The Last Executioner
For 51 years, a family in upstate New York has closely guarded one of the most explosive, and unusual, secrets any family could have: Its late patriarch, Dow B. Hover, was New York State's executioner. Hover held the job in the 1950s and 1960s and was the last man in the state to activate the electric chair. He left behind evidence of his workletters from Sing Sing's wardenhidden in a filing cabinet in his house.
Hover, who lived in Germantown and worked as a deputy sheriff for Columbia County, took extreme precautions to ensure no newspaper would ever reveal his identity. On the nights he drove to Sing Sing to carry out an execution, he employed a novel strategy in order to elude pesky reporters: He changed the license plates on his car before he even left his garage.
Hover worked in the infamous Sing Sing death house, where 614 people perished between 1891 and 1963more people than at any other prison in the nation during that time. New York's last execution took place almost 42 years ago, yet the debate over the death penalty continues. Last summer, the Court of Appeals ruled that the state's death penalty was unconstitutional, and now the public debate has grown even louder. Just in the last week, the state assembly convened two public hearings, in Albany and Manhattan, on the future of New York's death penalty.
Maintaining public support for the death penalty has long depended on keeping the act of killing prisoners shrouded in secrecyno television cameras, no interviews with the execution team, no revealing of the executioner's identity. Conversations about the death penalty often remain abstract, focused on issues like "justice" and "deterrence." Rarely do they focus on how the death penalty affects those most intimately involved, transforming everyday people into professional killers. The voices and stories of the people who carry out executions are almost never heard.
Dow B. Hover had two children, both of whom are now in their 70s and still live in Germantown. They have not paid much attention to the political debate swirling around the death penalty. In fact, neither likes to think much about the issue at all. But on a recent Saturday, Hover's children finally decided to discuss their family's secret. They spoke to the Voice about their father, his execution work, and his own life's end.
On Aug. 5, 1953, a headline in The New York Times declared: "State Executioner Quits." At the time, the executioner's name was well-known. Joseph P. Francel had held the job for 14 years; his name regularly appeared in the media. Just two months earlier, he'd pulled the switch that sent 2,000 volts of electricity into the bodies of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The married couple, convicted of conspiring to steal atomic secrets for the Soviets, were the most famous of the 137 people Francel executed.
Dow B. Hover, 52, replaced Francel, securing the job through his contacts at the Columbia County sheriff's office. Like his five predecessors, Hover was a trained electrician. Now, in addition to his work as a deputy sheriff, Hover would earn $150 every time he put on a suit, made the 160-mile round-trip to Sing Sing, and pulled the switch for the electric chair. (Adjusted for inflation, this $150 payment is equivalent to about $1,000 today.) Hover would also receive gas money, usually eight cents per mile. Soon, typed one-page letters from Wilfred L. Denno, Sing Sing's warden, began arriving at his home, notifying him of every scheduled execution.
One of the first people Hover was hired to execute was 40-year-old Gerhard Puff. In 1952, Puff traveled from Kansas City to Manhattan with his 17-year-old wife, Annie Laurie. By then, Puff's rÃ©sumÃ© as a bank robber had already earned him a spot on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. Shortly after Puff and his wife arrived at the Congress Hotel on West 69th Street, FBI agents flooded the lobby. The agents were waiting for Puff to emerge from an elevator. Instead, Puff snuck down the stairs, then approached one of the agents and shot the man, killing him.
Puff's execution was scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 12, 1954, at 11 p.m., the usual appointed time for executions. That night, Hover left his Germantown home at 6:30 and arrived at Sing Sing at 9:30, according to travel records he kept. In the meantime, guards had already brought Puff his last meal: fried chicken, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, asparagus tips, salad, and strawberry shortcake. Shortly before 11, two guards led Puff down a 20-foot corridor to the electric chair and ordered him to sit. They fastened five leather straps across his body. A mask was placed over his face and electrodes were attached to his leg and head.
