I Die At Midnight
By Ernest Gaither Jr.

As Told To “Power”

When you read this, I’ll be dead.
But don’t be alarmed at hearing from a dead man.
For now, as I begin this story, I’m very much alive.
It’s September 9, 1947 – Tuesday. Midnight Thursday I am scheduled to die for murder. Sitting here in my cell in Cook County Jail, I’ve been doing lots of thinking. Some of my thoughts – a warning to criminals – were published in a “note to tough guys” in today’s Chicago Tribune. This afternoon I read the note for a radio broadcast. But that is really just part of my story.

The real story, I feel, lies in the fact that I don’t mind talking
about dying. I’m just 23 years of age, but I’m ready to go. If my number were up this very minute, I’d be ready to meet God. I’m really happy. Just this week I had a dream that I’ll carry with me to the chair. I was on my way to heaven. Jesus was with me. But I was taking four steps to His two. He asked me why I was going so fast. I told Him I was eager to get there. Then I was there, surrounded by numerous angels.

Some folks might think that’s strange talk from a man who came to jail an atheist. But that’s just the way I feel. You’ll understand better when I tell you how I met God early one morning.

But first, take a glance at my past. Seven years ago I was a stickup man, head of my own gang of tough guys. There were eight of us. One was Earle Parks, dubbed Smiley, because he would kill you with a smile on his face. Another was Charles Jones, known as Pretty Boy because he was a nice looking guy. The others: Herbert Liggins, known as Hop-a-long because he had a bad leg. William Lee was called Wild Bill, and Charles Hill was known as Colorado Kid. Clyde Bradford was so dark that we called him Blue. The Wheeler was Percy Bellmar. We nicknamed him that because he was a good driver, my number one wheeler. All are in prison now except for Parks, and he died for murder.

They called me “Little Gaither the Money Waster and Woman Chaser.” I tried to act the big shot, always flashing a big roll – sometimes two or three grand.

I started all this when I was just a kid. My folks tried to get me to go to Sunday School and church. More than once they gave me a quarter to go with my younger sisters. But I never went. Instead I’d make the girls promise not to tell, and then I’d go to a movie. I’d stay in the show most of the day, and tell my folks that I’d gone to church. They didn’t know the difference.

Crime was in me, and the movies I saw helped give me ideas.
I got some good tips on “how to do it.” I remember when I saw the movie, “I Stole a Million,” I sat there wishing that I’d been the guy who got the million.

I decided on a boxing career because I thought I was tough and could care for myself. It would beat working, I figured. I was one of the best fighters in my class for a while. I turned pro in 1938, fought as a middleweight, and ended up in the light-heavy division.
Jimmy Bevins was the only man ever to knock me out.

At 18 I was in the Illinois State Training School for Boys, for armed robbery. In September 1941 eight of us made a break, but the following month I found myself resentenced to Joliet Penitentiary. I had life for a Chicago park murder, but got out on parole in June 1946. It looks as if that would have been a lesson to me, but it wasn’t.

Within six months, after I was out, I was leading another gang. That lasted until last February 9. That night three of us held up Max Baren in his liquor store on Chicago’s West Side. Baren reached for a gun. I yelled at him to put the gun down, but he meant business.
I knew it was us or him. So I shot Baren and killed him. We ran out with the money, only $300 which I later gave to the other guys.
I went to New York, then to Atlanta, where police nabbed me.

Then weeks later I stood in a Chicago court. “Guilty as charged…”came the jury verdict. “…sentences you to die…” the judge said sternly.
And thus I went to Death Row.

Not long after I was placed behind bars last March 23, Mrs. Flora Jones of Olive Baptist Church, invited me to attend a prisoners’ gospel service. I was playing cards with some other fellows at the time, and laughed at her. “Why, I don’t even believe there’s a God,” I boasted, and went on playing cards, the woman still pleading with me. Actually I felt so sinful that I didn’t want to know about God, even if He existed. So I ignored her.

Suddenly something she was saying caught my attention. “If you don’t believe in God” she called from outside the bars, “just try this little experiment: Before you go to sleep tonight ask Him to awaken you at any time; then ask Him to forgive you of your sin.” She had real faith. It got a hold of me.

