World’s Oldest Prisoner
I’m glad all you folks could be here today. Makes me feel wanted. Of course, I’ve been wanted off and on for most of the past century.
I was surprised them people from the Guinness Book of World Records showed up yesterday. Took a bunch a pictures, asked —How does it feel to be the world’s oldest prisoner, how many years have you served, how has prison changed. Worse than lawyers.
Right now I’ve got two world records for sure, the world’s oldest prisoner and the record for serving the most time. I’ll have that third record you’re all here to see me break in just a little bit, and there’s two more they have to check on most escapes and most bank robberies.
I’m ninety-nine years old. I won’t see a hundred. I was born on Christmas Day, 1905, in Moultrie, Georgia. All my people’s dead, to my knowledge. I’m the last of my line. Some people would say good riddance, I guess.
People ask me how prison’s changed over all them years. Ain’t no more Jimmy Cagney’s big houses like they used to be. Prison is an “industry” now, like GM up there in Detroit, or U.S. Steele.
That’s probably what they should call it. U.S. S-T-E-A-L. They want to turn us all into packages of frozen food, zipping along an assembly line, then stacked up and stored in warehouses, like inventory. That’s all we are. No human. When they can replace the guards with robots, they’ll really have it going on. Even that wouldn’t make prison honest. Some call it the Department of Corruption. It’s always been that way. Everybody’s on the take. Lot more of them are scared now, not like it used to be, but there’s something evil about these places that changes people, the captors as well as the captives.
Nearest I can figure, I’ve been inside for 71 years since I first went up for bank robbery in 1926. I’d just turned 21. I’ve done maybe eight years on the street since then. Don’t sound like much, does it. Did some livin’, though.
I did time in Georgia, Pennsylvania, did Fed time, seven years on Alcatraz with the big boys. I tried to avoid them fed banks after that. State banks only. That’s where I started at. I got married at 18. Marie West. Prettiest girl in Colquitt Country.
My daddy had a peanut farm. Six generations. Hogs, some corn, and tobacco. Peach trees and pecans. Berries. A cow. I was the oldest boy. The place was coming to me. Me and Marie lived with my people, just till we could get on our feet and build our own place.
It wasn’t to be. The lord took her in 1924. She was 18. That was it for me. I couldn’t tolerate staring at a mule’s behind all day anymore. My cousin, Frank, and I went to Albany, Georgia, and robbed a bank. Split $1800. Most money I’d ever seen in my life. We bought a car, went to Savannah, robbed two banks. Third time’s the charm. Frank got shot. I got caught. Prison was a lot different then. The white and the colored fellas were segregated. We had it rough. They had it worse. We were all slaves. We called the guards bulls, hacks, turnkeys, screws. That was behind their backs. Called ‘em Boss Man to their faces, kept our heads down. They’d beat the shit outta you for any reason or no reason. The captain would bullwhip you. He got me once. That was enough. Yassah, Boss Man. Anything you want, suh. They’d put you in the hot box, starve you, burn you up.
There weren’t no grievances like there are now. You couldn’t file no appeal. Wasn’t no civil rights, no ACLU.
Worked on a road prison for a while. Chain gang. We’d come in, they’d lock our leg irons to the bunks. We weren’t goin’ nowhere. Some newcock guard knocked over a kerosene lantern one night, forty men burned to death. I was in the box, or I’d ‘a been in there with them. I can still hear their screams, and smell that taint up in my sinuses. Human flesh sizzlin’. Yellow pine boards. Tarpaper roofs. All mingled together.
Only thing I ever smelled worse was when I was a boy, a skunk got into the chicken coop one night, went into a frenzy. Mama went in there the next morning, that skunk was curled up asleep in a nestbox with dead chickens all over the ground. She chopped him with a hoe, put that skunk and those chickens in a pile of leaves, poured some coal oil on them, and lit ‘em up. Burning skunk, the meat, the fur, the musk glands, chicken feathers –have you ever smelled burning chicken feathers? Something about adding those dead leaves to the pile just made it all stink worse. I must a been four or five years old 95 years ago, but I can still smell it.
