A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
When I was growing up in rural Iowa, most fellows my age often went hunting for birds or other wildlife, and many farmers were known to supply meat for a dinner by swiftly slitting the throat of a prized pig or steer.
But I was the rare farm boy who couldn’t imagine killing a beautiful pheasant with a shotgun. Even now, although I really enjoy a good steak, the mere thought of how it got to my plate makes me cringe.
Knowing that, you might assume I'd never willingly go to see a man be put to death, let alone "choose" to witness somebody's electrocution.
Yet that's exactly what happened about 10 years after I had become a journalist. By then, I'd worked on a lot of news stories about life and death -- locally and elsewhere, no matter how grim the violent circumstances might have been.
That was simply part of the job, especially in a big city such as Chicago, where I was based then with United Press International.
But actually being at an execution and "covering" it as a reporter? That was entirely different for me, and exactly what my bosses needed.
They wanted a correspondent on our staff to see a convicted murderer die in an electric chair, and then be able to write a news story describing what took place. The editors took care to frame this as a request rather than an assignment, aware that it would be foolish -- maybe even morally wrong -- to send anyone who would be deeply upset by having to cover such an event.
I decided to volunteer, showing more bravado than I felt and thinking I needed the experience of reporting on something that I personally abhorred. I was confident that I could handle the story professionally -- in a terse news-agency fashion, written tightly perhaps with a dash of color. I thought I could be a better reporter if I did not avoid such dreadful stories.
So on the night of March 23, 1962, I drove down California Avenue not far from the Chicago Loop to cover Vincent Ciucci’s execution at age 34 in the Cook County Jail. And six months later, I did it once more for the electrocution of James Dukes, another condemned killer.
At that point, I was determined to observe everything as well as I could. Now, after almost 60 years, my recollection of details is fuzzy -- what I saw, heard and smelled at the penitentiary, and near the electric chair itself.
What remains entrenched in my mind is a haunting horror of watching the unfolding of carefully planned steps to end life for two men. It was nothing like seeing my mother pass as I stood by her side, nor how I felt while I was a correspondent in Jerusalem and had to deal with a tragic accident in which a worker fell from the top of a 19-story building.
I remember thinking before going to the jail that I knew almost nothing about Ciucci and Dukes beyond what I had read in newspapers. But that was enough to keep reminding me that, above all, both men were "real, live human beings" and being put to death deliberately -- getting the maximum punishments for what they had done.
I couldn't shake those feelings then, and still can't.
The public record indicated that Ciucci was no angel. There apparently was no doubt that he'd been having a long-running affair with another woman while living with his wife and their three kids in the back of a small grocery store that he operated.
It was alleged that Ciucii asked his wife for a divorce and she refused after his mistress, three or four years younger than him, got pregnant.
So on a winter night in 1953, according to prosecutors, Ciucii killed his wife and all the children -- shooting each in the head after they went to bed. In addition, he was accused of setting the apartment on fire afterward.
You might wonder if there was anything good to be said for this man.
Among others at the jail to see Ciucci’s execution was William Friedkin, a distinguished film director . He had gotten to know Ciucii in previous months at the jail while working on a project there. Years later, the filmmaker wrote this:
“He had pictures of his three young children scotch-taped to his cell wall on Death Row and he used to say to me, ‘I could never kill these kids. Look at these beautiful faces. They were my life.’ Tears would flow. His and mine.”
As you might expect, witnessing an execution required a fair amount of time. Numerous arrangements had to be made and approved by the authorities.
As instructed by the county, I arrived at the prison at 11 p.m. that night and I was searched after checking in. I was wearing an old pair of loafers. The guard noticed one sole had pulled apart a bit and he checked it carefully to see whether a blade might have been hidden there.
Once inside, all reporters were led into a long tunnel and then ushered into a room with a huge window. Looking through that glass, we could see the electric chair in an adjoining, smaller room. All of us tried to get a view from as far away as possible.
We waited there for almost an hour. There was a hush in the room.. It got so warm that a police reporter for one of the city's newspapers nearly collapsed.
Ciucci was being held with all the other inmates on "death row" in a maximum security area of the basement. It was known as “the wing.”
They were confined 21 hours a day in seven foot by four foot cells. The electric chair was just a short distance down the hall –- 17 steps for Ciucci, one reporter calculated.
Finally, at midnight, guards brought Ciucci in. They were dragging him and almost shoving him into the chair. It occurred to me that they might be treating him roughly to try to take his mind off what was about to happen.
At 12:01 a.m., the warden gave a signal to proceed.
Ciucci heaved against straps as lethal voltage power surged into him. His body went limp quickly.
It was over.
A few minutes later, we were escorted back to the entrance.
Throughout my time there, I was intent on collecting the basic details which journalists are supposed to include in a standard report -- the who, what, when and where plus other facts.
I left with no idea if there was truth to the lore that prisons go utterly quiet shortly before an execution because inmates know what is going on. Nor did I know if lights in and around a prison really dim, presumably due to a super charge of energy required for the electric chair.
About six months after Ciucci 's death, my editors figured I was our most informed reporter on electrocutions and they told me to cover the next one at Cook County Jail -- ending the life of James Dukes, who was 31 years old.
According to prosecutors, Dukes was beating his 16-year-old girl friend after they had gotten into an argument. Hearing the noise, two men -- a deacon and an usher at a nearby Baptist church -- came to the girlfriend's defense, along with two city policemen on patrol at the Chicago Stockyards.
There was evidence that Dukes tried to flee, took his gun out of his girlfriend’s purse, and fired it. Both of the Good Samaritans from the church were wounded and survived, but one officer, Detective John Blyth, died.
The sentence of capital punishment for Dukes surprised nobody. Killing a policeman was considered as bad as any crime.
Before the execution of Dukes, a black man, we visitors were given different official instructions than we had for Ciucii, who was white. Instead of being required to arrive by 11 p.m., we were told it would be okay to come only a few minutes before midnight and inspections of us were superficial.
What most sticks in my mind was the overall atmosphere this time. The mood seemed almost like gaiety, There was even some laughter. Some reporters clamored to get close to the window to watch Dukes die.
A Chicago Tribune correspondent, Ron Koziol, recalled that Ciucci was upbeat and in continued denial of what he had done, but Dukes remained silent and refused the traditional last meal. He was hooded and in black shorts as the clamps were attached.
At the end, we found out that Dukes had left a message, using a quotation from Plato’s “Dialogues” — “The hour of departure has arrived and we go our ways, I to die and you to live. Which is better God only knows.”
Did all of this make me a better reporter? I don’t know.
But those assignments helped solidify my opposition to the death penalty, which for me always had been more theoretical and philosophic than heart-felt
In case you're wondering, I had been inside a big prison previously -- the South Dakota Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. And I remembered that visit vividly for many years.
It was at Christmastime and I was with a group of other young persons who came there to sing holiday carols. The cell block was in the middle of the building, surrounded by a high broad “moat.”
As we were singing, we knew the sound of our voices and our music circulated around and into the cells.
As a historical footnote, the electrocutions of Ciucii and Dukes were the 66th and 67th done at Cook County Jail and the last to occur in Illinois, which began doing them in 1928. All were at this facility and two others.
Instead of using the electric chair, the state switched to lethal injections in 1983, and in 2011 it repealed the death sentence.
Wesley Pippert was a journalist in Washington more than 40 years and led a special University of Missouri program there.