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 this hard luck murderer was 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. 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, Toni Jo ran away from home and went to work in a dance hall. By her own admission she was a prostitute by 13 (or 14 depending on the news story) and a cocaine addict by 16.
“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 Calloway’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 was more than he had bargained for.
“He turned yellow like a little rat,” she said in her confession. “And I hit him over the head with 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.
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 hardship parole in early 1945 and was drinking in a honky-tonk when he was involved in a vicious bar fight on July 15, 1945. The bar owner who shot him claimed self-defense and was never prosecuted.
Archive for 1940s
Religion was apparently very important to Toni Jo Henry, who went to her death at age 26 in the Louisiana electric chair in 1942.
Fame has an sordid counterpart that few set out to achieve: notoriety. The adjective notorious is never positive, and very rarely can the chain which links it to a name be broken.
Small-town girl Madeline Webb was lured by the bright lights of New York City in search of fame and fortune. Instead all she achieved was fleeting notoriety followed by a life of loneliness behind prison walls.
It might have been worse. Had she been a man she would have ended up in Sing Sing’s electric chair like her two partners in crime.
Her sad tale begins in begins in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in the early 1930s when the 20-year-old fresh-faced young woman with an education degree from Oklahoma State University left her small hometown with a dream to become a Powers model.
Her strict Baptist mother was dead-set against Madeline heading to Hollywood, but her father, who had always spoiled his only daughter and never knew how to say no, overruled her. For the first few years he helped subsidize her career while Madeline chased her dream.
Madeline was shooting for the top by looking for a chance with John Powers. The starmaker had help launch the careers of such immortals as Cary Grant, Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and dozens of others (some other alumni include Jackie Kennedy, Betty Ford, and a bunch of people whose faces and bodies readers probably know, but whose names mean little to nothing).
She would not prove to be the exception to the rule that people who head to Hollywood in hopes of hitting it big almost always fail.
“In Hollywood pretty, small-town girls like Madeline Webb aren’t even a dime-a-dozen,” one reporter covering her trial wrote. “They’re a nickel a hundred.”
Eventually Madeline lost hope in the Hollywood dream and traded it for an equally unlikely one of making it on Broadway. In 1938 she scraped together enough money from her waitressing job and headed to the Great White Way. For a time she danced a little and did some minor pin-up modeling (There were rumors that she did some nudes and danced naked at “an undraped show” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but she denied the allegation and no photos ever surfaced).
Things got even tougher when her father died and Madeline’s mother took his entire estate and poured it into the family grocery store. The support dried up for good. But Madeline was determined to carry on.
But time and the stress of big city life began to erode her “nickel a hundred” looks and the always elusive jobs began to get fewer and further between. Her bright-eyed farm girl appearance began to be replaced by a care-worn and faded countenance that was now usually hidden behind horn-rimmed glasses thanks to her near-sightedness.
“I know I have given you a lot of trouble this year, and I am sadder about it than you will ever know,” she wrote her 60-year-old widowed mother. And with a bit of foreshadowing of her future, she added: “This town scares me to death. People will stop at nothing, including murder, for money. Oh! How I wish I were home.”
However, Madeline failed to make good on her wish and sometime during her stay in New York she met and fell in love with a ex-convict and wife deserter named Eli Shonbrun.
His story was similar in many ways to Madeline’s. He was a failed big band singer who had once had a gig in a Long Island cabaret using the name Teddy Sanborn. When the club folded thanks to the Depression, Shonbrun auditioned for bandleader Glenn Miller, but failed to get the job. So Eli turned to petty theft to keep a roof over his head. He specialized in jewel robbery with his partner John “Crooked Nose” Cullen. Shunbrun was already wanted by police for robbing a woman in Virginia and another in New York City.
At her murder trial Madeline denied knowing that the man she called Eddie was a thief.
“He never discussed his business with me and I never asked,” she said. “I had been pampered since childhood and I had the attitude that I would be taken care of and there was no need to ask how.”
Madeline did know, however, that Shonbrun was married and separated from his wife. Like so many gullible women, she bought the line that his marriage was over and that he was seeking a divorce. After they set up a household in a midtown hotel called The Sutton, Shonbrun presented Madeline with diamond engagement ring that later turned out to be stolen. Whenever they met one of Shonbrun’s shady friends he introduced her as his “bride.”
It was clear that Madeline loved him.
“He is adorable and sweet, intelligent and well-bred,” she told a reporter before her trial. “He is so wonderful and so sweet, so good to me.”
The end for Madeline came in the spring of 1942 when the telephone rang in the apartment of 52-year-old Susan Flora Reich. The fates were rarely kind to Susan. A Jew, Susan was deported from Austria to Poland after the Anschluss with Germany, but managed to escape to the United States prior to the establishment of the Polish ghettos with her husband, Marion Reich, and her 79-year-old aunt Eliza Klamman. Unlike other refugees, The Reichs managed to save some of their wealth during their exodus and Susan enjoyed wearing flashy jewelry.
