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The story of Willie Francis will outrage and sadden you.

  • Dec 28, 2009
Every time I read a book like "The Execution of Willie Francis:  Race, Murder and the Search for Justice In The American South" I wonder aloud why I had never come across anything about this incident before.  American history is replete with long forgotten and fascinating tales like this one and author Gilbert King has come up with a real winner here.  "The Execution of Willie Francis" is a riveting book that paints a vivid portrait of life in the Louisiana bayou in the 1940's.  And for the most part the picture is not a very pretty one.  Willie Francis was just 16 years old when he was charged with the murder of popular St. Martinville druggist Andrew Thomas.  Willie did not deny that he had killed Thomas.  The preponderance of evidence would seem to confirm it.  But were there extenuating circumstances here?

Willie had worked for Andrew Thomas at the drugstore doing odd jobs.  In his written confession Willie Francis makes an extremely curious statement recalling that "it was a secret about him and me."   Yet at his trial, which most objective observers would consider to be an absolute travesty of justice, his court appointed attorneys failed to mount any sort of defense at all on behalf of their client.  Young Willie Francis was sentenced to die in the electric chair.  On May 3, 1946 Willie Francis was strapped into the portable electric chair known as Gruesome Gertie and the switch was thrown.  Remarkably, Willie Francis did not die!   The execution had been badly botched and Willie Francis would live to see another day.  At this point a young Cajun attorney named Bertrand LeBlanc would get involved in this case.  LeBlanc's ancestors had been heavily involved in the white supremacy movement in Louisiana but young Bertrand rejected this way of thinking.  Like so many other young men who had served alongside Negroes in World War II the war had changed his thinking on the subject of race.  Much like Aticus Finch in Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "To Kill A Mockingbird" Bertrand LeBlanc would incur the wrath of his community to defend this young black man.  Over the next year this story would take numerous twists and turns as the state of Louisiana sought to return Willie Francis to the chair a second time.  In fact, Bertrand LeBlanc would succeed in taking this case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and the fate of Willie Francis would become a national story.

While Gilbert King certainly does a workmanlike job of presenting the facts surrounding the trial and subsequent execution of Willie Francis "The Execution of Willie Francis" turns out to be about so much more.  This book examines the sad state of race relations in the South during this period.  At the same time King presents in clear and concise language the complex legal issues that surrounded this most unusual situation.  Finally, readers catch a somewhat unflattering glimpse of how the U.S. Supreme Court handled this particular case.  I must tell you that "The Execution of Willie Francis:  Race, Murder and the Search for Justice in the American South" had this reader mesmorized throughout.  I simply could not put this one down.  It is a story that you will never forget.    Very highly recommended!
The story of Willie Francis will outrage and sadden you. The story of Willie Francis will outrage and sadden you.

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December 29, 2009
Wow! Another one to add to the list, Paul. Thanks for a great review.
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Quick Tip by . June 23, 2010
Nothing but the truth.
About the reviewer
Paul Tognetti ()
Ranked #2
I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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On May 3, 1946, in picturesque St. Martinville, Louisiana, a seventeen year-old black boy was scheduled for execution by electric chair inside of a tiny redbrick jail.  Charged with the murder of a local Cajun pharmacist, Willie Francis’s trial had been brief and a guilty verdict was never in doubt.  Willie’s appointed lawyers called no witnesses, presented no evidence and had not filed a single appeal once he was sentenced to die by electrocution. 

As the noontide church bells began to toll, a crowd of townspeople gathered in the streets surrounding the jailhouse. Inside, the executioners – still smelling of liquor after spending a late night in the local taverns -- strapped Willie into the electric chair. Three hundred pounds of oak and metal, the chair had been dubbed “Gruesome Gertie.” At 12:08 PM, the executioners flipped the switch. Willie screamed and writhed under his restraints.  The chair shuddered and slid across the floor. But Willie Francis did not die. 

Having miraculously survived, Willie was soon informed that the State would try to kill him again in six days.  Letters and telegrams began pouring into St. Martinville from across the country—spurred on by editorials and radio commentaries.  Americans of all colors and classes were transfixed by the fate of this young man. Had he been saved from death by the hand of the Almighty? Could Louisiana really electrocute someone twice?  Was the...

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ISBN-10: 046500265X
ISBN-13: 978-0465002658
Author: Gilbert Kingl
Genre: Nonfiction
Publisher: Basic Civitas Books
Date Published: March 31, 2008
Format: Hardcover
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