Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The History of Lyon County Kentucky - Part 8

Other fatal maladies included diarrhea, typhoid fever, malaria, syphilis and pneumonia. Interestingly enough suicides were relatively rare during those grim times.

Under one of the old cell houses lies a tunnel which leads back into the hill. This was “the dungeon.” There, in solitary darkness, unruly prisoners were chained to the walls, while they contemplated their wrongs.

There is no better way to depict graphically the environment of this 19th century prison and the penal philosophy of its administrators than to quote directly from the journal entry of Warden Louis Curry for October 7, 1889: “Prisoner Wheeler requested an audience with me. Wheeler, even by prison standards, is an odious creature… Upon granting him an interview, it was his request to obtain a Bible. The very idea that such a vile creature should hold God’s word was quite repugnant to me. I ordered him back to work, without further ado, and requested the keepers to retain a close scrutiny at his doings. One false step and Wheeler will know the true meaning of prison. A Bible indeed!”

A new and significant dimension was added to prison life in 1911 – the installation of the electric chair.

James Buckner from Marion County was the first to die by legal electrocution on the hot and steamy night of July 8, 1911. One hundred and sixty-one others have been executed since then. The last was Kelly Moss in 1962.

On July 13, 1929, starting at 12:24 a.m. and continuing to 2:22 a.m., seven men were electrocuted, the most ever to die there by electrocution in a single day. In the early morning of March 18, 1955, a afther and son were put to death only minutes apart.

A solemn and eerie procedure accompanied each execution. Shortly before midnight the warden, a physician, a minister, news reporters, guards and invited guests would meet at the warden’s office. The group would then march solemnly, in single file, to death row to carry out the execution.

When No. 3 cell house was occupied solely by black inmates, the occupants would hum and sing spirituals as the grisly ordeal was carried out.

Like all pirsons, Eddyville has had its share of riots and internal disturbances. From the very beginning, there have been numerous minor skirmishes between disgruntled inmates and “keepers”. Usually these outbreaks occurred in the dining hall and were caused by dissatisfaction with the food. Usually they were quickly subdued with the knocking of heads and a good lashing at the post.

By far the most serious uprising occurred in October 1923. Inmates Tex Walters, Lawrence Griffith and Harry Ferland had a pistol smuggled into the prison through the efforts of Tex’s wife, Lillian. An ill-fated escape attempt was made, resulting in the death of three prison guards. With their escape route blocked, Walters and his confederates retreated to the main dining room where they barricaded themselves. What followed was a rather untidy bit of military maneuvering.

About 50 members of the state militia were called in to lay siege to the building. They were bolstered in their efforts by 39 prison guards. During the first eight hours of the siege, the embattled convicts fired about 100 shots. Throughout most of the first night, the encirclement of militiamen and guards laid down a blanket of fire against the dining room’s outer walls.

The next morning an organized assault was made upon the dining hall, under cover of heavy fire from the militia. Gas grenades were shot into various sections of the entire building. One exploded on the ledge of the laundry, setting it afire.

Constant machine gun fire was directed toward the target during the next two days and nights. A decision was made not to dynamite the building as previously planned. On the third full day of the attack, a makeshift pipeline was laid across the prison yard behind two armor plated shields built for the occasion. Ammonia was then flushed in upon the hapless defenders.

Finally under heavy barrage of bullets and hand grenades, another charge was made by the state forces. It was conducted with a grand and dramatic flare, the leaders bravely yelling, “Over the top!”

This time they broke through and found all three inmates lyinig dead on the dining room floor. They had been so disposed for three days, and at their own hands. A defiant suicide note found near one of the victims proclaimed, “You didn’t kill us, all killed ourselves.”

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