By Joseph R. Svinth
Copyright © EJMAS 2005. All rights reserved.
In his book Why We Can't Wait, first published in June 1964, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote:
More than twenty-five years ago, one of the southern states adopted a new method of capital punishment. Poison gas supplanted the gallows. In its earliest stages, a microphone was placed inside the sealed death chamber so that scientific observers might hear the words of the dying prisoner to judge how the human reacted in this novel situation.
The first victim was a young Negro. As the pellet dropped into the container, and the gas curled upward, through the microphone came these words: "Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis..."
King's dramatic story is often retold today. See, for example, the transcript of The Fight, a PBS documentary about the Louis and Schmeling fights, at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/fight/filmmore/pt.html, and this essay by sportswriter Dave Zirin about changing perceptions of heavyweight champions.
So, who was the unnamed young black man, and which southern state was it? King provides enough detail that tracking this down should be fairly simple.
Nevada pioneered gas chambers, and the first person to be executed by this method there was a Chinese man, Gee Jon, in 1924. Ten other states subsequently adopted gas chambers. These were Arizona, California, Colorado, Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon and Wyoming.
Only two of those states were part of the Confederacy. The Mississippi gas chamber was built in 1954. Source: http://www.mdoc.state.ms.us/mississippi_and_the_death_penalt.htm. The first black man executed in Mississippi was Allen Donaldson in March 1955. This is 15 years too late for King's chronology.
North Carolina adopted the gas chamber in 1936. Source: http://www.doc.state.nc.us/dop/deathpenalty/DPhistory.htm. In 2005, the old North Carolina gas chamber decorated a home in Wake County, North Carolina. I kid thee not. http://www.fuquay-varinaindependent.com/news/2004102701020.html. North Carolina is definitely part of the Old South, and 1936 is in the right time frame. This quickly leads to http://www.squarebooks.com/dearreader/2001_09/02.php, which in turn leads to http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?scid=8&did=269. And there, one finds a link to the by-name list of the 14,634 legal executions that took place in the USA between 1608 and 1987.
Page 290 starts the list of North Carolina executions. However, in North Carolina, gas replaced electrocution rather than the gallows. Also, the first black to be gassed (J.T. Sanford, age 30, on February 7, 1936) was the third person executed by lethal gas in North Carolina (page 314). Finally, the New York Times article about that particular execution didn't mention anything about Joe Louis.
So, let's keep looking.
Of the above, Missouri meets the most criteria, and as a border state, it could be considered almost Southern. But, if "Save me, Joe Louis" were Wright's last words, why hasn't the Missouri press picked up on this? After all, his execution is still mentioned in Missouri media. See, for instance, http://www.kccall.com/News/2003/0502/Front_Page/015.html.
To get to the bottom of this, one would need to read the newspapers for every gassing death to see if anyone's last words were "Save me, Joe Louis." If that draws a blank, then one would have to read the last words for electrocutions, too, for here I read that the execution was an electrocution rather than a gassing. Finally, one would have to look at every execution, in every state, for here I read that the electrocution took place at Sing Sing, in New York.
Meanwhile, all these specific details that don't add up makes me suspect that King's story is urban myth rather than documented fact.
Which is too bad, because if King's story isn't true, it should have
Update: December 2006
Regarding the conclusion of this article, reader Orson McDonald sent this correction:
Though you dismissed it as urban
legend, it is partly true. King misconstrued the words of the
The scene was North Carolina's first execution by lethal gas. Twenty year old Allen Foster, who had been involved in childhood fisticuffs with Joe Louis back in Birmingham, Alabama proclaimed to witnesses, "I fought Joe Louis" (making an upper cut motion) as he was led into the gas chamber at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina on January 24, 1936.