They’d driven the truck around back and parked it on Saint Martin Street, behind the jail. The execution room was on the second floor, so they were going to have to haul the bulky oaken chair up a staircase—not a pleasant prospect in light of the already sweltering heat and the fact that they had barely slept after their late night in the saloons of New Iberia.Residents of St. Martinville, once they caught sight of the odd vehicle, had begun to gather behind the jail. Children had also gathered around Louisiana’s unmarked truck, and some had climbed trees. They gawked at the two gruff men from Angola who together swung open the back doors of the truck and began to unload the chair. An unlit cigar hung from Foster’s lips. Formidable-looking and loud, he hadn’t shaved, and onlookers kept their distance as he barked instructions at Venezia. When they’d gotten the chair out of the truck, deputies from the St. Martin Parish sheriff’s office came out to discuss the logistics of the operation with the executioners from Angola. Indeed, the chair would have to be carried up a narrow staircase to the second floor. Foster decided they would run the wires out the second-story window and back to the truck, where they could be connected to the large generator that powered the chair.
After hauling the chair to the second floor, the two executioners returned to the truck. The chair was so heavy that there was no need to secure it to the floor. An onlooker that day would later testify that he saw Venezia hand Foster a flask and both men drink from it. Foster then went back into the jail with an eight-foot high, green steel electrical switchboard, “polka-dotted with needled dials,” which he proceeded to connect to the wires running through the window. Venezia stayed inside the cab of the truck and hooked the wires on his end to the generator made by International Harvester. Once the chair was in position and the switchboard fully connected, Venezia fired up the powerful engine. The sound was deafening. Because the truck was parked so close to the jail, the deputies had to shout to be heard, even inside the small execution room.
Foster told Venezia that the chair was ready to be tested, but the first run indicated a problem with the electrical connection. Foster wet his thumb with his tongue, then wiped some dust and grime off a glass dial. He didn’t like what the needles were doing, so he went back down the stairs to the truck, where he and Venezia reworked the wiring from scratch. Certain that the chair was now in working order, they slipped behind the truck for another pull from the flask. Then, at ten minutes before twelve, they fired up the generator and let it run to build up the necessary voltage for a fatal blast.
The half-dozen witnesses crowded the room. Their white faces were familiar to just about everyone in town and to each other, but they engaged in no conversation. Willie could feel their silence beyond the deafening, ghastly roar of the dynamo just outside the jail. He met the gaze of one of them, just a step away from him. It was Sidney Dupois, the barber.
“What are you doing here?” Willie asked.
“I came to be with you, Willie,” Dupois answered.
Willie wanted to ask how Little Sid was doing, but his mouth was dry and he was scared. Cuffed and shackled, Willie shuffled toward the chair that would take him from this world. When he turned and tried to sit, Sheriff Leonard Resweber grabbed him by the arm and walked him out to a cell across the hall.
There, sitting on a cot, was Father Maurice Rousseve, the bespectacled priest from Notre Dame, the black church just outside the jail. Father Rousseve, a tall, scholarly man who was ordained in the country’s first class of black Catholic priests, had known Willie for years. He had instructed the nuns at Notre Dame to bring the schoolchildren into the church, where they would pray for Willie’s soul at the time of his execution. Willie had attended public school in St. Martinville, but education for blacks in town ended in the sixth grade. Willie only got as far as third. next>>