Willie Francis was a sixteen-year-old black boy with a third grade education who was convicted of the murder of a white man in St. Martinsville, Louisiana in 1946. After being strapped into the electric chair--dubbed "Gruesome Gertie" by prisoners--a strange thing happened. Although cranked up to its full voltage, the switch thrown, and his body twitching horribly, Willie Francis did not die.
Many people believed that God had intervened to save Willie Francis's life and that therefore he should not be electrocuted a second time. A local white attorney named Bertrand DeBlanc believed that to put Francis in the electric chair a second time would constitute cruel and unusual punishment and place him in double jeopardy. So, against the wishes of most of the Cajun parish in which he lived, and at some considerable danger to his life and career, DeBlanc took the case and tried to save Francis's life.
Gilbert King makes it clear that it was highly unlikely that Willie Francis could have committed this crime, even if he had wanted to, and further that his appointed defense lawyers presented no defense at all to the charges. King shows how the "confession" was probably coerced from Willie Francis by Sheriff Gilbert Ozenne and his colleagues who had spent a considerable part of their lives terrifying and brutalizing black people and others who would stick up for them. As has been documented in innumerable books, people like Ozenne and his sidekick Gus "Killer" Walker believed that their job was to "keep the nigras down" by whatever means, and especially to deny them their civil rights, in particular the right to vote.
The larger horrific drama, of which the Willie Francis case is just one sorry example, played prominently throughout the South after the Civil War (and continues in more muted tones today), but was most obvious in places like St. Martinsville where people were mostly poor and uneducated. The savage brutality was first of all a way of effectively maintaining something close to slavery, and second a revenge upon the North for winning the war and attempting to deprive the South of its cheap source of labor. In another sense this sordid record of murder and something close to genocide or ethnic cleansing (before such terms were much used), stemmed from an attempt by beaten southern white males, in most particular the semi-educated and ignorant ones, to reestablish their deluded notion of manhood.
But this is also a chapter in the story of how gradually the South changed; how Afro-Americans with incredible patience and Sisyphean labors over many decades, while suffering enormous pain and loss of life, managed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and achieve something close to equality with whites. It is a story of great courage and determination.
Gilbert King's account is a vivid and compelling chapter in this uniquely American tale. The book is meticulously researched, amply documented with numerous endnotes, beautifully written, and powerfully engaged. In short, The Execution of Willie Francis is a outstanding work of journalism and a much welcome addition to an important literature. We have to face what we have done so that it might be a bit more difficult for others to do the same; and there, by increments, we might become more human.