Painter, Burdette and Old Sparky
On March 26, 1951, Fred Painter and Harry Burdette, both convicted of murdering Edward C. O’Brien, were the first inmates to be put to death by electrocution at the West Virginia Penitentiary.
The two had been convicted of kicking a soft drink salesman to death in a parking lot on the corner of Washington and Summers streets in downtown Charleston, West Virginia. Painter had to be jolted twice after two physicians found that he was still alive after the first round.
Painter was pronounced dead more than nine minutes after sitting in the chair. It took a little more than three minutes worth of electricity to execute Burdette.
One man’s misfortune can be another’s escape opportunity, right? With all of the attention given to the state’s first use of an electric chair, two other inmates took advantage of the situation and managed to escape from the facility on the day of Painter and Burdette’s execution.
The state’s first use of the electric chair was met with much publicity and controversy. Just before Burdette and Painter were executed at the Penitentiary, Warden Orel Skeen, did something not typical in those days.
He allowed reporters to interview the two men who were destined to die, who died within minutes of each other a little more than an hour later.
Among those in attendance was a young Raleigh County Delegate named Robert Byrd. Delegate Byrd would later become a Senator of West Virginia and would s from 1959 to 2010. He was the longest serving senator and the longest-serving member in the history of the United States Congress to date.
Burdette and Painter would have faced the hangman’s noose if the West Virginia Legislature had not passed a bill two years earlier, changing the way the state carried out executions. Many states had already reconsidered hanging as a means of executing death row inmates. In 1949, West Virginia followed suit.
Unnerved by the public spectacle that attracted thousands of onlookers, and in particular the 1897 hanging of John F. Morgan in Ripley that was said to draw around 5,000 rowdy spectators, the state passed legislation banning public executions and moved them behind the walls of West Virginia Penitentiary and away from the public’s eyes.
The executions at the state penitentiary would continue for decades. West Virginia attempted to abolish the death penalty multiple times before a bill outlawing the death penalty passed in 1965.
Sherri Brake is a paranormal researcher, author and Haunted Heartland Tour owner. You may email her at SherriBrake@gmail.com or visit her website at www.HauntedHistory.net