Our last execution

Baltimore Glimpses

May 12, 1992|By GILBERT SANDLER

EXECUTIONS are much in the news, thanks (if that is the word) to the capital punishment of Robert Alton Harris late last month in California. It was the first execution in that state in 25 years. Maryland hasn't executed anyone for nearly 31 years, but when it does, it will use the same method -- the gas chamber -- that California did last month. (Only California, Arizona and Maryland execute by gas. Two other states give condemned prisoners a choice between gas and lethal injection.)

In late 1958 and early 1959, a man named Nathaniel Lipscomb raped and strangled three women. First, the body of Mae Hall, 37, was found in the 1200 block East Chase Street. Five days later, Lottie Kite was found in the 900 block East Preston Street. Then, a few days later, Pearl Weiss, 39, met a similar fate in the 1400 block Harford Road. Police were under intense pressure to make an arrest.

The break came April 18, 1959. At 4:30 a.m. officers patrolling near East Eager Street heard a scream. The scream was never explained, but Lipscomb was arrested, and he had three pairs of women's panties in his pocket.

Lipscomb was convicted on all counts. His lawyer, Robert B. Watts (who would become Judge Watts) recalled: "There was no question he was guilty. He told me right off." Mr. Watts pleaded for the mercy of the court, but Judge James G. Cullen sentenced Lipscomb to death.

*

In Maryland, condemned prisoners used to be hanged. Seventy-six men met that fate between 1933 and 1956. The condemned man would be strapped to a chair, and a noose would be tied around his neck. Then the chair would be dropped through a trapdoor. It was a grisly process.

When Eugene H. James was hanged in 1949, the noose didn't do the job. Guards had to pull James' legs to get him in a position to be strangled. And in 1954, when wife-killer G. Edward Grammer was executed, rumors circulated that he had to be hanged twice.

*

Lipscomb's execution was set for 9:30 p.m., June 9, 1961.

Dr. Sylvan Shane, an anesthesiologist and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School, entered the Maryland Penitentiary as a volunteer witness. With 10 others, he climbed to the second-floor gas chamber.

When the witnesses had filed in beside the heavy steel chamber, Lipscomb was already tied to a chair. Electrodes (to monitor the prisoner's heartbeat) were attached to his forehead and legs.

The executioner poured chemicals into separate pans and backed out of the chamber. Everything was ready.

"Let it drop." The order came from Warden Vernon L. Pepersack -- who was on record as opposing capital punishment.

At 10:03 p.m. the chemicals were mixed. Dr. Shane recalled, "There was a puff of white fumes, resembling cigarette smoke."

According to an eyewitness account: "Lipscomb took five breaths of the poison. The veins of his neck bulged and he threw back his head. His body arched against the heavy leather straps that held him. Slowly his head tilted forward. He was dead."

It was 10:05. It had taken Lipscomb two minutes to die.

The gas chamber was put into operation in the Maryland Penitentiary in 1956. It was thought to be a more humane method of execution than hanging.

None of those executed has registered an opinion.

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