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Nelson Algren discusses capital punishment

BROADCAST: 1965 | DURATION: 00:50:21


Discussing capital punishment with author Nelson Algren. Includes interviews with William (Bill) Witherspoon, a death row inmate; Jack Johnson, warden of Cook County Jail; and an [unidentified woman] who marched in protest at the execution of James Dukes in 1962.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel On St. Valentine's Day, it's February 14th, that's a day dedicated to the god of love. Bill Witherspoon is due to die in Cook County Jail in the electric chair, due to be executed, electrocuted and he's been under sentence of death for six years now, that is, he's been sentenced he's died, in short, 11 times. This time he's due to go February 14th. The question was asked of Witherspoon how he felt when he wasn't told one of the times that there was a reprieve.

Bill Witherspoon I spent the night writing. I spent the night trying to finish a book that I knew I couldn't possibly finish because I still had eight or nine chapters left to write. And I wrote all the way through until dawn. I didn't feel like I was tense inside. I was just trying to let things out on this paper, on this. I didn't have a typewriter at that time I was working with a ballpoint pen and just hand-printing it, you know. But I was going to get as much done as I could of this book. And, well, when the dawn came I got up and I got off the bed where I had been sitting and went over to the window and I watched the dawn. I think it was the prettiest one I've seen. And later I went over and I laid down. I just slept for two days. I didn't get up. I didn't know I, it would just like somebody --

Studs Terkel It was after the stay, you mean. After you knew about the stay?

Bill Witherspoon Well, after I hadn't been executed. I didn't know until a week later that I had been given a stay. It came out in the Tribune I think a week later that the misplaced order and so forth.

Studs Terkel So you laid down. [pause in recording] A misplaced order and a life and Nelson Algren, who has visited Bill Witherspoon a number of times and has talked to him a good deal is seated here and the theme is capital punishment, Witherspoon and men like him. In listening to Bill talk, Nelson, I know you have reactions and comments.

Nelson Algren I told Bill a joke which you couldn't tell many men condemned to death. I told him a story about a about a man who had been condemned for killing a policeman, who after he was sentenced to die made friends with a mouse in his cell, and he and the mouse became such good friends that he had the mouse sharing his meals, eating out of his palm, and somebody wanted to know how can a man who'd committed homicide make friends with a mouse. The explanation was very simple. Bill said, "The mouse wasn't firing at him, was he?" This is what Bill meant last night when he said that he hadn't committed murder and that the murder remains to be committed by us.

Studs Terkel That is, the state premeditatedly has it all set up. They tell you in advance what's going to happen and they're going to do it, in contrast to a crime of passion by a man.

Nelson Algren This takes, there has to be a distinction made between a shooting made out of fear, out of terror, out of out of an attempt to save one's own life in a long skilled planning premeditation. This is, this is murder. There's a distinction between homicide and murder. And I'm not going to talk about Bill Witherspoon specifically. I'm only going to use some of his ideas. Witherspoon is very well able to take care of himself. He's a very self-reliant man and a very humorous man and his chief dread at the moment is of doing a hundred and ninety-nine years. But in this he takes the stand that if his case can be used to bring the issue of capital punishment to a head, he said he'll fight it every inch of the way. And this indicates a kind of a formidable kind of courage because even though he puts it fighting every inch of the way this really doesn't do it. It's fighting in a in a submerged underwater battle with very vague forces because there's nobody any longer you can talk to Witherspoon and Johnson talks to him many people talk to him but no man that close to death can communicate with anybody. There's a wall between you. The first time I went out there it was with a couple other writers and the guard thought it was just as well if we didn't talk to Witherspoon but we walked into a hos -- Into the hospital where Witherspoon works and Witherspoon was sitting there and since we'd been told not to talk to him we didn't. So the three of us, that is Terry Southern and Bill Styron and myself stood there trying to look the other way, but we were overcome with awe. He was just a long sinewy kind of a communicative-looking man sitting talking to a nurse. But there was this terrible sense of awe. This man was on the edge of the grave. And later I told Witherspoon about this and he was very perceptive. He he he isn't over when I speak of this wall or this veil behind which he lives. He can see through it. He's not overcome by it. As a matter of fact, he's making some very useful contributions to criminology and when he said last night that the criminal class can tell you more about criminology than all the professors, that these people are useful and that isolating them is is not only degrading to them but harmful to society, so that this is more what is planned. The plans for Witherspoon are, is more than just a gratuitous murder but it's damaging to to everybody, to everybody else. I mean there's a little part of everybody is going to die then.

