(This story is by John Lippman of the Valley News, in which it first appeared Aug. 7, 2017.)
BARRE — In 1971 Howard Coffin was a political reporter with the Rutland Herald traveling with then-Gov. Deane Davis on his re-election campaign when they visited the Windsor State Prison.
“I had never been in the prison before,” Coffin remembered last week in the library of the Vermont Historical Society, where the Civil War historian and author was researching material for a memoir.
“We were walking around in a basement room, you could almost touch the ceiling it was so low,” Coffin recalled. He then saw Davis walk over and peer over a screen at something behind it. Coffin watched as Davis’ expression changed. Coffin crossed the room to see what Davis was looking at.
It was the state prison’s electric chair. The governor stood transfixed.
“Davis was absolutely mesmerized,” Coffin said.
Vermont abolished capital punishment in 1972 shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court called executions “cruel and unusual punishment” in the landmark case Furman v. Georgia. The state had last used the electric chair on Dec. 8, 1954, when it executed Donald Demag, 32, for his role in the slaying of retired schoolteacher Elizabeth Weatherup during a break-in at her Springfield farmhouse. Demag and accomplice Francis Blair had escaped from Windsor State Prison three days earlier.
The state executed a total of five people in its electric chair in Windsor between 1919 and 1954. This period in Vermont’s history is now largely forgotten, and there has not been a major push to reintroduce the death penalty since lawmakers debated it in the early 1980s.
But Vermont’s electric chair still exists — hidden away under a ghostly white sheet in a climate-controlled basement storage area filled with antique furniture at the Vermont Historical Society in Barre. It is seldom seen, and under the terms of the deal that transferred the electric chair from the state to the historical society, it can’t be put on public display.
“It’s not something we like to talk a lot about,” said Mary Rogstad, the organization’s longtime registrar, who is responsible for cataloging and managing the database of the society’s collection. She said the electric chair is kept covered in order not to “upset” people who might encounter it when researching furniture and other items in the basement storage room.
Executions as public spectacles
Blair and Demag were the fourth and fifth men to be sentenced to death in Vermont’s electric chair. A total of 26 people have been executed in the state’s history: 21 by hanging — including two women — and five in the electric chair.
During the 19th century, executions of convicted criminals were frequently a public spectacle in Vermont and elsewhere. As barbaric as the electric chair is considered today, it was originally invented and promoted as a more humane method of taking life.
Vermont’s execution of Archibald Bates is a case in point. When Bates, the fifth person to be executed in the state, was hanged for the murder of his sister-in-law at Bennington Center in 1839, thousands of people showed up. Some brought picnic baskets on the unseasonably warm February day.
But it turned into a horror show that people were still recalling decades later. The Bennington Banner, relying upon an eyewitness account, said the hanging of the 210-pound Bates “nearly pulled his bones apart.”
The gruesome spectacle moved the Vermont Legislature to pass a law banning “public” executions so that henceforth they were to be carried out at the state penitentiary in Windsor, built in 1808 and eventually one of the country’s oldest prisons in continuous use before it closed in 1975.
By the late 1800s, however, politicians, reacting to a series of gruesome hangings, became focused upon the electric chair as an expeditious and supposedly merciful form of ending human life. The first execution by electric chair was conducted by New York state in 1890.
By 1896, Ohio became the second state to adopt the electric chair, followed by Massachusetts (1898), New Jersey (1906), Virginia (1908) and North Carolina (1912). Then in 1913 seven states signed on, including Vermont, according to “The Death Penalty: An American History,” a 2002 book by legal historian Stuart Banner.
The manufacturer of Vermont’s electric chair is unknown, but the news wire UPI reported in 1975 — when the chair was in the process of being transferred from Windsor to the Vermont Historical Society — that the Legislature in 1912 approved “a special $3,000 appropriation to build the death house” at the state prison in Windsor.
“Corrections Department records show the state spent $368.33 for labor, $825.67 for construction and materials and $1,789 for ‘furniture and fixtures’, ” UPI reported.
The last person to be executed by hanging in Vermont was Arthur Bosworth on Jan. 2, 1914, for the murder of Mae LaBelle in Essex Junction six months earlier. In an account of the execution in the Burlington Free Press, the newspaper noted that “the execution was the last hanging to take place in Vermont, as hereafter all murderers condemned to death are to be electrocuted.”
