Religion was apparently very important to Toni Jo Henry, who went to her death at age 26 in the Louisiana electric chair in 1942.
When she was executed, Toni Jo held a small gold crucifix in her hands, a symbol of her new-found Catholic faith. When she killed Joseph P. Calloway, 42, a Houston car salesman who had the bad luck to pick up Toni Jo and her accomplice Finnon Burks, she ordered him to his knees in a cold rice field and told him to pray.
Then she put a bullet in his skull.
Toward the end of her life she told one reporter that “I always knew there was a God running the show. But I thought I could steal just one little act.”
The act that Toni Jo wanted to steal was to break her husband, Claude “Cowboy” Henry out of the Texas prison where he was serving a 50-year sentence for a barroom brawl that left an off-duty cop dead.
Toni Jo was the first and only woman to die in Louisiana’s portable electric chair and probably as cold as any of the nearly 90 men who have followed her through the state’s death chamber.
“In the first place, the victim doesn’t return to haunt me,” she told reporter Elliot Chaze shortly before her death. “I never think of him. I’ve known all along it would be my life for his. I believe mine is worth as much to me as his was to him. I wonder though, sometimes, why it’s legal now for some fellow to kill me.”
Born in San Antonio, Texas, Toni Jo’s life was tough from the very beginning. By her own admission she was a prostitute by 13 (or 14 depending on the news story) and a cocaine addict by 16.
Her mother died when she was just six, leaving a large family of children. Toni Jo’s father soon married again. Life was less happy than ever after that.
In her early teen years, Tori Jo ran away from home and went to work in a dance hall.
“I was awful ashamed of the things I did there,” she said. “But they wouldn’t let me quit. It’s that kind of a racket.”
It was bad man after bad man after that until she met the man who turned her life around (so to speak).
She met Cowboy Henry in 1936 and the career criminal and the attractive drug addict/whore with a heart of stone were wed soon after. Toni Jo credited Cowboy with helping her kick the coke habit.
“He gave me a home and he got that drug monkey off my back — and that drug monkey is a big strong thing,” she recalled fondly in a jailhouse interview. “I remember the day I told him I was a cokie and the look on his face. He thought I just smoked marijuana and grinned. But when I told him my train went a lot further than marijuana he took me to a hotel room and I lay there in bed for a week and he would come in now and then and ask me how I was doing. He would slap my face with a cold towel and we would both laugh.”
Her road to the electric chair began soon after she and Cowboy were wed when he received a 50-year sentence for murder. Although his victim was a law officer, Cowboy escaped hanging in Texas because the cop was off-duty and the killing was the culmination of a drunken brawl.
Toni Jo, who was born Annie Beatrice McQuiston, made the decision in the courtroom as Cowboy was being taken away that she would get him out. To her, get him out meant busting him from behind bars, not some kind of mealy-mouthed begging to the governor or hopeless appeals.
“When I stood there in the courtroom and heard the judge send him away it was like it was me they were locking up,” she told the authorities after she was arrested for Callway’s murder. “I suffered all I could then.”
To free Cowboy, who clearly loved Toni Jo as much as she loved him, the ex-hooker needed two things: money and an accomplice. Using her beauty and exotic “Tex-Mex” accent, she enlisted the help of Finnon “Arkansas” Burke.
Burke was a drifter/career criminal who was head-over-heels in love with a woman he could never have for himself; however, it appears that Toni Jo was happy to lend herself to him if he was willing to help her get her man out of Huntsville.
The pair began a series of small-time robberies with Toni Jo setting aside her portion of the loot as part of her bankroll to free Cowboy.
First they robbed a small hardware store in Beaumont, Texas, and got sixteen guns. The sold most of the weapons, but with two handguns they started down a frozen highway toward Stuttgart, Arkansas, where they planned to rob a bank.
Part of that plan involved finding a getaway car. Once again, Toni Jo’s prettiness helped out.