Studs Terkel There's a phrase that Camus used in this book you lent me, "A Reflection on a Guillotine" which is "bloodthirsty laws make for bloodthirsty customs." So in the law that says we must kill this man because society says we must do it, custom says we must do it. This must affect our behavior toward each other outside the penitentiary, too, mustn't it, if the human life becomes that valueless, really.

Nelson Algren Well, this issue has been divided for many centuries. There was the great 'Hanging Judge' Jeffreys, who put it, if I can find it, has "Hangman, I charge you pay particular attention to this lady. Scourge 'er soundly, man, scourge 'er 'til 'er blood runs down." Judge Jeffreys, 1685. And the, the appeal of blood has always gotten a very strong following. You might recall it after the, after World War One Germany, when Hitler came in he reinstood- he reinstituted the ritual acts, he reinstated the axman. And yet there's another, there's another appeal from another English judge. "I call upon you to remember that cruel punishments have an inevitable tendency to produce cruelty in the people." That's Sir Samuel Romilly.

Studs Terkel Since you mentioned cruel punishments, this question has come up, particularly a man who has died 11 times as he has, as Chessman did in California before finally, literally, was killed. Even the constitutionality at times we wonder about which amendment is it that says there shall be no cruel and unusual punishment. That is, how many times do you kill a man? Here's overkill, a phrase we hear involving the bomb, here is overkill behind bars, then.

Nelson Algren Well, there is a very good constitutional argument about, it's very debatable whether the death penalty is legal, because the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution specifically repudiates and forbids cruel and unusual punishment. Now, since we regard the guillotine, the ax, and the garrote, and drawing and quartering as cruel and unusual because they're unnecessary, then it must follow that if the electric chair is not a cruel and unusual punishment, it must be necessary. And since you bring up Chessman, there we have a case where where the Constitution was violated if we are to believe in the Eighth Amendment, that a punishment should not be cruel and unusual because this was capriciousness. This was not a disposal of a man out of cynicism or even as punishment, but simply, he was simply disposed of the way you would do with a cat that you don't want around the house. That was when he was about the time he was to be executed. There was a protest from South America, I think I think from Bolivia, or at that time Eisenhower was making it a South American tour and there were such protests from the South American country about the Chessman case to Eisenhower with all the throwing of tomatoes or coconuts or whatever they got there, that the execution was called off for the convenience of Eisenhower to make his trip more dignified. Then when he had completed the tour and gotten into the plane, then it was, the death sentence was again instituted. In other words, "It isn't convenient to kill you now." Now when it comes, when you when you execute on the basis of convenience, that comes to my mind under the head of cruel and unusual punishment.

Studs Terkel What was the phrase that Terry Southern used, that "Chessman was killed for lack of anything better to do"?

Nelson Algren Yeah, there was nobody knew what to do with him.

Studs Terkel So they did it. Camus mentions a very similar case --

Nelson Algren And nobody knows what to do with Witherspoon.

Studs Terkel Witherspoon or Burton Abbott. This is in 1957, a man named Burton Abbott was executed in California, but the circumstances, writes Camus, were rather interesting. His execution was set for the 15th of March at 10 o'clock. At 9:10, a delay was granted to allow his attorneys to make a final appeal. At 11 o'clock, the appeal refused. 11:15, Abbott entered the gas chamber. 11:18, breathing first whiffs of gas. 11:20, the secretary of the Committee on Reprieves called on the telephone. He changed his mind. They tried to reach the governor who was out sailing. They phoned the prison directly. Abbott was taken from the gas chamber, was too late, and writes Camus, "If only it had been cloudy over California that day, the governor would not have gone out sailing. He would have telephoned two minutes earlier, Abbott would be alive and perhaps his innocence proved. Any other panel, even the harshest, would have left him that chance." A death that left him no chance. But the governor, it was a good day and he was out sailing. It was as fortuitous as that. The governor. And so this man died.

