West Asheville. Hank Williams, Jr., David Allen Coe and Waylon Jennings.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Essay on Watt Espy

M. Watt Espy, Jr.: America’s Greatest Death Penalty Archivist


Michael L. Radelet[1]



            Major Watt Espy, Jr., was born in Dothan, Alabama on March 2, 1933.[2]  He grew up seven miles down the road in Headland, where his father was the President and CEO of Headland National Bank, President of the Espy Mercantile Company, a large land owner, and a farmer.  Espy served in the U.S. Navy in Morocco during the Korean War in the early 1950s, and after his honorable discharge he attended the University of Alabama for two years before returning to Headland to work in the family’s store.[3]  For the next two decades he supported himself by selling encyclopedias and cemetery plots, among other things.  In the late 1960s he was the proprietor of an antique store, first located in Troy, Alabama, and later in Birmingham.  Around 1970, Espy began collecting information on legal executions in the U.S., and he soon vowed to attempt to collect information on each and every execution in American history.[4]

            At the time, most authorities thought there had been around 7,000 executions in American history,[5] about 1/3 of what Espy now estimates to be the true figure.  To free up time for the research, he closed the antique shop.  With no paid employment and mounting research expenses, Espy found his dedication to the work resulted in a lifetime of poverty.

            Often Espy would travel to courthouses and local history libraries to collect information.  Often the only documentation for executions of slaves was a payment made by the state to the slave owner to compensate for the destroyed “property” (i.e., the slave’s economic value).[6]  He spent countless thousands of hours reading newspaper microfilms, and transcribing by hand or with a manual typewriter articles about executions to avoid having to pay expensive photocopying costs.  He also purchased a massive collection of Detective Magazines.  When William Bowers in 1974 published what he thought was a complete list of all executions in America,[7] Espy was able to send him some 2,000 corrections and updates.[8]  He wrote hundreds of letters to libraries, historians and organizations throughout the U.S., seeking information.  One of the organizations he wrote to in the mid-1970s was the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. 

            His letters to the ACLU fell into the hands of the Director of their Capital Punishment Project, Henry Schwarzschild (1926-1996), a man who stands second to none on the list of contributors to the anti-death penalty movement in the last half of the twentieth century.[9]  To say the least, Schwarzschild was curious about who this Alabama native was who was so interested in the death penalty.  In 1976, he arranged to meet Watt in Headland.  Schwarzschild was immediately struck by Espy’s work, his impeccable data collection methods, his persistence, and his knowledge.  He quickly realized the importance of the project.  And so he began to call friends at the University of Alabama, and convinced them to hire Espy as a clerk in the library at the University of Alabama Law School.  Consequently, in August 1977, Espy and his collection moved 200 miles northwest to Tuscaloosa, where he made his home for the next 8 ½ years.[10]  Until his death in 1996, Schwarzschild was Watt Espy’s strongest supporter.  We would not be here tonight honoring Watt Espy had it not been for the invaluable support that Watt received from Henry.

            Upon moving to Tuscaloosa, Espy named his work the “Capital Punishment Research Project.”  From the start, the University was interested in finding ways to support the work, and staff there decided to approach the National Science Foundation for funding.  Their first attempt, which would have located the project in the History Department, was unsuccessful.  Then, the University approached Professor John Smykla,[11] and asked whether he would write a revised proposal that would locate the project in the Department of Criminal Justice.  This revision was successful.  In 1984, the National Science Foundation gave the University of Alabama $188,000 to prepare a computer database of Espy’s records.

            The grant was originally planned for two phases.  However, from the start, Espy thought that the students hired to computerize the data were doing a sloppy job and not respecting the integrity of the data.  Three by five cards, on which Espy had painstakingly typed information about each case, were misfiled after they were coded.  Watt overheard students ridiculing him, and on several occasions got into various disputes with Professor Smykla over issues relating to proper handling and coding of the data.  Most importantly, Espy realized that the data were being quantified in a haphazard fashion, resulting in an unreliable product.  Rather than sit back and tolerate this, on October 31, 1985, he left Tuscaloosa and took all his data back to Headland.  He has never talked with Professor Smykla since, and still resents the way that he feels he and his data were treated.[12]  By this time, Espy had confirmed some 14,500 executions.

