Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Profession of Executioner: Robert G. Elliott

What Was Robert Elliott Really Like?

What kind of a man would be a professional executioner? Would he have to be a man without feelings, incapable of pity, inured to death, a calloused personality? Most would assume that the executioner might be something of a sociopath, or, at the very least, an outcast from society, friendless, scorned.

Executioner with axe, illustration
Executioner with axe, illustration

Elliott quotes Diebler, once the principal headsman of France:

To kill in the name of ones country is a glorious feat, one rewarded by medals. But to kill in the name of the law, that is a gruesome, horrible function, rewarded with scorn, contempt, and loathing.

Nevertheless, Robert Elliott had no concerns about how he was considered by society. He thought of himself as an average man who led a common, relatively bland existence. Throughout his memoir, he insists that if society is to have capital punishment, someone must carry out such sentences.   

Adolf Eichmann
Adolf Eichmann
Hannah Arndt, in describing the Nazi mass murderer Adolf Eichmann, used the phrase the banality of evil. With respect to Elliott, it is not an inappropriate description. Banality, of course, means commonplace. That is not to say that Elliott was in any way evil, but, paraphrasing Arndt,   a more accurate rewriting of her description for Elliott would be the banality of middle-class respectability. As he describes in his autobiography, Elliott comes off as a very ordinary small-town resident.

When not acting as the states agent of death or doing electrical contracting jobs, I spend a great deal of time in my flower garden. I am particularly proud of my roses and gladioli, which have been the envy of the neighborhood.

Besides tending his garden, Elliott wrote that he enjoyed shooting movies of his grandchildren at play, walking in the woods, and fishing with his son and sons-in-law. In the evenings, he listened to the radio, read biographies, and read the newspaper comics to his children and grandchildren. All in all, he was a comfortable man, an admirer of Calvin Coolidge and Will Rogers, a pipe-smoking candidate for a Norman Rockwell magazine cover.

Like many middle class suburbanites of the 1920s and 1930s, he enjoyed driving, often taking his car to his trips to prisons to carry out the executions. His wife often accompanied him, particularly when the executions were in Pennsylvania, so that she could enjoy the Nittany Mountains and a little inn in a neighboring village while her husband went on to the prison to throw his switch. On one occasion, they were in an auto accident, and, though shaken and bruised, Elliott went on to the prison, performed the execution, and off they drove to western New York for a weeks vacation.

The puzzling question about Robert Elliott is how he felt about what he did. He does not seem to be a reflective man, but he does spend a chapter in his autobiography justifying his profession. He concludes that although he throws the switch, it is society that decides whether death is an appropriate punishment. His conscience is clear.

I have always been a God-fearing, religious person. I have endeavored to lead an honest, moral life, and in my dealings with others have tried to follow the Golden Rule. I have striven to be a good husband and a good father. Wherever I may have failed, it has not been for lack of sincere effort. As to the service I perform for the state, I have already discussed why in my mind there is no shadow of consciousness that I have done wrong.

As if to augment this personal philosophy, Elliott states that he is opposed to capital punishment. He did not believe that it was a deterrent. He was affected by what he called the widespread orgy of sensationalism --- almost sadism that capital punishment brought out in people, citing the crowds that waited outside the prisons for the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, and Hauptmann. Many in those throngs were morbid individuals, to whom death is a commonplace jest and human life is cheap.

A theme in Elliotts memoir is his concern that he might have electrocuted an innocent man. While he doesnt explicitly say so, this appears to be a worry that might alter his status as a mere instrument of the state, and, in some way, implicate him. However, he assumes a position of it cant be helped, and goes on with his otherwise uneventful life.

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