The first work to combine literary criticism with other forms of death penalty–abolitionist writing, Demands of the Dead demonstrates the active importance of literature and literary criticism to the struggle for greater justice in the United States. Gathering personal essays, scholarly articles, and creative writings on the death penalty in American culture, this striking collection brings human voices and literary perspectives to a subject that is often overburdened by statistics and angry polemics. Contributors include death-row prisoners, playwrights, poets, activists, and literary scholars.
Highlighting collaborations between writers inside and outside prison, all within the context of the history of state killing laws and foundational concepts that perpetuate a culture of violent death, Demands of the Dead opens with a pamphlet dictated by Willie Francis, a teenager who survived a first execution attempt in Louisiana’s electric chair before he was subsequently killed by the state in 1947.
Writers are a conspicuous part of U.S. death-penalty history, composing a vibrant literary record of resistance to state killing. This multigenre collection both recalls and contributes to this tradition through discussions of such writers as Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Gertrude Atherton, Ernest Gaines, Sonia Sanchez, Kia Corthron, and Sherman Alexie. A major contribution to literary studies and American prison studies, Demands of the Dead asserts the relevance of storytelling to ethical questions and matters of public policy.
John Cyril Barton
H. Bruce Franklin
Jennifer Leigh Lieberman
Elizabeth Ann Stein
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About the Author
Katy Ryan is an associate professor of English at West Virginia University. In 2004, she founded the Appalachian Prison Book Project, a community and student organization that sends free books to women and men in prison. Her writing appears in American Literature, African American Review, Philosophy and Literature, Studies in the Novel, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, and the collection Political and Protest Theatre After 9/11: Patriotic Dissent (2011).
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Demands of the DeadEXECUTIONS, STORYTELLING, AND ACTIVISM IN THE UNITED STATES
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESSCopyright © 2012 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWords through Walls
I decided to become the enemy not of my son's killer but of the forces that put a young boy on a dark street holding a handgun. Tony [Hicks] now writes letters from prison that we use in our programs and that we see having a positive effect on other kids. Think of how many kids he may save. That's going to bring me a lot more healing than if he had gotten the death penalty.
—Azim Khamisa, whose twenty-year-old son Tariq was shot and killed by Tony Hicks. At age fourteen, Hicks was tried as an adult. He pled guilty and received twenty-five years to life.
My Trip to the Chair
WILLIE FRANCIS (As told to Samuel Montgomery)
They tell me that this is the first time anyone ever had a chance to tell the story of how it feels to go to the electric chair and know that you might have to go back there. This is the first time I ever told the whole story and I hope that by at last telling it people will understand what it means to go through what I went through. I hope it will help people to do the right thing and live right. I know how it felt to have them read a death warrant to me, I know how it feels to sit in a cell waiting for the day they will lead me to the chair again. I sure know how it feels to sit in that chair and have them strap me in and put a mask on my eyes. I know how it feels to have the shock go through me and think I am dead but find out I am not. I do not like to talk about it at all, but if it will help other people to understand each other, I want to tell everything.
A lot of people write to me and ask me to tell them something about what I did when I was young. I am only eighteen now, so I guess they mean when I was very young. I was born in St. Martinville, Louisiana. It's just a little town where everybody knows everybody else. We have two sections, one for the white people and the other for the colored, and everybody gets along fine. The white tend to their own business and the colored tend to theirs. It isn't often something exciting happens there and when something does happen like when Mr. Thomas gets killed, everybody gets real excited and wants to know who did it. I don't want to talk about the killing of Mr. Thomas. When they asked me to write this story I said I would only if I didn't have to say anything about that part. I was tried and convicted of the killing, and as far as I think, that's all over. But I will tell you about the electrocution.
I guess from the first minute I was born I gave people something to worry about. Maybe you will think I am superstitious. I guess I am, because I have a lot of reasons to be. I was the thirteenth child of my father, Frederick Francis, and my mother, Louise Francis. And I was convicted of the murder on the thirteenth of September, 1945. Then the United States Supreme Court turned me down on January thirteenth of this year.