            Without Espy or his records, the University was up a creek and was forced to cancel the second phase of the grant.  Because of this, today we have only partial information on the 14,500 executions that Espy had confirmed prior to leaving the University.  Most importantly, information on the race and ethnicity of the victim in homicide cases is not included in the database.  Only because of Watt’s love for the University and his respect for the data was the project saved.  At this point, Watt invited me to act as a mediator or middle-man, and so on March 7, 1986, he and I travelled to Tuscaloosa and met with Dr. Robert Wells, Assistant Vice President for Research at the University of Alabama, to figure out how to correct the many errors in the data file.  We agreed that Watt would do this from Headland, and that his salary would be doubled – to $15.00 per hour.  Arrangements were made so that Dr. Wells acted as the go-between.  Professor Smykla and his assistant sent hard copies of what had been coded to Dr. Wells, who sent it to Watt, and Watt returned it to Wells after making hand-written corrections. 

            I remember walking into the Law School that day with Watt and marveling at how many people came up to greet him and welcome him back.  I watched as he shook hands with an Alabama supreme court justice who had an office in the building, as he greeted several other faculty and staff members, and exchanged hugs and compliments with several African American housekeepers.  Clearly this was a man who was loved and respected by those in the Law School.  To this day, Watt has nothing but good things to say about the University of Alabama Law School, especially Deans Thomas Christopher and Charles Gamble, and Professors Wythe Holt and George Taylor.

            On September 9, 1986, I wrote to Vice President Wells and reported that Watt was finding coding errors in 11.2 percent of the data points.  Watt slowly reviewed every case, finishing the work on April 1, 1987.  The first edition of the database included all executions in the U.S. confirmed by Watt before he left Tuscaloosa in October 1985, plus new executions in the U.S. between then and July 7, 1987, giving a total of 14,570 cases.[13]

            Back in Headland, Watt resumed his self-supported work.  He lived in an old weather beaten duplex at 100 Main Street.  His office, in the dark living room, was decorated by pictures of well over 200 executed inmates, and he enjoyed telling visitors the story of each one (and many more not pictured).  Watt’s chain smoking left the walls yellow, a contrast especially visible when one of the pictures was tilted.  Because the house was not air-conditioned, the blinds were kept closed, and Watt often worked in the warm summers while dressed in pajamas.  He never seemed to mind the countless cockroaches that shared the house with him.  Most important to him was Danny Mock, his close friend and housemate for thirty years, who cooked for Watt and looked after him until being incarcerated for selling drugs in 1998.  More than one visitor saw similarities between Watt and Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.[14]

            Nor did Watt mind enjoying a few beers while he was working.  He now realizes that he has been an alcoholic for his entire adult life.  In 1990 he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and has not had a sip since.  Five years later he quit smoking.  Indeed, for as long as Watt’s health permitted during the 1990s, he was quite active in AA chapters, including some that met in local jails.

            I visited Watt many times after his return to Headland, sometimes accompanied by Margaret Vandiver, now at the University of Memphis.[15]  In December 1985 he went to Gainesville to speak in one of my classes.  In 1986 he spoke at the meetings of the American Society of Criminology in Atlanta.  In July 1987 Henry Schwarzschild and I spent two days in Headland, trying to figure out how to photocopy the collection to protect it from natural hazards or vandals (another failed effort).[16]  Watt does not like airplanes, and the only times that I remember him being on one was to travel to speak at San Francisco State University Law School in October 1986 and at the meetings of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in Seattle in 1991.

            During those years back in Headland, many scholars[17] from around the country joined Margaret and me in trying to find funding for Watt, or a responsible buyer for his collection.[18]  He tried to charge small fees for writing or consulting, but none of this resulted in a decent or dependable income.[19]  Our attempts to move the collection – and Watt – to Gainesville were not successful, but among those I spoke to about it was University of Florida History Professor Kermit Hall, who continued to see the value of this and similar collections through the time of his service as president here at the University at Albany.  At one point Washington and Lee Law School expressed some interest in housing the collection, and I pursued a hope to have it housed at Tuskegee, all to no avail.

            By January 1, 1986, Espy had confirmed 14,573 executions.  After leaving Tuscaloosa he was able to confirm nearly 4,500 additional cases.  By January 8, 1995, the date of the last tally that I have in my files, he had counted 18,935 confirmed executions in American history.

