South Slope. Asheville.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Uncle Watty, March 2, 1933 - Today

Uncle Watty died this morning just before noon. He was 76 years old. His full name was Major Watt Espy Jr., but friends simply called him Watt or Watty. For many years, Watty had a stellar career in a very unique field: capital punishment (death penalty) research. He founded the Capital Punishment Research Project (now The Espy File), and his work contributed to documentaries, books and numerous newspaper and magazine articles. Watty was a federal witness in death penalty cases as far away as Seattle, WA, and also participated in debates, including one at the University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor. Watty was an ardent opponent of the death penalty, which often put him at odds with the conservative political establishment in Alabama and his community.

Watty also was an avid follower of politics. During last year's presidential campaign, we would have almost weekly talks on the status of the race and the projected outcome. Watty's political mind was savvy and his insight and knowledge of political events (local, state and federal) was always fascinating and keen. Interestingly enough, as a young man, Watty actually ran against one George C. Wallace for a Democratic Party Delegate Seat, only to lose to the future four-time governor by a little over 100 votes. I would always joke with Uncle Watty that history for my state would have been very different had he defeated Wallace in that early election. Watty would laugh.  (Update:  My info here needs to researched a bit more for accuracy)

Perhaps the most fascinating story about Uncle Watty was how he met and had dinner (on a few occasions even) with the notorious mob boss, Charles "Lucky" Luciano, who owned a hotel and other establishments in Italy. Watty served in the US Navy and was stationed in Southern Italy in 1952, when he met Lucky. Here's part one and here's part two of that captivating tale.

Watty was born and raised in Headland, Alabama. He also lived in Birmingham, AL, Tuscaloosa, AL, Lexington, KY, New York City, NY and Panama City, FL. In 1985 he moved back to his hometown and lived there until his death. During my time in the bank, from 1995-2000, he and I grew very close. From him, I gained a strong interest in my family's history. I will never forget our coffees and meals in Dothan and our late night chats at his house in Headland. Uncle Watty will surely be missed by me.

----Watty on the right, with his siblings and father, late 70's----

When two friends of mine from the Pacific Northwest visited the Deep South for the first time (1998), I made sure they could meet Uncle Watty. We met over lunch at Morrison's in Dothan. I knew Watty could give them a better understanding of the South than anybody. I remember Watty saying, "It (the South) will grow on you."

For more of Watty's life and work, click here.


Emily Whiteside said...

Allen, I'm so sorry to learn of Watty's death. Thank you for this tribute to him. He was surely a respected scholar and an interesting man. I knew of the Espy files - Anna even referenced this work in a project that she did in school - but not about his running against George C.

j.lo said...

so sorry. j.lo

Anonymous said...

As I e-mailed you after we saw him on July 19th, he seemed better to Bud and me than we had seen him in years. I guess it was a fluke. But his color was better, his voice was stronger, and he seemed to be looking forward to the future - talking of buying a laptop and believing he would be starting physical therapy to help him stand up again. You just never know.

We will all surely miss Watty.


Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about Watty...I always found him to be very interesting, even as a young child I was fascinated by him when Daddy and I would sit in Major's office at the store...he had a very sharp wit and knew so much about the 'outside' reading these articles about his work...I know you will miss him. Hugs...
Carol Oates Gentemann

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about Uncle Watty. I never knew all that stuff about his career. Very interesting

Monica Danzey Locke

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...


I remember your Uncle Watty well and enjoy having the picture of us all together. I remember being impressed by his conviction against the death penalty matched by research from his own study. I admire that he stood to speak for people on death row though it was unpopular.

It was good to read your blog about him and the time you had to get to know him. It is a blessing when we are able to know people of his caliber and conviction. May we follow in their footsteps!

Dawn Todd

Anonymous said...

Sam III sent me an email yesterday afternoon letting me know about Watt. My condolences to you and family. I know his health ws poor but death is never an easy passage. If possible, I’d like to get a copy of the OBIT. Warm regards. Bill Vann

Anonymous said...

I last him when he was briefly at Azalea Court; he was watching a Braves game and in good spirits as we visited briefly. Watty was always kind to me as a kid and over the past decade, I’ve enjoyed reading news reports that Daddy would send of his work on capital punishment.

