who not only knew how to do his (or her) job well, but who also believed killing me was wrong. I would want him to be aware of the horror of what he was doing. 

What I took away from my great-grandfather’s book, at five, was the knowledge that my family is deeply connected to a terrible, but honorable, history. What I further understood, by the time I was a teenager, was that opposition to the death penalty was a hereditary obligation. And what I came to understand as an adult is that none of this history can be made right. The understanding that no matter how fully and deeply we work at making complete moral sense of the world, we will fail, has informed my entire understanding of the world and the humans in it, and has formed the basis of my constant attempts to figure out what is right and what is wrong. My great-grandfather was a craftsman. He worked hard to make sure the people he killed died painlessly. He thought they shouldn’t be killed. He killed them anyway. What in this scenario is good? What is evil? Where am I to stand? I think, now, his greatest gift to me was illustrating the complexity of human morality. When I have him in mind, I am more humble and more honest. 

And, yet, there is an essential moral simplicity to my great-grandfather’s thinking. Though he opposed the death penalty and argued against it in both the Collier’s Weekly interviews and his book, Elliott did not believe it would ever be overturned. He believed the death penalty was an inevitable societal evil. He cites letters he received from people who wanted their own chance to pull the switch. Very few of them were electricians, or possessed of any training needed for the job. Some simply needed the money—much of his work, after all, took place during the Great Depression. Very few of the letter writers were concerned with the well-being of the condemned. These letters showed what my great-grandfather called “pleasure in death” and a thirst for vengeance. This—our collective thirst for vengeance—is why we still have capital punishment, he says: “The two are inseparable. Revenge is present, if not predominant, in every case involving the death penalty. It is that, and little more, which is provided when I throw the switch to destroy a human life.” Not justice. Not even the safety of the community. Vengeance. 

I think he’s right, but I also think America will eventually get rid of the death penalty again, though maybe not anytime soon. Much of the Western world has gotten rid of it, and even we got rid of it for a while, which would have pleased Robert Elliott, and although we brought it back in all but eighteen states, we’ve never gone back to the rapid rates at which we were executing people in Elliott’s day.  

But though Elliott had come to understand that his work as an executioner was morally sound, there was a line he could not bear to think of crossing, his greatest fear: that any of his victims might have been innocent. Once, watching a movie whose plot concerned an innocent man condemned to death, he had to leave the movie house in agitation. Killing for the state was bearable as long as the people he killed were guilty of capital crimes. But recent improvements in the use of DNA testing have shown how often condemned prisoners are in reality innocent of the crimes of which they have been convicted. Given what we know now about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, and the frequency with which the death penalty was used in those decades, his worst fear almost certainly came to pass: at least one (and probably many more) of the 387 human beings whom my great-grandfather executed was innocent of the crime that put him or her in the chair. And I’m so sorry for that. I would love to think that after he had taken on the moral burden of killing for six states, he could at least have the consolation of knowing he had killed only the guilty. But it’s not so; it can’t be so. I can’t take comfort in a lie, only in what he taught me: that though his hand was on the switch, he was not alone. He was guilty; we are all guilty. We continue to wrestle the questions of our complex moralities, not because we can get things right and finished for all time—we can’t—but because it is in the wrestling itself that morality lies. We have to try to get things right. And we have to remember that we’re all connected, in our badness, in our goodness, in our humanity. That’s what he taught me, though it took many years for me to understand the lesson. 

About the Author

Anne Brannen

Anne Brannen, a former professor of medieval literature, now teaches privately online. Her poetry has appeared in such venues as Cabinet des Fées, Literary Mama, and Kestrel.

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