Thursday, March 20, 2008

March 20

When Martha M. Place threw sulfuric acid into her daughter’s face and smothered her with a pillow in February 1898, she probably was not angling to become the first American woman to die in the electric chair. Yet the Brooklyn dressmaker achieved precisely that status a little over thirteen months later, when on 20 March 1899 she was strapped into the novel device at Sing Sing prison and followed her 17-year-old child into the void.

Place was described in the press as "homely, old, ill-tempered, not loved by her husband." According to prison officials -- who carried out the execution after Governor Theodore Roosevelt refused to commute the sentence -- her electrocution was quick and efficient.

Thirty-four years after the life of Martha Place shuddered to a conclusion, the State of Florida executed bricklayer Giuseppe Zangara for the crime of murder. Zangara, a naturalized American citizen from Italy, had attempted to assassinate President-elect Franklin Roosevelt a month earlier in Miami. Zangara, who had suffered from acute stomach ulcers since childhood, was convinced that if he killed the leader of the capitalist world, he would be delivered from his excruciating physical pain -- and that he could alleviate the economic catastrophe that had immiserated millions over the previous four years.

In early 1933, he purchased a gun for $4 and on February 15 brought it to Bayfront Park in Miami, where Roosevelt was scheduled to appear that day. There, the five-foot-tall Zangara stood on top of a wooden chair and shot five people, none of whom was his intended target. Four of the wounded survived. Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, however, took a bullet to the chest and died on March 6. Two weeks after Cermak’s death, Zangara was executed at the state prison in Raiford. Had Cermak lived, Zangara would have spent at least 84 years in prison -- the sentence he had already received for trying to kill Roosevelt.

As he was being strapped into the chair, Guiseppe Zangara remained feisty and unrepentant. "Viva Italia!" he cried.
Goodbye to all poor peoples everywhere! Lousy capitalists! No picture! Capitalists! No one here to take my picture. All capitalists lousy bunch of crooks. Go ahead. Push the button!
Sixty-two years after Zangara’s anti-capitalist tirade, the state of Oklahoma executed Thomas Grasso by lethal injection, punishment he received for killing two elderly women (one of whom he strangled with her own Christmas tree lights on Christmas Eve 1990). Grasso had been serving a 20-year sentence in New York for one of the murders; although Grasso was sentenced to die in Oklahoma for the murder of 87-year-old Hilda Johnson, New York Governor Mario Cuomo refused to send him back -- even though Grasso, by his own account, desperately wanted to die. When George Pataki campaigned for Cuomo’s job in 1994, he promised to help Grasso fulfill his wish. Pataki won the election, and Grasso returned to Oklahoma. He refused to appeal his capital sentence, and so the state quickly scheduled his execution.

On 20 March 1995, Thomas Grasso sat down to his last meal -- a dozen steamed mussels, a Burger King double cheeseburger, a can of spaghetti with meatballs, a mango, half a pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and a strawberry milkshake. Grasso’s last meal was more notable, however, for what it lacked. In his final statement, Grasso announced that “I did not get my Spaghetti Os -- I got spaghetti. I want the press to know this!"

In a separate written statement released to the press before his death, Grasso wrote that “What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” Almost no one recognized that Grasso’s statement came from “Little Gidding,” one of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.