Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Martinsville Seven

Let the Executions Begin

The first defendant to die was Joe Henry Hampton, 22, the man who initiated the brutal assault on the victim. His head shaved bald and his hands in irons, Hampton was strapped into the chair at 8:02 a.m. Following Hampton at 12- minute intervals were Howard Hairston, 21, Booker Millner, 22 and Frank Hairston, 19. As they were led to the chair, the prison minister recited prayers for the men. According to The Worker, Frank Hairston's last words were, "I never touched the woman. I am innocent. But I am resigned to death now and I will meet you all on the other side." Also executed that day was a 27-year-old black man who had murdered a 14-year-old girl in Halifax County. "Four of the seven Martinsville Negroes denied an eleventh hour stay by the Chief Justice of the United States were electrocuted in the old State Penitentiary here today for the rape of a white woman," was the opening paragraph in the Martinsville Bulletin on February 2, 1951.

Electric chair at VA State Penitentiary
Electric chair at VA State Penitentiary

Though Virginia has a statute on his books that forbids the press from reporting on the details of executions, reporters were still able to gather some information. "The men went quietly to the chair," said the Martinsville Bulletin, "comforted by spiritual advisors, unaware of the frantic effort to save their lives." Outside the 150-year-old prison, a few dozen supporters marched in continued protest against the executions. Over 10,000 letters and telegrams poured into the office of Virginia Governor John S. Battle urging compassion in the case. In Richmond, hundreds of people picketed the governor's mansion, hoping for a last- minute reversal. But it never came.

On Monday, February 5, 1951, John Clabon Taylor, 24, James Luther Hairston, 23, and Francis DeSales Grayson, 40, were taken from their cells and had their final walk through the cold basement of the Old State Penitentiary. Taylor was the first to be executed at 7:30 a.m. Hairston and Grayson quickly followed him. "Like the other four," said the Bulletin, "the final three were quiet and had nothing to say in the hours before their deaths."

A local funeral home in Martinsville later claimed the bodies and brought them back to the city, where the community mourned the loss of seven of its sons. "It has been sad in this town for many weeks," said New York's Amsterdam News, "This week perhaps was the saddest remembered in many old minds. Nearly every one of this country town's Negroes turned out to see the Martinsville Seven go to their graves."

As for Ruby Floyd, she had left Henry County and could not be located, even by local reporters. Her disappearance fed rumors of a conspiracy and more radical speculation by the press. "Across the tracks," began the Amsterdam News, "nobody talks about Ruby Stroud...Never very bright, it is doubtful that she will be able to overcome the omnipresent fact that seven human lives have been snuffed out to protect her questionable name."

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