The Last Execution by Electric Chair in Chicago

The Last Execution by Electric Chair in Chicago
Last use of the electric chair in Chicago or the State of Illinois was in 1962

Today, February 18, 2015, is the 270th anniversary of Italian Physicist Alessandro Volta.  Volta is credited with inventing the first chemical battery and actually separated and identified the odorless gas, methane.  You can probably deduce by his name that the term to describe electric potential (the volt) is named in his honor.  Actually, since he also discovered methane, we should also probably be saying, “Oops! I volted!” after consuming too many beans or onions but I digress.

Not fully understanding how my mind works the thought of Alessandro Volta lead me to the thought of electricity which ultimately led me to the electric chair which led me to wonder who the last person was who was executed by electric chair in Illinois.  That brought me back to June 16, 1956.

On that day, Detective John J. Blyth Sr. and his partner, Detective Daniel Rolewicz, of the Stockyards Station were on duty for less than an hour when they heard shots ring out near the  New Mount Baptist Church at 223 W. 47th St.   They rushed to investigate and got into a foot pursuit with James E. Dukes.

Prior to the officers’ arrival, Dukes, 31, had gotten into a heated argument and started beating his 16 year old girlfriend, Lorretta Green.    A deacon of the church, Charles Leggons, 49, and head usher, Thomas J. Sylvester, 23, exited the Church to assist Ms. Green.

As Sylvester and Leggons emerged from the Church, Dukes pulled a 9mm automatic pistol from the purse of Green who ironically was carrying it for Dukes.   Dukes screamed, “I’ll kill you all!”

Dukes fired three shots at the men striking Sylvester in the chest and Leggett in the right leg.  Both men survived.

Detective Rolewitz and Blyth gave chase and Dukes fired three shots at Rolewicz from a range of three feet and missed.  As Blyth rounded the corner of the alley, Dukes shot him in the chest.  Rolewicz went to comfort his partner until the ambulance arrived and Blyth told his partner, “I’m going to die.” They prayed until Blyth lost consciousness.  He was pronounced dead at Evangelical Hospital

Later that same day, Dukes (alias Jesse Welch) was found hiding under an automobile at 4802 Wentworth Ave with a bullet wound in his forearm and shoulder.

Detective John J. Blyth Sr.’s end of watch was June 16, 1956.  He was 40 years old and a 17 year veteran of the Chicago Police Department.  He was the third generation of law enforcement in his family and his Badge # 1395 (the same as his father’s) was retired that same year.  He left behind a wife as well as two sons and two daughters.  He was laid to rest at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.

Meanwhile James Dukes was tried twice and convicted twice of the murder of Detective Blyth as well as the shooting of Sylvester and Leggons.  He was sentenced on August 16, 1956 to die by electrocution in Cook County’s electric chair.

Duke’s home on “The Wing”, as death row was called at the Cook County Jail, was the maximum security wing in the basement of the Cook County Jail where inmates were in seven foot by four foot cells for 21 hours of the day.  The electric chair was down the hall in the same level.

After many appeals and legal maneuvering, Dukes was led out of his cell at 7 minutes after midnight on August 24, 1962.  Dukes had converted to Catholicism while incarcerated and asked that his body be buried in consecrated ground.  He had refused his last meal and left written messages to his family.  He left a copy of Plato’s “Apology” as a statement to the press.  It read, “The hour of departure has arrived and we go our ways, I to die and you to live.  Which is better God only knows.”

Dukes was pronounced dead at 12:10am by three doctors including the Cook County Coroner and was, ironically, buried in the same cemetery as Detective Blyth.

Dukes was the last execution in the County and the State of Illinois for twenty-seven years.  When executions resumed in 1990 the means was changed to lethal injection.

Currently there is no death penalty in the State of Illinois.

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