Nelson Algren Yes. And and yet, Studs, it isn't the actual gassing of Chessman or the or the actual electrocution of a man as Witherspoon himself says, it's how many times can you die before. This also comes under the head of cruel and unusual. We speak of an eye for an eye. Those who believe still believe that punishment that law and order and their own safety depends upon an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Forget that if it had not been for prophets or from Christ on down to the present saying that this isn't how how you can save yourself, the whole world would be blind and toothless by now. We have this too in Dostoevsky, who of course was, hims -- Had his back, own back against the wall. He was up for execution. So he knew a little bit more about it, about those last moments and how many times Dostoevsky died in those moments when the fight when he's facing a firing squad. He gives us an idea which indicates that the, why the actual moment of execution, the reason that a man like Ciucci is, as Jack Johnson says, said simply to Johnson, "Well, let's get it over with." This is the easiest part. As Witherspoon says, "The actual actual execution is easy. It's the it's the years in between." And out of his own experience, Dostoevsky wrote, "The chief and the worst pain may not be in the bodily suffering but in one's knowing for certain. Then in an hour and in ten minutes and then in half a minute and then now at the very moment the soul will leave the body and that one will cease to be a man and that that's bound to happen. The worst part of it is that it's certain. To kill for murder is a punishment incomparably worse than the crime itself. Murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by brigands. Anyone murdered by brigands whose throat is cut at night in the wood or something of that sort must surely hope to escape to escape the very last minute but in the case of execution, that last hope which makes dying ten times as easy, is taken away for certain. There is the sentence and there's the torture and it lies in the fact that there is certainly no escape and that there is no torture in the world more terrible." And yet, as in the case of Witherspoon, it goes on and on and on. There there's no end.

Studs Terkel Camus's paraphrasing of Dostoevsky, Nelson, "the devastating degrading fear that is imposed on the condemned for months or years is a punishment more terrible than death. One that was not imposed on his victim." See, and the reason for this as Camus also indicates, is that we no longer have, we no longer believe in the death penalty.

Nelson Algren None of our politicians, as the British politicians have had the courage to do, have stood up against it and said so, 'cause they're afraid it might cost them a political career. So what happens is that nobody has the has the courage to stand up and say the death penalty should be abolished. We simply let the man drag. And it's like dragging a man behind a car saying we're going to take you somewhere and we never get there. We don't have the heart to lynch him, see. It's worse than a lynching because we keep dragging them around town and in and out of court and then forget to tell them that this isn't the day. And then he wakes up two days later, as Witherspoon says, and finds out he hasn't been executed but maybe now you get 18 more days. This is this is worse than a lynching.

Studs Terkel So the the public execution is no more. We speak of that we come to the matter of deterrent.

Nelson Algren We're ashamed of it.

Studs Terkel We're ashamed of it. Again, Camus says it's like talking about a disease, an ailment, you say, 'cancer', you say, 'syphilis.'

Nelson Algren Well, the reason we can't talk about it is because we're aware that nobody goes to the chair except through a fantastic series of accidents, like Private Slovik getting executed in World War II. I mean, people, there are I guess something I think something like 8000 homicides a year which may be a very small percentage maybe 25 or 30 or 40 people go to the chair because they go to the chair because they're poor or because usually they're Negroes or because they don't have a lawyer, because the killing is accidental and nobody, as Witherspoon said yesterday, nobody ever heard of a syndicate man with money behind him who did a premeditated killing, "Knock that guy off and here's your five Gs." No man like that goes to the chair, he he has law, he has lawyers. So we're aware that if a man goes to the chair, the reason we're ashamed is that we know this is just occasional. It's like a lottery out of 8000 this guy draw drew the Witherspoon drew the short straw out of some 8000 cases and and life to him is just as sweet as it is to a syndicate man or as it was to the to the cop that is dead now. And to the woman who the neighbor of this policeman's widow who wrote to the "Sun-Times" what she didn't answer. She spoke of the hard times that this widow was had since since her husband was killed. But she didn't answer one question is and that is simply whether killing Witherspoon will bring her husband back. Will it? If it doesn't, then it's unnecessary to kill.

Studs Terkel We come back to the gratuitous.

