Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Stone Upon Stone: Sing Sing Prison

The Executioner

The executioner's job at Sing Sing was not an easy one. Killing human beings, even under the approval and authority of the government, was a complicated and demanding job. In addition, New York's executioner also served the states of Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut. He could sometimes be a very busy man and, on occasion, be called upon to perform his duties in two states. It was not unusual, for example, to travel from New York to Connecticut in the same day to perform more than one execution. Unlike most government employees, however, the executioner was not on a weekly salary. He was paid $50 per event. In multiple executions, (and there were many) a man could make a tidy sum.

Sing Sing's first executioner was a man named Edwin Davis. Back then, executioners were called electricians. Davis took the job in 1891 and was the man who pulled the switch on the unfortunate William Kemmler. Of course, killing people by electricity was a novel undertaking at that time and the technique had to be refined with each killing. Davis also executed Martha Place, the first female electrocuted in American history, on March 20, 1899. His most prolific day was August 12, 1912, when he executed seven men in less than one hour at Sing Sing.

Robert G. Elliot, the New York Executioner from 1926-1939. (AP/Wide World)
Robert G. Elliot, the New York
Executioner from 1926-1939.
(AP/Wide World)

Apparently, by 1914, Davis had enough of killing. Although he was a secretive man, he agreed to begin training a replacement. A young assistant, Robert G. Elliot, 39, was selected. But after Davis retired, another man, John Hilbert, Auburn's electrician, got the job instead. Eventually, Hilbert executed 140 people in New York, Massachusetts and Kansas. After 1919, his fee was raised to $150 per execution. Over the years, however, Hilbert became withdrawn and depressed. He displayed outbursts of rage and violence. On one occasion, he fainted just 30 minutes before he was scheduled to put two men to death. The prison doctor later revived him and the executions went forward. In 1926, he suddenly resigned on the night before two men were scheduled to die. An intensive search was begun for his replacement. It ended rather quickly when the state selected Edwin Davis' original protégé, Robert G. Elliot, who was then 52 years old. He readily accepted. As for John Hilbert, he was later found with a bullet in his head in the basement of his Auburn home, an apparent suicide. "Whether his work preyed on his mind," the newspaper obituary read, "no person was able to observe from his actions."

Elliot's realm included Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont and New York. The public did not know Elliot's identity for quite some time. In the early years, he concealed his occupation from his family. It wasn't until 1928 when a New York City tabloid reporter followed him from Ossining to his home in Queens, that his name was first published. Thereafter, Elliot held a special dislike for the press. "I'd rather shoot the juice into someone than talk to a newspaper reporter!" he said. Elliot was a pragmatic man who hid his feelings about his job and considered himself a tool of the state. "I'm just an ordinary human being," he once said, "I'm no more responsible for killing these men than the judge or jury."

But the press continued to publish unsubstantiated stories about Elliot's private life. "Friendless, lonely, a social outcast. That, according to common supposition, is the miserable existence that is mine," Elliot once wrote. "It has been said that I am a recluse, living in an atmosphere of funeral gloomwhen I do appear in public, rumor has it, people run from me as they would the plague." It was more sensationalism than fact. Actually, Elliot was comfortable with his work and saw it as a necessary occupation that someone had to perform. He loved gardening, fishing and photography. But his occupation differed from others in one respect.

In order for him to keep his job, people had to be killed.