Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair

On the night of May 7th, 1951, close to a thousand people gathered around the courthouse in the small town of Laurel, Mississippi.

They had come to witness the execution of Willie McGee, a young black man convicted of raping a white woman.

The local radio station was there at the courthouse...broadcasting the event live.

The case had wound through three trials in six years, garnered support from William Faulkner, Paul Robeson, Albert Einstein and others, and had been covered in newspapers around the country... and the world.

But after the execution, the story of Willie McGee was largely forgotten.

Some sixty years later, McGee's granddaughter, Bridgette, teamed up with Radio Diaries to search for the true story of Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair.

Listen to the full story (23 minutes )

Download | Transcript

This story originally aired on NPR's All Things Considered on May 7th, 2010 and was broadcast on BBC's World Service June 2nd, 2010.

Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair was the most viewed and most recommended story on NPR.org the week of the broadcast.
Hear and read listener response at NPR.org

Here is one of our favorite emails:

"I cannot express the emotion that the story brought to me as I listened to it. In fact, I am still in tears from it. It hit very close to home, and there is a very good reason for that -- Paul Swartzfager, the prosecutor who convicted Willie the last time and who smuggled to bottle of whiskey into Willie on the night of his execution was my grandfather. Jon Swartzfager is my father." - Glenn Swartzfager

Glenn Swartzfager currently works as defense lawyer who represents inmates on death row.

Hear and read more comments at NPR.org.

"The Echoes of an Execution Reverberate Loud and Clear", New York Times, May 6th, 2010.

Hear a conversation about the making of the documentary with Bridgette McGee-Robinson and producer Joe Richman on Third Coast's Re:Sound

Subscribe to the Radio Diaries podcast to hear our upcoming Willie McGee special.

  WEB EXTRAS: Explore the hidden chapters of Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair
  Bridgette McGee
Bridgette McGee-Robinson with photo of hergrandfather. Photo by Teri Havens.

  Bridgette McGee-Robinson

Bridgette's family left Mississippi shortly after Willie McGee was arrested for rape. Their mother moved to Las Vegas with her four children -- Della, Gracie, Willie Earl, and Mary Lee, Bridgette's mother.

In this clip, Bridgette's Aunt Della remembers going
with her mother and siblings to visit her father in jail
before the family left the state.

In this clip, Bridgette talks about looking at a picture
of her grandfather taken the night of his execution.

  Bella Abzug defending Willie McGee. Bella Abzug defended Willie McGee in court, and appealed his case to both the State and US Supreme Courts. Getty Images   The Campaign to Save Willie McGee's Life

The Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a Communist-affiliated civil rights group headed by William Patterson, took over the McGee case in 1946. They organized a two-pronged fight to save Willie McGee's life: a legal battle coupled with a public relations and media campaign.

The Congress hired New York attorney (and future US Congresswoman) Bella Abzug to take on the McGee case. Arriving in Laurel, Mississippi, Abzug encountered a hostile enviroment -- so hostile, in fact, that she spent her first night in Laurel hiding in a bus station bathroom stall.

Finding co-council proved to be more difficult than she expected. Abzug finally resorted to going door-to-door, asking for lawyers. Eventually she was connected to John Poole, a local attorney.

The following clip describes the legal and PR campaign to save McGee's life. It includes the voices of Liz Abzug, Bella Abzug's daughter, and Donna Mills, John Poole's daughter.

  Rosalee McGeeThe woman who traveled around the country as Rosalee McGee, (right) was not Willie McGee's wife. Courtesy Daily Worker/Daily World Photographic Collection, Tamiment Library, New York University.   Rosalee McGee

The CRC media relations campaign centered around Willie McGee's wife Rosalee, who traveled the country speaking at protests and rallies on behalf of her husband and her four children: Bridgette's mother, uncle, and aunts. Rosalee spoke at Madison Square Garden; she was close with Josephine Baker, who supported the campaign; she was covered in newspapers nationally and internationally; and she submitted an affidavit to the US Supreme Court pleading for her husband's life.

There was one problem: Rosalee McGee was not the wife of Willie McGee, nor the mother of his four children.

It's still unclear who Rosalee was, what her relationship to Willie McGee was, and how she connected with the Civil Rights Congress and came to portray McGee's wife and the mother of his children. What is clear is that she was an integral part of the Civil Rights Congress's media strategy.