Nelson Algren Otherwise then we come back to the gratuitous business then let's just kill him, I don't know why. And this is, and this I repeat is, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Studs Terkel So we come to the matter of the actual killing itself, the cruel and unusual, an electric chair in this instance. Warden Jack Johnson who is opposed to capital punishment has spoken a number of times of calls he gets from people who would like to see it and yet he remembers many occasions, perhaps we hear his voice of the few who, the members of the press who see it just to be witnesses, what happens to them when they actually see it.

Jack Johnson I would like to say this is one thing that has often struck me. I've watched the hardened press appear as witnesses and I've watched them the minute it was over and their reaction and the most surprising thing is to watch their features to watch the chill, the ashen faces walk out of that chamber down there immediately after it's over. They rationalize, of course, that they are the hard-core type of person that's faced almost everything, but yet at the same time with this type of person, that is accustomed to violence and the policemen and people in business in penal work here, you see their faces, they're drawn, they're strained, you could tell that the emotional reaction is there. Their face is drained of all blood. I mean it's an ashen white, and in many cases, I've in fact, I have to have two nurses and a doctor down there, not for the deceased but for the audience.

Studs Terkel So the obvious question, Nelson, if it's morally right, why do law-abiding men feel this way?

Nelson Algren Well, I'm glad Jack Johnson mentioned the chilling effect that the executions have on the on the working press because the local press is stays pretty well ashen white anyhow, and full of fear and trembling whether regarding simply an execution or whether or the digit-dialing system. I mean, they're in a perpetual state of being ashen white. As one said, as one working newspaperman put it very complacently to me, "So far as the human race goes, I'm neutral." Well, this raises the question if you're neutral about the human race, what race do you belong to? I'm speaking now about the peculiar, and I do think peculiar position that Witherspoon is in. See, you won't, and it goes along with our general feeling that capital punishment is wrong. You won't find many people outside of Sidney Hook, if you want to include him in, or somebody like that who will, for the sake of semantics, go out and defend capital punishment or maybe a police chief in Los Angeles or something, but it's very difficult to find any opposition to, nobody comes up and talks for execution anymore than they talk for cancer. I mean, you can find opponents in other words. This is what Witherspoon, if Witherspoon had somebody who would debate with him or bring the issue to a head. But nobody has that courage in the working press here. As I say, it is a trembling and ash-white press even when they don't have to look at an execution. I have to make an exception there. We do have, of course, we have Ray Brennan and Ray Brennan has consistently and, you know, expressed himself about this.

Studs Terkel Ray Brennan, Chicago police reporter.

Nelson Algren Yeah, well, Ray Brennan was very effective and we know only because of Brennan we know about the Ciucci case and what a crazy kind of thing happened there. Ciucci went to the chair, of course, for a killing he didn't do. But unfortunately, Brennan doesn't have a column. I think if Brennan had a column, well, if he had a column, this would be a more civilized city 'cause he is not he's not obsequious.

Studs Terkel Back to this thing, Nelson, of the man, the hardened men who faint, or the hardened men who get ill watching a punishment quote unquote "justifiably meted out" again, Camus speaks of his father. His father was so furious at a farmer who brutally killed in a bloodthirsty frenzy. He was so furious he wanted to see this man killed and then Camus remembers he saw his father. His father came home after witnessing the ritual act and his father threw up and became sick for weeks. And he says, "When the extreme penalty causes vomiting on the part of the respectable citizen it is supposed to protect, how can anyone maintain that it's likely, as it ought to be, to bring more peace and order into the community?"

