Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Profession of Executioner: Robert G. Elliott

"Agent of Death"

Eight times I have been the agent of death for a state which demanded that four men give up their lives on the same day. Thirty times the chairs toll has been three, and on fifty-three occasions I have electrocuted two people within a few minutes.

             Robert G. Elliott, 1940

Robert G. Elliott
Robert G. Elliott
One of the most fascinating documents in the annals of true crime is the memoir of Robert G. Elliott, executioner for six states, who, as he so dramatically states, has
"thrown the switch which has hurled into eternity three hundred and eighty-seven occupants of the electric chair.

Of the 4,000 or so inmates electrocuted from 1890 to the present, Elliott executed about 10 percent. Of those executed during his career in the states that he served, he was responsible for two-thirds of all convicts executed.

That alone is fascinating, but what is even more remarkable is that five of those he electrocuted were among the most famous individuals ever to be executed in the United States: Nicola Sacco, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Ruth Snyder, Henry Judd Gray, and Bruno Richard Hauptmann. Aside from the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953, some 15 years after the end of his career, Elliott was the designated agent of death in the most famous cases in the United States in the 20th Century.

Elliotts autobiography has long been out of print. It was published in 1940, a few months after he died on October 10, 1939. Copies of the book are difficult to find. This report is based on a Xeroxed copy of one in the Library of Congress. One would think that the books historical significance and grim subject matter would have kept it in print. But they have not.

References to Elliott appear in accounts of these three cases that constituted the five famous executions, often reporting Elliotts behavior and thoughts from a considerably different perspective than that he presents in his book. Despite his long career as an executioner and his personal account of the practice of his profession, Elliott remains a footnote in the history of crime, linked forever with those three famous cases.

The history of the electric chair in America has been well reported in Crimelibrary articles by Marlee MacLeod (The Electric Chair ) and Marc Gado (The Last Stop: Women in the Electric Chair and Stone Upon Stone: Sing Sing Prison). In this article, we will consider the executioner himself. What can we know about such a man? How did he view his profession? What kind of man was he?

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