On the evening of Thursday, June 10, 2010, I went to prison–
not as an inmate, but as a researcher. The Huntsville Unit Penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas is an ominous red brick structure jutting up from the East Texas hillside. The ‘Walls,’ as it has commonly been called for decades, is the oldest prison in Texas and it still currently processes and houses inmates. Stories of ghostly apparitions and strange noises abound, and it’s no wonder; history has been made here. Texas leads the country in the number of inmate executions every year, and this is where all of them are carried out.
There are two death houses here, though only one currently remains operational. From 1924 to 1964 Texas executed inmates via the electric chair. A total of 361 condemned individuals rode the “thunderbolt” into the afterlife, paying the ultimate price for the crimes they had committed. “Old Sparky” now resides at the Texas Prison Museum, also located in Huntsville. Today, inmates on Death Row are put to death by means of lethal injection.
I will admit that I was initially drawn to Huntsville and the prison museum to see the electric chair, wondering if it held residual energy from its past. As it turns out, the electric chair draws more people to the museum than any of the other displays; this, according to the museum’s director and retired warden of the Walls, Jim Willett.
I fully expected to see Old Sparky front and center immediately after walking in the front door, but I didn’t. Instead, it was sitting at the back of the museum with a singular light shining directly down on it, and a faux red brick façade directly behind it. This is how the chair would have looked when it was still in use over at the Walls, and its image momentarily took my breath away.
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© April Slaughter
Article first published by TAPS Paramagazine