We lived in the colored section at 800 Washington Street. It is a little house dull gray in color and faces north. It had thirteen of us kids running through it all the time.
I was baptized Willie Francis. That's what they always called me, anyway. I guess I grew up just like my other colored friends. I belong to the Catholic Church in St. Martinville and my pastor was Father Maurice Roussere. He was there at my electrocution. He comes to see me now and then and tells me how my family is. Every day or whenever he can he goes to see them.
I used to like to play jokes and my friends used to tell me I could make almost anyone laugh when I said or did something. We had a bunch of kids who went around together a lot. We would go swimming in the bayou all day long without telling anyone where we went and when we got back home we got spanked for it. It's something to laugh at now but we didn't like the whipping at the time. Sometimes we went fishing or maybe we would grab some watermelons and go down by the bayou to eat them. It was a lot of fun and we always laughed a lot. More than anything else we like to eat figs. We would snitch them and go sit on the bank and see who could throw them the farthest out into the water. I liked to play marbles, too. I didn't win all the time but when I won it was more often than when I lost. I think I was pretty good at the game. I liked a little baseball now and then if there were enough of us and someone had a ball. Most of the time we used a broomstick for a bat. We didn't have any gloves and I guess we made our own rules, but nobody ever complained.
When you live in a house with that many people in it, things aren't as crowded as you would think. All my brothers and sisters got along fine together because we had to. We knew it wasn't any use fighting or fussing because everybody had to stick together if we were going to all be happy. My father worked in a sugar factory in the cane season and does odd jobs during the rest of the year. He made enough money to keep us all fed and nobody ever starved, that I know of. When things went right and he had a nickel to spare we had a bottle of red pop. For me it was ice-cream.
I don't know how she did it, but my mother kept everything running smooth all the time. The minute she walked out the house something went wrong, and when she came back in, it was all right again. My father made the money but when it came to keeping the house clean and in order, mother did that best. As my older brothers and sisters grew up and could shift for themselves, things got better and mother had more rest. But she still ran everything.
In school I didn't make good grades. Just about what everybody else was making. It wasn't because I wasn't interested; I just couldn't keep my mind on arithmetic when we were thinking of going swimming or having a secret water-melon party that same afternoon.
I used to work in Mr. Thomas' drug store. I didn't work steady for him. I would run around the corners with a package or sweep the floor when he asked me to. Sometimes I would get a dollar or fifty cents for cleaning or raking his yard. He was a very fine fellow Mr. Thomas was.
After they sentenced me on September thirteenth, they drove me to the Parish Prison here in New Iberia, Louisiana. They said I would like it much better here because the death cell is bigger and more comfortable than in St. Martinville. It didn't make much difference. They hadn't said when they were going to kill me, so I didn't care where they put me. The cell where I am now is on the top floor of the Court-House. I have one window to look out over the house-tops of New Iberia in two directions. My walls are painted bright pink. I like the color but I wish the walls weren't behind the paint.
The jailor and the sheriff have always been nice to me. They don't talk rough or cuss me at all. We get along very fine and they are nice men. When they ask me to do something I always do it, and when I ask for something they give it to me. The food here is all right and it's regular.
I stayed up here for a couple of months without anything happening. My family and a few friends would drop in on me now and then. I spent and spend most of the time reading books and magazines my family and other people brought me. When nobody else could come my father did, and brought me little things like tooth-paste. One day he brought me a Bible my mother gave him for me. It's pretty well worn out now.
My pastor, Father Roussere, couldn't come to see me often because he lives in St. Martin, and I didn't have a priest to talk to. One day when I was looking out my cell door window I saw a man walking down the corridor of the jail who was dressed just like a priest. I yelled and waved my arms, and when he looked I asked him to come over to my cell. I guess he thought I was crazy because of the way I acted, but he came in anyway. His name was Father Charles Hannegan and I found out he had been confessor to a lot of men who had to die like I had. From what he told me later I was lucky it was the electric chair and not hanging. About that I don't know; I will just say I think I have been lucky.
