A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

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Entry from April 29, 2008
Old Sparky (electric chair)

"Old Sparky” is the name of the famous electric chair of Texas, where 361 people died by electrocution between 1924 and 1964. Before 1924, hanging was practiced in Texas; in 1964, electrocutions were stopped while the U.S. Supreme Court examined the practice. Starting 1982, lethal injection replaced the electric chair. “Old Sparky”—the name is first recorded in print in 1951—is now an exhibit in the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville.

“Old Sparky” and “Old Smokey” were some of the names of electric chairs in other states as well. McAlester, Oklahoma, and Florida, in particular, had long used the same “Old Sparky” name for their electric chairs.

Wikipedia: Old Sparky
Old Sparky is the nickname of the electric chairs of Texas, New York, Louisiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Georgia, and Florida. It was the nickname of the long-retired electric chair at the now-closed West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia; the electric chair is still at the prison, which is now a tourist attraction. It was also the nickname of the electric chair in South Carolina that was housed at the Central Correctional Institution (CCI) until the chair was relocated to the newly built Broad River Correctional Institution and removed from service in 1989.

“Old Sparky” is sometimes used to refer to electric chairs in general, and not one of a specific state.
The Texas electric chair to which the name “Old Sparky” is applied was in use from 1924 to 1964. During that time, it saw the deaths of 361 prisoners sentenced to die by judicial electrocution. It was built by incarcerated craftsmen in 1924. Following its decommissioning, it was originally relegated to a prison dump before being rescued. Today, it is on public display as part of a replica death chamber at the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, Texas along with tubing and straps used in Texas’ first execution by lethal injection.

In 1971, the Greater Dallas Crime Commission, a business organization, circulated a petition to recommission Texas’ “Old Sparky”. The petition received 10,620 endorsements.
References to Old Sparky
. The Green Mile by Stephen King and its film adaptation use Old Sparky as the official method of execution.
. In an episode of King of the Hill, Dale Gribble, excited about being on the executioner list as a new employee of a local prison, asks the prison warden where Old Sparky is. The warden explains that Old Sparky is no longer, replaced by lethal injection. Dale then asks where Old Squirty is, a variation on the original title.
. In the Futurama episode “A Tale of Two Santas”, Bender is to be executed by a powerful electromagnet, which New New York City Mayor Poopenmeyer refers to as Old Maggie.

Texas Prison Museum
Capital Punishment Exhibit
From the time of Independence from Mexico until 1924, hanging was the lawful method of execution in Texas. Hangings took place in the county where the condemned person was convicted.

In 1924 the State of Texas took control of all executions and prescribed electrocution as the method. One of the most chilling exhibits at the Texas Prison Museum is “Old Sparky,” the decommissioned electric chair in which 361 prisoners were executed between 1924 and 1964. This legendary device, made by prison workers, was in storage at the Walls Unit Death House before being donated to the museum, and is our most controversial exhibit.

In 1964 executions were stopped while the U.S. Supreme Court decided on the fate of execution practices. Executions resumed in 1982 with lethal injection replacing electrocutions as the means of carrying out the death penalty.

Roadside America
Old Sparky: Lone Star of Texas
Huntsville, Texas
Opened in 1989, the Texas Prison Museum offers a display of makeshift weapons, treasures like Clyde Barrow’s carbine, a mock jail cell, and “Old Sparky”, the electric chair that fried 361 men between 1924 and 1964. Art and crafts created by inmates are displayed. Of particular interest: “Old Sparky” was hand-made by some incarcerated craftsmen, and was built sturdily enough to outlive all its occupants and a stint in the prison dump. It was recovered, and donated to the museum. The entire collection, once housed in a cramped old bank building, moved in late 2002 to a new 10,000 square foot facility off I-45 northwest of Huntsville, near the Wynne Prison Unit.
Texas Prison Museum:
Address: 491 State Hwy. 75 North, Huntsville, TX
Directions: I-45 exit 118. The museum is on the frontage road, east side.
Hours: May-Oct M-Sa 10-6 Su noon-5; Oct-May M-Sa 10-5 Su noon-5 (Call to verify)
Phone: 936-295-2155