Them boys at the road prison, they suffered. We killed hogs at home every year, first cold snap. But after that night at the road prison, I never could stomach pork again. You get a whiff of hog charrin’, overdone, that’s close to burning men. Forty men burnt to a crisp is worse than one poor old soul with a smoking brain.
They worked me on death row some years ago, cleaning up after the executions. Old Sparky. Same smell. Just not as intense. You go in the death chamber with a mop, bucket of bleach, soap, and some disinfectant. It don’t do no good. There’s like an oil film in the air. It gets in your clothes, your hair, your skin. Them boys would leak a lot of the time, just like your Christmas turkey. Pink fluids not done yet, clear fluids, well done.
I don’t really hate anybody, but if I was to hate anybody it would be them guards that worked those executions. They call themselves correctional officers now, make them sound like military or somethin’. Hell, you got bulls that couldn’t make PFC for Uncle Sam; they’re sergeants, lieutenants, captains, majors, and colonels in the prison. No generals, though. I suppose the governor wants to keep that rank for himself. I can’t talk –never did go into the service. Uncle Sam don’t recruit bank robbers. Most of my people fought, though, in every war since the British got their asses kicked back to London.
But I’m getting distracted. Forgive me. I’m pretty old, although I won’t be getting any older. I was telling you why I’d hate those guards if I was a hateful person. It ain’t because they beat me unconscious at least 50 times in prisons in seven states. I was young and dumb for a number of years, wouldn’t take no lip. I got the shit beat out of me for the slightest infraction until I was maybe 30. I went better than 60 years without getting whipped until this last little episode. They call it changing shift on your ass. Put you in a cell, about eight of them bum rush the door, throw you outta your bunk, onto the floor, then put the boots and brogans to you. That’s day shift. Four o’clock shift comes on, they do that same thing, then the midnight shift.
It took a long time for my ribs to heal up. How old am I now? 99? I was 90, I guess, when this last thing started. Nine years. Hell, it still hurts to breathe. Some of them ribs ain’t never healed. My hip’s never been right. I got this ringin’ in my ears.
Now, I’m not snitchin’ on those boys. I ain’t giving up no names. Lord knows ‘em, every one, and vengeance is Mine, He says.
I don’t hate ‘em because of what they did to me, but how they treated those boys they strapped into Old Sparky. Some would go real quiet like. Some would cry. You’d be surprised how many real bad asses would start screaming and fighting and begging. Then they’d start cussin’. They got strapped down, though, and they got fried.
Don’t let them guards tell you it’s full of stress and the executions are so hard on them, they need hazardous duty pay. They love it.
These young, strong, muscle-bound boys they hire these days go to the training club, work out, shoot all the time look like the German recruiting posters back in the ‘30’s when that Hitler fella had it going on. I knew their daddies and their granddaddies. Family business, the prison. They grew up eating pork chops from the prison slaughterhouse. They pass down the stories from grandpa, to daddy, to son. Daughters now, too. Dangdest thing I ever seen, these little gals struttin’ around with the brown uniforms all spiffy, their little can of pepper spray stuck on their big, wide black belt, their panic button –PANIC BUTTONS! They got some kind of satellite, tracks ‘em. Somebody drags ‘em into a cell, they push the button, clouds of polices descend on them like Mongols.
When I worked on death row, I saw it all up close. They loved executions. It was the only excitement they looked forward to. They were smug. Some of them would taunt the condemned when they were on death watch. “You’re going to hell. You’ll be roasting on a spit soon. Tell the devil hello for me.” One of them had a big old needle, used to call ‘em over to the bars, and stick ‘em deep with that needle, and just fall out laughing. Plumb mean.
They made all kinds of jokes. I remember them. When you get my age, you can remember things that happened seventy, eighty, ninety years ago like it was yesterday. But I’m not going to go into all that. I’m pressing my luck now. The warden’s been making eyeballs at me for ten minutes. But he’s the one who asked me if I had anything to say, to say it. So I am. If any of you folks want me to shut up, and get on with it, let’s see them hands. How many want me to shut up? Sorry, warden. We still live in a democracy, no matter what that Bin Laden fella says about it.
