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Death Chamber Reflections

ISSUE:  Summer 1977

After the State of North Carolina electrocuted their brother, the Vine sisters drew their curtains. They lived behind them the remainder of their lives, stepping outside only to sweep their yard or buy what was necessary to keep them as they were, and then very early in the day, when few villagers and no marketers from the countryside were about. Persons who called were received by them in an atmosphere of mourning and despair.

Sometimes, passing from one grandmother’s house to the other’s in the summers I visited there, I would spy the sisters. I cannot remember the two separately, only in composite: a pale, bleached-out face, unrevealing and uninquiring, beneath a pompadour that must have been auburn but had turned dull and shadowy; a long skirt of some dark material, a high-necked shirtwaist, and roundtoed, flat-heeled slippers; a spare and angular figure, frail but erect. My grandmothers said that the Misses Vine nurtured their shame and kept their pride.

I know nothing of the brother except that he had been convicted of murder and delivered to the state, which in 1910, in his youth, had installed an electric chair in Raleigh and relieved the counties of hanging capital offenders. The particulars of his crime were never recited in my presence. I suppose he grew up where his sisters lived, in the narrow, two-storied white house with latticework columns in a row of residences that balanced, across the village’s principal street, the store, the livery stable, and the bank. He likely attended the Lutheran or Presbyterian church, at the village’s opposite edges, depending on whether the Germans or Scotch-Irish among his ancestry prevailed in religious preference. Perhaps, as a scholar at my great-grandfather’s Latin school, he had come to despise authority and discipline. I can only guess at the experiences and influences of his doomed life. But of this I am reasonably certain—that for the meanness, or mania, or miscalculation, or whatever excited or tripped him into taking another’s life, he paid considerably less than his maiden sisters were constrained to suffer. I have not used their real name.


James R. Creech, Jr. , though, is written here exactly as it appears in the files of the Archives Branch, Department of Cultural Resources, State of North Carolina, Raleigh 27611. His family was substantial enough, in connections and wealth, to weather his execution on Jan.28, 1949, in North Carolina’s gas chamber, which in 1936 had replaced the electric chair.

I was at Chapel Hill with Jimmy Creech in the early thirties, a class or two ahead of him. He was a freshman when I met him, a tall young man, with tight curly hair dark and reddish, and very freckled, newly arrived from a Virginia military school where, if we are to believe a mother’s warning to her son in John O’Hara’s A Rage to Live, “ they beat the boys and feed them slop, and keep them busy from six in the morning to nine at night”; whatever he had endured there, or, which is likelier pertinent, whatever the endurance had failed to break him of, which included being spoiled by an excess of good looks and allowance, he was alcoholic and reckless. Somehow he managed to maintain registration for three years at the University of North Carolina and at N. C. State College (now University) in Raleigh.

Jimmy Creech was 37 years old, in the tobacco business supposedly, and on a drinking spree when, back home in Johnston County, he killed his wife with a 12-gauge, double-barreled shotgun. He might have gotten by with second-degree murder for the first blast, it having been through a door behind which his wife was cowering that he fired it. But then he broke down the door and blew off the top of her head. She was his third wife, 28 years old, and tiny.

Jimmy Creech’s father, Mr. Rufus Creech, was among the biggest tobacco planters and richest men in Johnston County. He retained a former Governor, J. Melville Broughton, of nearby Raleigh, to defend his son. But Mr. Broughton and his team of associates failed even to win a postponement of the trial, which began the day after Jimmy Creech was indicted by a grand jury and 16 days after he put down his shotgun and, slightly incoherent, gave himself up to the sheriff, The seven-member State Supreme Court upheld the conviction, although Sam J. Ervin, Jr. joined another Justice in dissent.

Judge Ervin would go to the United States Senate. Mr. Broughton already was there when, in January 1949, he appealed to the Governor to spare Jimmy Creech’s life on the evidence that he was mentally confused as well as simply drunk when he fired the two shots into his wife, and that he had been railroaded by a jury resentful of his wealth—a case of reverse discrimination, it would be called today. Kerr Scott was Governor—W. Kerr Scott, the Squire of Haw River.