The following is an excerpt from a conversation
between Bridgette McGee Robinson and Esther
Cooper Jackson, a civil rights activist who worked
with the Civil Rights Congress and knew Rosalee Mcgee.

  Traveling Electric ChairMississippi's portable electric chair. Courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

  THE Traveling Chair

Prior to 1940, the state of Mississippi executed convicts primarily by hanging. But the method was prone to grisly errors. In the 1930s, the public began to call for a more modern execution device. Officials settled on the electric chair. They planned to house it at Parchman Prison in Sunflower County.

But residents of Sunflower County objected. They argued that they didn't want to be labeled as Mississippi's 'death county'. And so officials hammered out a compromise. They commissioned an electric chair that was mounted on a portable platform and moved, along with a portable generator, from county to county. Local officials would set up the chair in the courthouse, conduct the execution, and pack up the chair.

The portable electric chair was used from 1940 until 1954, when it was replaced with the gas chamber. In this clip, Bridgette visits the chair at the Mississippi Correctional Officer's Academy, where it's been retired. 
  Night of the execution
A crowd gathered on the courthouse steps the night of the execution. Getty Images..
  Execution Broadcast

Two local Mississippi radio stations - WFOR and WAML - delivered a joint broadcast of Willie McGee's execution live from the scene in front of the courthouse. They captured the sound of the estimated thousand people who came out to witness the execution, and the roar of the generator that powered the state's traveling electric chair.

In a lucky twist, that recording has been preserved and can be heard today.

Preserved recordings from the late 1940s and early 1950s are rare; there are many recordings from World War II and from the civil rights movement, but few from the years in between.

The fact that this particular recording was preserved is a fluke. A young local reporter named Jim Leeson recorded the broadcast for his own personal use, and held onto it for the next five decades. Several years ago he donated the recording to the University of Southern Mississippi's Oral History Department, which allowed Radio Diaries to use it.

This is the entire broadcast running 25 minutes.

  Bridgette McGee
Bridgette McGee-Robinson. Photo by Teri Havens.
  Getting Closer to the Truth

Towards the end of her trip, Bridgette visited Jon Swartzfager, the son of Paul Swartzfager, who prosecuted Willie McGee in his last trial. She came because she felt that he could shed some light on her grandfather's last moments. Jon told Bridgette the story of the night of the execution, when his father smuggled a bottle of bourbon into the jail. He asked to see Willie McGee alone, and the two men sat, drank the whiskey, and talked.

This is an excerpt of their conversation.


Check out the brand new book by Alex Heard, The Eyes of Willie McGee.We recommend it highly. It's a comprehensive history of the Willie McGee case and a great read.

Jim Leeson, who recorded the broadcast of WIllie McGee's execution in 1951 and is responsible for preserving that tape for almost sixty years, died recently. His obituary mentions our story and the history of this recording.

Transcript of the testimony of Willette Hawkins, alleged victim, in the first trial.

For Educators: If you are using Willie McGee in your curriculum also take a look at NYTimes.org's To Kill a Mockingbird educational resources.


Narrator: Bridgette McGee-Robinson

Producers: Joe Richman and Samara Freemark
Associate Producer: Anayansi Diaz-Cortes

Consulting Editors: Deborah George, Ben Shapiro
Executive Producer, NPR's All Things Considered: Chris Turpin

Production Assistants: Harold Robinson and Eric Pearse Chavez
Website designer: Sue Johnson

Thanks to our partners: Mississippi Center for Justice, The University of Southern Mississippi , imafricanamerican.com, and Jane Saks from The Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media at Columbia College Chicago

Support for Radio Diaries comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities, New York Council for the Humanities, Mississippi Humanities Council, The Macarthur Foundation, The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, Ira Glass, Esther Saks, Jamie Dell'Apa & Mary Milewski, Susanna Nicholson, Thomas F. Nicholson and Tom Tryforos

Very Special Thanks to Louis Kyriakoudes, Patricia Boyett, Jon Odell, Phyllis Richman, Michael Freemark and Anne Slifkin.

Music Credits:
Blues Round My Door by Lonnie Johnson
Green Gloves by The National
Skinny Love by Bon Iver.

Contact: To reach Bridgette McGee-Robinson, email us and we'll pass your message on to Bridgette.