Standing in an alcove adjacent to the death room, facing a switchboard, Hover could see Puff. It was his duty to lower the lever, but not for so long that the body began to cook. Not so long that the reporters and other witnesses seated out front could smell burning flesh. Some men required more shocks than others, and there was a certain skill involved in making sure that Puff was electrocuted just long enough to kill him. At 11:08 p.m., a doctor pressed a stethoscope over Puff's heart and declared him dead.
By 11:30, Hover was back in his car, heading north. This time he appears to have sped more quickly along Route 9G. According to Hover's travel log, he pulled into his driveway at 1:30 a.m.
|A news article Hover clipped about his work. Clippings courtesy of Gladys Bohnsack.|
A few days later, Hover received a letter from Sing Sing's warden with two checks"one in the amount of $150.00 and the other in the amount of $12.80 covering your services at this institution in the case of Gerhard A. Puff." The language in these letters was always the sameexceedingly formal and intentionally cryptic.
By the time Hover began his work at Sing Sing, both of his children were fully grown and out of the house. Gladys Bohnsack, then 28, had attended Albany Business College and lived with her husband in town. Dow C. Hover, 23, was off fighting in the Korean War. The children did not get the chance to weigh in on whether they thought their father should be an executioner; by the time they learned about the job, he had already accepted it.
All the children knew was that their parents had consulted with their minister. As Gladys recalls, "My mother had a problem with it when he was offered the job, because she knew morally it wasn't right: You're not supposed to kill people. ... She went to our minister to find out ... I don't know what the conversation was, [but] the minister must've said it was all right to do it, that he wasn't going to go to hell because of it."
Everyone in Germantown knew the Hovers. There is a Hover Avenue in town, and Dow B. Hover had grown up on the street, in a family of fruit farmers. He married at 20, and he and his wife, Nellie, became regulars at the Dutch Reform Church. In the late 1930s, he started raising mice in the family's cellar and launched Dow B. Hover Laboratory Animals. After he sold the company in 1952, it became Taconic Farms, which today is one of the world's largest providers of lab mice and rats.
Hover's name regularly appeared in the local paper, including in 1961, when he helped rescue two people from the Hudson River after their sailboat capsized. But his role as executioner was hidden. With very few exceptions, nobody in Germantown knew.
The name of Gerhard Puff or anyone else he had executed never came up at the dinner table in the Hover home, at least not when the children visited. Hover didn't talk about his long, lonely drives to Sing Sing and back. He didn't talk about what it was like to see a teenager strapped into the electric chair (which happened twice in 1954, once in 1955, and twice in 1956). He didn't describe how he felt about killing three people in a single night (which occurred in 1955). He never mentioned the smell of burning flesh, the hissing of electrodes, the scent of singed hair, the sparks circling the prisoner's head. Nor did he express any doubts about whether the people he executed truly deserved to die.
During the years of Hover's tenure, 44 people died in Sing Sing's death house, ranging from nine in 1954 to zero in 1962. That year, Hover did oversee two executions in another state: New Jersey. It had become common practice for Sing Sing's executioner to freelance elsewhere; Hover's expertise was in demand. On the night of Aug. 15, 1963, the man seated in Sing Sing's electric chair was 34-year-old Eddie Lee Mays of Harlem, who had been convicted of murdering a woman with a pistol while robbing a tavern on Fifth Avenue. Hover didn't know it at the time, but this execution would be the last one in New York State.
Hover's children thought their father's work at Sing Sing hadn't changed him much. Despite having to write frequent letters to the warden about execution dates, he still typed with just one or two fingers. He still lived with their mother in a two-story Cape Cod-style house on Maple Avenue. And he still sat down at the kitchen table every day at precisely 5 p.m., knife and fork in hand, waiting for her to serve him dinner. There was one way Hover had changed, however: He seemed to have migraine headaches all the time.