            When Espy began his work he stood in favor of the death penalty, but that opinion quickly changed.[20]  One reason for this change was a realization that executions are no more effective as a deterrent than long-term imprisonment.  In 1985, Espy published an article in the Atlanta Constitution documenting numerous cases where family members of executed inmates committed their own capital offenses after their loved ones had been put to death.  He also wrote about cases where former hangmen, law enforcement officials, or criminal attorneys who had firsthand knowledge of the threat of the death penalty were not deterred and themselves committed capital offenses.[21]

            By the mid-1990s, diabetes was taking its toll on Watt, reading became more difficult, and he became increasingly housebound.  These health problems forced him into retirement.  In 2000 his family purchased a small home for him next to the Headland elementary school and employed caretakers to look after him and his dog, Missy.  Before long his leg muscles began to atrophy from lack of use, and he became completely bedridden.  His files and books were stored in a rented garage in Headland.  A new collection became more important in his life than his collection of execution stories: in his home today are some 2,000 movie videos.  As has been true throughout his adult life, he considers himself to be quite religious.

            In January 2008, Charlie Lanier from Albany, Margaret Vandiver from the University of Memphis, and long-time Florida death penalty investigator Terry Farley Walsh and I traveled to Headland to pack up Watt’s collection for transport to Albany.  His family by then employed caretakers 24 hours a day, as Watt could not get out of bed unless lifted or carried.  But his mind is as sharp as ever.  He has always been very interested in politics, and as we meet tonight he is rooting for a John McCain victory in November.

            Watt Espy is a true autodidact: a man with little college training who became America’s top death penalty archivist, and did it largely without compensation or prestige.  As Professor Victor Streib once observed, “He’s an undisputed gem.”[22]  And now, thanks to the dogged efforts of Charlie Lanier and his colleagues here in Albany, Espy’s work will be available for study by future generations of death penalty scholars.


