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)

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