While Burke hid in the weeds next to the highway outside Lake Charles, Louisiana, on Valentine’s Day 1940 Toni Jo stuck out her thumb and within short order found them a ride with Calloway, who was headed to Lake Charles from his home in Houston. The would-be yeggs immediately forced Calloway to strip and jammed him into the rumble-seat/trunk of his car. They drove on a few miles and pulled over beside an icy Louisiana rice paddy.
They pulled Calloway from the rumble seat and dragged him over the frozen ground toward a lonely haystack. Not just freezing and terrified, Calloway must have been in pain — when he was forced into the back of the car, Toni Jo slammed his hand in the lid of the rumble seat and broke most of his knuckles. Barbed wires that separated the hayfield from the rice paddy tore his skin, his autopsy revealed later.
What Calloway didn’t know as he knelt naked next to the haystack — not that it would have made much difference — was that Toni Jo’s pistol was not loaded. She waited until he had finished pleading for his life and talking of his family, before she made a show of loading the gun.
After advising him to say his prayers, but by her own admission before he even began, Toni Jo shot Calloway above the right eye.
Then she and Burke took the $15 Calloway had in his pockets and burned their victim’s clothes. They left the body uncovered, as if they didn’t care if or when it was found.
They started driving toward the Arkansas line, but when Toni Jo mentioned the bank they were going to rob, Burks wanted to call it a day. Partnership with this girl wns more thim he had bargained for.
“He turned yellow like a little rat,” she said in her confession. “And I hit him over the head wilh the butt of my gun.”
Toni Jo thought she knew where she might be safe and headed for a bawdy house in Shreveport where she used to ply her trade. But the madam wanted nothing to do with her and called Toni Jo’s uncle.
By this time Calloway’s body had been found and a manhunt was underway for the killers. Uncle George McQuiston convinced Toni Jo that her plan to spring Cowboy and live happily ever after was fruitless and convinced her to give herself up.
It took three trials to finally convict Toni Jo of Calloway’s murder. Jurors never wavered on her guilt; it was always this or that appellate issue that kept sending her back into the dock.
But in November 1942, Toni Jo’s luck ran out and on the 28th she finally was placed in the hot seat.
Though nervous and admittedly afraid, Toni Jo displayed remarkable calm as she went to the traveling electric chair set up in the Lake Charles Parish jail (It wasn’t until much later that the State of Louisiana would take over executing state criminals).
One of the things that bothered Toni Jo most before she met her fate was that she would never know how the radio serial “Abie’s Irish Rose” would turn out.
“Abie’s Irish Rose will go right on without me, laughing and fussing and making wonderful noises for everybody else,” she told reporter Chaze.
Leaving behind a small “death row” dog that she willed to her niece, Toni Jo wept when she was told that her head would have to be shaved for the execution. When she entered the chamber with the priest who had recently converted her to the Catholic faith, her head was covered with a bright red shawl.
As Toni Jo continued to cry, the executioner covered her face with the leather death mask and attached the electrode to it. The other electrode was affixed to her bare ankle.
n.b. How an electrocution works: Very simply, the person is inserted into an electrical circuit. The current runs from the source, then into the body through the head and out the leg and back into the source. Just how the electrical current kills the condemned is debatable. Some argue that it fries the brain while others claim it stops the heart. Regardless, it's pretty obvious that the electric chair kills.
Prior to leaving her cell outside the execution chamber, Toni Jo telephoned her husband and said goodbye.
“He was pretty broken up about it,” said one prison official.
Toni Jo had no public statement to make and her last words were a mumbled thank-you to the executioner who bid her goodbye as he lowered the death mask.
She was buried with the cross in her hands in a Louisiana county Potter’s Field after none of her relatives bothered to claim her body.
Burke’s death sentence was carried out shortly after.
Claude David (Cowboy) Henry, 31, was given a 6-month parole in early 1945 and was killed in a barroom brawl on July 15, 1945. The bar owner who shot him claimed self-defense and was never prosecuted.