[1] Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, University of Colorado - Boulder.  Remarks prepared for the ceremony to welcome the donation of Mr. Espy’s papers to University at Albany, Sept. 26, 2008.
[2] “Major” was Espy’s given name, not a military title.  He has one brother, Mark, who still lives in Headland.  His sister Mila, spouse of Billy Woods, died in April 2000.  Another sister, Marilyn, also lives today in Headland; her husband, Don McClendon, works for Mark Espy.  A statue placed on the town square in Headland a few years ago commemorates Major and Edith Espy (Edith, Watt’s stepmother, died in 1990), Mila Espy Woods, and their families.
[3] Clarke Stallworth, Crime Buff’s Research Is on Capital Punishment, Birmingham News, Oct. 13, 1985.
[4] Ronald Smothers, Historian’s Death Penalty Obsession, N.Y. Times, Oct. 21, 1987.
[5] Richard Blake Dent, Capital Punishment: 14,500 an Counting, Commercial Appeal (Memphis), Jan. 27, 1985, reprinted as Researcher Documents Death Penalty in U.S., St. Petersburg Times, June 22, 1986.  One of the best articles about Espy’s work is Bruce Krasnow, Chronicler Spends Life with Death, Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville), Dec. 1, 1986.
[6] See, e.g., Marvin L. Kay & Loren Lee Cary, 'The Planters Suffer Little or Nothing': North Carolina Compensations for Executed Slaves, 1748‑1772, Science and Society 40 (1976): 288‑306.
[7] William J. Bowers, Executions in America (1974).  The revised inventory was published as Update on the Teeters-Zibulka Inventory of Executions Under State Authority, pp. 394-593 in William J. Bowers, Legal Homicide (1984).
[8] Bruce Krasnow, Chronicler Spends Life with Death, Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville), Dec. 1, 1986.
[9] For a discussion of some of Schwarzschild’s contributions, see Herbert H. Haines, Against Capital Punishment: The Anti-Death Penalty Movement in America, 1972-1994 (1996).
[10] Jay Reevs, Execution Chronicler the Final Punishment (sic), Gainesville Sun, Sept. 20, 1987.
[11] Now at the University of West Florida.
[12] For example, on March 27, 1991, Espy wrote an “open letter” denouncing a chapter written by Professor Smykla and demanding that it be withdrawn: Victoria Schneider & John Ortiz Smykla, A Summary Analysis of Executions in the United States, 1608-1987: The Espy File, pp. 1-19 in Robert M. Bohm (ed.), The Death Penalty in America: Current research (1991).  Professor Smykla today remains a well-respected criminologist.  My intent here is to focus on Watt Espy and report his perceptions, not to resolve the Espy-Smykla disputes.
[13] M. Watt Espy & John M. Smykla, Executions in the United States, 1608-1987: The Espy File (machine readable data file).  Tuscaloosa, Alabama: John Smykla (producer), 1987; Ann Arbor, Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (distributor), 1987.  In 2004, Smykla finished the third edition of this data file (adding executions since 1987 but none before): Executions in the United States, 1608-2003: The Espy File. [3rd ICPSR Edition] (machine-readable data file). Tuscaloosa, AL: John Ortiz Smykla (producer); Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, University of Michigan (distributor) (with M.W. Espy) (ICPSR 8451)
(Diskette 00013).
[14] Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).
[15] Once I spent a week with Watt at a home his family owned on a pond near Headland, going through his records and identifying 30 cases prior to 1972 in which a white person had been executed for killing an African American. Michael L. Radelet, Executions of Whites for Crimes Against Blacks: Exceptions to the Rule? 30 Sociological Quarterly (1989): 529-44.
[16] In part this idea failed because Watt wanted to retain control of his research, and felt that the existence of a copy of his records would diminish its market value.
[17] This group included Hugo Adam Bedau (now Professor Emeritus, Tufts University), William Bowers (now Professor Emeritus, Northeastern University), William Geimer (Professor Emeritus, Washington and Lee University), Jonathan Gradess (New York State Defenders’ Association), Sam Gross (University of Michgan Law School) , Paul Keve (at Virginia Commonwealth University until his death in 1999), Michael Millman (California Appellate Project), Henry Schwarzschild, and Victor Streib (Professor of Law, Elon University), among others.
[18] He wanted between $75,000 and $100,000 for the records, a small fraction of the monies he had invested in collecting them.
[19] On the other hand, it did result in several articles and opinion pieces.  See, e.g., Watt Espy, The Death Penalty in America: What the Record Shows, pp. 162-74 in Doug Magee, Slow Coming Dark: Interviews on Death Row (1980), reprinted in Crisis and Christianity, June 23, 1980 (reprinting testimony prepared for presentation before the Alabama Senate Judicial Committee on a bill abolishing the death penalty in Alabama, Summer 1979); Capital Punishment and the Mentally Ill, The Defender (N.Y. State Defenders Association) 8 (July/August, 1986), 31-32; an 18,000 word history of the death penalty in Tennessee (published in the Nashville Tennessean, Oct. 13-21 & 28, 1985); a 7,000 word history of the death penalty in eastern Virginia (published in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Apr. 13, 1986), and opinion editorials such as Lethal Injection is Not Humane, Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch, Nov. 25, 1985; Capital Punishment: An Incentive to Kill, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 9, 1985; Create Capital-Offense Courts and Spare Us the Alday Anguish, Atlanta Constitution, Dec. 17, 1985; Death for Juvenile Crimes: Execution, a Practice Dating to 1642, May Continue This Week, L.A. Times, Jan. 7, 1986; Death Wish: State Should Not Honor A Murderer’s Request to Be Executed, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 24, 1986; Women and the Death Penalty: Modern-day Executions Rare, Nashville Tennessean, Feb. 9, 1986; Leo Frank’s Due-Process Pardon Raises Concern for Others’ Rights, Atlanta Constitution, Mar. 29, 1986, and Georgia’s Pardon of Leo Frank is Short on Courage, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Apr. 20, 1986.
[20] Francis X. Clines, The Grim List of Those Put to Death, N.Y. Times, Nov. 18, 1992 (reprinted in Dallas Morning News, Nov. 26, 1992).
[21] Watt Espy, Capital Punishment and Deterrence: What the Statistics Cannot Show, Crime and Delinquency 26 (1980): 537-44; see also Watt Espy, Some Tales from the Gallows: Deterrence? What Deterrence? Atlanta Constitution, Jul. 26, 1985.
[22] Bruce Krasnow, Chronicler Spends Life with Death, Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville), Dec. 1, 1986. As Streib noted in the Preface and Acknowledgements of his 1987 book on the death penalty for juveniles, “Two individuals deserve special mention.  One is a recognized giant in the field of death penalty research, Watt Espy.  He generously opened his files to me originally when I sought to identify each juvenile execution and has remained a loyal and priceless contributor to this research ever since.  Along with so many other death penalty researchers, I have achieved this level in my research only by standing on the shoulders of Watt Espy.” Victor L. Streib, Death Penalty for Juveniles x (1987).

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