On March 21, 1942, the phone rang in Susan’s apartment and was answered by Susan’s elderly Aunt Eliza. The woman’s voice on the other end of the line identified herself as “the actress” Madeline Webb, and claimed to have met Susan at a party where they struck up a casual friendship. Susan was not in at the time, so Aunt Eliza took a message. The caller said she had recently been married and wanted to invite Susan to lunch at her Sutton Hotel apartment to meet her husband.
Two days later Susan rang the bell outside the apartment shared by Shunbrun and Madeline. She entered the apartment and was never seen alive again.
When she failed to return home, her husband called the police who tracked her down the next day at the apartment. She was dead, having been strangled with a scarf. A $1,500 ring was missing from her finger. It was a bad haul for the thieves, but it was all she wore that day.
It was not hard for police to close the case. As far as criminal ploys go, the only way the killers could have done a worse job was to ask Susan to bring the neighborhood beat cop.
Soon after, Madeline, Shonbrun, and Cullen were in jail, facing first-degree murder charges. Ironically, her arrest probably was as close to greatness as Madeline would ever come. The lead detective on the case was Thomas Tunney, brother of heavyweight champ and one of boxing’s all-time greats, Gene Tunney.
The three-carat diamond was found separate from its settings in one of Madeline’s slips in the shoddy hotel in the Bronx where they were hiding out.
Once in custody, Madeline claimed no knowledge of the murder.
Shonbrun met Madeline the night of the murder on a street corner and told her they had been locked out the hotel because they could not pay the rent. She was not particularly surprised at that news.
“It had happened to us so often before,” she told the police. “We were always being put out of hotels, always have to leave our clothes behind. Once we spent the night in Penn Station.”
But even if her ignorance of the crime was true, eventually Shunbrun must have told her something.
“I have lived through the toughest week of my life,” she told Det. Tunney. “I have had to live like a rat, ducking in and out of dorrways, expecting to be arrested at any moment.”
One of the witnesses against the trio was Shunbrun’s uncle and fence who was the first one picked up by police. He quickly rolled on the rest of the gang after admitting knowledge of the planned crime. After turning state’s evidence to avoid the chair, he told authorities that it was Madeline who made the “come on” phone call.
Aunt Eliza swore that it was Madeline’s voice on the other end of the phone, but Madeline denied this. Bolstering her claim that she had no involvement, both Shunbrun and Cullen insisted she had no part in it. They confessed their own parts, and said the uncle was the mastermind and that he was skilled in imitating women’s voices.
The most the prosecution would concede was that Madeline was not at the scene of the crime during the robbery and murder. However, she was still a party to it, and equally culpable.
The trial was a perfunctory affair with the exception that Madeline was perhaps her own worst enemy. She repeatedly tossed epithets at assistant district attorney Jacob Grumet (“You filthy so-and-so. I don’t want your kind of justice!”) and constantly embracing Eli Shunbrun. The jury returned guilty verdicts with no recommendation of mercy for Shunbrun and Cullen and they were executed on April 29, 1943, two of 10 killers electrocuted that year.
The jury recommended mercy for Madeline and Judge Jonah Goldstein agreed, sentencing her to life without parole.
When the cell door closed at the Westfield Women’s Prison in Westchester County just north of the city, Madeline went to pieces, Warden Henrietta Additon reported. For two days she convulsed with sobs and beat her hands raw against the bars. Additon, one of the most-regarded female penologists in the U.S., was afraid that her new prisoner would end up in an asylum. But as the days passed Madeline adapted to the anonymity that a prison number brings and was soon a model inmate. Additon saw something useful in her charge.
Many of the women in the prison were poorly educated at best and as such could not hold a job. They were not interested in being taught by the screws, so time-and-time again the cell doors revolved around them. Additon wondered if they might be willing to learn from one of their own, particularly one who nothing to gain by helping them.
“I felt there was much more to this girl than appeared on the surface,” Additon said later.
Madeline accepted Additon’s proposal and finally began to put her OSU degree to use.
“Once we convinced her that there was a constructive job she could do in this institution she responded at once,” Additon said. “She had the most difficult of all the students to work with and she had to do a great deal of studying herself to handle her job. But she worked at it, and she got results.”
Later she began curating the prison library. She also returned to performing, directing plays but never taking a role onstage herself.
In 1963, a magazine reporter did a feature on Madeline, now 48, and reported that the once-selfish and pampered dancer had matured behind bars.
“She has a wonderful way with people and a very deep and sincere interest in helping the next one.” said the superintendent at the time, Warden Lillian Fish. “You can’t fake that in an institution like ours. You either have it or you don’t.”
Although she became eligible for parole thanks to a change in New York lifer laws, the parole board repeatedly passed over Madeline Webb without explanation. At the time the article was published (1963), the average lifer with a 20-to-life term served just 13 years. Madeline was 7 years over the mean.
She remained hopeful of release one day, thanks to the support of her jailers and even Judge Goldstein who sentenced her in 1942.
“I have made the most of my 20 years,” she told the reporter. “I feel I can still make a contribution to society — in a life outside of prison.”
Madeline would have to wait another 4 years before Gov. Nelson Rockefeller commuted the balance of her sentence. She was released in 1967 and returned to Stillwater, Oklahoma, where for the rest of her life she courted neither fame nor notoriety.