At the beginning of April the Sheriff came in to tell me I had to go to the electric chair on the third of May. He said the Governor had written my death warrant. It was funny, the way it was written—real careful, like they thought I might say, "You can't kill me because you have a word wrong on that paper!"
I knew it had to come sometime, so when they told me it was the third it didn't make much difference. Time began to pass by quickly for me. Boy, you sure feel funny when you know you're going to die; almost like you know something only God should know.
The day before I was to go to the electric chair I was plenty scared. Father Hannegan came to see me. He knew I was scared. He told me something funny: He said I was lucky because I knew when I was going to die, and so I could prepare myself in time. I had never thought about dying that way before. All I could see was that I wouldn't be alive any more. What he said made me feel a little better. He said he might fall down the jailhouse steps and break his neck, or maybe he would die between clean sheets in his rectory that night. Anyway, he would never know and I would. He said I had a new life to start when I got up from that chair the next day, and I shouldn't start it like a little cry-baby. Even though I was only sixteen, he said, I had this one big chance to prove I was able to die like a man. It is one of the hardest things to make yourself learn how to die right.
And he told me that the chair would only tickle me for a little while and then it would all be over for me. I didn't have any idea what the chair looked like or what it could do besides that it would kill me, and when I went to sit down in it I was hoping it would tickle me like Father Hannegan said. When it was all over and they asked me how it felt I told them that; that it tickled me. But I'm telling you that chair sure isn't full of feathers. I guess people have the idea it tickled the way you feel when you laugh.
When he left me and I was alone I kept thinking about what he told me. I read in my Bible until the sun went down. Then I thought a lot about dying. I wasn't going to be a cry-baby; I was going to be brave and act like he said was the only way. I was worried about my mother because she was sick in bed at the time. They didn't tell me this—that's why I knew there was something wrong at home.
That night around supper time the Sheriff came in and said: "Willie, this is your last night, so you can have anything you want to eat for supper. What would you like?" I remember how I always liked ice cream so much and thought I would like to have some before I died. The Sheriff laughed a little and said. "Is that all you want, Willie?" I told him I would like something else if it was alright with him. He brought me a very fine steak, which he said was the best one he could find in town ... and more ice cream than I could eat.
I guess I must have looked worried, because he asked me if I was worried about what was going to happen when I sat in the chair. I told him if I had to die I was ready and wouldn't be a cry-baby. I didn't think anybody wanted to die if he could help it, but since I couldn't do any thing to stop it, I didn't see any point in crying or worrying.
When I was alone that night and everything was dark, I began thinking about what was going to happen to me the next day. I wondered why the chair was called the "hot seat." If it was hot I figured it burned, and if it burned you, I couldn't understand how it could just "tickle" me.
I started thinking about something that bothered me. They say there will be a Day of Judgment, and on that day everybody will be judged. I was wondering about when that day was. I mean, when we die we must all die at the same time. We don't know how long Eternity is and when a man dies we don't know how long he will wait according to time in Eternity until the whole world dies and goes to meet him. What I guess I mean is, when you die it is Judgment Day right away.
I kept thinking that tomorrow I will be dead and they will bury me in a cold cold grave. I wondered what it would look like and I tried to see myself in my mind looking at my own grave-marker. Later on I got on my knees and said my prayers for what I thought would be the last time. I said, "God, tonight is the last time I will sleep in a bed because tomorrow I will have to sit down on that chair and die. Please help me to die."
It's a hard thing to get it into your head, it seemed so unreal.
After I did a lot of thinking I fell asleep way late. I guess I dreamed a lot. When you wake up and try to remember what you dreamed the night before it is very hard, but I didn't have much trouble because I tried to take my mind off the chair that morning by trying to remember what I dreamed the night before. It was something like a bunch of us boys sitting on the bayou banks but I was the only one who wasn't having a good time. While everybody else laughed I just stood on the bank. I was looking to the other side of the Bayou but I couldn't see anything. It was all fuzzy and blurred about in the middle of the Bayou.
