Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Stone Upon Stone: Sing Sing Prison

Killing Factory

Of course, Sing Sing's roll call of the condemned includes many famous criminals whose lives ended in the death chamber. Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, the so-called Lonely Hearts Killers, were one of the most notorious couples sentenced to death in America during the 1950s. Together, they bilked lonely widows out of their money while Fernandez pretended love for the victim and frequently proposed marriage. Their shocking crimes, which may have extended halfway across America and resulted in the deaths of 17 women, were sensationalized in the press for months. During a lurid murder trial in 1950, which featured detailed testimony on the defendant's active sex life, crowds gathered daily outside the Bronx courtroom. "The prison and death row have only strengthened my feeling for Raymond," Martha told reporters, "and in the history of the world, how many crimes have been attributed to love?" But Beck and Fernandez were not the most famous couple executed at Sing Sing. That distinction undoubtedly belongs to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the atom bomb spies during the Cold War years.

Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez
Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez

Because they were convicted of federal crimes, the Rosenbergs were actually not prisoners of New York State. Found guilty of espionage and sentenced to death in 1951, Sing Sing was given the responsibility of their execution. Their case became the subject of furious debate since many people felt their guilt was not firmly established. Anti-death penalty supporters rallied behind the cause and held many street demonstrations protesting their execution. Despite worldwide pleas to spare their lives, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed at Sing Sing on the night of June 19, 1953. They are the only nonmilitary prisoners in American history executed for espionage.

The oldest prisoner executed at Sing Sing was Albert Fish, 66, a demonic child killer and cannibal who murdered 11-year-old Grace Budd in the City of Peekskill in 1928. Fish was a deeply disturbed individual whose sadomasochistic tendencies included inserting dozens of needles deep into his own body. He once told authorities that he tortured more than 100 children during his life and murdered at least four others. Police caught up with Fish when he went to pick up mail at a boarding house on 52nd Street in Manhattan. He soon confessed to his crimes and boasted that he welcomed the death penalty. "What a thrill that will be, if I have to die in the electric chair," he said, "It will be the supreme thrill!" He received his wish on January 16, 1936, when he was strapped into the chair by enthusiastic guards and quickly electrocuted. Executioner Robert Elliott said Fish had "a distorted mind of the first order. He walked to the chair without emotion." Fish was Elliott's 300th execution.

The oldest man executed at Sing Sing, Albert Fish, 66, on January 16, 1936.
The oldest man executed at Sing
Sing, Albert Fish, 66, on January
16, 1936.

The last person to walk the "longest mile" was a man named Eddie Lee Mays, 34, on August 15, 1963. He was convicted of the murder of a female bar patron during a robbery in Harlem in 1962. Throughout the 1960s, however, there was a growing dissatisfaction with capital punishment in America. Many people began to feel uneasy about the death penalty and several high-profile death cases, such as the Rosenbergs and Carryl Chessman, the "red light bandit," who spent more than a decade on death row in California, fueled the anti-capital punishment movement. By the 1970s, there was an unofficial moratorium on executions in New York.

In 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty, as it was then applied, was unconstitutional. New York's electric chair was officially turned off. Since 1891, when axe-murderer William Kemmler was sentenced to death, 614 men and women were executed at Sing Sing. During the 1970s, the electric chair was dismantled and moved to Greenhaven Prison in upstate New York. Although it was kept in working condition for many years, it was never used again.