BOB BOWMAN’S EAST TEXAS
From 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 deaths.
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.
The 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 of Lufkin. is the author of almost 50 books about East Texas, including “Death By Rope.” He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)