As a recent example, I offer this anecdote. I have a pediatrician colleague and research collaborator here in the School of Public Health (Dr. Jonathan Kotch), who knows I’m from south Alabama. He called me some time ago to asked me if I know “Watt Espy”. “For sure” I told him: “family connections”!. He told me his son was working on a doctoral dissertation on capital punishment and wanted to interview Watty and was unsure if he was approachable for such. I told him I felt certain he’d help and “might even ask his son to come south for a visit”. After some exchange of communication, I think the two talked at some length and Dr. Kotch later told me that the dissertation project was strongly undergirded by Watty’s contributions.

I know Watty struggled at times but he also left an important body of scholarship as his legacy—an uplifting final statement. I send my sympathy and warm regards to everyone. Bill Vann

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your writing on Watty's death and life. I have known of Watty all of my life, but only got to know him much better over the past 12 years. I was unable to attend his funeral. The first time I met Watty was when I was about 18 or 19 years old. Neal Jackson of Tumbleton worked for Mr. Espy for a while and had become acquainted with Watty, and Neal asked me to go with him one day to visit Watty while he lived in the south addition to Mr. Major's home. I was impressed with his mind. He shared with us some written communications he had with John F. Kennedy and other national figures. We had a long visit and discussed many subjects. During the last 12 years after I started my newspaper column, he would call me from time to time and I would visit him and we discussed some of the legal executions by hanging in Henry County and some of the illegal hangings that I would write about.

We would talk over the phone and I would visit him from time to time and we would share with each other what we knew about various hangings in Henry County. We both informed each other regarding hangings that one or the other of us had never heard about in Henry. He would share his file cards with me on hangings which I didn't have much info on and I would do likewise with him from my research.

One day I carried him a photo I had of the last mob lynching in Alabama that took place in Tumbleton in 1937. I owned the land across the road from where that hanging took place. He was very appreciative of the photo since he had never seen the image, but he knew a lot about the hanging. He told me that he was in favor of the death penalty at the beginning of his death penalty research; but had changed his mind to be against the death penalty during his research when he discovered so many had been wrongfully hanged or executed. We disagreed on that subject but respected each other's opinion. One thing that Watty and I had in common was our fondness for Old Southern Gospel Singing. He had a wall full of videos of Bill Gather and other singing artists. He would travel to hear a Gather concert. Most times when I visited him, he had a gather tape running.

I agree that Watty needs to be honored in some way for his contribution to the justice system and legal history of this state and country. I will mention his death in the next Orator and would like to write an article in my column on him. I also remember as a young fellow of seeing his campaign autos pass through Tumbleton with a loud speaker system going. He discussed with me a few years ago about he and I publishing a book of his Alabama files and splitting the profits, but I was too busy at the time and he was too sick. He said he almost lost his sight after 9 and one half years of reading microfilm while researching. His body of work called the Espy File is his legacy.

Larry Smith

Natalie said...

Beautiful tribute Allen! You would have been so proud to see him today. Norman Holman said Watty always wanted to be a senator, so he made him look like one; he did indeed. Watty is finally at rest...He will truly be missed by us all! Thanks for compiling this information. He passed the torch to you as historian. We will miss you tomorrow, but your spirit and heart will be with us indeed. Rest in PEACE, MW Espy Jr., Natalie

Beverly Dayries said...

I surely appreciate your being a friend to Watty. I know he appreciated the time you spent with him. Several years ago he told us of outings you had. I think you took him out for his birthday one year (or more). I don't know if you know that Watty went to GMA (Georgia Military Academy) - now Woodward Academy for a year or so. It is located at College Park, GA., a suburb of Atlanta. He was probably in about the 7th grade. My daddy brought him to our house for many or most weekends during that time. This would probably have been in about 1946. We visited Watty almost every time we went to Headland.

Larry Smith said...

Watty served as a Democrat Delegate to the National Democratic Convention from the 3rd District of Alabama in 1956.

J. J. Espy served as an alternate Democrat Delegate from the 3rd District of Alabama to the 1916 Democratic Convention.

Hope you are doing well.


Daniel said...

