Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Light Blinks When the Switch Is Thrown

Ruth Massingill, “Death Behind the Walls: Rituals, Folktales, and True Stories.” In Kenneth L. Untiedt, ed., Death Lore: Texas Rituals, Superstitions, and Legends of the Hereafter (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2008), 133.

Some legends persist through generations even though there has never been a shred of evidence to support the stories. Both the public as well as the news media are familiar with a variety of folktales regarding prisoners and executions.

“The Light Blinks When the Switch Is Thrown”

One of the most popular and enduring of these is the legend of the lights. When Huntsville Item reporter Don Reid was in the death chamber waiting to view his first execution in 1938, he asked the assistant warden if the prison’s lights would dim when the executioner “threw the switch” on the electric chair. The warden gently set him straight: “The Death House has its own set of generators. That only happens in the movies – the lights of the town going dim and the townspeople hiding under their blankets so they won’t know and all that trype.”[33]

More than sixty years later, the PIOs still get that same question. “Did the lights really flicker? Well, that’s not so,” [Larry] Fitzgerald patiently explains. “It is my understanding that it is against the law to use a public utility to execute. Anyway, we had our own generator – our own setup – we did it internally.”

33. Don Reid, Have A Seat Please (Huntsville: Texas Review Press, 2001), p. 25.