Nelson Algren Well to take a couple steps back. Or rather take off again on on Witherspoon's comment about the usefulness of the criminal. He was questioning the -- Of course the thing he dreads about even about commutation of sentence is that he'd only be able to write one letter a week. In other words, he couldn't communicate and therefore he throws a light on what we're talking about when we talk about rehabilitation. I see the absurdity and the absurdity of of saying of letting the law of having a moral law that says thou shalt not kill and then having a law that says you must kill making the law pervert your moral beliefs and then expect people to respect the law when they see the law committing murder. This this degrades the whole -- I mean, this is why kids don't respect the law, because it perverts itself and it's based of course what is absurd about it is not only with capital punishment but all down the line. The idea of of of a retributive system is very costly, not only costly but it's just as absurd as capital punishment. Unless you believe if you do believe, that that the purpose of sending men to prison is simply to punish them, you did wrong and now we're going to punish you. That is what we do. But and to people who believe like that, there's no use talking. You only talk to people who entertain the idea even if it's only because it costs so much less to rehabilitate men. Well, Witherspoon says, "How are you going to the first thing you must keep if you're going to rehabilitate somebody is your name and your individuality and we're far behind the rest of the world in this. In the first place, when you put a man among thousands of other men and he doesn't see a woman. I mean, if if the purpose of prison is to bring people around closer to what their life will be when they get out, then what are you doing taking the man's name away, for one thing, not letting him talk at mealtimes and not letting him talk to a guard, never letting him see a woman. In other words, you're you're making it almost impossible. You're making him into a man who cannot adjust. And in other words, if you mean this rehabilitation thing that doesn't mean half an hour with an analyst a week compulsory that's not be rehabilitation. The -- in Mexico at Xapalpa [sic - possibly refers to the defunct prison of Xalapa] there's 700 convicts right outside of Mexico City and each of them is allowed to have two conjugal visits a week. That is the man's wife or any woman that he selects that he has to give the name and the- her photograph and he's allowed two visits a week. Now, this isn't just a matter of keeping down homosexuality. This is also a matter of keeping the man in touch with the world at a prison outside of in Holland. The you don't eat at these mess tables and walk in line silently, it's broken up into little groups and the analysts and the doctors and the prison and work. And there are young women employed there as as case workers, they eat with the prisoners. They keep up the communication. And in the latest prison in Sweden everybody has a key to his own door and if you don't have the key to your own door, you're, as Witherspoon says, you're no longer a human being.

Studs Terkel So is not having the key to your own door losing, you become a statistic, a number, rather than a person, so how on how then can there be rehabilitation?

Nelson Algren Well, this means then, this means that what you're going to do if you take away a man's world,, it is you say you have no name and you have no key, in fact you're nobody, then you're going to make a world of your own in which you are somebody and this somebody will impose his world on you. That is, he'll get even. He'll get even when he gets out.

Studs Terkel Of course also easier to kill nobody than somebody, isn't it, for society?

Nelson Algren If you make a man anonymous, if you make him a nothing, but some men like Witherspoon just refuse to be a nothing, they stay individual.

Studs Terkel Earlier, at the very beginning, Nelson, you were saying Witherspoon fears more than death itself. Now a hundred and ninety-nine years. And again we come to Camus answering those that say, "Well, after all, the death penalty is a deterrent and being in prison is not enough." And Camus's comment is to anyone who feels that imprisonment is too mild a penalty, we only answer first they lack imagination. And secondly that privation of freedom seems to them a slight punishment only insofar as contemporary society has taught us to despise freedom. Which is an interesting comment about the society outside. If I think being in prison for life if you were in 199 years is not a punishment. It's forgetting the theme of rehabilitation. Then this is interesting, excuse me, observation as to what our attitude is toward freedom.

Nelson Algren Well, I mean you can't have you can't have partial freedom anymore more than you can have something called anymore than you can be slightly corruptible. That is, where it was Debs said, Gene Debs said, "I never -- As long as there is a criminal class, I am of it, and as long as there's a man in prison I am not free." Unless you can do this you're not free. In other words it's a question of what is what has to be brought up is is is the constitutionality of this thing because the basic thing is the eighth commandment or the the the Eighth Amendment proclaims

Studs Terkel -- Commandment is a good slip.

Nelson Algren The Eighth Amendment forbids cruel and unusual punishments because it violates the dignity of man. And this is the point. Whether you can reduce a man to nothing and stay dignified yourself. In other words, if you are a sovereign or a king and come down there and simply use your power to club a man to death you have become degraded. And the idea of the the idea of the Eighth Amendment was to preserve the dignity of society. Now we've got it in such a condition that that we are like I say simply through apathy. We're coconspirators, see. I mean if you're sitting if there was a third person sitting here and he started to choke me to death and you sat and watched you'd be an accessory. And this is what we're doing with Witherspoon.

Studs Terkel The question of course, the one we haven't discussed yet comes up continuously. Capital punishment is a deterrent to capital crime as this phrase continuously arises and statistics of course indicate this is the case neither pro nor con there has been in some cases abolition of capital punishment and crime. Some of these have decreased capital crime but there's been no sign of any increase in those communities.