Religion was apparently very important to Toni Jo Henry, who went to her death at age 26 in the Louisiana electric chair in 1942.
It was the false teeth that tripped up Eva Dugan and sent her to the gallows in 1930 as the first woman to be hanged in Arizona.
Like so many killers, Dugan, a 50-year-old nurse, thought she knew more than investigators about how to administer a fatal dose of poison and make a body disappear. She was wrong and paid for her crime in a gruesome way.
There were other factors besides A.J. Mathis’s dentures contributed to her being caught: the relentless pursuit of the truth by Pinal County sheriff Jim McDonald, a Sonoran Desert dust storm, and an anonymous man who happened to make camp atop the shallow grave that held the remains of the murdered rancher.
In early 1927, friends of the 60-year-old wealthy rancher were the first to bring the mystery to Sheriff McDonald, a sombrero-wearing, horse-riding lawman who seemed to be a throwback to the heady days of the Old West.
Although Mathis pretty much kept to himself on his remote ranch near Vail, Arizona, he was friendly with neighboring ranchers and known as a man with fixed habits and not prone to do things at the drop of a 10-gallon hat. Therefore, when his friends noticed that he hadn’t been seen in some time, they checked with his housekeeper, Eva Dugan.
Dugan, who was Mathis’s self-proclaimed “common law wife,” told them that Mathis had picked up stakes and moved to California.
The ranchers were unconvinced by her explanation.
“Seemed funny that he’d light out to California without telling anybody,” one rancher testified later.
But without anything else to go on, there was little they could do.
Then Dugan began to sell off Mathis’s stock and when she had collected all the cash, she disappeared in the rancher’s car. That prompted them to go to Sheriff McDonald who immediately began poking around.
McDonald and his deputies visited the now-abandoned ranch house and went over the place looking for evidence of foul play. He found nothing, but that didn’t mean he was satisfied.
“It was funny that he disappeared like that,” he told the local paper, concealing the fact that his investigation was far from over. “Still, old men do queer things.”
McDonald took a day trip to Tucson, where he visited Mathis’s bank. The head cashier was more than happy to answer any questions about one of his best customers.
It takes money to travel, McDonald knew, and Mathis had not made any withdrawals before his “trip.” For his part, the cashier was concerned that Mathis had also not made any of his regular deposits. Therefore, McDonald reasoned that Mathis was not in California but “someplace where he had no expenses.”
“The only places I could think of like that were jail and the cold ground,” he testified. “And I knew A.J. was not in jail.”
Dugan had a head-start on the sheriff and he had no clue as to where she was headed. But word travels fast in those close-knit communities and when the postmaster heard that McDonald was wanting to talk to the ex-housekeeper, he told the sheriff who Dugan typically communicated with locally. The postmaster was put on alert to let the sheriff know if anything from Dugan came in.
Acting as if she hadn’t a care in the world, Dugan continued to correspond with friends, and soon McDonald had a trail to follow. At first it looked like she was making a break for the Mexican border, sending a post card from Douglas, Arizona. Then she reversed course and headed east: Texas, then Oklahoma, followed by Kansas City. Then the trail went cold for a couple of weeks until she surfaced in White Plains, New York, where she had taken a job with a hospital as a nurse.
While McDonald headed to New York to question Dugan, more than 1,000 volunteers began going over Mathis’s farm and the surrounding desert, looking for what everyone figured would be Mathis’s grave.
In White Plains, Dugan smugly withstood a withering third-degree from local cops who had arrested her.
“The old man is in California,” she told them. “Someday he’ll wander home and make a fool of that sheriff.”
Unable to extradite Dugan for murder, McDonald settled for something he knew would force her back to Arizona and keep her where he could see her: grand larceny for stealing Mathis’s car. She returned to Pinal County and was convicted of larceny by a jury of the rancher’s friends who knew she was also guilty of something more sinister. They deliberated for 4 minutes before finding her guilty.
Even in jail Dugan retained her composure and refused to answer any questions about the disappearance of her “common-law husband.”
