GUS NICHOLS’ LETTER TO HIS FAMILY AT HOME
Following is a letter the late great gospel preacher Gus Nichols (1892-1975) wrote to his family at home in Jasper, AL during a meeting in which he was preaching in Montgomery, AL in 1938. It is a graphic description of the electrocution of two criminals at Kilby Prison, an Alabama state penitentiary in Montgomery. Leonard Johnson (mentioned in the letter) was co-founder of Montgomery Bible College, later Alabama Christian College, now Faulkner University. I assume brother Johnson was the local preacher where brother Nichols was conducting the meeting. I am indebted to Larry Whitehead of Birmingham, AL, editor of The Alabama Restoration Journal (currently in a state of suspension), for sharing this letter with me. I will alert the faint of heart that it is a horrifying description of what brothers Nichols and Johnson witnessed so many years ago. Too, this particular edition of “News & Views” is about twice as long as usual, but I did not want to divide the letter into two parts. It is as follows:
Friday, Aug. 19, 1938
I do not feel well this morning, though I am not sick. It is about 6:30 and I have only slept a few minutes – did not sleep a wink until break of day, I was nervous because of what I had seen and witnessed. You know I am not excitable, yet I witnessed the saddest scene of my life just after midnight.
I am staying about a mile from Kilby Prison, and noticed yesterday that two boys were to be electrocuted there about midnight. I decided I wanted to witness that scene, so I called Dr. Camp, and then the warden, and finally got permission for myself and Bro. Leonard Johnson to see it. I preached to a fine audience, then we had supper about 9:30, and arrived at the prison about eleven o’clock. The guard at the great iron gate at the entrance of a massive building which appears to cover several acres, opened and we were locked inside.
We waited in the broad open space of a large and beautiful hall for awhile, and were finally seated in the warden’s office by a kind-hearted and friendly guard, who informed us the warden would be in after a while. We were already in a serious strain of conversation, talking of the joy of being free and able to go where we pleased in life, when we suddenly thought that we were in fact right then locked in prison! We still felt that we were free men, however, but were sorry for the more than fifteen-hundred white men inside that prison – to say nothing of the negroes. We planned to try to warn more earnestly of the wages of sin, the thing which took away the liberty and freedom of those inside.
Many big burly guards are walking in the hall with guns. We are now out in the hall with them to see what they are talking about. Now it is about 30 minutes until twelve, and the assistant warden is motioning to me to come to him behind another great iron gate down the spacious hall leading west, I believe. Others precede us, and turn through a door to the left, but not being preachers they were searched – even some of the guards had their guns taken. But we were trusties, and hence not searched – not then, nor later. Now we are being admitted through the gate and are passing toward another one about 50 yards ahead. Now we are passing through it, and are turning to the right. Here we go up a flight of stairs to one of the many stories of the great building.
Now we are in the death territory. Several doomed to die in the near future are on either side of us. The hall is about 25 by 40 feet. We are now stopped and the assistant warden motions for a preacher of the Salvation Army, and the white chaplain, and also the old negro who is [the] colored chaplain. We are introduced and are carried by them to the north end of this hall to the last cell on the left where one of the boys doomed to die in a few minutes is knelt by his cot praying. He has assaulted a ten-year-old girl in Birmingham, and must soon pay with his life. We do not want to disturb him, so we pass into a narrow hall, still north, but only a few feet away, and on the right is the other boy, who murdered a Montgomery merchant with an ax for only a few dollars of money on his person, He, too, must pay with his life.
Now we are at his cell and are looking through the strong lattice door. He is pacing back and forth, singing (or chanting) over and over: “I have a little sister gone on, and I was left alone, and now I’m going home. I have made peace with Jesus. He says, ‘I go to prepare, and I will come after you.’ He died for me and I’m so glad.” The Salvation Army preacher is now asking him how he feels, and he is claiming to be ready. But he is asking who we (Brother Johnson and I) are, and upon learning, wants us to pray for him. The short prayer over, we go back to the other boy, who is now sitting flat on the floor. Upon rising, he is told by the Salvation Army preacher to repeat the prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner, and save my poor soul,” which he has now repeated. He picks up a little ten-cent Testament from his cot, and says: “If it was not for this little book, I’d be ruined.”