Electric chair era begins
The first condemned prisoner to be executed in Vermont’s electric chair was George Warner on July 12, 1919, for the November 1914 murder of his wife’s parents in Andover. Warner received the announcement of the verdict at the courthouse in Woodstock in July 1915 with “the stoic indifference which has characterized his behavior all through his trial,” the Bennington Banner reported.
In 1932, almost exactly 13 years later, on July 7, Vermont used the electric chair for the second time to put to death Bert Stacy, a Barre granite polisher, for the murder of his estranged wife, Ruth Stacy, in the barn of a Berlin farm in April 1931.
Stacy maintained his innocence of the murder until the end and was described by an Associated Press reporter as “entirely composed as he was led to the chair.”
The third man to die in the electric chair was 21-year-old Canadian farmhand Ronald Watson, on Jan. 2, 1947, for the 1946 Christmas Eve slaying of Rutland taxicab driver Henry Teelon.
Notified only eight hours beforehand of the time of his execution that evening, the Burlington Free Press reported he “met death calmly” after being asked by a Catholic priest, “You are sorry for your sins, Ronald?”
“Yes, Father, I am. Will you bless me, Father?” Watson replied.
Blair, 32 at the time he was executed and the fourth man to die in the chair, spent his final hours in the company of a Catholic priest “playing several games of checkers during the evening,” according to a news story by Neal Houston, a reporter with the Burlington Free Press who later became chief of staff for Vermont Gov. Robert Stafford.
“Sixteen witnesses were in the tiny, dingy death chamber when the executioner threw the switch at 10:10 p.m. A steady flow of electricity shot through Blair’s body for 2½ minutes and he was pronounced dead at 10:13 p.m.,” Houston reported.
The condemned man’s final meal consisted of “pork chops, French fried potatoes, vanilla ice cream and coffee. He wore a white shirt and dungarees. His hair was not completely shaved. Only one spot was shaved and the leg of his left trouser was slit to allow the executioner to attach the electrode,” the story said.
Demag’s execution 11 months later, on Dec. 8, 1954, was described by a Burlington Free Press eyewitness account reporting that Warden John Ferguson took “extra precautions” by assigning 10 prison guards at the scene. Ferguson said Demag had been given a “mild sedative” both the night before and the morning of his execution because he had “difficulty sleeping.”
He walked “unaided” to the chair, praying silently with William Ready, the Catholic chaplain of the prison, the newspaper said. “Five guards quickly strapped Demag into the chair as the other five stood grouped around as if in a show of strength to prevent any last-minute attempt by Demag to make his third break from the prison.”
The back of Demag’s head was shaved, and a slit was cut in his left trouser leg for the electrode. His face was “completely covered by a mask.” Ready stood 10 feet away reciting Hail Marys “until the first and only shock of 2,000 volts was sent through Demag’s body. No sound was heard in the crowded, tiny death chamber for almost two minutes,” the newspaper reported.
Demag’s lifeless body was examined by Dr. William Krause, of Windsor, who “turned to Ferguson and nodded his head.” Ferguson then “broke the eerie silence” and said “pronounced dead by Dr. Krause at 8:53 p.m.”
Stress on witnesses
Houston, the Burlington Free Press reporter who covered both Blair’s and Demag’s executions, recounted in an interview 28 years later that “it was simply impossible for me not to be affected emotionally.”
“My most vivid impression was of Demag because his body reacted very violently to the execution. There was extreme twitching … it all happened in a relatively short time but it seemed like a eternity,” he told reporter John Donnelly in a 1982 story in the Burlington Free Press.
Houston, who died in 2014, said that after witnessing Blair’s execution he asked to be exempted from covering Demag’s but his editors refused the request.
Coffin, the Civil War historian and author, said the late Rutland Herald Managing Editor Kendall Wild related to him the horror of covering both Blair’s and Demag’s executions when Coffin was a reporter for the newspaper in the 1960s.
“After Wild saw the first execution he went to file the story at the Herald office in Springfield,” Coffin said. “Then afterward he went to the Springfield police station with a fifth of liquor and asked the police to lock him up in the cell for the night,” where he could drink in solitude and safety.
