The Tough Life of Toni Jo Henry

Toni Jo Henry

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.”
Cowboy Henry and Finnon BurkeHer 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.