He in time would go to the Senate too. But where he was sitting then he was brand-new, hearing his first clemency case. He was a populist, a Calvinist, and a teetotaler. Every time the battery of lawyers and two psychiatrists made a point of Jimmy Creech’s dipsomania, Governor Scott asked if it wasn’t possible that he decided to kill his wife, out of rage over her having left him 12 days before, and tanked himself up to steady his trigger finger. Six other men were on death row at that time. One was let off by the Supreme Court, and I will come back to him. The other five followed Jimmy Creech, sooner or later, into the gas chamber. Consistent is something else that Kerr Scott was.


In capital-crime cases, Truman Capote wrote in In Cold Blood, “ even an attorney of moderate talent can postpone doomsday year after year, for the system of appeals that pervades American jurisprudence amounts to a legalistic wheel of fortune, a game of chance, somewhat fixed in favor of the criminal, that the participants play interminably, first in the state courts, then through the Federal courts until the ultimate tribunal is reached—the United States Supreme Court. But even defeat there does not signify if petitioner’s counsel can discover or invent new grounds for appeal.” In Cold Blood appeared in 1966, Between the next year and early 1977, when Gary Mark Gilmore’s bizarre courtship of a Utah firing squad was consummated, there was no execution in the United States and little thought of one except as a constitutional or a law’n’order theory. The Supreme Court meanwhile ruled, after casting some doubt on the subject, that capital punishment in at least murder cases was not unacceptably cruel and unusual if certain trial and sentencing safeguards were observed.

But to take a state case into Federal court was not the fashion in 1949, certainly not in North Carolina. Jimmy Creech was gassed six months to the day after he killed his wife. His family and counsel were satisfied they had done everything in his behalf they could.

For the most part his defense was, of course, in the lawyers’ hands. But Mr. Rufus Creech himself tried to do one thing for his son, and that was shield him from what he considered to be his principal hazard—his being a rich man’s son in a poor man’s county. He asked Tom Lassiter, editor of the county-seat newspaper, The Smithfield Herald, please to stop identifying Jimmy Creech, in every article about him, with his family’s wealth.

Even when the Herald reported the execution, not everybody in Johnston County thought it had taken place. The story got about that Old Man Creech had paid off somebody, the prison warden probably, to put another convict—or maybe one of the sorry Creech tenants, for God’s sake—in the gas chamber while Jimmy Creech was bundled off to Mexico. They simply wouldn’t believe there was anything, justice included, that Creech money couldn’t buy.

It could not have fretted them that justice might be hardened by social pressures as well as softened by cash. Plenty of good old boys, in Johnston County and elsewhere, white and black, have done approximately what Jimmy Creech did and wound up with a measly 20-year hitch on the chain gang upon pleading through a court-appointed hack lawyer that Yes, sir, Your Honor, I done it, but I didn’t a-go to do it, I was drinking at the time.


The Vine brother and Jimmy Greech were exceptional victims of the death room. Of the 362 persons executed by North Carolina between 1910 and 1961, the year it joined the spreading moratorium, 285 were black and five were Indians. The vast majority were poor, unlettered, and unloved. Typical among them was Little Bus Holt.

I knew Little Bus Holt in school. I was among the 400 or so pupils of the Mebane Public Schools system, that is, and he was the delivery boy at Mr. Pappy Clark’s tiny grocery store across the street. He could have been no more than 12 years old, and 14 was the legal dropout age, but he was black— ginger-colored, really; there were three or four sets of Holts in town and all were light-skinned except Uncle Manx Holt and his crowd, who were ebony—and blacks didn’t have to go to school, to their ramshackle plank building up the Southern Railway tracks beyond the brickyard, unless they wanted to. Little Bus Holt was the living proof of that. Our superintendent was in charge of the black school, too, which was the basis of his being a superintendent rather than a principal, and could look from his office in our brick building straight at Little Bus Holt, in ragged clothes too big for him, resting on Mr. Pappy Clark’s store porch without its ever crossing his mind that Why, that child over yonder is a truant.

Seven or eight years later Little Bus Holt murdered the night fireman in the furniture factory boiler room, a feeble elder as pensioned off as the factory owners ever pensioned off anybody, and robbed him of what he had in his pockets, which was a dime. I was a reporter for a Raleigh newspaper at the time and went to see Little Bus Holt on Death Row the night before he was to die. He hadn’t grown much and, in his floppy brown prison suit, didn’t seem any older than when I had joshed with him while buying penny candy or a nickel Chericola at Mr. Pappy Clark’s store. He said he would feel better about tomorrow if I would come back and wave to him goodbye, and I went, although I didn’t want to. The thing I remember most about his electrocution is the way the electrode cap swallowed his shaven head. I don’t imagine that Little Bus Holt ever wore anything that fit him.


