Old Sparky’s Rough Start: The Story of Jim Williams

The curious story of Jim Williams begins with an early, botched operation of  “Old Sparky,” Florida’s electric chair, and ends on the lips of a folk singer, with plenty of  misinterpretation, heroics, and history in between.

On April 10, 1926, Jim Williams, a 25 year-old African-American man living in Palatka in Putnam County, Florida, was convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to death by electrocution.  His execution was scheduled for June 1, 1926 the Florida State Prison at Raiford.

Electric chair at the Raiford Prison

Old Sparky at the Florida State Prison in Raiford, FL. c.1936. Photograph by Jack Spottswood.

On the day of the execution, Williams was strapped into what would become known as Old Sparky. As Williams awaited his fate, an argument erupted over who should throw the switch that would end his life. After many minutes and no resolution, prison superintendent James Simeon Blitch contacted Governor John Martin for an answer.

J. S. Blitch, superintendent at Florida State Prison

James Simeon Blitch, superintendent of Florida State Prison at Raiford, FL in 1926. Photograph by Jack Spottswood.

The problem derived from unclear language in the death warrant regarding who was to carry out the execution. The official document, signed by Governor Martin and addressed to both Superintendent Blitch and Putnam County Sheriff R.J. Hancock, gave these instructions:

“You, the said Superintendent of our State Prison, or some deputy by you to be designated, and you, the said sheriff of our said County of Putnam, unless you be prevented by sickness or other disability, shall be present at such execution. Such execution shall be carried out by you and such deputies, electricians and assistants as you may require to be present to assist…”

The warrant clearly required the presence of both men, but it did not specify which would serve as the executioner. Newspapers reported that the sheriff of the county in which the crime was committed was the official obliged to end the life of the condemned. In Williams’ case it would be Putnam County Sheriff R.J. Hancock. However, Hancock added to the confusion by sending two deputies, Walter Minton and L. Shannon in his place, and both men refused to carry out the execution. Superintendent Blitch was also unwilling to throw the switch. Given the uncertainty and confusion, Governor Martin instructed Blitch to return Jim Williams to his cell. Ultimately, despite two additional death warrants, Williams’ sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but his story does not stop there.


Death Warrant of Jim Williams signed by Governor Martin

Death Warrant of Jim Williams signed by Governor Martin

Florida State Prison at Raiford, Florida, 1920s.

Florida State Prison at Raiford, Florida, 1920s.

As officials deliberated over who would serve as executioner, Williams’  sat in the chair terrified. His brush with death had a profound effect, as one would imagine. Attorney General (and later Florida Supreme Court Justice) Fred. H. Davis, said after visiting Raiford in 1927, “They can’t get him to sit in a barber’s chair because it looks a bit like the electric chair. He steadfastly refuses to undergo any tonsorial operations and I shouldn’t be surprised if it would not take the whole prison population to make him do it.”.

According to newspapers, in 1934, Williams jumped from a moving convict truck to save a woman and her child from a mad bull. He was granted a conditional pardon for his heroism and was released December 23, 1934. Although the details of his heroism are uncertain, the pardon issued by Governor Fred Cone is well-documented.

Jim Williams, who was convicted in the Circuit Court of Putnam County, at the Spring term thereog, A D 1926, of the offense of Murder and sentenced therefor to death by Electrocution and which sentence was later commuted to Life Imprisonment by the Board, should now, upon showing made, be granted a conditional pardon. It was, therefore ordered that the said Jim Williams be, and he is hereby granted a conditional pardon, effective December 23rd A D 1934.

Text of the conditional pardon issued by Governor Cone from the minutes of the the Florida Board of Pardons.

After his release, he was never heard from again. Oddities promoter Robert Ripley, creator of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, offered a $500 reward for information about the whereabouts of Jim Williams calling him “the only person ever known to have been strapped in the electric chair and escape execution.”

Florida’s “Black Hat Troubadour”, Will McLean wrote a ballad telling the story of Jim Williams. While the story is that of Williams, McLean names him incorrectly as Abraham Washington, another death row escapee. The first verse refers to Washington’s story, while the rest is that of Williams. Abraham Washington was, as McLean sings, sentenced to death by hanging shortly before a new law requiring the use of the electric chair.  The death warrant was declared void by the Duval County court because it specified that Washington was to hang, not be electrocuted, and hanging had been outlawed.  The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  By that time, Washington’s sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment.

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Abraham Washington

Well there was a man named Washington, his first name Abraham
The judge said he would ride the rope into the Promised Land
Before he met his fateful doom, the hanging law was dead
They took him down to Raiford-town to the electric chair instead

They strapped him in the electric chair and so while he was waitin’
The warden and the county sheriff were talkin’ and debatin’
Which one of us must throw the switch and send this man to Hell?
But no decision could be reached; in prison he would dwell
They took him from the electric chair, his sweat had turned to blood
They told him that his life was spared and from his eyes did flood
the salty tears of gratefulness; it happens to all men
Down on his knees he made this vow to never sit again

One day a prison gang did ride by pastures that were green
A mother with her baby strolled so happy and serene
Suddenly a vicious bull did charge this freighted wife
And Abraham, he jumped the fence and saved this woman’s life

A pardon full to Washington, his first name Abraham
Who took a vow to never sit again while on this land
The last account of Washington, the day was cold and wet,
was Abraham, have you kept your vow? And he said “I ain’t sat yet.”

Will McLean Podcast

Will McLean Podcast

Will McLean of Tallahassee at the Florida Folk Festival: White Springs, Florida

Will McLean of Tallahassee at the Florida Folk Festival: White Springs, Florida

The music of Will McLean has been recorded and performed by dozens of artists, proving “The Father of Florida Folk” was not just a nickname for this prolific songwriter. His classic portrayals of Florida’s people and landscapes through songs such as “Seminole,” “Osceola’s Last Words,” and “Florida Sand” are still sung today, and every year, festival participants gather on the main stage for a grand finale of “Hold Back the Waters” to close out the Florida Folk Festival.

Born near Chipley, McLean spent his life traveling and writing songs inspired by his experiences in and love for the Sunshine State. He wrote his first song, “Away O’ee,” at the age of six, and went on to compose over 3,000 more songs and stories before his death in 1990. Will McLean received the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 1989, and in 1996 he was inducted into the Florida Artist Hall of Fame. His legacy continues through the Will McLean Foundation as well as an annual folk festival bearing his name.

The Florida Folklife Collection contains thousands of audio recordings from the 1930s to the present. These recordings include festival performances, fieldwork and radio programming from across the state. Every month focuses on an artist, genre, tradition or event in our monthly podcast series.

Please enjoy this month’s podcast featuring highlights from Will McLean’s appearances at the Florida Folk Festival.

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