Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Profession of Executioner: Robert G. Elliott

Who Was Robert G. Elliott

I have been, intentionally or otherwise, painted as some kind of ogre.

Even pictures of me have been retouched so I would resemble something akin to the loathsome Mr. Hyde.

             Robert G. Elliott, 1940


Elliotts book, with the provocative title of Agent of Death, has a frontispiece portrait of him. It is an older man, perhaps nearing 70 years old --- the picture is undated --- smoking a pipe, looking off to his right, unsmiling. The fact that the man in the picture appears to be almost 70 is interesting, because he was only 65 when he died, and the photograph was probably taken when he was not yet 60. His face is careworn, older than his years, but it is not a cruel face. It has the look of a small-town lawyer or doctor, or perhaps the towns electrician. He fulfilled this appraisal, for he was indeed a leading electrical contractor in Richmond Hill, N.Y.

Robert G. Elliott, executioner
Robert G. Elliott, executioner

He was not often photographed, and enjoyed considerable anonymity. As his career developed over 30 years, he was a bit more recognized, but, in general, he walked through life unnoticed. Even after the notoriety of his famous executions, he was still considered by an association of newspaper photographers as the most difficult man in America to photograph.

Elliott was born in 1874 in Hamlin, N.Y., the son of an Irish immigrant who ran a large fruit farm. His pious parents had hoped that young Robert would one day be a Methodist minister. Elliott retained his parents devoutness, and, as he says self-effacingly in his memoir, Although I have many faults, profanity is not one of them.

His father died when he was 7 years old, and a year later, the orchard was sold, and Robert was sent to live with cousins until he was 16. About that time, he became interested in electricity, and was taught by an old farmhand who had once been a telegraph operator.

William Kemmler
William Kemmler
This newfound interest in electricity coincided with the first electrocution in the United States on August 6, 1890. Elliott was 16 years old at the time. The first man to be executed in the electric chair was William Kemmler, who had killed his mistress with a hatchet. Robert Elliott read the newspaper accounts of Kemmlers execution. Who the executioner was for this historic event was not recorded, although it was likely Edwin Davis. The construction of the first electric chair was carried out by a Westinghouse employee, Harold Brown, and Edwin Davis, who would one day be Elliotts mentor in the fine art of execution, supervised the switchboard.

Fascinated with electricity, Elliott was determined to become an electrical engineer. The only college nearby that offered instruction in mathematics and physics was the Brockport Normal School, a teacher-training college. Elliott learned what he could about the physics of electricity in the two-year program, and soon got a job at the Brockport Electric Light Plant. Fundamentally, although employed, he was very much an apprentice. With time on his hands at night, he says that, The first murder case in which I became intensely interested was that of Lizzie Borden. The preparation for his profession had begun. Shortly after, he read about a man condemned to the electric chair, Bartholomew Shea, and, to a friend, uttered the prophetic words, Think of the executioners great responsibility. Thats a job Id like to have. Elliott was 18 years old.

West Hall of Clinton Prison
West Hall of Clinton Prison

At 21, Elliott went to Avon, N.Y., to help start the operation of the towns lighting plant. There, he met his future wife, Addie Hocmer, and when she moved away, Elliott took a job as assistant electrician at the Clinton Prison in Dannemora, N.Y., to be closer to her. When the chief electrician left six months later, he assumed the position of chief of the powerhouse. Soon, Robert Elliott and Addie Hocmer were married.

In effect, Elliotts career as an executioner began at Dannemora. Because the prison power plant provided the current for the electric chair, it was Elliott who was responsible for the machinery for executions, and, although not the primary person who threw the switch, his role was to provide the energy for the executioner.

Sooner or later, it was inevitable that Elliott would assume a greater role than merely the operator of the power plant. In Elliotts memoir, one can almost sense the steady progress from technician to executioner.

At the turn of the century, prisons were rather open institutions, allowing the public to inspect them on tours, including the death chamber. Elliott was occasionally asked by the warden of Dannemora to conduct tours, and, inevitably, the electric chair became the highlight of each tour. Many visitors asked to sit in the electric chair, and once Elliott himself was asked to sit in it, at the request of the wife of a prominent state official. The officials wife even requested that he be strapped in it, so that the full effect could be viewed. Elliott reports that he experienced some of the sensations that he expected the condemned to feel, although after that experience, he never again felt the same degree of fear when he sat in the chair again.

In June 1901, Elliott participated in his first electrocution, although from a distance. In his role as plant engineer, he was the man who started the engine and threw the switch that sent the current to the execution chamber. The executioner was none other than Edwin Davis, Kemmlers executioner.

The two men, Davis and Elliott, rehearsed the execution in the morning, testing the current with a 15-pound piece of beef. Later that morning, the condemned man, George Middleton, received four shocks. The first was for two minutes, the second a minute, and the third and fourth about a half minute each. Elliotts career was beginning.

Throughout his life, following the wishes of his parents, Elliott was a devout Methodist --- a superintendent of the Sunday school, a member of the church board, and later treasurer of the church. While it was well known that Elliott was the man who furnished the current for the electric chair, his fellow congregants, many of them employees of the prison, were not dismayed by the Sunday school superintendents special prison duties.

In various accounts of the executions of famous felons, Elliott is often described as grim-faced, or stern-faced, and often reported to be wearing a gray suit with a brightly colored tie. He is also described as lanky and business-like. Some authors say nothing about him, as if he were a colorless extension of the machinery of execution. It is clear that these several authors have never spoken to anyone who knew Elliott, and have relied on comments made by witnesses to the executions who, like the authors, generally ignored his existence.