Where was I? Oh yeah –lyin’ here on this table in front of all you good people. Talking about executions, how messed up they are. I did time in Mississippi for a few years. They got the gas chamber over there. Cyanide. Ain’t no different. You should see those boys when they suck all that poison gas outta there, unstrap ‘em, lay ‘em on a table, hose ‘em down. It’s a miserable way to die, all contorted. You know, some of those boys would pull so hard they’d snap their arms, break ‘em.
It don’t matter what you call it. Murder is murder. I finally came around to that point of view. I should know. I’ve killed at least six men in prison, maybe seven, eight, counting this last one, nine years ago now. Never killed anybody that didn’t deserve it, or wasn’t tryin’ to kill me. Yeah, I know, I aint’ no better than they are, justifyin’ it. But all mine was done in heat. They do theirs cold. I don’t see where signing a death warrant is any different than one of those mafia boys puttin’ out a contract on somebody. I never did that. I never enjoyed it, either.
You know, they always said that the identity of the executioners is a big secret. That’s hogwash. Everybody up here knows. They brag about it. You got a boy right here who was just telling me the other day that his daddy was on the “team” that did old John Spekelink back in the ‘10s. It used to be the highlight of these old boy’s lives to pull the switch, light somebody’s ass up, put Old Sparky into high gear.
Now everything’s all sanitized. Lethal injection. Does that sound like a cure for some disease? You’re very sick, fella, so we gonna give you a lethal injection, a vaccine that will cure what ails you. Won’t hurt a bit. Why don’t I believe them?
I see some of you folks are grinning. You can laugh if you want to. No rule against it, not yet, but there might be one in place next week.
The warden don’t like this. Look at him! Old Lemon Puss. You gonna cut the microphone off on me? Write me a disciplinary report? Nah. He’ll just nod his head and have these boys give me a cocktail.
That’s what this is, the cocktail hour. Folks ask you what you did last night, you can tell them you went to cocktail hour with the world’s oldest prisoner. You enjoy your gin and vermouth when you stop at the lounge down the road. Maybe that pretty reporter will eat an olive in my name. Ah, hon, what’s the matter? Don’t shed tears for me. I’m not worth it. But thanks for the sentiment. Can’t remember nobody crying for me in a long, long time, before any of you were born, most likely.
I’m about finished here. Ready to go. I won’t be sippin’ this drink. They gonna run them chemicals through that tube in my arm and make me sleep like a baby, permanent like. Won’t hurt a bit, I told you I don’t believe them, though. Are their lips movin’? They’re lyin’.
My last words of advice? Don’t do no wrong. Be nice to people. Love your children and take em’ to church. Don’t beat ‘em or abuse them. Most of these boys in here went through holy hell growing up, and they raised holy hell later on.
Don’t kill nobody. Walk away from the argument. They got that road rage thing on out there now. Don’t never shoot no bird at another driver. He’s liable to shoot his pistol back at you.
Don’t steal nothin’, not even shoplifting. Work hard at your job, earn an honest living. It may be dull, but you don’t know what dull is till you sleep on a hard steel bunk in a cage for years that seems like forever. It ain’t worth it.
I suppose I should show my remorse now. Otherwise, you folks will put on the news that the condemned man showed none. I guess I do. Ain’t never been the kind to wear my feelings outside my skin.
I’m gonna go now. It don’t make much sense, executing a 99-year-old man. How long could I last? Them capital punishment lawyers wanted to keep appealing, but what’s the use? I’m tired. I’m ready to go home. I know I’m going to heaven when I die because I already did my time in hell. Thanks for your concern, fellas. Ya’ll did a good job, I got nothin’ against you. All I wanna do know is see my Marie standing by them pearly gates waiting on me. See ya’ll later. The world’s oldest person to be executed.
My daddy told me once, Son, if you can choose the way you’re dying, to die like a man. And that’ what I’m gonna do. No begging for mercy. Wouldn’t do no good, anyway. I forgive everybody who’s wronged me, and I hope ya’ll find it in your hearts to extend me the same courtesy.
I’m done, warden, let ‘er rip.