That must have been in 1935. North Carolina had 20 electrocutions that year, and I covered more of them than I would again. One grizzled, yellow-eyed black man convicted of raping a white girl thought until the moment he saw the electric chair that he was going to be hanged. A wizened, parchment-skinned mill hand stood on tiptoes to kiss the burly executioner, a good-natured deputy warden, on the bulge made by a wad of chewing tobacco, and seemed to delight in the commotion he caused. A back-countryman promised to hex himself into freedom with a black cat’s bones and left a triumphant note with a cutout of Krazy Kat, the cartoon character, pinned to it, but managed to extend his life only for the few seconds required to replace, with the juice cut off, the leg electrode after it had slipped down his blistered leg. One execution was carried out six hours after the traditional Friday-at-10 a.m. schedule: the prisoner tried to escape the chair while being led to it by jumping from the death row ledge to the concrete floor several tiers down; he was taken to the prison infirmary, extensively patched up, eventually pronounced conscious, and put to death.

I take no satisfaction in recalling all this; indeed, I regret the experiences. They entitle me, though, I think, to my doubts that capital punishment ever has been a crime deterrent or ever could accomplish what advocates of its revival and uniform application contend—that, besides ridding society of addicted killers, it would discourage, as a warning of certain retribution, extreme meanness. And I do not believe that being put to death is the worst thing that can happen to a criminal. Gary Mark Gilmore’s death wish made a good bit of sense, as a Supreme Court majority recognized. All but one of the condemned men I saw meet their fate did it without, to paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, defiance on their lips or a shout of denial into the maw of the all-engulfing night. What happened to them was no worse than what happened to several persons I also saw, in my reporting years, removed from automobile accidents and from two train wrecks and an airplane crash—or to the Kamikaze pilots I saw, as a World War II Naval officer, plying their semi-skill over the Kerama Retto roadstead, who were there by choice. A lifetime in a congested, foul, cruel, and bankrupt prison must be more terrible than a few minutes behind leather straps and a leather mask.


If capital punishment discourages capital crime, cheating the death chamber should figure to encourage lawlessness. There should be some lesson, then, in the extended life of James Palmer, Sr. He was the Jimmy Creech death row neighbor who went home again.

Jim Palmer was sentenced to death for the March 1948 murder of Otis McNeill, a black preacher who lived near him in Lee County, which like Johnston is in the tobacco belt. A few days after tattling in Sanford, the county seat, on Jim Palmer’s family bootlegging ring—to the sheriff, to the newspaper, to anybody who would listen—the preacher was found dead, bound by wire to a slab of concrete, in Deep River, not far from his home.

There was no doubt about guilt. The evidence against Jim Palmer was so conclusive that the trial judge, who had served a long enough apprentice as prosecutor to know better, became careless. The North Carolina Supreme Court found reversible errors in his performance and ruled that the freed prisoner was immune, under the double-jeopardy clause, from retrial.

Sanford welcomed Jim Palmer home in a spontaneous celebration as glorious as its annual festival opening the tobacco market. It wasn’t that he was a familiar and imposing figure— 60 years old, stout, mahogany-colored, graying, neatly bearded: as dignified as the judge who ordered his death—or that he had a reputation for selling good copperstill liquor for less than the state charged at package stores in wet counties, among which Lee was not numbered. The thing was that, as the survivor of not only the law’s wrath but of the very shadow of the gas chamber, he qualified as a folk hero.

If Jim Palmer made or sold whiskey after that, I did not learn of it during the five years of the mid-fifties that I lived in Sanford; in the period the county legalized alcoholic beverages. But I sampled some excellent wine of his concoction. And I appreciated his expert selection of holly trees for transplanting in the courthouse lawn, for which he was commissioned by the county fathers.

If there is a lesson in the fortunes of this tan Barabbas, I cannot, alas, be sure what it is. Lee County’s crime rate did not rise on the evidence that one could get by with murder. Jim Palmer engaged in no further violence and suffered no revenge, He lived to old age in respectability. Yet he deserved to die in disgrace and as an example as much as Jimmy Creech and his six other Death Row neighbors did, and the only reason he didn’t is because he had a more stupid judge and a smarter lawyer than they.


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