“Willie Francis opened his eyes as the first rays of Louisiana sunlight spilled through the window bars and onto the eighteen- inch-thick concrete walls of his narrow, solitary cell. This was to be the last sunrise he’d ever see.”
Seventeen year old Willie Francis was set to be executed by the State of Louisiana on May 3, 1946 by “a current of electricity of sufficient intensity to cause death.” On that warm late spring day, Willie had his head shaved by the jail barber, visited with his priest and then was driven past his family home one last time on his way to the death house where he would be strapped to a sturdy wooden chair and 2500 volts of electricity would course through his body.
That morning was to be his last on earth. It was to be, but it wasn’t.
In Gilbert King’s gripping narrative, Willie Francis, a poor African American teenager, cheated the death sentence imposed by an all white jury during a day long trial where his defense attorneys asked no questions of any of the State’s witnesses, made no objections, and presented no evidence in his defense. He was strapped into the electric chair, and the electricity passed through his body, but, as his stuttering cries explained to the on-lookers, “I AM N-N-NOT DYING.” For reasons not entirely clear then (or now) the electric chair failed.
And so begins this incredible story, told in convincing detail. The reach of King’s research is amazing – and lucky. After the botched execution, Willie Francis (along with co-writer Samuel Montgomery) published a pamphlet entitled “My Trip to the Chair.” The pamphlet had been catalogued at the Library of Congress, but had gone missing for more than two decades. For three years, King called the Library monthly to inquire about the pamphlet to no avail. Then finally, he got a call from the librarian saying it had been found. From that document, King is able to describe in Willie Francis’ own words the ordeal that he went through.
Willie Francis’ story in and of itself lends itself to a riveting tale. But King does a extraordinary job of filling in the back story, explaining the history of southern Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole communities and how slavery evolved to Jim Crow and how racism infused every aspect of Willie Francis’ life – and death. King’s detailed descriptions of the various characters in the story and his artful use of foreshadowing and interesting asides is narrative non-fiction at its very best.
The legal issue in Willie Francis’ case – whether a person can be subject to a second execution when the first attempt failed – has been in the news over the past few years. And the battle about executions in America – the method and the morality of them – is one that will end only when capital punishment is abolished.