Out of America: Old Sparky is still deep in the heart of Texas

HUNTSVILLE - Just south of here on Interstate 45, this former Moscow correspondent almost drove off the road in shock. Up ahead was the giant figure of a man, visible for miles, just like the effigies that used to tower over the Russian landscape. But what was it doing in the pinewoods of east Texas? Had Lenin been adopted by the Lone Star state? No, but I wasn't so wrong. The 77-foot statue depicted Sam Houston, Huntsville's most famous son - founder of the Republic of Texas.

What might seem a gratuitous piece of Texan hype is more than justified.

For, if any place needs heroes, it is Huntsville.

The out-of-towner drops by for two reasons. One is Sam Houston, who is buried here. The other relates to an event a decade or so after the great man had led Texas to independence from Mexico.

In 1847, the infant state chose Huntsville as the site of its first prison - making it the headquarters of what is now the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Huntsville has 40 churches, a bustling campus of Texas State University and some prettily renovated shopping streets. But it remains a company town, 4,500 of whose 30,000 inhabitants are employed by the prison service - and one of the jobs of the company is to administer the death penalty. Year in, year out, more people are executed here than anywhere else in the Western world. Since the Supreme Court ruling of 1976, that capital punishment was constitutional, 82 people have been put to death in Huntsville, one in three of every execution in the US. Nowhere do they cause so little fuss.

Even the prison where they take place, just two blocks from the central square, is oddly unthreatening. Armed guards in slate-grey uniforms patrol the walkways on top of the 25-ft-high red brick walls, but the visitor can stroll unmolested past a main entrance that looks straight out of a Victorian public school. The lawn and low privet hedges are always immaculate - and nowhere more so than by the prison's north-east corner where, once every four weeks or so, the executioner works.

Here is sited the artificially-lit Hades of state-organised killing: Death Row, the final holding cell, and the execution chamber itself, divided by a thick perspex screen and curtain from a small witness room. Across the street outside on a sunny autumn afternoon, maybe 30 yards away, the porch of a white clapboard house is piled high with pumpkins for Hallowe'en. So narrow is the physical divide between routine life and routine death.

Since 1977, death in Huntsville has been by lethal injection. Strapped to a hospital trolley, the prisoner is wheeled in to the pale blue death room. A catheter is attached to his arm and when the signal is given, deadly chemicals are sent flowing into his body. A microphone strung from the ceiling captures whatever last words the condemned man might utter. The process is almost industrial, but it always was, even in the era of the electric chair. 'Old Sparky,' in which 361 people died between 1924 and 1964, can be seen at the Texas Prison Museum in the downtown square. Its pale brown wood is as polished and bright as if it were still in service. In a state where capital punishment is a matter of just deserts, some wish it still was. 'A man ought to have something to fear of being executed,' Sam Gilstrap, the last mechanic who tended to 'Old Sparky,' used to observe, 'rather than laying in there and putting a needle in him and letting him go to sleep. When you kick that motor on and you hear it moan - that gets him a little upset.'

But modern Huntsville allows itself few lapses of decorum. True, a tumbledown roadside restaurant near the prison walls was offering Killer Burgers for dollars 3.99 ( pounds 2.45). The museum though, a non-profit- making venture set up in 1989 and staffed by volunteers, is, by Texan standards, free of tacky souvenirs. Executions are not what this town wishes to linger in the mind. Even the Huntsville Item accords them barely a line.

But the arrival of the Texas answer to Lenin, in all his Socialist Realism glory, was quite another matter. Saturday's dedication ceremony filled four pages of the Item. It was, read an ecstatic editorial, the 'iconic transformation' of a community 'too often associated with the rehabilitation of criminals and the execution of the incorrigible.' Tourists would flood to see 'the Huntsville we know, the flowering, tree-lined place that honours its roots.' That may be wishful thinking. But if a monstrosity on Interstate 45 furthers that end, who am I to complain?

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Teeth should be brushed twice a day to prevent tooth decay
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League - but Mourinho is short of strikers
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London