An Evening with Tony

Oct 9, 2009 - by J. J. Maloney - 0 Comments

prison cell

The true story of a young black man who was executed for murder and an old gangster who wasn't.  You decide who got the better of it.

by J.J. Maloney

When I got to work that evening, in 1967, the ward was empty except for old Tony, who hadn't spoken an intelligible word for 21 years.

Tony was lying in bed staring vacuously at the ceiling, the flesh of his face sagging in tired folds. I'd fallen into the habit of stopping to watch his chest, to see if he were still breathing. Tony was the type who might lay there dead for hours before anyone realized that he was dead.

I discretely checked Tony's bed to see if he had messed it. He had, so I helped him out of bed and helped him out of his obscenely-soiled gown. With my head spinning from the odor, I stripped the sheets and blanket, wiped the rubber-coated mattress and went off in search of clean linen.

When I returned, Tony was sitting exactly as I had left him, staring at the floor in profound dejection, ignoring me as I washed him. (I detested the chore, but, since no one else would do it, and since I spent more time around him than anyone else, I had, so to speak, selfish reasons for keeping him as clean as possible.)

After I gowned him, he began rolling a cigarette. He had long, slightly curled fingernails that were stained with cigarette tars from the lusty Ozark tobacco furnished by the state. Tony didn't like for anyone to fool with his fingernails. The surest way to fire him up was to start cutting them.

I finished making the bed, and as soon as I stepped aside Tony rolled onto the clean linen and resumed staring at the ceiling.

I tried talking to him. Sometimes he would listen; if he were really in the mood he would grunt in the appropriate places. This time he rolled his eyes, but there was no grunting.

I told him they were going to execute a young black man later, and I thought for a moment his eyes narrowed slightly; but with Tony it was hard to tell.

Looking at the disease-ravaged old man (syphilis of the brain, diabetes, arteriosclerosis), I found it hard to picture him as a dapper, tough-faced, machine-gun carrying bank robber and cop killer, but that's what he'd been.

As a young man he and three other guys had robbed a Kansas City bank, and on the way out had machine-gunned a cop to death. His crime partners were sentenced to hang before Tony was ever captured. When he was finally captured he pleaded guilty for a life sentence.

There were many people in the underworld who felt Tony had hurt his partners by copping out, since they continued to maintain their innocence.

Tony came to the prison, and it wasn't much later that his partners were hanged. Then, a year or so later, Tony's wife, a showgirl, was beaten and stabbed to death. Rumor was that she was murdered in retaliation for the three crime partners who'd been hanged.

Tony became a vegetable. That was in the '40s, and as far as anyone knew, Tony had not made an intelligible sound since.

He was transferred to State Hospital #1 at Fulton, Missouri, and stayed there for 19 years. When they sent him back to the prison there were only a handful of old timers who remembered anything about him. Most of the younger, newer, inmates sympathized with the three crime partners who were hanged; they considered Tony a stool pigeon.

Every now and then, when no one was around, some swaggering young "hardrock" would slip into Tony's ward and punch him in the head a few times. Tony would curl up and lay there until he quit hitting him, then he would go back to staring at the ceiling.

I sat there for a while trying to make sense with the old guy, and wishing to hell that once, just once, he would open up and say something. But, of course, he didn't.

Eleven o'clock came and I drifted in and out of the black ward across the hall. The inmates there had a direct view of the door to the receiving cells—-the door out of which the condemned man would come to be loaded into a car for the ride to the gas chamber.

The later it got the less laughter you heard, the less conversation. The radios were all turned off. It seemed eerily silent.

It was time for Tony's shot, so I went to the nurse's office and got the syringe, drew the insulin and went back to 201. In most places a convict couldn't give a shot, but at the prison it was SOP—just as we occasionally did minor surgery, pulled teeth or did whatever the exigencies of the moment called for. Some of the convicts developed a high level of expertise.

Tony watched as I plunged the needle into the thick hide at the top of his arm. Some people were known to use burred needles on him on purpose—-minor cruelties to a man who took it stoically. I often wished I could read his mind. I took the syringe back to the office, then went back to the death watch.

