Saturday, January 15, 2011

The First Woman to Die in the Electric Chair

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The Execution of Martha Place
by Robert A. Waters

Martha Place’s last gasp of breath came on the morning of March 21, 1899, in Sing Sing Prison. Her crimes were brutal, her guilt indisputable, but her execution was virulently opposed by many Americans. And for those who think today’s political dialog is caustic, read on.

Martha Place was described by the press as a “half-demented, homely, old, and ill-tempered” woman. “Mrs. Place has the face of a woman subject to a fierce anger which might drive to dreadful ends,” wrote the editor of one small-town newspaper. Still others commented on her “triangular-shaped” face and gray piercing eyes.

William Place married Martha eighteen months after having hired her to be the nanny to his teenage daughter, Ida. There seemed to be little love in the four-year marriage. William had willed his home and estate in Brooklyn, New York to Ida and that became a sticking point as his wife, Martha, wanted it all in case he died. To make matters worse, William wouldn’t let her son from a previous marriage live in the family home. It seemed to be the classic marriage of convenience, at least for William.

Martha’s dislike of Ida slowly boiled into a cauldron of seething hatred and jealousy. A story in the Trenton Evening News described the relationship: “Martha was of a morose disposition and possessed an ungovernable temper that frequently broke out in an alarming way. She was an immaculate housekeeper, but possessed no other accomplishments and no personal attractions. Mr. Place was devoted to his daughter. They studied amateur photography and often took long walks together. Mrs. Place regarded this as neglect of her on the part of her husband.”

On the evening of February 9, 1898, Martha followed Ida into her bedroom, threw carbolic acid in her face, and attacked the helpless girl. Some news reports indicated that Martha smothered Ida to death, others that she strangled her stepdaughter then attacked her with the blunt end of an ax. However it happened, by the time Martha left the room, Ida was no longer the heir to William’s property.

As soon as her husband came home, Martha went after him with the ax. After absorbing several blows to the head, William staggered from the house and collapsed outside. An alarm was sounded and police rushed to the scene. There they found Ida dead. Martha, covered with pillows and with the gas jets on full-tilt, was unconscious but alive.

Her attempt at suicide failed, leading some to conclude that she was too mean to die.

William Place also survived. His wounds told a horrible tale, as did his voice once he was able to speak. Martha was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death.

By 1899, twenty-five men had succumbed to Old Sparky, but not one woman, and most people assumed that the execution would never take place. The case was hotly debated not only in America but in countries across the globe.

The governor of New York was none other than Theodore Roosevelt, and it was his job to make the final decision.

Letters from the public poured in urging the governor to spare the woman’s life. Newspapers editorialized about the case, the overwhelming number seeking a commutation. But in the end, Roosevelt determined that if the only reason for sparing Martha’s life was that she was a woman, he would order the execution to go forward.

So, on March 21, 1899, at exactly 11:00 a.m., Martha Place paid for her crime. Her last words were, “God save me.”

Many Americans never forgave Roosevelt.

A year later, as he was running for president of the United States, anti-Roosevelt newspapers around the country published the following commentary:

“It was a murder so shocking, nothing worse could be thought of. Nothing worse could be thought of--that is to say, only one thing worse could be thought of, and that was the electric killing of the old woman. Newspapers had predicted that she never would die in the electric chair. Governor Morton, a plain, kindly old gentleman, who had never shot anybody in the back and had no especial claims to glory, had twice declared when governor that he would not allow a woman to be killed by electricity.

“None--not even the very worst [woman]--had been executed in the state for years. But Martha Place committed her murder and was convicted when Roosevelt was governor.

“Roosevelt feared nothing. When urged by his friends and family not to allow the old woman to be killed so brutally, he snapped his white teeth and declared that ‘mawkish sentimentality’ could not move him.

“Women and decent men appealed to him, but his ‘courage’ could not be moved.

“‘What,’ he asked, ‘an electric chair paid for by the state and no governor has had the courage to send a woman to that electric chair? I'll show them what I dare do.’

“It was no idle boast.

“The day came, the old woman was half-pushed, half-carted into the death room. The back of her head was shaved so that the current might easily reach her brain. One of her legs was bared to the hip so that the second electrode might burn her without setting fire to her clothing.

“A score of men looked on at this sight, which history owes to the ‘brave’ Governor Roosevelt. It was a sight to be seen only once. Roosevelt will never again be governor. There will never again be a man at the head of a great state capable of sending a woman in shameful dress to a shameful death before many men.

“Roosevelt had gone to war. After heroic performances--told over his own signature in numerous magazines--he informs us that he took San Juan hill.

“At one stage of his glorious progress he saw fleeing before him a miserable Spaniard. The man's back was turned, of course. He was turning away. He had never hurt Roosevelt. He was in the army because [he was] compelled to be there. The real conflict was over. But as he ran, his back offered a most inviting shot. Roosevelt, you must remember, had never killed a man.

“He had once killed a bear in a trap according to western stories. He had killed rabbits and robins, he had indirectly killed old Martha Place. But he had not actually had the satisfaction of pressing the button.

“Here was a chance to enjoy the sensation of killing a fellow creature. It was not a foolhardy undertaking, for the man's back was turned. He could not suddenly face round and do harm, for he had dropped his weapon in his flight. If ever Roosevelt was to enjoy the sensation of taking human life, here was his chance to enjoy the sensation safely.

“He says in the shameful story which he himself has signed and left for his children to read: ‘Shot him dead with my revolver.’

“We do not pretend to guess what the next ‘brave’ deed of this brave man may be, if offices and opportunities continue to pour in upon him.

“We simply narrate these two sample deeds of heroism as guides to those who must vote this fall.

“An old woman electrocuted.

“A fleeing unarmed man shot in the back.

“Such are Roosevelt's chief claims to heroism at present. If you indorse such heroism vote for him by all means.”


Unknown said...

I love your blog, it is very interesting to me as a foreigner to understand more about your country and point of view. However, I disagree with you about the old lady condemned to the electrical chair. In my country, the death penalty does no longer exist. But it seems to me that this woman was particularly cruel , killing a teenager and trying to kill her own man, so why should she be spared while many men in her place would have been executed! I am a woman and it seems to me that if we want to be perceived as credible as men in our jobs, in our lifes, we should be held responsible just as much for our crimes too. Of course, killing a disarmed man in his back seems to me to be just as awful and even he was a politician he should have been blamed. War is no excuse to behave in such a way.
Thank you for all your research and blog. I never fail to read it.
Christine from France

Robert A. Waters said...


Thank you for your interest in my blog. I appreciate the kind words. I love to research the old cases and to write about them. Good luck to you.


kmv57 said...

Yes, this woman should have been executed. It's disgusting that California still houses so many monsters. Charles Manson was sentenced to die and then the politicians got rid of the death penalty. Now every few years we have to see that bastards face and listen to his rantings.
My thoughts on T. Roosevelt was that he had blood lust. So many of his hero stories were bunk. He made the right call on executing this woman, but was by no means an American hero.