When I woke up they gave me some breakfast. When I finished they came and took the dishes away and I just sat around waiting for something to happen. About an hour after, I heard them opening the door again. One of the men who was a prisoner himself in a cell across the corridor from me walked inside. He had a towel and some shaving things in his hands. He looked like he had to do something he didn't want to do. He told me, "Willie, I'm sorry, but I have to get your head shaved, because that's where they're going to make the electricity pass through your body." I sat down and he started clipping me. He talked a little to keep my mind off the chair but I didn't feel much like answering back. When he was finished he stood back to, I guess, admire his work and he smiled, "Well, Willie, I guess that's one hair-cut you won't have to pay for." I guess anybody else would have gotten mad or thought something else. But I could see he was only trying to joke with me and make me laugh so I wouldn't have my mind on dying in the electric chair. I thought it was a very good joke and laughed out loud. Everybody else—those people standing outside and some who came into my cell—started laughing, too. Then everyone started telling me a lot of other funny things. They were all being so nice to me that, for a little while, dying didn't seem such a bad thing.
A little while after eleven o'clock the Sheriff came in with one of his deputies. Everybody got quiet. He asked me if I was ready because it would take us some time to drive over to St. Martinville. I took a look around the cell for the last time and said I was ready. The Sheriff handcuffed me and stood aside. I stopped in the doorway. You get a funny crawling feeling when you walk out of that death cell to go out and die. I tried to think about all the other condemned men who had left this same cell and in cells all over the world to go out and be punished. I wondered what they had thought about, but I could only think about myself and how hard my heart was beating against my chest. I walked outside and started across the hall to where the elevator was. While the jailor was unlocking the door I looked around me. All the other prisoners were staring out from their cell doors. I didn't hear anybody say anything but I could tell by their faces they all felt sorry for me. I saw the man who shaved my head. He was frowning in a funny sort of way, and as I stepped into the elevator and turned around, I saw him wave his little finger at me.
I was dizzy and going down in the elevator seemed to make things worse. Everybody was so quiet and I was thinking about how scared I was so loud I thought they almost heard what I was thinking. They opened the door downstairs and we walked through the lobby to the outside. The sun was real bright and hurt my eyes. There was a black sedan waiting at the curb with the door already open. I tried to walk straight and bravely like Father Hannegan said. The deputy got in and I took a last look up at my window, then got into the car. The Sheriff got on my other side and they started the car. I saw some other policemen around us.
Excerpted from Demands of the Dead Copyright © 2012 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments and Permissions xi
Introduction Katy Ryan 1
Part 1 Words Through Walls
MyTrip to heChair Willie Francis 33
Living Death: Ernest Gaines's A Lesson before Dying and the Execution of Willie Francis Jason Stupp 45
The Sword into a Pen Steve Champion 59
Writing with the Condemned: On Editing and Publishing the Work of Steve Champion Tom Kerr 74
Leaving Death Row: A Screenplay Elizabeth Ann Stein 89
Dead Man's Soap Rick Stetter 97
Part 2 History and State Power
Billy Budd and Capital Punishment: A Tale of Four Centuries H. Bruce Franklin 113
December 26, 1862: Chaska Jill Mcdonough 135
August 23, 1927: Nicola Sacco 136
May 3, 1946: Willie Francis 137
October 9, 2002: Aileen Wuornos 138
Antigallows Activism in Antebellum American Literature John Cyril Barton 139
Electric Sensations and Executions in Gertrude Atherton's Patience Sparhawk and Her Times Jennifer Leigh Lieberman 162
Life by Asphyxiation Kia Corthron 181
Routines Anthony Ross 215
Part 3 Voices and Bodies in Resistance
Jacques Derrida on Pain of Death Thomas Dutoit 221
Capital Punishment Sherman Alexie 235
Lynching, Embodiment, and Post-1960 African American Poetry David Kieran 239
State Killing, the Stage of Innocence, and The Exonerated Katy Ryan 255
Rap Sheet of Capitol Crimes: Music, Murder, and Aesthetic States of Terror Matthew Stratton 273
A Poem for No Reason Delbert L. Tibbs 295
For Gary Graham, a.k.a. Shaka Sankofa 296
Death Law 297
I Need a Poem 299
Selected Bibliography 305