John and I were leaning on opposite sides of the window, staring out, waiting. Both of us were lifers, both for murder. Of the 20 or so people in the room, seven were serving life sentences for first-degree murder.

John was letting his bitterness show. The lights shining in the window accented the hollows in his dark face, giving him a slightly malevolent look. I felt awkward, being the only white person in a black ward at a time we were going to watch a group of white men take a young black out and kill him.

But no one said anything.

We heard the food cart come down the hallway. Apparently no one was hungry.

11:30 passed, and we wondered if the execution had been called off-—but from time to time we could see people moving behind the frosted glass panes of the receiving unit.

Looking up the blacktop road we could see directly into the control center lobby, and at 11:45 we saw a large group of people pass through on their way to the prison. Those would be the official witnesses. The execution was still on.

The windows were getting crowded; and, although the night was cool and the windows open, a few men were sweating. I knew that this execution meant something different to the men around me than it did to me. To them it wasn't just a man being killed, it was a brother; they sincerely, deeply, and profoundly believed that he was being killed because he was a "brother." To them it was an intensely personal experience.

Looking out the window, the night air seemed of a rare purity; but if you looked up, at the gun tower atop the administration building, you could see there was actually a slight haze-—creating a luminous halo around the bright tower lights, and smaller, less luminous haloes around the street lights lining the city street just across the wall.

We were startled at the sound of shifting gears and the crunch of gravel beneath car tires. The car braked to a stop just out of our line of vision; we could hear it being turned around. The car, a dark, late-model sedan, began slowly to back up the blacktop road. There were two people in it. When it reached a spot directly across the road from us, it stopped.

I hadn't realized I was holding my breath. Until that moment capital punishment had seemed a bit distant. It was something you discussed, read about, debated; you saw movies in which it happened, magazine pictures and newspaper accounts, but it never quite seemed real.

But there it was: The Car. Two men waiting to drive another man to his death. Ferrymen on the River Styx. The real thing, alive and in color.

The tension in the room seemed explosive. Black faces were pressed hard, brutally, against the window panes, flattening the noses-—creating, for anyone who cared to look up at them, masks of dark, primordial hate.

Hate was etched into their faces, in the tight lines around the eyes, the slitted mouths. They knew law and order was a lot of shit. They knew what was really happening; a bunch of honkies were killing themselves a nigger.

I didn't belong in that room. Fortunately, I felt sufficiently grim to make a proper impression. I could sense they were exquisitely frustrated, and that they would vent that frustration given an excuse.

The door to the receiving unit swung inward, and a shaft of harsh yellow light streaked across the road. A guard captain stepped out the door and looked around. Then the condemned man—-Lloyd Lee Anderson—-stepped smartly out the door. He was smiling. A chain was looped around his waist; his hands were cuffed to the chain. Immediately behind him was the Catholic chaplain, Richard Cronin. Father Cronin's face was drawn-—no, drained; he looked to be slightly in shock. Behind the Father were three more guards.

The condemned man moved slowly up the narrow walkway to the waiting car. I tried to determine if his smile were forced, but it looked real, natural.

The kid almost blew it when he bumped into the rear fender and staggered back. For a moment he stood there bewildered, but a guard grabbed his arm and directed him toward the open back left door of the waiting car.

The kid climbed in awkwardly. Father Cronin slipped in beside him; a guard got in on the other side.

They pulled away and in a moment the road was deserted. The extra guards went back into the receiving unit. There was nothing left to show that anything had taken place.

Back in 201, I perched myself on the radiator by the window. Tony was face up in his bed. I couldn't tell if he were awake, asleep or dead. For the moment I didn't feel like finding out.

Lloyd Lee Anderson was executed that night, but his smile faded before he died. Perhaps he didn't believe it would really happen—-he must have thought the phone would ring at the last moment. I suspect, after he'd been strapped in, it hit him: Governor Warren E. Hearnes wasn't doing phones that night. He died cursing Hearnes and everyone else associated with the execution.

Tony didn't care. His chest rose and fell ever so slightly. Inside that phlegmatic body demons raged and cursed. His wife fell to her death a million times. His partners' necks cracked a million times.

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