“He killed a fifth, he was so upset,” Coffin said about Wild. “He said there seemed to be no purpose to it.”
There was even a point at which Vermont’s electric chair could have been utilized for additional executions.
In 1942, Vermont officials seemed willing to loan the state’s electric chair to South Dakota, whose governor had requested to borrow it for a scheduled execution. South Dakota’s prison system had been barred by the War Production Board from building its own because construction would have involved the use of “critical materials” required for the war effort, according to The Associated Press. But the Argus-Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, reported the arrangement was eventually abandoned due to technical and logistical problems.
Mike Coxon, the retired superintendent of the Southeast State Correctional Facility who had previously overseen vocational education and training programs at the prison — and where his father had worked before him for 22 years — said the execution chamber was on the ground floor adjacent to cell block B and the solitary confinement cells.
Vermont had no state executioner, Coxon said. Instead, the state had to hire an “electrician” from out of state who understood how to operate the equipment properly. When the chair was built, he said, it was purposefully designed with “overstrapping” to accommodate Watson’s body, “who was the most muscular, thick man” the jailers had ever met. “His arms were bigger than most men’s thighs,” Coxon said.
After Demag’s execution, the electric chair remained stationed in the execution room for the next 26 years. The public could glimpse the chair during tours of the prison, Coxon said. And according to longtime Windsor resident Barbara Rhoad, shortly before the Windsor prison was closed, “they let all the schoolkids through Windsor prison and they let the kids sit in” the electric chair.
In 1975, after the Windsor State Prison was shut down and renovated into housing units, and capital punishment had been abolished in the state, prison officials donated the state’s electric chair to the Vermont Historical Society.
State Sen. Wesley Grady, of Underhill, called Weston Cate, then the VHS director, in 1975 after the lawmaker learned that the electric chair was being transferred. Cate’s reply suggests Grady was concerned the electric chair would be put in the society’s museum for public viewing.
“I can assure you that the Vermont Historical Society has no intention whatsoever of placing the chair on public display in our museum. We intend to place it in our storage quarters,” Cate said.
He explained that after prison authorities approached the society about accepting the chair “our museum people agonized for three weeks over whether to accept custody of the chair.” But, ultimately, the decision to accept it was based upon the electric chair’s status as “a genuine historical artifact that played a part in Vermont history.”
Another reason to accept custody of the chair, Cate said, was to prevent it from falling into the hands of “private parties” and “souvenir hunters, and the like, who are anxious to get their hands on the chair.”
“We issued no publicity of any kind about the decision,” Cate assured Grady. As for stories that had appeared in the newspaper about the society taking possession of the electric chair, they “had to come either from the prison or Department of Corrections … we would have much preferred no publicity whatsoever,” Cate wrote.
Cataloged as number 75.92 — the first two digits signify the year of donation, the second two mean it was the 92nd item to be accepted that year — society records say the electric chair was received in October 1975.
“Massive oak chair 53” high, 26” x 28”, plywood seat,” reads the society’s catalog record. “Has two sets of heavy leather straps behind the seat part, and ankle straps attached to the footrest. The electric connections are removed … adjustable back and leg rests. Back is hinged to go back, held in position with two nuts (missing).
“Brass reinforcing plates on arm rests and back. Plywood seat is a replacement. Two leather leg straps with buckles. Two leather wrist straps with buckles. Two leather arm straps with buckles, one leather waist strap with buckle and one leather torso strap with buckle.
“A plate, probably the manufacturer’s identification plate is missing from the front of the seat.”
Occasionally the museum fields inquiries about the electric chair.
Rogstad said a few years ago she showed the chair to a descendent of one of the men executed in it who had requested to see it. She declined to identify the descendant to protect the person’s privacy.
The body of Demag, the last person executed in Vermont, was buried in a family plot in Essex Junction, three days after his death. A newspaper account reports the burial ceremony was attended by Demag’s parents and his divorced wife.
The body of Blair was buried at the Vermont State Prison Inmate Cemetery in Windsor.
All the plots are marked by a cross. At the cross of Francis Blair someone planted a flowering vine.