By Christopher Smith, SJ
On March 6, 1940, three men sat in North Carolina’s Central Prison awaiting their imminent executions. North Carolina’s state of the art gas chamber led the nation in executions by lethal gas at the time. The week before, two men were gassed for rape at the same time, and a week after, two more men would meet a similar fate for the same crime. The three in the execution holding cells this day had been convicted of a particularly gruesome crime. The men — 19-year-old Ralph Kelly and brothers Ralph and Wade Hanford, 22 and 38 years old respectively — murdered a sheriff and a policeman in the early morning of December 7, 1938, in rural Alamance County. The cops surprised them as they were breaking into a gas station, and within a minute three men were dead: Patrolman Sonnie Vaughn, Sheriff M. P. Robertson and one of the burglars, Roy Huffman. The Hanfords and Kelly ran, but they were quickly apprehended, tried and unanimously sentenced to death. Now, their appeals had all failed, and they awaited eternity, which was less than two hours away.
They had spent the day in prayer and despair with crying relatives. They were changing into new “death day” suits when suddenly the phone rang. It was the governor and the news was spectacular: He commuted their death sentences. The local newspaper recorded the Hanfords’ responses. Ralph’s was one of disbelief. Wade’s was one of profound gratitude: “I have lived a miserable, sinful life, but no matter how long I stay here, I’m going to be faithful to God.” Wade was paroled a few years later, got married and settled into a respectable family life — living to the age of 82. He kept his promise — he stayed out of trouble. He got a chance to change his life and make it more than a short tragedy defined by the worst thing he ever did. The other pardoned men had families and also lived full lives. All thanks to a call.
What could have inspired this pardon call on that Wednesday in 1940? Not evidence of innocence: There were eyewitnesses, and one of their friends testified against the trio to avoid the gas chamber himself. There was no doubt as to their guilt. Neither could it have been that the governor had qualms with capital punishment. The previous week he refused to commute the sentence of a 17-year-old convicted of rape. In his decree of clemency, he explains the major factor for his decision: He received a petition, and it was so unusual that it tipped the balance for him. Signed by 8,000 men, this petition represented a huge swath of Alamance County’s population spread over countless miles of fields of tobacco. Among the signatories were the mayor, the county commissioners, the chief of police, all 12 trial jurors and even the trial judge. Even more incredible, although perhaps unknown to the governor, was the very first signature. In Palmer method cursive it read: Florence Vaughn. The first person to sign, and the catalyst for the petition which prompted the pardon, was the widow of the murdered patrolman: my great-grandmother.
Florence was a quiet and unassuming woman. Every Sunday she climbed the stairs of Glen Hope Baptist Church to sit in the balcony, hidden away in the back of the church. She became Christian at a young age and remained devout and devoted for her entire life. Her husband, the murdered patrolman was … not. A womanizer, drinker and a violent man, she tried to win him over with her gentleness, but he died before she prevailed. His death sent her into financial ruin for the remainder of her life. Additionally, due to my great-grandfather’s indiscretions, she was burdened with spiritual and psychological suffering over the fate of his eternal soul. She lived the rest of her life alone in a small house where she had only the bare essentials. Having few material possessions, though, did not deter her from generosity to those whose path she crossed.
When my cousins had nowhere to live, she took them in, although her house was small. She fed them and taught them how to behave. Now in their 60s, they credit their success to her. When the leg of my aunt’s prized baby doll, Patsy, was cut off by a mean neighborhood bully, Florence mended her and sewed her a dress. When another cousin lost her mother and suffered constant abuse from her stepmother, Florence would spend the little she had to take the bus to visit her. They would walk to the pharmacy for a shake or lunch, and during that hour my cousin felt safe. Florence never spoke about herself, so the stories only started to emerge long after she died, and each branch told their own tales of our family saint, but the details of her biggest feat were completely unknown until recently. Among relatives, as I grew up, I heard murmurs that Florence had in some way done something for the people who killed her husband. Yet not even the family historian was certain what, or even who the men were. With technology and a lot of free time, I took it upon myself to find out.
In court records, during the sentencing phase of the trial (after the young men were convicted) Florence politely and meekly requested that they not be put to death before an emotional courtroom. She asked the judge and jury for forgiveness of them all. Unfortunately, the hands of both were tied: Killing an officer of the law in the course of his duty was a capital offense in the original sense. Because it was clear that these men had, in fact, killed my great-grandfather, the state ordered they must pay for their crimes by breathing cyanide fumes.
Florence was not content to leave the matter there. When the defense proposed a petition for clemency, she was the first to sign. Despite the fact that these men took the love of her life away and might have damned him to hell in her worldview — and condemned her to spend the rest of her life in poverty — she asked the governor for mercy for them. The power of her holiness moved everyone who heard, and it was only after she signed that the judge and jury dared to. Despising the spotlight, she sank back into the background and never spoke of it again: Jesus knew what she had done and that was enough. After a battle with cancer, Florence died during a brief stay in the hospital on January 13, 1967.
Fifty-four years later to the day, another prisoner, Lisa Marie Montgomery, a victim of sex trafficking, rape and serial abuse, became the first woman to be put to death by the federal government this millennium. The last woman executed by the federal government was Bonnie Heady in 1953 (when Florence was 60 years old), who was gassed for the kidnapping and murder of Bobby Greenglass. Montgomery’s crime was brutal: She strangled a pregnant woman and stole her unborn child. Yet, Montgomery’s life was horrific from start to end. She was a woman who received no mercy, even at the end.
As a country we have the power to choose to make Hanfords or to make Montgomerys. To forgive or to condemn. Death or life. Mercy gives life. Because of my great-grandmother, there are descendants of men alive today that would never have been had she chosen to continue the cycle of violence and retribution. Mercy inspires and calls people to greatness and repentance, because it is the greatest act of faith that we can bestow in the humanity of others who hurt us. Florence would not want to be in the spotlight, but she should be. By her intercession may we end the gruesome practice of capital punishment in this nation, and by her example may all people of good will make it so. Amen.
Christopher Smith, SJ, is a Jesuit scholastic who is currently teaching science at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C.