Nelson Algren No. In fact, the people who keep saying that there is no evidence that it is not a deterrent are not to be answered because what is at stake is human life. Therefore you have to prove if the question is is it a deterrent or not a deterrent, it is not up to the people who believe it's not a deterrent to prove it. But it is up to those who say it is not to prove it. Or to prove the who say that it is a deterrent. Now you have proof. I mean it's in Finland as one example since they've abolished the death penalty. It's gone down. I think in Tuscany there has been no, since the abolition everywhere it's been tried. The numbers of homicides, of murders have gone down. There is great indication that every time as in some states I think Rhode Island had it abolished capital punishment then reinstated it and abolished it again that whole interval there was no difference in the rate. On the other hand, there is indication that it's provocative. And what do you do? It's provocative in the same way that when you build a very high wall around a per -- Person, somebody is going to scale it. If you build a very low wall it's no challenge. But the human being is always ready to be challenged. If you put that chair in front of him or the or the noose and say this is what you're going to get if you kill, a lot of people are going to kill who never would have. And if you put an immensely high wall and say nobody can climb over that, somebody is going to climb over it. And in these modern prisons in Holland and in Sweden there's a very low wall and people can walk out. When people can just walk out they come back. They come back.

Studs Terkel Since you mentioned this, too, again referring to Camus, he says, "A fear of death or fear of execution of capital punishment is indeed a fact. Another fact is such fear, however great, has never sufficed to quell human passions since most of them, those who have been executed have committed crimes of passion." He's saying, capital punishment to really intimidate, to be intimidating, human nature must be different. It would be a [staple of Serena's law?] itself with them this would be the end of human nature.

Nelson Algren Well, there is no more time for a man to read the, read read the law books on penalties than there is for a second baseman when a batter hits the ball toward second base to pick out the rule book and find out what he's going to do, he makes his move. And when his move is to save his life, he makes that move and there isn't any. And as long as society operates the way it is, there isn't going to be any reduction in the number of killings until you concern yourself not with the law book but with the human being.

Studs Terkel He fears death again. He fears death. The man who did the killing. After the verdict, not before the crime.

Nelson Algren That's right. And sometimes not after.

Studs Terkel And not after.

Nelson Algren It's interesting, too, Studs, looking at that electric chair about the human element in it, a lot of the work on that chair, the extra straps and a lot of the improvements have been made by convicts. They're interested in it. I mean, it's the electric chair is is of interest to to them to to all people. I mean, it's an attraction. If it weren't there yet. If the thing weren't there there would be less killing.

Studs Terkel You know, since you speak of this attraction that in fact, indeed, capital punishment might be provocative rather than deterrent. Again, Camus says, rather interesting the self destructive that, so the question in many cases, in very many cases we read of a murder, the murderer debated whether to kill himself or kill someone else. And so in killing he also in a sense has a wish almost that is to kill himself, too, and capital punishment, if anything in this case would be quite a fascinating provocation.

Nelson Algren What it comes down to then it's a matter of conscience whether we're conscience conscience or not. I mean if we are without conscience then we are simply back where we were in 1688 when from which our the capital punishment in which we derive, I mean, this was instituted under the Stuarts, we're living under the same regime as the people who lived in lived in London under the Stuarts lived, in this scourge, scourging man, "Let 'er blood run down", that era that I quoted.

Studs Terkel Well, the question is --

Nelson Algren Well, we cannot make any and since we're talking about so much about the great society, I think there has to be some attention made to the people who have not been able to fit in to the little society whatever this thing is we have going. But the the people who are simply pushed into criminality retributively thousands teenagers are simply pushed into criminality and stay there and get their revenge.

Studs Terkel How do you paraphrase the slogan of our city, "Chicago, the city of I will", but then you ask what about somebody who says, "I can't"?

Nelson Algren But chiefly, I'd say now, how about all those who say, "Who cares? I got mine." Or as you said before, you know, "So far as the human race goes, I'm neutral."

Studs Terkel Well, this is a phrase incidentally that was also used by a convict, a fellow who'd been in and out, andhe was saying it rather sardonically, and strangely enough, I would say with more compassion than the people you've quoted. He's saying as a result of what he's seen and been and is he's not, he will make no moral judgment on those outside, but the same can't be said for them.

