Oklahoma History: May 2014 Archives


Larry Harnisch, a local history blogger in Los Angeles, has reposted a 1948 Daily Oklahoman profile of Rich Owens, who built Oklahoma's first electric chair and ran it for 33 years at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Reporter Ray Parr had gone to visit Owens at his home in McAlester a few weeks before his death of liver cancer.

Owens talked about getting the job and about learning the science of electrocution, so as to get the job done quickly. He described his rehearsal procedure, in which the Death Row guards would walk him down to the chamber and strap him into the chair, to be sure the guards knew how to secure the prisoner. Owens was proud that each of his executions went without a hitch.

Owens, already a prison guard, got the job when the hired executioner was too drunk to pull the switch. He electrocuted 58 men in Oklahoma, three in New Mexico, and two each in Arkansas and Texas, and he carried out a hanging under the Federal law passed following the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.

"Nobody I ever electrocuted ever held it against me, at least not before hands. And I've executed some close friends of mine."

One of the men he executed, Choc Emery, had saved Owens's life during an earlier term in prison when six prisoners jumped him, but, once out, Emery raped a woman and killed her and her boyfriend.

"Well, on the night he was to go he sent for me and I stayed with him from 7:30 until he went. We talked about religion. He prayed some and then we got a preacher and all of us prayed. I'm kind of funny like that. I think when a man wants to pray you ought to let him pray.

"I says, Choc, if you want, I'll hire somebody else for this job. He says, no, I want you -- we're friends.

"I didn't have any sympathy for Choc. I said, Choc, I tried to learn you better and I know your mother did. You oughta go.

"He didn't seem to think anything wrong about being electrocuted either."

Incidental to his job as a prison guard, Owens killed a few escapees, including a pair of inmates who tried to "ride him out" -- use him as a hostage in their escape, steering him by the blade of a knife stuck in his back. With the help of sniper fire from a tower guard, Owens killed one with that very knife and the other with a long-handled shovel.

It's a fascinating story, and it reflects a different time, when even murderers knew that they deserved to die.

(Link via Ace of Spades HQ overnight thread. Picture of the electric chair at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester from the Beryl Ford Collection, Accession A6013.)

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Oklahoma History category from May 2014.

Oklahoma History: March 2014 is the previous archive.

Oklahoma History: June 2014 is the next archive.

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