(Historical Dictionary of American Slang)
Old Sparky n. Pris. an electric chair
1971 J. Brown & A Groff Monkey 84: I was next door to “Old Sparky”—the electric chair.
1981 S. King, in Rod Serling’s TZ Mag. 28: Foggia[’s]...lawyer had told him that he was in all probability the next to ride Old Sparky.
1986 Atlanta Constitution (Apr. 16) 14: Clearing the way for the scheduled 12:01 p.m. electrocution in Florida’s “Old Sparky” electric chair.
1994 La. coroner, on CBS This Morning (CBS-TV)(Nov. 22): Now he’s facing what we call down there [In Louisiana] “Old Sparky”—the electric chair.
1994 N.Y. Times (Nov. 27)("Metro") 49: References to the expected return of “Old Sparky,” New York State’s electric chair.

(Oxford English Dictionary)
Old Sparky n. U.S. slang an electric chair.
1971 J. BROWN & A. GROFF Monkey off my Back 84, I was next door to ‘*Old Sparky’the electric chair.
1994 N.Y. Times 27 Nov. I49/1 David Letterman gets a pretty good laugh with references to the expected return of ‘Old Sparky’, New York State’s electric chair.
2001 K. LETTE Nip ‘n’ Tuck 233, I was twenty-four hours from gettin’ fried by Old Sparky, all for a crime I never done.

5 April 1951, The McIntosh County Democrat (Checotah, OK), pg. 4, col. 1:
On a 32-4 vote, the senate approved the measure by Sen. Kirksey Nix, McAlester, doing away with Oklahoma’s “old sparky” electric chair.

9 July 1951, El Paso (TX) Herald-Post, “Slaying Suspect Says He Expects To Be Electrocuted” (AP) pg. 21, col. 1:
HOBBS, July 9.—Gene Parks, one of two brothers charged with slaying two men here Saturday, told State Patrolman Joe Aven he “always had been curious about Old Sparky.”

“Now it looks like I’ll ride out on Old Sparky,” he said.

He meant the electric chair. 

4 May 1958, Ada (OK) Evening News, “Fugitive Makes Good Boast He’d Not Die in Chair,” pg. 12, col. 4:
WACO, Tex. (AP)—A convicted murderer, who boasted he would force officers to shoot him rather than die in the electric chair, died in a gunfight Saturday.
Texas Ranger Capt. Clint Peoples said Perkins, condemned to die in the electric chair for the kidnap-slaying of Ray Spencer, 51, Waco service station attendant, told him: “Rather than ride old sparky, I’ll make some officer kill me.”

6 February 1961, Madisonville (KY) Messenger, pg. 3, col. 8:
McALESTER, Okla. (AP)—Nickname for the electric chair at the Oklahoma State Prison is “Ole Sparky.”

Time magazine
Bring Back “Old Sparky”
Monday, Mar. 15, 1971
The tall-backed electric chair in Texas’ Huntsville Prison has gathered a fine coating of dust since it was last used in 1965. About 100 men sit on death rows throughout the state, restlessly awaiting the outcome of their legal appeals. If thousands of Texans had their draconian way, the prisoners would not have to wait much longer.

After three Dallas police officers were found systematically murdered recently, the Greater Dallas Crime Commission, a businessmen’s organization, launched an advertising campaign aimed, among other things, at throwing the fear of death into murderers by resuming capital punishment, which is still legal in Texas. “The refusal to carry out the death sentence has produced an alarming increase in capital crimes,” the commission wrote. “It is time to serve notice that murder in Texas does not pay.” Part of the commission’s ads were “ballots” that readers were invited to fill out, expressing their opinion on the death penalty and other aspects of law enforcement. Of the ballots that had been counted last week, 10,620 advocated dusting off and using “Old Sparky,” as prisoners call the chair.

Time magazine
Wear It in Good Health
Monday, Jun. 25, 1979
The policemen’s softball team in Jacksonville is raising money to play in a tournament in New Orleans by selling, for $5 each, pastel T shirts decorated with a drawing of “Old Sparky,” the Florida electric chair, and bearing the legend 1 DOWN, 133 TO GO. The reference is to the recent execution of John Spenkelink and the 133 people left on death row in Florida. So far, 2,500 T shirts have been sold and orders—including some from lawyers and judges—have come in from all 50 states and from as far away as Australia.

Posted by Barry Popik
Texas (Lone Star State Dictionary) • Tuesday, April 29, 2008 • Permalink