Nelson Algren I have a friend up on the south side, a man about 32, a Negro fellow who did who did a lot of time between the time he was 11, 9, 13 years old up at the time until he was 30. And he said one interesting thing, he said, "The only time I ever felt human was when I was in jail." That's the only time he could relax long enough. I mean he's brought up in such a jungle of survival that he had no friends, no woman friends, no men friends because you couldn't -- The only person you could defy -- Depend on was yourself, and only when you got in jail then you could relax a little and talk to people.

Studs Terkel You know, since you mentioned that, since the society outside is involved here as much as society inside on the theme of Bill Witherspoon the electric chair and February 14th, you said the only time he felt free is when he was in jail, wasn't this the theme in your introduction to your book? By the way, this might be worth mentioning, Nelson's book.

Nelson Algren Any book of mine is worth mentioning.

Studs Terkel "Own Book of Lonesome Monsters." They're short stories you've collected. Bernard Geis Associates. But in the introduction, you speak or hear it elsewhere, you speak of Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas, the only time he felt he was not a number, he felt alive was when he actually committed this act of violence.

Nelson Algren Well, you have to belong, you see. People don't realize how that the necessity of belonging to the human race is, I mean, it's a life and death matter. I asked an addict once who really didn't need to use heroin who used it anyhow, he said, "Well, you have to belong. See, you don't know what it's like when you don't belong to anything, but if you can go in a room and have other addicts greet you as one of their own then you're somebody." And Wright's classic, "Native Son", was about Bigger Thomas, who was simply a man who was never recognized as a man. That is, he was a Negro. He had no face. He was he had no face, no address. He was anonymous. He was never recognized by the outer world as a man until he killed. He forced of the world to recognize him, to give him a name. And then when he was sent to the chair he told his lawyer, "It's all right now. I mean it was worth it." It was worth it to be. You have to belong to the human race and the attempts that people who are who we've cast out of it to belong are fantastic.

Studs Terkel And every now and then somebody --

Nelson Algren There's a kid out on the South Side, he's been taking a shower for about 60 hours now, he's going to break all the records for shower-taking, he wants to belong, too. He isn't trying to just get clean.

Studs Terkel Two weeks ago, we read of a, have we not, a boy from a North Shore suburb why he did something, he killed his parents, did he not?

Nelson Algren And a sister, too.

Studs Terkel And sister. And yet there's the father of a little girl, again in your preface to the "Lonesome Monster" book, the father of a little girl was killed by a boy, here's an unusual man who sees the truth. You quote him and the father says, "Let no feeling of" of the little girl who was murdered, says, "Let no feeling of vengeance influence. Let us rather help him who did so human a thing." And you quote Goethe saying, "I never heard of a crime of which I myself am not capable." And I suppose in understanding what we're doing to Bill Witherspoon we have to come along to try to understand who we are, don't we?

Nelson Algren We don't have to worry about Bill Witherspoon, we have to worry about ourselves.

Studs Terkel That's what it comes down to.

Nelson Algren And we have to decide about ourselves whether whether we're vindictive or not, if we can do this, if we're capable. If the individual is capable of pushing that button himself and of personally repudiating, denying Witherspoon's right to live, well then he's got a right to say so. But as I say, there's no use addressing those people, they will make themselves heard. The people who will not make themselves heard, the people who won't bother to you know put a five-cent stamp on an envelope to the executive mansion care of the Governor Kerner saying that they don't want any part of it. It's very cheap. Only a five-cent stamp you can buy your way out. You can say, "I tried." Only a nickel's worth. And you can say, you can say at least that you know that you personally, it's a five-cent excuse for saying if you don't go along with it, otherwise you're accessory.

Studs Terkel February 14th.

Nelson Algren You spend that and more on a valentine.

Studs Terkel Well, that's Valentine's Day and I suppose that has its own kind of irony, too.

Nelson Algren It's a valentine to yourself. Like I say, you don't have to worry about Witherspoon, Witherspoon has never asked for pity. He's never claimed any. He's never claimed, "God got hold of me" or anything. He says, "I'm the same man." And he's, and he misses his wife and his grandchildren. He's never used that. But --

Studs Terkel So the subject of what we're talking about is not Bill Witherspoon. The subject what we're talking about is us.