The evidence that Mathis was dead mounted. Rent money from his tenants went undeposited, and bills went unpaid. But this was only circumstantial evidence, and without a body, proving murder with such evidence would be impossible. Mathis’s rancher friends might convict Dugan, but an appeal would undoubtedly overturn the verdict.
Then Fate took over in the form of a desert wind storm.
It was an anonymous traveler who finally broke the case (All of my research has failed to turn up the man’s name). The man was on vacation with his “motor camper” and stopped for the night in the Sonoran Desert near Vail. A heavy wind coming across the open desert picked up sand and tossed it around the camper during the night.
The next morning when the man stepped out to see if there was any damage, he saw something white that had been uncovered. Looking closer, he realized that it was a grinning skull.
Journalists said that when the sheriff broke the news that a body had been found near the Mathis place, Eva simply smiled. She was confident that she had covered her tracks well enough, having covered the body with quicklime. The bones could belong to some poor cowboy who had been lying under the dirt for years.
She had not counted on the fact that while quicklime might (or might not) aid in decomposition, it has no affect on porcelain. Her face fell when Sheriff McDonald presented her with Mathis’s dentures, made shiny by a combination of the calcium oxide and sandblasting.
Every set of dentures is unique to the wearer, and the local dentist was quick to identify the teeth as a set he had made for Mathis.
Dugan’s trial lasted for just two days and her claim that some cowhand named Jack had done the killing was not believed by the jury. According to Dugan, who took the stand in her defense, Jack, with whom she was intimate, had a quarrel with Mathis and punched the old man in the heart, killing him instantly. The panic-stricken couple buried Mathis in a shallow grave in the desert. Dugan said Jack had abandoned her in Douglas and went over the border. However, the prosecution presented some of Dugan’s post cards that said she and Jack were traveling to New York. No one knew of a ranch hand named Jack and no evidence of his existence was ever found.
The jury quickly returned a guilty verdict to the murder charge and did not recommend mercy for Dugan. The judge had no choice but to sentence her to hang — the first woman in Arizona history ever to receive a death sentence.
Appeals dragged on for three years before Eva Dugan ran out of options and time. Toward the end her tough resolve failed her.
“She displayed emotion for the first time as the steel doors clanged behind her, and dobbed as she walked down the cell-lined corridor that leads to the death chamber,” wrote one reporter. “In her cell she gave way to hysteria, necessitating a call to the prison physician to quiet her.”
While awaiting her fate she sewed her own shroud and spent her final days sewing hand-made artificial flowers to the garment.
The mother of two (she had a lawful husband who kept the children) wrote farewell letters to relatives and sent a bizarre telegram to her father:
Have to die Friday. Wire warden $50. Will be buried in Florence. Eva.
The money was to pay the balance she owed the undertaker. She had also recently purchased a lot in a local cemetery.
Dugan recovered her composure as the day of her execution drew nearer. On Feb. 21, 1930, in the company of her minister, a jail matron, and the prison warden she called “Daddy Wright,” she ascended the steps of the gallows, blindfolded.
Shortly before Dugan was brought into the death chamber, Warden Wright revealed to reporters that a vial of what he said was “deadly poison” had been found in Dugan’s cell.
It was a notable day for Arizona. Not only was it executing a woman for the first time, this was the first non-public execution where women were allowed to assist on the gallows. Six women participated in the ritual of stretching the rope and making sure the gallows would function correctly.
Unfortunately — not because of the female participation — it was a botched execution.
On the scaffold, a black hood was placed over her blindfolded face and the noose affixed behind her ear.
The hangman had apparently underestimated Dugan’s weight and planned for a six-foot drop. When the trap opened, Dugan fell through. At six feet below the scaffold the rope snapped and she was decapitated.
Arizona protocol normally required the body to hang for at least 20 minutes before the condemned could be pronounced dead. This time, the doctor pronounced her immediately as Warden Wright demanded that the numerous witnesses leave the death chamber. Reporters in attendance said that no one protested his order.