Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Profession of Executioner: Robert G. Elliott

Not Without Risk

Elliott reported in his memoir that he had received numerous letters over the course of his career, some of them threatening. For the most part, he ignored these, since the vast majority of them were clearly crank letters. He had been quite adept throughout his years as an executioner in maintaining anonymity.

However, on May 18, 1928, at 1:10 a.m., his house was bombed.

The front of the house was destroyed, but the occupants, fast asleep in the upper level, were unharmed. All of the windows had been blown out by the force of the blast. A few neighboring houses had their windows damaged, and were struck by flying pieces from the Elliott house. The explosion had been felt over a block away. Neighbors assisted the startled Elliott family out of the house.

Who had done this was a mystery. How they did it was discovered by the police, who found that the bomb was made of dynamite and steel particles, with a timer. Witnesses reported a red car leaving the area immediately after the blast, but the car was never found.

Could the bombers of Elliotts house have been anarchists sympathetic to Sacco and Vanzetti? Bombing was not an unknown technique of some of the Italian anarchists of the 1920s. Elliott appears to doubt this, since he thought that an act of revenge nine months after he had executed Sacco and Vanzetti seemed quite a long time before vengeance was extracted. It is clear that Elliott did not understand the Italian idea of vendetta, where grudges can linger for a century or more.

The house was repaired within two months, the costs of restoration provided by the New York legislature. Police guards were posted outside Elliotts house for the next five years, and, after that, every May 1 and every time Elliott was about to carry out an execution.

Throughout the latter part of Elliotts career, newspapers were fond of reporting that his profession depressed him, sometimes writing that he was prostrate with guilt, under a physicians care, or inclined toward suicide. This prediction, that Elliott would commit suicide, was, in the minds of the press, confirmed when Elliotts predecessor, Hulbert, shot himself in February 1929. Immediately, the newspapers concluded that Hulberts profession was the cause, that he was a man haunted by the faces of those he had killed in the electric chair. One magazine reported that Elliott had hanged himself, and had to retract that report when Elliott protested to the editor. In all likelihood, Hulbert, ill, recently widowed, and enduring approaching blindness, fell victim to depression.

It was difficult for newspapers and the public to accept the existence of an executioner who seemed unaffected by his profession. They seemed to insist that Elliott had to be a tortured soul. Elliott reported a typical story, which said that Elliotts wife and two of his children had been murdered, and that he became an executioner to avenge their deaths.

No one was ready to accept the picture of the grandfatherly Elliott tending his roses and gladioli in his neat suburban garden.

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