The Ultimate Penalty

A case that received much publicity and spilled ink was on Salvador Agron, aka “The Capeman.”  He was convicted in 1960 for killing two boys in a Hell’s Kitchen park in the summer of ’59.  The District Attorney sought the death penalty and got it.  However,  Agron never did meet the executioner’s sword.  In 1962, one week before his date with death, his sentence was rescinded.  Remarkably, clemency for Salvador was supported by the District Attorney who tried the case, the judge of the trial and Eleanor Roosevelt.  Years later Salvador shared the feelings racing through his mind with Richard Jacoby, the author of Conversations with the Capeman an excellent and tragic story of Sal’s life.  I would like to add that Jacoby is a fine human being and a friend of mine.  This page is dedicated to him.  Here is a look into Agron’s thoughts shortly after he was sentenced and an excerpt from Jacoby’s book:

As the prison bus moved on, leaving the city behind me, I became more relaxed.  I thought to myself — here I go, from the frying pan into the fire!  perhaps the fire would extinguish the pain that accompanies my life.  My mind was on death, on electricity, and on the horror of dying helpless, without being able to fight this new monstrous machine — the death penalty.  I wanted to cry.  My pride and youthful arrogance would not permit such a thing.  I came up the rough way, always striving to stay alive, and now death had me in a tight grip.

Death was smiling.  I was very submissive.  No sense in struggling.

Salvador Agron’s case was not the only one involving the death penalty of young gang members in the 1940s and 1950s.  It was the most written about, but there were others, but they weren’t reported on as much.  Only five years prior to Agron’s sentence, Raymond “Dewdrop” Holley, a member of the El Quintos, a Brooklyn gang, was sentenced at age 15 to the electric chair by Judge Leibowitz at Sing  Sing prison (the judge said “it was one of the saddest days of my life” when he sentenced Holley).  This was where the infamous “Old Sparky” electric chair was housed.  Old Sparky claimed 614 lives until the abolition of the death penalty in 1972.

Luckily for Dewdrop, one of the jurors in the case admitted to reading newspaper articles about Holley’s past, so the trial had to be redone.  Although Holley was found guilty again, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison instead of facing execution.

These are the two cases I was aware of involving the death penalty for young gang members.  It was a rare situation, despite the death penalty laws in New York state, for  gang members to receive the death penalty.  But then the other day while conducting research I found another case of a gang member being sentenced to death.  His case was from 1942, just when gangs were beginning to take root in New York City.  The young man sentenced to death was Arthur Winston Sealy.

Sealy was 21 years old when he killed McKinley Kettles on July 25, 1942.  His victim was a member of the ominous-sounding “Midnight Stompers,” a Bedford-Stuyvesant gang.  This case is interesting because when reading through the details of the killing, the word “gangs” is mentioned, but it is obvious that the youth gang concept was a newer thing the authorities were grappling with (and not always recognizing).  And so although it was gang related, it wasn’t stated with quite the authority that reports on later killings in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s did.  An example of this new-found and at the time real-time discovery of gangs was that there was no mention of what gang Sealy belonged to.  I suspect it was the notorious Bishops.

The killing itself involved a great deal of people in a confusing melee that involved eight stab wounds and several attackers.  Although Sealy was tried, convicted and sentenced to death along with his co-defendant Gordon Cooke, there were others involved with the actual stabbing.  One of the boys who lived in McKinley Kettles’ neighborhood didn’t know who did the actual killing, but was furious and intended to find out who did the deed.  He wrote a letter to an inmate at Coxsackie prison on August 23, 1942, but it was intercepted by the authorities.  In the letter he stated that he didn’t know who did it, but said “there is going to be hell raised when we find out…” and that “we are looking for the rat now.”

After being found guilty after a trial, both Sealy and Cooke were sentenced to death, but they fought tooth and nail for their lives.  Their legal battles lasted for two years, an 18 month stay on death row and three reprieves each.

But their tenacious fight for life was for naught.  On June 23, 1944 both Cooke and Sealy were executed in Sing Sing prison, the 511th and 512th victims of  Old Sparky.

In the next couple of weeks I hope to have more information as to what gang Cooke and Sealy belonged to and which I hope to reveal.  Please feel free to email me with comments or questions at [email protected].