Nelson Algren Witherspoon has never been talking about Witherspoon, he hasn't even mentioned five years in the submarine service. You know, he's never brought up his patriotism or he's never used anything like that.

Studs Terkel You're saying, though, a valentine to yourself or a way not to be an accessory is a letter to the governor of Illinois, Springfield.

Nelson Algren On capital punishment.

Studs Terkel Clemency.

Nelson Algren Just on capital punishment. If you happen, if you happen not to believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Studs Terkel Quoting Camus again, Nelson, before we say goodbye now, "A punishment that penalizes without forestalling is indeed called revenge, is called the law of retaliation, no matter how many moral phrases are added to it." [pause in recording]

Unnamed Woman There were around 40 of us that went down to protest the Dukes -- James Dukes' execution, and we had a very orderly, and I think a very dignified picket line. We marched in twos up and down, very quiet. We rarely even spoke to each other, but across the street were around 200 people. In their cars with the doors open, the radios blaring out rock'n'roll music, with beer cans and with sandwiches. And they were there all evening and very often there would be jeers at us from across the street, sometimes remarks from a passing motorist, but most of the comments were coming from the group gathered across the street. And I was marching at one time with a Northwestern student who goes down there every time there's an execution and --

Studs Terkel To protest.

Unnamed Woman To protest, right. And he -- I asked him about the people and he said that they are there at every execution, every single one, he says no matter how many he's been to and no matter how cold it is, now this was a warm night, this was August. No matter how cold it is there are approximately the same number of people. And he says they're there, he believes they're there, because they they expect to see the lights dim in the courthouse, which isn't true because the chair is rigged up to a different electrical system, this doesn't happen. But they stay there until the body is brought out in the ambulance. And it was, you got the feeling of, you know, this is the instinct that that sent people to the Colosseum in Rome and it's here, right here and now, present in our society. And if if it weren't, Jack Warden said, Jack Johnson, the warden, said that people call up and ask for tickets. Well if ifs tickets were sold I'm sure it would be a sell-out house every single time. It is incredible. And it was it was so brutish. And we had the- and now I was marching with pacifists and ministers and the quiet of these people and the soberness of these people compared to the crowd across the street gave it a nightmarish quality. And at the time of the execution, we all turned toward the jail and ceased all conversation. And this is when the rhythm of the noise on the other side gained momentum and they all had the radios on. First of all, because they wanted to hear the announcement, you know, to know that they were there at that moment. Ah, but this is when the sounds on the other side increased as our silence increased. It was a, it was a nightmarish experience in many ways.

Studs Terkel Did -- When the announcement came through on the car radios, was there reaction from the crowd across the street?

Unnamed Woman Oh yes, oh, you know, that that that's over with, oh, that's great. And especially toward us, because it was it was a victory for them, you see, they saw this as a great victory against the the crackpots who were demonstrating across the street. You know, this is how much your demonstration, this is what your demonstration has achieved. You know, you're you know, you're no place at all. And it was especially the next day when we, I forget what it was, the exact selection, but the -- Dukes had marked out a very moving passage, from I believe it was Socrates, speeches before his death, and he had marked out a particular passage to illustrate his feelings at the time. And this was the man that was, you know, being executed.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of your reaction to that moment is one I suppose that you remember very well. What is your, what conclusion do you come to? You are demonstrating against, for the abolition of capital punishment.

Unnamed Woman You, well, especially after the Paul Crump experience, you have, you have this awful feeling of "Will we ever get through? Will we ever be able to explain to people?" You know, you can tell I've had, you know, personal arguments with people and you can tell them that capital punishment does not act as a deterrent. And you can prove it from statistics, but will you, are you ever going to overcome people's desire for punishment? People's desire for revenge? Because in a way, you see, this this this is this gives them a sense of security. And you want to say, "Let's, you know, we've got to learn to forgive." And as you stand there and you say, you realize that a man, and I had seen the chair when I went through the jail, and I could picture the scene. And you you feel very helpless, and you pray. This is this is what you do. You pray for the man's soul. And as Mr. Johnson said, actually, these men die with such grace upon them. Such such feelings and such purity. No matter what they've been, that actually their death is is not the tragedy. The tragedy is the people across the street.