Last week’s post on Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in the UK, got us thinking about other executions that drew crowds to the prison walls. Most times, as in the Ellis case, the assembled are protesting the death penalty. Other times, the atmosphere is weirdly festive.
Above and below are scenes from outside the Florida State Prison where serial killer Ted Bundy awaited his end in late January 1989. Ronald Reagan had just finished out his second term as president, and Bundy, who’d been on death row for 10 years, was still so potently hated his date with “Old Sparky” inspired souvenir T-shirts.
In an article reporting on the execution, the Orlando Sentinel described a crowd of hundreds that sang and danced and lit fireworks, and offered a glimpse of what was happening inside the prison as the clock wound down for Bundy on Tuesday, January 25, 1989:
Earlier Monday, Bundy had given an hourlong videotaped interview to California psychologist James Dobson, in which he partly blamed pornography and alcohol for his crimes. Bundy, who in his final days confessed to 23 murders, did not talk about specific killings with Dobson.
Bundy’s final hours were spent with Fred Lawrence, a Methodist minister from Gainesville, with whom Bundy talked and prayed through his cell bars.
At 4:50 a.m., Bundy refused a steak and egg breakfast offered in his 9-by-14-foot death watch cell just 30 feet from the electric chair.
At 6 a.m., traffic along S.R. 16 carried a steady stream of spectators. Inside the prison, a guard shaved Bundy’s head and right calf - attachment points for the chair’s electrodes.
Just after 6, Bundy showered and dressed in dark blue slacks and a light blue shirt.
At 6:30, a steady plume of thin, gray smoke rose from a small building to the right of the execution chamber - a sign that the prison’s diesel generator, used to power the electric chair, had started and was running smoothly.
He was placed in the electric chair at the stroke of 7 a.m.; his final words were “Give my love to my family and friends.” Though he’d killed at least 36 women (some believe the number was actually over 100), he’d received the death penalty for three of his final crimes: killing two Florida State University students as they slept in their sorority house, as well as a 12-year-old girl who may have been his youngest victim.
The Los Angeles Times witnessed the scene after Bundy’s death was conveyed to the eager crowd outside the prison:
A witnessing newsman raised his hands in a signal as he left the Q Wing of Florida State Prison. Across the street, along the dewy grass of a cow pasture, word spread among the 500 or so who had come to be near—and almost all to cheer—the death work.
Some began chanting, “Burn, Bundy, burn!” Others sang or hugged one another or banged on frying pans.
Fireworks kicked into the sky.
“I wish I could have been the one flipping the switch,” said David Hoar, a policeman from St. Augustine, Fla.
Mike Rands, one of the many college students present, whooped: “Thank God it’s Fry-Day!”
Here’s a video segment from a documentary that includes some trial footage, including the dramatic moment when an eyewitness pointed out Bundy in the courtroom. Skip ahead to 6:30 to see what thie doc dubs “a morbid death vigil” in action, including the Reagan-mask guy, plus a woman in a DIY tin-foil electric chair headpiece.
Florida, which carried out eight death sentences in 2014, has performed all subsequent executions via lethal injection, though condemned inmates may still request death by electrocution. It is ranked fourth among all the states for performing the most executions since 1976, behind Texas, Oklahoma, and Virginia.
Bundy photos: AP Photo/Mark Foley