"I'd go visit them and Dad would be on the couch with one of his headaches," Gladys says. "Sometimes he'd get up, have his breakfast, and go lie on the couch, and get up and have lunch and then go lie on the couch. They were severe for a long time." Dow adds: "He used to take medicine, but nothing seemed to work. It just went on for years and years. It seemed like he had headaches all the time."
For at least eight years after the Eddie Lee Mays execution, mail from Sing Sing continued to arrive. The letters concerned upcoming executions; each one of them was stayed or else canceled because the governor commuted the inmate's sentence to life in prison. In April 1971, Hover received a letter from the superintendent of Green Haven prison in Dutchess County: "This is to inform you ... that the electric chair was moved from Sing Sing to this facility last summer. We have, at the present time, three (3) inmates presently awaiting execution. ... I have been advised by Sing Sing that you have rendered a service in previous executions. Will you please inform me if you are still available."
By now Hover was 70 years old. He wrote back the next morning, punching out yet another letter with two fingers on his typewriter. "I am available if needed," he wrote. Hover never did get to perform his "service" at Green Haven. The following year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the way the death penalty had been enforced was unconstitutional.
The term executioner stress describes the toll that carrying out the death penalty takes on those closest to the process. The term appears in Who Owns Death? Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions by Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell. In this 2000 book, former execution team members report suffering numerous psychological symptoms: nightmares, emotional numbness, depression. A former executioner from Mississippi likens his work to "being in a car wreck that's going on forever."
The history of New York's own executioners is equally grim. John Hulbert, the state's third executioner, had the job from 1913 to 1926. One night, right before Hulbert was about to pull the switch on two men, he collapsed. Revived by Sing Sing's doctor, Hulbert finished the job, then spent a week in the prison hospital.
Hulbert oversaw 140 executions before he abruptly quit in January 1926. "His health has been rather poor and he disliked the all-night ride he had to take from Auburn to Sing Sing and back," the state's superintendent of prisons told The New York Times. Hulbert himself said, "I got tired of killing people." Three years later, Hulbert, then 59, ended his own life in the cellar of his house in Auburn. His son found him crumpled on the floor by the furnace, a .38-caliber revolver by his side.
The state's best-known executioner was Hulbert's successor, Robert G. Elliott. From 1926 to 1939, Elliott oversaw 387 executions in six states. He had been New York's executioner for less than a year when his identity became public; a reporter followed him home from Sing Sing to Queens. Angry letters began filling his mailbox. Somebody firebombed his house. In 1939, he wrote Agent of Death: The Memoirs of an Executioner, which concludes: "I hope that the day is not far distant when legal slaying, whether by electrocution, hanging, lethal gas, or any other method is outlawed throughout the United States."
New York's executioners played a pivotal role in the state, enabling New Yorkers to support the death penalty without ever having to do the killing themselves. Each executioner came to embody the public's conflicted attitudes; people were alternately fascinated with and repelled by them. Decade after decade, New York's death penalty turned ordinary men into professional killers, and despite the ritualized aspects of the work, it took a tremendous personal toll.
While Hover's predecessors all became fairly well-known, Hover did not. However, his name did appear in Condemned: Inside the Sing Sing Death House, which was published in 2000. The author, Scott Christianson, obtained access to 153 inmate case files from Sing Sing. The book features black-and-white mug shots, copies of telegrams, last-supper menus, letters from inmates, and some of the warden's correspondence, including one letter mentioning Hover's name.
Last year, Gladys Bohnsack, Hover's daughter, got her first ever call from a reporter. Staffers at Sound Portraitsa nonprofit that produces radio documentarieshad seen Hover's name in Condemned, and an intern, Brett Myers, tracked her down. Gladys, now 78, told Myers she'd been expecting to hear from the media for decades. "I was so surprised no one found him," she said.
