The first known execution by the State of Mississippi was July 16, 1818, in Adams County with the hanging of George H. Harman, a White male, for “stealing a Negro.” Since then, the state has conducted 810 known executions. Of those executed, 642 have been Black males, 130 White males, 19 Black females, 2 Native American males, and 16 individuals not completely identified either by gender or by race. No White females are known to have been executed by the state.
Hanging, or the gallows, was the method of execution in Mississippi until 1940, when lawmakers replaced it with the electric chair. The gas chamber replaced electrocution in 1955, and the chamber was replaced by lethal injection in 2002.
Capital punishment – the state or federal government taking a person’s life in retribution for a crime – has been with us in one form or another since the dawn of time. The Old Testament of the Bible is rife with accounts of its use. Virtually every major civilization in history has embraced the use of execution among the legal processes used to control and punish those who commit the most serious of crimes, as well as those not so serious. The Romans made executions a public spectacle so that the masses clearly understood what would happen to those who dared flaunt Roman law.
And so it has been throughout history.
As European settlers migrated to the New World colonies from Jamestown in Virginia to Boston in Massachusetts, they brought the principles of English Common Law, including severe forms of corporal and capital punishments. Use of devices such as the stocks, the pillory, and the dunking stool could be found in virtually every community in pre-colonial Massachusetts Bay Colony.
As with the ancient Romans, however, it was the public nature of the punishment that became of paramount importance to the colonial town officials. Though every community kept various forms of corporal punishment devices, few maintained a permanent gallows, a structure from which a rope is suspended with which criminals are executed by hanging. But gallows could be quickly erected should the need arise, for hanging had become the favored method of execution in the colonies. It would remain so until the 1880s when New York instituted the use of a new “more humane” invention called the electric chair.
But hanging would retain its ranking as the most favored form of execution in many states for several more decades, including Mississippi. Mississippi lawmakers supported the notion that public executions were an effective technique for sending a stern warning to other would-be perpetrators.
Although the first state prison would be constructed in Jackson in 1843 where the State Capitol Building sits today, it would be more than another century before any Mississippi executions would be carried out within the walls of the state’s penitentiary. The state penitentiary received extensive damage during the American Civil War. Once hostilities ended, the prison was abandoned for lack of money – the four years of warfare had depleted the state treasury. Thus, for the next thirty-five years, Mississippi operated no state prison at all. Convicts were leased out to private businesses and farmers.
In 1901, however, the legislature purchased 8,000 acres of land in the Mississippi Delta’s Sunflower County, and established the Mississippi State Penitentiary. The prison farm, more popularly known as Parchman (named after the first warden J. M. “Jim” Parchman), now sits on approximately 18,000 acres. Death row, located in the maximum security unit, is at Parchman.
Although the citizens of Sunflower County did not seem to mind having Parchman’s convicts in their midst, they objected to executions being carried out there for fear that their county would be stigmatized as the “death county.”
Thus, public hangings in Mississippi were carried out in the county where the condemned prisoner had committed the crime, although they were not always a public spectacle. The gallows in Greene and Hinds counties, for example, were constructed on the top floor of the courthouse, adjacent to the jail where the prisoner was being held. Crowds would gather around the courthouse nevertheless, awaiting word from the sheriff that the condemned person had been put to death.
Hanging was cheap and effective, though not without drawbacks. Carried out in a slipshod fashion, which was often the case, hanging could become a brutal form of torture rather than a swift punishment. The January 1932 hanging of Guy Fairley was so badly handled that it created a public outcry against hanging in Mississippi. Fairley was executed for the murder of a federal prohibition enforcement officer who had reported Fairley as violating the liquor laws.
Portable electric chair
Yet the effort to abandon the gallows in Mississippi in favor of electrocution was seemingly stalled. Then, the 1940 legislature hammered out a compromise. A portable electric chair would be constructed that could be transported from county to county. Seemingly a simple enough solution until officials realized that no one had ever used a portable electric chair, or even built one. Finally, a Memphis firm agreed to construct such a contraption, and it was ready for use on October 11, 1940. Executioner Jimmy Thompson, a showman in the style of P. T. Barnum, used the machine for the first time in Lucedale, Mississippi, on wife-killer Willie Mae Bragg, whom Thompson said proudly had died “with tears in his eyes for the efficient care I took to give him a good clean burning.”
The portable electric chair brought distinction and notoriety to Mississippi, as it was the only state to employ the use of such an unusual machine. But, it too would not be without problems. There were instances when the thing would malfunction, prolonging an agonizing death for the prisoner.
By the late 1940s, efforts began to replace the chair with a gas chamber. It would require a permanent location. Once again, the legislature became bogged down with conflicted politics. Again, residents of Sunflower County were less than enthused at the prospect of executions being carried out at Parchman. No one was more opposed to the idea than the penitentiary superintendent Marvin L. Wiggins. Wiggins was a formidable politician in his own right and successfully fought to keep the gas chamber out of his penitentiary for some ten years. But finally, in September 1954, Governor Hugh White called a special session of the legislature and the old portable electric chair was swiftly replaced by the gas chamber. Wiggins and the citizens of Sunflower County had lost their battle to keep executions out of Parchman.
