Walker County Jail, Lafayette, Georgia
"I hope it's a good, easy death," the prisoner said as he approached the gallows inside the Walker County Jail.
Deputy Tom Tarvin looked at the condemned man. He was young and clean-shaved with good posture and a well-cut suit and tie. If Tom had encountered him on the street, he'd have taken him for a fine man; he never suspected he might be a murderer. But then, Tom had always doubted this boy's guilt.
Tom's eyes met those of big-city reporter Rupert Merewether. If he hadn't gotten involved, probably none of them would be there. That man had stirred the pot so much that Tom feared they were hanging an innocent man while the guilty one looked on. If only Merewether had found another way to make a name for himself, justice would have likely run its course with different results.
Tom pressed his fingers to his graying temples and rubbed, trying to soothe the ache that throbbed within. He reminded himself--again--that he was only doing his job. His duty.
"How far's the drop?" the prisoner asked, his voice so calm he could have been inquiring about the weather on an ordinary day. But this was no ordinary day. It was the day--the hour--he would die.
"Six feet, eight inches," Tom's partner, Deputy Aknow, answered.
A wave of nausea washed over Tom. His eyes riveted on the trap door beneath the prisoner's boots. He hoped it was the right height-- prayed it was. None of them had ever hanged a man. Sheriff Harmon had a book on the subject explaining that the drop from the trap had to be just right. If it was too far, or the man was too heavy, the rope could snap the head clean off.
Bile rose in the back of Tom's throat. He swallowed hard, forcing it down.
Never would he have agreed to spring the trap, not for anything in the world. Bringing this man to the gallows would haunt him all his days.
His eyes shifted toward Sheriff Harmon's closed office door. The man had been sequestered all morning, refusing to talk to reporters, letting Tom and the other deputy handle things until the final moment.
When the jailhouse door opened to allow the exit of family members unwilling, unable, to watch the final act, Tom heard the subdued voices of several hundred people waiting outside. With a lump in his throat, he watched the prisoner's family cling to one another, dabbing at bloodshot eyes with torn and crumpled handkerchiefs. At last, the prisoner's father draped his arms around the group and ushered them outside.
The poor parents! Tom thought. What would it be like to know that in moments your son would die horribly, declaring his innocence to the bitter end?
After the family exited and the doors closed once again, Deputy Aknow asked the prisoner for his final words.
The man straightened even though his arms were tied behind his back and his feet bound together. "Boys," he said, "I'm going to leave here grinning. A body would like to stay on this earth awhile longer, but when you've got to go, there's no use in crying." His forced smile faltered, belying the brave words. Nervously he added, "Would someone please comb my hair?"
Tom and Aknow patted their pockets but found no comb. Tom used his fingers to rake the prisoner's dark hair as best he could until someone in the small audience, perhaps a reporter, produced a comb. Tom used it, then straightened the prisoner's black tie. He avoided the man's eyes as he buttoned his burial suit. At last, he patted the man's shoulder and reluctantly accepted the noose from Aknow's hand.
His own hands trembled as Tom looped the rope around the young man's neck. It slid through his fingers as he drew it tight, giving him a slight burn across one palm. Tom flinched, knowing it was nothing compared to what this man would soon feel, nothing compared to the fire that seared his soul for the part he was playing in this hanging.
Deputy Aknow held up the black hood and moved to place it over the young man's head.
The prisoner said, "Before you do that, tell Mrs. Harmon I said good-bye."
Tom nodded. The sheriff's wife had been kind to the prisoner when she brought in his meals.
"How should I stand to make it spring easier?" the young man asked, as if death were an afterthought.
"Just put your feet right there on the trap," Tom managed, pointing down at the wood. He placed a reassuring hand on the boy's upper arm to help settle him into place.
Deputy Aknow covered the prisoner's head with the black cloth. Only then did Sheriff Harmon leave his office, stepping into an adjoining room to spring the trap.
An eerie silence filled the chamber as the two deputies stepped back. Tom held his breath. Everyone in the room seemed to do the same. The only sound Tom heard in the ensuing silence was the hammering of his heart.
Suddenly, as if no one had expected it to happen, the trap snapped open, a loud creak and thud slicing through the silence.
The body dropped six feet, eight inches.
There were a few gasps and tears, but mostly the onlookers were frozen in horror. Even the ever-ready fingers of reporters were still, hovered over pads of paper, their owners forgetting for the moment what they had meant to record. Everyone in the room had come knowing what he would see, yet every one was unprepared for what he saw.
The bile in Tom's throat overwhelmed him at last as he looked downward. The drop hadn't been far enough! The man dangled--struggling, writhing, choking.
Eleven interminable minutes passed until at last the body fell still.
The Chattanooga Times -- April 28, 1923:
"At [eleven] minutes after 12, the prisoner had paid the inexorable penalty of the law for those who violate the sacred commandment, ‘Thou Shalt not Kill.'"
The true story behind the last legal hanging in the state of Georgia began thirteen months earlier . . .
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