I didn’t go to the service, but decided I would try the experiment that night.
“God” I mumbled as I lay on my cot, “wake me up at 2:45 if You’re real.”

Outside it was wintry. Windows on the inside were frosted. For the first few hours I slept soundly, then my sleep became restless. Finally I was wide awake. I was warm and sweating although the cell was cool. All was quiet except for the heavy breathing of several prisoners and the snoring of a man nearby. Then I heard footsteps outside my cell. It was a guard, making his regular check. As he was passing, I stopped him. “What time is it?” I asked.
He looked at his pocket watch. “Fifteen to three.”

“That’s the same as 2:45!” I said, my heart taking a sudden leap.

The guard grunted and passed on. He didn’t see me climb from my cot and sink to my knees. I don’t remember just what I told God, but I asked Him to be merciful to me, an evil murderer and sinner. He saved me that night, I know. I’ve believed on His Son Jesus ever since.

I’d promised a whipping to another prisoner the next day. That morning I went to him. He backed off, “I don’t want to fight you; you used to be a boxer” he said.

“I don’t want to fight,” I said. “I just came to see you.” Several prisoners had gathered for a fight and were disappointed.

But God had save me from my sins; why should I want to fight? Later it was whispered around that I was putting on an act, trying to get out of going to the chair.

My case did later come up before the Illinois Supreme Court, but they upheld the death sentence. Sure that jolted me some, but I haven’t lost faith in God. I know He will go with me. So you see, I’m really not afraid.

Before I die I want to leave one last message, for other young people.

Start serving the Lord while you’re young. Grow up this way and it’ll keep you straight. Once crime gets a hold of you, it’s hard to stop. Just like the habits of smoking and drinking: if they once get a hold of you, you can’t quit.

Yes, I’ll be dead when you read this, but please take my advice:
“…the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 6:23). I found out it’s true.


(Peter Tanis, a prison-gate missionary from Pacific Garden Mission, accompanied Ernest Gaither to the electric chair. His description of the prisoner’s last hour follows.)

I was admitted to Ernest’s cell about an hour before midnight. The atmosphere seemed charged, and guards who stood about his cell kept talking to keep his mind off the midnight’s journey. But things they said were strained and meaningless, like the things you say when you don’t know what to say.

As I entered, Ernest smiled and greeted me. A chaplain was reading with him from the Bible. He gave me the Book and asked me to read. I selected the first chapter of Philippians. Ernest leaned forward intently as I read:

“For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…For I am in strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart and to be with Christ; which is far better…”

This seemed to be a favorite with him, along with the Twenty-third Psalm. He got a lot of comfort from Verse 4: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.” He quoted this from memory, as the clock ticked away the last hour of his life. Outside the guards listened quietly, some wet eyed.

About 11:30 we had a song service. Ernest said he’d like to sing “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” and soon the corridors rang with music as his high tenor voice rang out above the off-key voices of the guards.

As the last strains of another song, “Just a Little Talk With Jesus,” were dying away, guards came with clippers to give a haircut to the man with the tenor voice.

Just before midnight Ernest prayed. “God,” he began softly, “when I first came here, I hated these guards. But now, God I love them - O God, I love everybody.” Then he prayed for people he’d made suffer, for his mother, that the Lord would bless her. “And, Lord,” he concluded. “I’m not going to die of electrocution - I’m just going to sit in the chair and go to sleep.”

A moment later a black hood was placed on his head and he began the last mile. At each side were guards, both noticeably nervous. Ernest sensed it; “What are you fellows shaking for?
I’m not afraid.”

Now 75 witnesses looked on as unsteady hands strapped the hooded figure into the big black chair, accentuated against a stainless steel floor. Then for two minutes - hours, it seemed - an attendant worked feverishly on a defective electrode.

Finally, at 12:03 a.m., the first of the three electrical shocks flashed through his body.

By 12:15 five doctors had paraded up and one by one confirmed the death.

But I knew that the real Ernest Gaither still lived – only his body was dead. As I left the jail, I thought of the verse he liked so well:

“For me to live is Christ, but to die is gain.”

 


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