Less than a year later, in March 1955, convicted murderer Gerald Gallego became the first person executed in the newly constructed gas chamber at Parchman. Wiggins’s worst nightmare came true. Whether due to nervous human error, mechanical failure, or a combination of the two, the execution was botched. Gallego coughed, choked, and wheezed on a less than lethal cloud of cyanide poisoning. Finally, after some forty-five minutes while officials feverishly worked to correct the problem, the repairs were completed and Gallego quickly died. An additional step was then added to the required testing of the chamber prior to an execution: an animal, usually a rabbit, would be placed in a cage in the chamber chair and cyanide gas was released to make sure the mixture was sufficiently lethal.
With the passage of time and experience, the chamber would become an efficient killing machine, sending thirty-five men off to their final destinations.
Executions in Mississippi came to a halt in 1964 because of increased litigation challenging the death penalty at both the state and national level. The end result of the legal actions was the June 29, 1972, ruling of the United States Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia, which held the Georgia death penalty statute was “cruel and unusual” as applied and therefore violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. The impact of the Furman decision was to void the death penalty statutes in forty states, including Mississippi.
The Mississippi Legislature then proceeded to adopt a new death penalty statute that it felt answered the constitutional claims raised in Furman. Four years later, the U. S. Supreme Court in Gregg v. Georgia approved the new death penalty statutes enacted in several states and explained why several other new state statutes still violated the Constitution. The new Mississippi statute was held to still not meet federal constitutional requirements.
In April 1977, another new statute was enacted and remains the statute in use today. Indeed, Mississippi’s prison system underwent many changes in the mid-1970s. One other notable change was the legislature’s creation of the Mississippi Department of Corrections in 1976.
Because of the litigation regarding the Mississippi statute, no execution was carried out in Mississippi until 1983. The first execution after nineteen years was the gas chamber execution of child-killer Jimmy Lee Gray in 1983. As with the gallows and electric chair, the gas chamber could not just exit quietly, however. The Gray execution raised protest and cries for a new method of execution. Prison officials and witnesses alike watched as Gray’s head banged furiously into a steel pole located behind the chair. While prison and attending medical officials insisted that the violent head banging did not matter because Gray was clinically dead, the damage had been done. The Gray execution excited worldwide interest for people opposed to the death penalty.
The Mississippi Legislature in April 1984 enacted a law that authorized the use of lethal injection in place of the gas chamber. This was the first change in the death penalty protocols since 1954. Under the new law, anyone sentenced after July 1, 1984, was to be executed by lethal injection; those condemned prior to that date were “grandfathered” into the gas chamber. Therefore, three more convicted murderers would die in the chamber – Edward Earl Johnson and Connie Ray Evans in 1987, and Leo Edwards in 1989.
In 1998, the Mississippi Legislature changed the execution law to allow all death row inmates to be executed by lethal injection. Executions in Mississippi occurred at midnight because it gave the state a full twenty-four hours to handle an unforeseen event without having to go back to the Mississippi Supreme Court for a new execution date. The U. S. Supreme Court requested that states change the time of execution to 6 p.m. and Mississippi’s assistant attorney general, Marvin “Sonny” White, recommended to lawmakers that Mississippi follow the court’s request. Executions now occur at 6 p.m.
Tracy Hansen, convicted of killing a state trooper, became the first person in Mississippi put to death by lethal injection on July 17, 2002. Following quickly behind Hansen, in December 2002, Jessie Derrell Williams, convicted for the murder of a woman, was also executed by lethal injection.
The death penalty laws in America continue to evolve. In May 2002, the U. S. Supreme Court held that executing people with intellectual disabilities violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments, but states can define who has an intellectual disability. The May 2002 ruling slowed the litigation process for future executions which did not resume until December 2005. A total of 17 men (14 White and 3 Black) were executed between 2002 and 2012. Mississippi lawmakers in 2017 added electrocution and firing squad as execution methods. After an execution in June 2012, Mississippi halted future ones due to legal challenges to lethal injection. The drugs for lethal injection can be difficult to find since pharmaceutical companies in the United States and Europe banned their use for executions. The state did acquire the necessary drugs, and on November 17, 2021, David Neal Cox was executed by lethal injection after all his appeals were terminated. He was the twenty-second person to die since the death penalty was reinstated in Mississippi in 1977.
Mississippians, like the rest of Americans, are divided on the issue of capital punishment. For death penalty supporters, lethal injection offers little satisfaction. It is decreed as “too easy,” “better than they deserve.” For opponents of capital punishment, lethal injection is, in some respects, more fearsome than the gas chamber and just as inhumane. In their view, it sanitizes the whole execution process – makes it far too easy, too clean. Controversy over capital punishment and its methods will surely continue to stir public debate in the decades ahead.
Donald A. Cabana, Ph.D., is superintendent of the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and former chairman of the criminal justice department at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is the author of Death at Midnight: Confessions of an Executioner. This article, first published in 2004, was updated in 2021.
Cabana, Donald A. Death At Midnight: Confessions Of An Executioner. Boston: Northeastern University Press 1996.
Goins, Craddock. “The Traveling Executioner;” American Mercury. January 1942, pp. 93-97.
Hillegas, Jan. “Preliminary List of Mississippi Legal Executions,” Revised. Jackson: New Mississippi, Inc. 2001.
Taylor, William Banks. Down On Parchman Farm. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1999.
Website of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (accessed 2021): https://www.mdoc.ms.gov/