Hilton Butler experienced the history of US executions like few others, assisting with Louisiana’s portable electric chair and then overseeing executions as the Warden of Angola, the state’s largest penitentiary. In 2002 I interviewed him at the Angola Prison museum for my documentary series The Executioners and this is an edited transcript.
Q. How did you first become involved in execution work?
“Well, in 1955 I was assigned as a young officer to go around to where the crime was committed. The chair was transported to wherever the crime was committed, at that time and there was a Captain [Ephie] Foster that was in charge of the chair and I was assigned to go with him and transport the chair to wherever the crime was committed.”
[Note: Prison guard Foster was responsible for the drunken botched execution of Willie Francis in 1946. Whilst Foster may have sometimes been involved in transporting the chair to executions in the 50’s, the executioner was usually Grady H. Jarratt]
Q. Why were there portable electric chairs?
“One of the laws made by the legislature was that the chair would go to where the crime was committed. And this went on until 1957 when legislature changed the law and brought the chair [permanently] to the Louisiana State penitentiary.”
Q. Describe for us how one of these portable jobs would be done from start to finish?
“You had an electric chair, a truck that looked like a refrigeration truck looks today – what I call a bob-tailed truck with a body on it. And you had the generator and the chair in this truck. And you would go to the town where the crime was committed. At that time the sheriff was responsible for having the chair there, so you would take the chair and have the electrician go along with you – and the chair would be transported inside either the courthouse or a jail cell.
And there would be electric wires running from the generator (on the truck) to the chair. It was never done by just (mains) electricity. The generator was always used.
State law decreed the execution always took place between 12 midnight and 3 a.m. but we always did it immediately after 12 o’clock.”
Q. Why did it become a common thing in America to execute so late at night?
“Well, I would just imagine that was to, you know, keep the public from being involved. Back then [they] used to have public hangings and when they quit the hangings and went to the electric chair, it was made more or less private. You had your witnesses and your coroner and your sheriff and people like that. The executions were not open to the public.”
Q. Whereabouts would the chair have been set up?
“I went with it one time to Old Grove, Louisiana, which was my hometown, and it was actually set in a jail cell. And then I went with it to Lake Charles one time; it was (put) in the courthouse.”
Q. And who would have attended the execution?
“Well, you have the sheriff, it’s his responsibility to see it’s carried out, and the people who went with the chair, the executioner, and then you had, at that time, seven witnesses. And then you always had to have a coroner there to pronounce the man dead and…usually a religious man – a preacher or someone else.”
Q. When it was a travelling job, what would be the protocol?
“We always went at least one day ahead. In other words, (if) it was going to be done at midnight tonight, we would have gone yesterday at least 48 hours ahead. The chair would have been set up and checked out, you know, and all that – to be sure everything was in working order.”
Q. How was the chair checked?
“You had electrical power that was right by the chair (a transformer). And that’s the lever, that’s when the chair was a travelling chair. The lever that you actually brought down – you just pull it down and pushed it back up. That was it. In the later days with the executions (at Angola) the executioner was out of sight of the chair and he just punched buttons you know.”
Q. Was there any kind of device or gadget you used to test the chair?
“No, we just made sure the right amount of electricity was going through it.”
Q. Could you describe what the final build up to the execution is and how the execution itself is conducted?
“The state law required that the executions be carried out between 12 mid-night and 3 a.m. But it was almost immediately after 12 mid-night. The man was brought into the room where the chair was, by the sheriff or his chief deputy, someone like that, and he sat in the chair. And the executioner, at that time it was Grady Jarratt, he would buckle the man in the chair and be sure that he was fastened securely. And he always asked him did he have any last words he wanted to say, the man was free to talk, say what he wanted to, you know. About ninety-something per cent of them would always say:
“Well I would like to apologise to the victim’s family and I’m sorry for what I did.”
And most of them are going to say; “Well I’m right with Jesus and I’m going to heaven – I’m ready to die.”
And so then immediately after 12, after he did all of that, the executioner would check all his belts and everything, be sure that everything was tight and then he would say “Goodbye Joe” or “John” or whatever then man’s name happened to be and he’d push the lever down.
