Teenage Death Row Prisoner Who Survived His Own Execution

Believe it or not, there is a fairly long
list of people who have survived their executions. We might look at the case of William Duell,
a 17-year old English boy who was hanged in 1740 in London and came back to life as he
was about to be dissected. He was later exiled to North America. Then you had John Babbacombe Lee, another
Englishman, nicknamed “The Man They Couldn’t Hang” after surviving three executions. More recently you had the case of Romell Broom,
an American man sentenced to death by lethal injection. He survived that, ended up writing a book
called “Survivor on Death Row”, but it seems he spoke too early as he is scheduled
for another execution in 2020. But today we’ll talk about one of the best
known survivor stories, in this episode of the Infographics Show, Death row inmate who
survived his own execution. As we said, a handful of people have survived
their executions. You can read quite recent cases, too, such
as American inmate Doyle Lee Hamm, who was said to have experienced “torturous and
traumatic hours in the execution chamber” before staff admitted they had failed. The U.S. media reported in 2017 that a man
called Alva Campbell became the third man to survive an execution in the country in
recent decades and that was just a matter of the execution team not being able to find
a vein in which to inject the lethal drugs. But perhaps the tale we are about to tell
you now is the most moving as the person that survived was only 17 years old. It’s also the first case of someone surviving
the electric chair in the USA. If you’ve seen our show on Old Sparky, you’ll
know that executions in the early days could certainly be horrific to watch, but eventually
the inmates succumbed to the shock. That was not the case for 17-year old Willie
Francis. First let’s have a look at what events led
to him ending up in the chair. Francis was a young, poor, African American
in 1946, and at the time of his lucky escape many people believed the “hand of God”
had interrupted this macabre spectacle of official murder. For one thing, he was just so young and a
lot of people decried the execution of a boy not yet a man, and another thing was the fact
the American justice system at the time could have been said to be harsh for certain people
of certain races and certain social standing. He lived in a place called St. Martinville,
located in southwestern Louisiana. You can read articles about this place in
the 40s, with one saying the town had, “two sections, one for the white people and the
other for the colored. The white tend to their own business and the
colored tend to theirs.’’ Yes, this was a time when racism was pervasive
in some parts of the U.S. and despite the backwards attitudes of some people, there
was a lot of support for young Willie when he was condemned to death. After the botched execution attempt, Francis
wrote from his prison cell, “‘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.’’ But what had he done? One of thirteen children, Francis said life
was hard as a kid, but wrote he had fond memories of the hard knock life, playing baseball with
a broomstick handle and going out with friends causing mischief. When he got older he was given a job by a
man called Andrew Thomas. Thomas owned the local drugstore, hiring Francis
to do errands and keep the store tidy. They apparently got along, and Francis was
called a nice boy and cooperative by folks who visited the store. He was, however, called illiterate by some,
or at least close to that. Others said he was slow, but later when Francis
was writing from his prison cell it was proven that he could not just write, but express
himself in a deep and meaningful way. We are telling you this because this case
was very controversial, and at the time and for years after, people tried to understand
why this seemingly nice kid committed a murder. That murder was of the drugstore owner, Thomas. When her son was convicted of slaying his
boss, the mother told the press, “There wasn’t no bad in him. I just don’t understand.” Quite a few thought that this young boy, perhaps
somewhat mentally challenged, had admitted guilt to something he didn’t do- the murder
of Andrew Thomas, described as “a handsome, educated bachelor with his own successful
business.” He was killed at his home during the night
of November 7, 1944. His body was discovered the next day, splayed
on the floor near the house steps. Two witnesses, Alvin and Ida Van Brocklin,
had said that they heard gunshots in the night. They didn’t see who did the firing, though. It was later said that Thomas had been dining
with friends and upon returning home had been met by a gunman who unloaded five bullets
in him. Two hit him in the back, two in his left side
and one went right through his eye. It’s said his pockets had been emptied,
prompting police to say the reason for the murder was robbery. Rumors spread around town. It’s said he was quite the ladies’ man,
and many speculated he had been killed by one of those ladies’ husbands or lovers. For months people believed this to be the
case. Some time later police were looking for a
drug dealer and it’s said that Willie Francis just happened to see the police. He wasn’t dealing drugs, but it’s said
when he saw two white police officers running his way he just took off out of fright. That was a mistake, as running made the police
think he was guilty of something. Later Francis was interviewed by cops at the
police station. They said he seemed frightened and stuttered
a lot, but it turned out Francis had stuttered his whole life. The cops didn’t think they had captured
