Last night on Death Row

Jul. 15, 2013 @ 07:00 PM

CHAPTER SIX: THE END


By June 30, 1938, all of the appeals — legal, emotional and spiritual — had been exhausted. Bill Payne would spend only one more long, grim night on Death Row, followed by the long, grim morning of his death on July 1.
“I reckon my time has come,” Payne solemnly told a reporter, “and I am ready.”
As death neared, Payne seemed to be a humbled, changed man, vastly
different from the cool, no-nonsense gangster the state had known him as for so many years. Shortly after moving to Death Row in late January, he had requested a Bible to read in his small cell; when none became available, a group of Gideons from Greensboro — a city Payne had victimized numerous times — sent 25 Bibles to Central Prison to be distributed among all of the prisoners on Death Row, including Payne.
After five months, his well-thumbed Bible showed ample evidence of having been read often. He was reading it the evening before his execution, when a High Point Enterprise reporter showed up to interview him one last time.
“I’d read it through before once, when I was in solitary — I didn’t get much sense out of it then,” Payne said as he drew on a cigarette. “Now, though, I think it’s real reading. Used to think true stories and detective stories were exciting. The Bible is better than all of them. It’s more exciting after you get used to it.”
Earlier in the day, as his elderly mother watched and wept, the doomed prisoner had been baptized in a bathtub on Death Row.
Cynics might view Payne’s radical about-face as a jailhouse conversion, and who’s to say? But if it was, the only thing he stood to gain from it was his eternity, as Gov. Clyde Hoey had already made it abundantly clear he would not interfere with Payne’s scheduled execution.
And, indeed, on that final full day of his life, Payne seemed more
consumed with heaven than the gas chamber.
“The first thing a man should consider is where he is going to spend eternity,” the 41-year-old High Point man said. “Give all my friends my best regards, and tell all the boys to be ready when the time comes to die, and I will see them again.”
Meanwhile, Wash Turner — Payne’s longtime partner in crime — seemed resigned to his fate.
“I am prepared to die now,” the 36-year-old McDowell County native said softly, “but I can’t say I want to die.”
The next morning, even as the death chamber underwent final preparations for the executions, Hoey continued to receive phone calls and telegrams urging executive clemency for Payne and Turner, but the governor stood firm.
The prisoners had no doubt given much thought to how they would die. Before Payne and Turner’s executions in the gas chamber, another Death Row inmate — Wiley Brice, sentenced to death for a 1926 murder in Alamance County — would be electrocuted. In 1935, North Carolina had become the fourth state in the country to legally switch to gas executions, but Brice’s death was subject to the means of execution used when he committed the murder, which was the electric chair.
Strapped into the chair, Brice would not die immediately, but the first jarring jolt of electricity to his brain would render him unconscious, so his suffering would be minimal. Payne and Turner, though, would slowly choke to death — asphyxiation is the medical term — and their suffering would be far more intense.
So notorious were Payne and Turner that when they were sentenced to die, more than 1,500 North Carolinians had requested passes to witness their executions. The requests were denied, but a couple hundred people — largely curiosity-seekers — still showed up at Central Prison the morning of Payne and Turner’s deaths, eager to catch a glimpse of criminal history.
Following Brice’s execution at 10 a.m., Turner entered the airtight octagonal chamber at 10:30, and the gas was activated two minutes later. As the grayish vapors rose around him, Turner gasped and convulsed nearly five minutes as he strained for air, then blacked out. More than 16 minutes passed before the prison physician finally declared him dead.
Meanwhile, Payne prayed with the prison chaplain in his cell on Death Row. Shortly after 11 a.m., he slowly walked “The Last Mile” — the short, grim journey from his cell to the death chamber — passing the cells of eight fellow Death Row inmates and one empty cell, that of his now-deceased buddy, Wash Turner.
“Goodbye, boys,” Payne said as he passed, looking straight ahead.
As was the custom, the other condemned men escorted Payne to his death with song. A lone, solemn voice echoed through the prison, singing the old spiritual “I Shall Go To My Saviour,” until gradually more inmates took up the plaintive dirge.
At 11:10, Payne entered the chamber, prayed once more with the chaplain, then shook hands with him and other prison officials.
“Goodbye, Warden,” Payne said as the warden turned to leave. “I want to thank you for being so nice to my mother.”
Before closing his eyes, Payne nodded farewell to the 35 witnesses — many of them George Penn’s fellow troopers with the N.C. Highway Patrol — watching from behind a double-plated, vacuum-sealed window in the chamber.
When the gas switch clicked at 11:12, Payne’s lips moved as if he were praying. He leaned over and breathed deeply, getting a heavy whiff of the deadly fumes rising about him. As Turner had done, he began to convulse, but the contortions lasted only about three minutes. After 15 minutes, North Carolina’s most notorious gangster was declared dead.
Newspapers across the state trumpeted the news with bold, hard-to-miss headlines. “GAS SNUFFS OUT LIVES OF PAYNE, TURNER,” the Enterprise reported that afternoon. One paper published a photo of two boys watching from across the street as Payne’s shrouded corpse was loaded onto a hearse. Another published a photo of two hearses pulling out of the Central Prison gates.
Turner’s body was returned to his native McDowell County for burial, while Payne’s was brought to High Point. To this day, 75 years later, he lies buried in a family plot in the Abbotts Creek Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery, largely forgotten in these parts except for those few individuals old enough to remember his infamous days as an outlaw.
The hard lesson of Payne’s life, though, remains as relevant today as it was on July 1, 1938.
Perhaps Payne’s favorite henchman, Wash Turner, said it best in his final statement before entering the gas chamber: “I guess all that needs to be said can be summed up in a few words: Crime does not pay.”
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579