She moved into her father's house 15 years ago and had recently discovered a file in the basement that contained letters from the 1960s between her father and Warden Denno. She sent the file to Myers, who later shared it with the Voice. For decades, the letters had been in a metal filing cabinet, buried amid all sorts of other paperwork her father had left behind: assorted bills, his marriage certificate, operating instructions for various appliances, manila files labeled "Fishing Reels," "CB Radio," and "Retirement." There were also folders filled with yellowed newspaper stories he'd saved about the death penalty. In a few cases, these stories were about the same men he had executed.
On a recent Saturday, several other execution-related files turned up, labeled "New Jersey," "Massachusetts," and "Connecticut." Unbeknownst to Gladys, all three states had asked her father to work for them. He'd agreed, but in the end only New Jersey needed him. Unlike Elliott, Hover did not write a memoir. Nor did he leave a diary. The only documents he left behind are those in his home and a few letters hidden in prisoner files from Sing Sing's death house, which are now housed at the New York State Archives in Albany.
Most of what's known about Hover's work as an executioner is stored in the memories of his children. His son, Dow, 73, lives across town from Gladys, in a second-floor apartment on Main Street, above a former gas station. While Gladys still worksshe has been Germantown's tax collector for the last 20 yearsDow is too sick to hold a job. A former electrician, he suffers from Huntington's disease. He spends his mornings watching The Price Is Right and waiting for his lunch to arrive from Meals on Wheels.
Seated in his living room on a recent afternoon, Dow shared what he could remember about his father's decision to become an executioner. "He got paid pretty good," Dow says. "I'm sure that had something to do with it." The way Dow tells the story, his father was conflicted about his work. "He felt bad about it," Dow says. "He'd go see a minister and straighten himself out." Did he think his father's struggle with migraines was related to his work as an executioner? "I'm sure it was," he says.
Gladys disagrees. About the Sing Sing job, she says, "He enjoyed doing it." She describes her father as cold and unemotional. "You know how some fathers hold your hand?" she says. "I don't remember that we ever held hands or told each [other] that we loved each other. He just wasn't that kind of person." Taking a job in which he had to execute people "wouldn't have been an issue for him."
She adds: "I don't think he was emotional about it, but how can you know what someone feels inside?"
In recent years, the death penalty in New York State has seemed increasingly abstract, more a political slogan than an actual occurrence. Although Gov. George Pataki reinstated the death penalty in 1995, nobody has been executed in New York State since 1963. Among some politicians, the death penalty remains a favorite issue. A few weeks ago, in his State of the State speech, Pataki credited the death penalty with helping lower crime rates. He has vowed to bring it back, and the debate over its future continues to roil the state.
If Pataki signs another death penalty bill, and if New York does have an execution, of course he and the state's legislators will not be the ones carrying it out. They are not the ones who will be strapping the condemned prisoner to a gurney, rolling him into the execution chamber, preparing the syringes, searching for a vein to stick an I.V. in, starting the flow of the lethal drugs, eyeing the cardiac monitor, and unbuckling the straps once the prisoner is dead.
The machinery used to execute prisoners has changed, but the ritual is fairly similar. If the death penalty returns to New York, the last person who carried out an execution here will not be around to give pointers. Dow B. Hover died in 1990, at the age of 89, five years after his wife died. According to his death certificate, the manner of death was "undetermined circumstances." The story his family tells seems more conclusive.
On June 1, 1990, in the middle of the afternoon, Gladys' son, Jack, stopped by the house to check on him. "Granddad!" he shouted, as he entered the breezeway. No answer. Jack heard the hum of a car's engine. He twisted the handle of the door leading to the garage and discovered that the garage was full of exhaust.
Dow B. Hover sat in the front seat of his Plymouth, the driver's window rolled down, his arms folded across his chest. At first, Jack yanked at the garage door, trying to pull it open, before remembering that he needed to push a button. It was already too late; Hover's skin was cold to the touch. Here, in the same garage where he had once changed his license plates before driving off to Sing Sing, it appears that the state's last executioner ended one more life: his own.