the drug dealer they had been looking for, but guess what they found on Francis? They found Andrew Thomas’ wallet and identification
card. That’s what they said, anyway. It’s said within three to five minutes the
police got a full confession for the murder of Thomas. They also managed to get a confession for
an unrelated assault and robbery in another town. The fact cops did this in a few minutes, and
the fact the boy was said to be somewhat slow, would compel people to ask if the interrogation
and subsequent confessions were perhaps part of a set-up. Francis was questioned without a lawyer, without
any advice, without any family member or friend being present. The confession read, “I Willie Francis now
16 years old I stole the gun from Mr. Ogise at St. Martinville La. and kill Andrew Thomas
November 9, 1944 or about the time at St. Martinville La it was a secret about me and
him. I took a black purse with card 1280182 in
it four dollars in it.” He wrote a second confession the next day. This one contained more details about how
many shots had been fired and where the body was found. As for the trial, it’s said Francis’ lawyers
were inept. One writer says, “They never questioned
the indictment, nor did they make a motion for change of venue, despite the widespread
publicity about the murder of a beloved white member of a small community by a black youth.” The 12 white jurors found him guilty, and
he was to be executed. Francis’ lawyers never challenged the verdict. By the way, Francis has pleaded not guilty. The jury never heard any argument pertaining
to the possibility of a forced confession or that evidence could have been planted. The confession itself was good enough for
him to be convicted. Many people in the town thought that something
smelled funny, as did many others all across the U.S. The local press wrote, “Throughout the trial
the negro was uninterested and showed very little emotion.’’ Francis wrote that he was concerned that he
might act like a “cry-baby” on the day of his execution, but was relieved to hear
that the actual execution would only “tickle.” On May 3rd, 1946, he had his head shaved and
prepared to have 2,500 volts of electricity flow through him. On his cell wall it was discovered that he
had written the words, “‘Of Course I Am Not a Killer.’’ Police never did have a motive for the murder,
nor any substantial evidence other than the confession of a slow 16-year old boy. He was taken to Louisiana State Penitentiary
in Angola to be put in the chair, nicknamed “Gruesome Gertie.” The lever was pulled, and this is how Francis
later described the feeling. “I couldn’t stop the jumping. If that was tickling it was sure a funny kind. I thought for a minute I was going to knock
the chair over. Then I was all right. I thought I was dead.” Other reports state that he shouted, “Take
it off. Take it off” as the executioners tried to
give him a second round of shocks. It’s said after the failed attempt he wasn’t
even injured, but said he felt kind of dizzy. Some people thought this was a miracle, and
a righteous one as they didn’t believe he was guilty nor had had a fair trial. Louisiana’s Governor James Davis then said
in six days they would send him to the chair again. That didn’t happen, and much of America
got behind the young man. He once wrote, “‘I felt just like a movie
star, and didn’t have any idea I had so many friends.” He also later described how his execution
felt, in something he called “The Chair”. He wrote, “You feel like you got a mouth
full of cold peanut butter, and you see little blue and pink and green speckles, the kind
that shines in a rooster’s tail.” What ensued were many months of legal arguments. Not only did some people believe he wasn’t
even guilty, but lawyers now argued that to subject a person to a second execution was
“cruel and unusual punishment.” Prosecution lawyers argued against that, stating
the first attempt had not worked at all and he had not been hurt. But the evidence supporting this in hindsight
seems pretty weak. The court also heard that the botch was just
an accident, and such accidents “happen for which no man is to blame.” That meant no one was at fault, and there
should be another execution. We might also note that later the state was
petitioned, with lawyers saying this about the botched execution, “The scene was a
disgraceful and inhuman exhibition, that as soon as the switch controlling the current
was taken off, the drunken executioner cursed Francis and told him he would be back to finish
electrocuting him, and if the electricity did not kill him he would kill him with a
rock.” The drunken men in charge that night were
accused of being sadistic, not giving Francis the full shock because they wanted to torture
him. He was returned to the chair on May 9, 1947,
and this time he didn’t survive. He was just 18-years old. If anything positive came out of all this,
that is the fact the justice system was exposed for not supporting Francis in the first place. This poor, black boy may or may not have killed
his boss, but he certainly wasn’t protected as he should have been by the American justice
system. Many Americans of all colors saw and criticized
what had happened. After hearing the strange and perhaps infuriating
case of young Willie Francis, we’d like to get your opinion. Tell us in the comments. Also, be sure to check out our other show
Man So Violent Even Other Prisoners Fear Him. Thanks for watching, and as always, don’t
forget to like, share and subscribe. See you next time.

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