They are told to pray hard, for they have only a few more minutes. They saunter around and around, praying and chanting in a half-conscious manner, not noticing anyone. Now the other one wants Bro. Johnson to pray for him. This prayer also was very short, and when it is over, they want us to sing. “Sweet By and By” is the first song, then “Nearer, My God, To Thee,” and then “Love Lifted Me.”
There comes a great company of men – guards, doctors, news reporters, and others. We move on down the narrow hallway with them, past the electric chair, where we hope to see clearly. We are now by the door, just in the hall, and within ten or twelve feet of the death chair. Being the taller of the two, I am looking over Bro. Johnson’s shoulder. We are sad, occasionally feeling sort of mean for being there, then we remember that we helped sing, etc, and tried to send comfort to the doomed couple, for whom we are very sorry, regardless of their guilt.
There they are with the murderer. He is being strapped hard and tight to the great wooden chair. All are as silent as death. Now the boy is saying: “I killed a man, and must pay for my deed. I love everybody, and now I’m going home,” (They are strapping the cup on his head through which the lightning will run thru his body) …”I want to meet my Saviour. Mr. Warden, tell Eleanor hello for me.” All is ready and we are almost holding our breath. Bro. Johnson is crying, and I, being older, am choking back all I can. The chaplain reads: “In my Father’s house are.” And Oh – My – Ugh! The current has come and he has suddenly been lifted by it just as high as the straps will let him rise. His neck veins are protruding out, and his hands are drawn as tight as a wrench. This continues for about a minute, then is turned off about the same length of time. But now it comes again! UP he rises again! Now the smoke is coming up from his head and from his legs!! The burning flesh is making an awful scent. The sizzling and buzzing noise of the current is loud, and could be heard for city blocks. Now, it is off again, and the doctors go forward. They listen to his heart, but soon say, “He is dead.” The stretchers are just behind us, coming in for him, I have now moved to the other side of the door, and he is brought out.
In a moment everything is ready again, and the other boy – about 17 years of age is brought in. He, too, is walking glibly, and also has tearful eyes. As they are strapping him, he breaks the deathly silence, “The strap under my chin is too tight, Lord, have mercy on me! Tell everybody good-bye! Oh, Me!! Lord, Take me!!!! That strap is too tight!! Only another minute, and I’ll be long gone!! Just another moment! Lord, have mercy!!! But I must go!! I can’t stay!! I am ready to die for my fault! ” The colored chaplain begins to read, and the boy begins to repeat after him, “The Lord, The Lord is my Shepherd… I – I – I . . . . ” But the buzz is on him, and he, too, rises up to die about as the other did. He is pronounced dead, all is over. “He has paid an awful price for assaulting a white girl, about ten,” said a man behind me, who broke the silence. But we are put forward, and are coming down. Some are laughing and talking, some crying; one, at least, choking, and thinking that he wished his boys could see this, and silently praying that they may be good and control the flesh, that they may not thus have to reap.
By now we are on our way home, saying very little. I now have found the key, and am opening the door; now about to go to bed. But I am not a bit sleepy. Now I am musing: “Well, I am a man, and can forget all this, and sleep soundly.” But, no! I am rolling and turning, and something is wrong. Maybe I’m too hot. I turn on the fan, but that’s not the trouble. I am tired, but not sleepy. As I close my eyes I can see but one thing, and that’s that chair!
The effort to sleep began about 12:35 … Now it is two. I get up and read till 3:05 a.m., but no sleep will come. I can still see those boys when my eyes are closed. Now the chickens are crowing for day, and I pull the shades and slip away for about an hour. Then try and try to sleep, but can’t. I read, then start on this letter. Breakfast is over, and I feel all right, but I may get very sleepy today. I know, without waiting to find the facts, that Bro. Johnson did not sleep a wink.
Pray for our dear children and for me. Let us be a model family, and do a great work. God bless you every one. I must get ready to go to the radio station, then to dinner, to get back home as usual about 4 o’clock.
I love each of you lots,
November 29, 2016