And then pull it back up. And after about three minutes the doctor would come out and check him, pronounce him dead.”
Q. How many shocks were generally given?
“Well, with the old chair, I mean the one that was a travelling chair, only one. Once it become [sic] stationary at Angola it was two. He hit you with 200 volts and then come back with 500 volts.”
Q. What was your personal experience of witnessing any disfigurement of the condemned during execution?
“Well I’ve been involved with many and I have seen a small amount of smoke and that’s the most I’ve ever seen. You hear all these stories about stuff that went on but I never saw it.”
Q. Did you have a nickname for the travelling chair?
“They call it ‘Old Sparky’.”[i]
Q. Can you tell us more about executioner Grady Jarratt?
“Well, I met Grady the first time in 1955 at Oak Grove, Louisiana, when I travelled with the chair up there. Grady was a gentleman about six feet four, probably 220-30 pound and he wore cowboy boots and a big western hat. He was a, you know, pretty fellah. And I last saw Grady after the chair was voted it out in the state of Louisiana [for a brief moratorium]. Grady come from Freeport down to the rodeo at Angola and I sat with him at the rodeo, that was the last time I ever saw him before he passed away.
Q. How did Grady Jarratt get involved with this work?
“I don’t know. Grady was with the chair when I became involved. So I never did ask him his background into that.”
Q. There are stories that he would drink both before and after an execution. Do you have any knowledge of that?
“Oh I could tell at times he had been drinking. He wasn’t, you know, to the point that he couldn’t perform his job but you could smell alcohol.”
Q. How much do you think that was related to his work in terms of continuously ‘dealing death’?
“Well I doubt if it had anything to do with it. I mean, you know, some people just brink. They don’t have something like that to cause it.”
Q. Did you ever get a sense of what Grady Jarrett’s view was about doing his job? Why do that job?
“I really don’t know. Like I said, Grady was involved with the chair before I got involved. It was state contract job that paid $300 per person that were executed back at that time. And I don’t know, evidently it was for the money, yeah.”
Q. It’s a very out of the ordinary experience to see someone executed. Can you remember how you felt the very first time you were involved in that process?
“Well now, like I say, I’ve been involved in it many times and the way I got involved in it I was assigned by a superior, become a part of my job, even on up to the last one that I saw. Course I was warden then, that was my duty to see that it was done, so each one I was involved in it was a part of my job, so I accepted it as that.”
Q. What sort of reactions have you seen from witnesses to executions?
“Well I actually never paid a lot of attention to the witnesses whenever I was involved as warden, because I was watching the man that was being executed, I wasn’t watching the witnesses. Er…I’m told that some of them has fainted and some of them shed tears and whatnot.”
Q. What’s the atmosphere like at an execution like that?
“Well, it’s quiet, you know. In the witness room, they’re all quiet. There’s not a lot of joking and carrying-on going on.”
Q. Looking at the electric chair as a method of execution, how humane do you think it is and should there be any concern about whether there should be suffering?
“Well it’s probably not as humane as the needle. But these people that were being murdered or raped or tortured by the people that’s being executed, that wasn’t humane when they was doing what they did either.
I didn’t personally get involved with the inmates that were to be executed, like a lot of them do. They’ll go visiting and talking to them. I didn’t do that because I didn’t want any personal feelings. It was part of the job and I knew it was part of the job when I accepted the job.
We have people that spend 12 and 13 years on death row before they’re executed. And if you stared buying beers for this man and talking to him on a weekly basis, you would get…you’d become partially involved. And then when it come time to…for his execution, you might feel something different. So I try not to get personally involved with any of them.’”
In the late 1980’s following controversy about the administration of Angola, including cockfighting at the prison farm (a newspaper report of 1987 stated Butler was ‘an avid cockfighting enthusiast’) Butler was fired. The same newspaper report said that his prison philosophy was “I’m going to give you what you got coming and I’m going to take what I got coming.”
[i] The Louisiana electric chair is known as ‘Gruesome Gertie’