The Execution of Willie Francis

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On May 3, 1946, a seventeen-year-old boy was scheduled to die by the electric chair inside of a tiny red brick jail in picturesque St. Martinsville, Louisiana. Young Willie Francis had been charged with the murder of a local pharmacist. The electric chair-three hundred pounds of oak and metal- had been dubbed "Gruesome Gertie” and was moved from one jailhouse to another throughout the state of Louisiana. The switch would be thrown at 12:08 P.M., but Willie Francis did not die. Miraculously, having survived this ...

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Overview

On May 3, 1946, a seventeen-year-old boy was scheduled to die by the electric chair inside of a tiny red brick jail in picturesque St. Martinsville, Louisiana. Young Willie Francis had been charged with the murder of a local pharmacist. The electric chair-three hundred pounds of oak and metal- had been dubbed "Gruesome Gertie” and was moved from one jailhouse to another throughout the state of Louisiana. The switch would be thrown at 12:08 P.M., but Willie Francis did not die. Miraculously, having survived this less than cordial encounter with death, Willie was soon informed that the state would try to kill him again in six days. Letters began pouring into St. Martinsville from across the country-Americans of all colors and classes were transfixed by the fate of this young man. A Cajun lawyer just returned from WWII, Bertrand DeBlanc would take on Willie’s case-in the face of overwhelming local resistance. DeBlanc would argue the case all the way from the Bayou to the U.S. Supreme Court. In deciding Willie’s fate the courts and the country would be forced to ask questions about capital punishment that remain unresolved today.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

I AM N-N-NOT DYING!" screamed Willie Francis, a 17-year-old African-American convicted of murder by an all-white Louisiana jury in 1946, during the failed electrocution that kicks off this tale of justice gone awry in the segregated American South. As told in a sometimes repetitious avalanche of detail by King (Woman, Child for Sale), Francis's story is emblematic of the time and place-a prominent white man in a Cajun town was gunned down, and soon Francis was picked up and, under duress and without an attorney, confessed to the crime. Despite no eyewitnesses and scant physical evidence, Francis was convicted and sentenced to death. After surviving the first execution attempt, he waited in prison nearly a year while the battle over his fate went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. After a page-turning start with the ill-fated execution attempt described in gripping detail, King runs out of steam. What's of interest is the horrifying botched execution. . . . While his eventual execution is tragic, this account doesn't add much to our understanding of U.S. race relations. 16 page b&w insert not seen by PW. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Even readers who do not follow the vagaries of the criminal justice system will be sucked in by this story of Willie Francis, a 17-year-old black youth convicted of killing a local white pharmacist. The year was 1946, the place St. Martinville, LA, in the heart of the racially divided South. On May 3, 1946, Willie was strapped into the electric chair and the switch was thrown, but he did not die. For the next two years, Bertrand DeBlanc, a young Cajun lawyer who took on Francis's case, tried to prevent a second electrocution. He argued the case as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice Felix Frankfurter denied the appeal; two years later, Willie was put to death. From the first page to the last, King (Woman, Child for Sale: The New Slave Trade in the 21st Century ) holds our attention with gripping and disturbing details. Most of all, he makes us wonder if, in view of the current controversy over the death penalty, this scenario could happen today. Highly recommended for all libraries.-Frances Sandiford, formerly with Green Haven Correctional Facility Lib., Stormville, NY

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A well-wrought tale of murder, secrets, lies and state-sponsored and state-botched retribution. In addition to accounts of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, August 6, 1945, editions of Louisiana newspapers carried news of the arrest of Willie Francis, a black, stuttering, semi-literate teenager accused of the murder of small-town pharmacist Andrew Thomas. After the detention, trial and conviction, which were riddled with constitutional offenses shocking to a post-Warren Court citizenry, Francis incredibly survived the electric chair, thanks to the malfeasance of his drunken executioners. Was the State of Louisiana legally entitled to attempt the execution again? The unsuccessful battle to save Francis's life constitutes the heart of King's story and features three heroes: Bertrand DeBlanc, friend of the victim and grandson of a state Supreme Court justice who fought tirelessly and for little pay; A.P. Tureaud, pioneering NAACP attorney; and J. Skelly Wright, who argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and who was destined to become one of the great judges in American history. The informed and reader-friendly discussion of the legal issues and maneuvers attending the Francis appeal, including the intriguing backstage drama at the nation's highest court, is reason enough to recommend this story, but King's masterful applications of Bayou State color set this book apart. Ably navigating the bewildering gradations of heritage and race that were so important in postwar Louisiana, he drenches these pages with the lore of the "cursed" Cajun town of St. Martinville, locus of the Thomas murder and terminus of the fictional "Evangeline," made famous in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poemof the same name. King (Woman, Child For Sale: The New Slave Trade in the 21st Century, 2004) expertly juxtaposes the electric chair's adoption as a supposedly humane alternative to the barbarity of hanging with the grisly experience of the probably guilty young man who finally died in the lap of the killing machine nicknamed "Gruesome Gertie."Injustice, inhumanity and death, all made strangely charming and unforgettable. Agent: Farley Chase/Waxman Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465002658
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 3/31/2008
  • Pages: 324
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Gilbert King is the author of Woman, Child For Sale: The New Slave Trade in the 21st Century, which was selected by the Detroit Free Press as one of its ten notable books of 2004. In the award-winning documentary Willie Francis Must Die Again, narrated by Danny Glover, King is interviewed on camera. In addition, King has contributed articles to numerous newspapers and magazines, including Ring Magazine, Playboy, and the San Diego Union. King lives in New York City.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: The curse of st. martinville     ix
Face of a killer     1
Like shines in a rooster's tail     8
To dry the tears of those who still weep here     34
So many heart-breaking scenes     49
A short story     59
Those slips will happen     74
The abysmal darkness     79
We do not have any bad negroes here any more     97
For heaven's sake he's just a kid     115
Nothing against the boy     126
Murder at midnight     147
A boy on the threshold of eternity     157
Praying harder than ever     167
Get to the law     176
Weeping no tears     193
Just like a movie star     206
Better with an ax     215
Strong and easy boy     224
A disgraceful and inhuman exhibition     238
My hell on earth     250
Ruining my life     262
See you on the other side     269
The nerve to kill a man     280
No matter how small     288
Acknowledgments     301
Notes and Sources     307
Bibliography     309
Notes     313
Index     349
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2008

    Alot less dense than it looks

    I picked up this book expecting heavy law book. WRONG. this book is written like a story with many side plots along the way. a treasure, and a classic in the making. honestly, i loved it

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