Anonymous said...
I am suprised to hear about Watty's death. My name is Daniel and I was stongly influenced by Watty in my life. I was an Inmate in the Alabama Dept of Corrections in 1993. He came to the Prison I was in. He spoke to a crowded house full of people about issues near and dear to his heart. He changed my life that day. After completing my incarceration Watty took me in and I assisted him for approximately 3 months with his research project. I say he changed my life because I took what he taught me to heart and have "never" returned to prison. I am a single dad now of 3 wonderful children. God bless this man. I am the man I am today because of the man he once was. He was my Mentor, my encouragement , and my friend. He will be miss. Though his life seemed to center around death, because of his life, he gave me life. As long as I live, the princples he gave me, and the very foundation of life will forever carry me. I can only hope that I can live up to it. He is, and forever will be, My Friend.

Harriet C. Frazier said...

Hi, Mike Radelet sent me your e-mail some time ago. I've written and had published four books, and though one of them uses no Espy material, I can't imagine having written any of these four without his files. I was faculty at Central Missouri State University when he and Danny Mock came here in 1989 and my university library paid Watt for his Kansas and Missouri death penalty files. I began publishing my books after I retired. All are by McFarland and its web site is If you check under Frazier, you'll see my books listed. By far the most important of these is Death Sentences in Missouri, 1803-1905. If someone wants to know about this subject, he or she must look at my book. It will be relevant to this subject, to quote Shakespeare, "when all the breathers of the world are dead."

Your uncle made a huge contribution to an almost entirely neglected subject. If you check my titles under "worldcat, find in a library," you can see that they are widely vailable in libraries nationwide and a few in Australia, Canada, England, Denmark, Germany, Scotland, Tawain, and the US Virgin Islands.

If you obtain my books on interlibrary loan, you'll see with the exception of Runaway and Freed Missouri Slaves, I begin my acknowledgements by thanking the librarians for their purchase of Watt's material.

I'm glad you're paying tribute to him. I know he would appreciate it.

Regards, Harriet C. Frazier

Valerie said...

I remember Watty coming in town to visit, I must have been about 6 or 8 years old and beyond, we would have him over to eat dinner. After dinner I always sat on a brown stool and loved to help my mother wash dishes. Watty was so impressed that I enjoyed washing dishes and would tell me he was going to take me back to Tuscaloosa to live with "my Uncle Watty" and he would ALWAYS tell me "Valerie (sounding more like Valry in his most southern accent), you're looking more and more like your Uncle Watty every day.".

I remember taking a plate of food to Watty every Christmas from high-school through college and even a couple of years after mother died when I cooked the Christmas meal at our house. Mother would prepare the meal, and before we could sit down to eat, she would send us to Watty's with a plate of food. I will never forget going over to his house and seeing all of the pictures of people executed in the state of Alabama hanging around his room. I must say I share Watty's thoughts on being against the death penalty. Also have to say I share his curiosity and interest in the minds of criminals and in our justice system. Two facts you may not have known about me!

Also remember Uncle Watty driving his mini-van here to see mother when she was dying. He was more feeble than she, even fell down the steps leaving one day and I told him that I already had one patient and couldn't take on another. But his weak condition did not stop him, Watty continued to visit mother up until she died--he adored Mila--as we all did!


Jim Acker said...


I haven't had the chance yet to check in and tell you what a great
experience it was for me to get to meet Watt a few years ago, especially after hearing so much about him and the amazing collection of execution materials that he worked so hard to compile. We couldn't be more honored and pleased in having a good part of the execution records here in Albany in the National Death Penalty Archive. I hope that someday your travels might bring you to our neck of the woods; it would be a treat to show you the NDPA and to meet you. I've been communicating with Brian about his upcoming trip to Headland in July, and will be most interested to learn more about the materials he will be examining. Very best wishes-- Jim

James R. Acker
School of Criminal Justice
University at Albany
135 Western Avenue
Albany, NY 12222

Anonymous said...


Did very much enjoy you tribute to your Uncle Watt. It is very thoughtful of you to take your time and do this for him. My father Walter B Oates Jr. told me many a time that Watty was the smartest of the lot and thought the world of him as he also thought the world of Bragg. They both shared the problems that this world presents, but both were loved and respected by their peers and were both men of character. Later my friend, Wyatt (2010)