the inception of the Republic
of Texas in 1836, the method of punishing criminals was usually
by hanging at the county level. But in 1924, the State of Texas took
the responsibility for capital punishment and changed the method from
hanging to electrocution.
Charles Reynolds of Red
River County became the first to die in an electric chair known
as “Old Sparky.” Another East Texan, Belton Harris of Henderson
County, built the electric chair.
In October of 1923, Reynolds cut the throat of Horace Reed, superintendent
of a the Mill Gin at Clarksville.
The murder apparently resulted from an argument between the two men.
Reynolds was soon captured and was charged with Reed’s slaying. A
trial was held trial in December and Reynolds was found guilty.
He was transferred to the Department of Corrections in Huntsville
and on February 8, 1824, he became the first of five convicted criminals
to die in the electric chair. The others were Mack Matthews, Ewell
Morris, Melvin Johnson and George Washington.
The legislator who introduced the law permitting death by electrocution,
T.K.. Irwin of Dallas, witnessed
the death of the other four men. He said he was “horrified” by the
In 1964, executions by electrocution were stopped while the U.S. Supreme
Court decided on the fate of execution practices. Executions resumed
in 1982 with lethal injection replacing electrocutions.
man who built “Old Sparky” was himself a convicted murderer. Belton
Harris was in prison for killing his wife at Payne Springs near Athens
in Henderson County,
He was under the shadow of the death penalty for eight months until
a higher court reversed his sentence and, after a new trial, Harris
was sentenced to 15 years in prison instead.
When he was freed, Harris accepted a job at a sawmill in Walker
County. Because prison officials recognized his mechanical ability,
he was chosen to build the electric chair. He died in 1934 while working
at the mill.
Bob Bowman's East Texas
April 17, 2011 Column.
A weekly column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers