Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Stone Upon Stone: Sing Sing Prison

The Agent of Death

When Elliott embarked on his new career at the age of 52, he could not have known the extent of his tenure. But from the day of his first assigned execution, he began to keep a diary. In his notes, he recorded each execution he administered. On every page, he wrote the name of the prisoner, the date and number of the execution and any notes on the behavior of the condemned as they went to their deaths. Sometimes, he wrote a full page on the event. Other times, he wrote nothing except the prisoner's name. Some of the comments were humorous, like that made by murderer George Appel on August 9, 1928. "He was one of the toughest men I ever saw to sit in the chair," Elliott wrote, "As he sat down he said to the witnesses--"Well folks, you'll soon see a baked apple."

Elliott's very first execution was a man named Luigi Rapito on January 28, 1926. The log entry read "Entered the chamber somewhat nervous and slipped into the chair. Convicted of killing Asa Kline in Cayuga County two years ago." Other entries were not so mundane. Elliott executed some very famous criminals. He pulled the switch on Sacco and Vanzetti in July 1927. (Curiously, he wrote nothing in his diary of their final execution, which had created worldwide headlines.) Elliott also executed Bruno Hauptman in 1936 in New Jersey, killer of the Lindbergh baby during a kidnapping often described as the "crime of the century."

Sacco, executed in 1927, by Robert G. Elliot.

In 1927, he executed his first female, Ruth Snyder, convicted along with her boyfriend, Henry J. Gray, of murdering her husband for insurance money. "It will be something new for me to throw the switch on a woman," he told reporters, "and I don't like the job." Apparently, he wasn't kidding. Just before the scheduled execution, Elliott went to Warden Lewis Lawes and demanded a raise to $200. Lawes refused. The publicity surrounding the Ruth Snyder case was enormous, a true media event of early 20th century America. "This was a very exciting night," he wrote in his diary, "second only to the Sacco and Vanzetti night!" Lawes said later that "over 3,000 people milled around the gates of Sing Sing" as the execution hour grew near.

On the night of Ruth Snyder's execution, a New York Daily News photographer smuggled a camera into the death chamber by taping it to his leg. At the precise moment Snyder was electrocuted, he snapped a photo. The next day, the photograph of Ruth Snyder, leather mask over her face, strapped into the electric chair, appeared on the front page of the Daily News. It became one of the most famous photographs in the history of journalism. Although the Daily News will not grant permission to reproduce the photo, it can still be found on the Internet.

Elliott occasionally supplied a brief synopsis of the case that brought the condemned to the chair, such as Joe Kemerinski on July 30, 1928. He wrote: "Was helped to the chair as he had but one leg. Convicted of killing Dr. Gerald Kelley in the doctor's officehe blamed the doctor for having his leg amputated. But Dr. Kelley was not the doctor responsible for the operationhe went to his death bravely." Sometimes, prisoners were not very agreeable. The last words of convicted murderer Jesse Thomas on August 28, 1930, were: "See you all in hell! Let's go!" Elliott's unique diary, an eyewitness account to criminal justice history, was later turned into a book and published under the title of Agent of Death, Memoirs of an Executioner (1940).

Robert Elliott remained on the job until 1939 when he took ill. He died later that year in Queens, New York, at the age of 66. During his time, he had executed 387 men and women in five states, but mostly in New York, where the steady flow of the condemned never seemed to falter. Elliot once executed three men in Massachusetts, got into his car and drove over to Sing Sing and killed three more on the same day (January 6, 1927). America never had an executioner like Robert G. Elliott. And probably never will again.

But the death penalty was not so repulsive to many people. When news of Elliot's sickness became known, Warden Lewis Lawes requested applications for the executioner's job. Within one week, the response was overwhelming. One newspaper reported on August 22, 1939, "Prison officials have received 400 applications from persons who want the job."