I am new to the site and looking forward to learning more about OK history. Years ago an old friend told me about Rich Owens, who worked at the state prison. He was supposed to be the hardest man in OK, which my friend said took in a lot of territory. Can anyone help me with more information about this fellow? My friend has been dead for many years now but I've never forgotten that comment.
Thanks very much.
Rich Owens was nationally famous in the 1930's and 1940's as an executioner. He killed an amazing number of men, both in his capacity as Oklahoma's official executioner and as a private citizen. Below is a portion of Chapter eight of my book "Capital Punishment in Oklahoma, 1835-1966.
The execution of Harlan Broyles ended an era at the Oklahoma State Prison. When Rich Owens pulled the switch no one knew that it would be his last execution. Owens’ career at the prison began in 1909 when he left his job in the coal mines where he had been a construction foreman. He helped with the first nine executions, by strapping the men in and making the electrical connections, but S.C. Treadwell, the prison’s chief engineer, actually pulled the switch. When Treadwell left, the prison sent to Little Rock Arkansas for an experienced executioner, but the man’s lack of professionalism resulted in Owens getting the job. Years later, Owens described his first execution: “In those days all the guards always went down to the train to meet the executioner with lots of whisky and everybody wound up good and drunk. The first time we got him here he was so drunk we had to hold him up to the switch. He made this one all right, but a couple of months later he couldn’t make it to the switch. The warden, who was named Switzen, said to take him away, then nodded to me and asked if I could pull it. I didn’t say a word. I just walked over and slapped it to him like I had been doing it all my life. I didn’t think much about it. Somebody had to pull it as the fellow was already in the chair waiting. I never feel a man should have to wait any longer than he has to.”
The day after this first execution Owens was called into the warden’s office and made the official executioner of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. He held the job until he died February 24, 1948. In his lifetime, Rich Owens killed seventy-five men, sixty-five by electrocution, one by hanging, two with the knife, one with a long-handled shovel, and six by shooting. Owens faced murder charges four times in his life, but all four times juries acquitted him. At the age of thirteen, he killed a horse thief who was riding his father’s horse. At the age of sixty-six he threw the switch that killed Harlan Boyles, his last victim.
Rich Owens’ official job was that of prison guard. He worked days at the prison, usually supervising gangs of prison labor. On execution days, he worked as usual until quitting time, then hurried home for an early supper. He personally prepared the equipment necessary for the execution. These preparations included taking the straps, the head piece, and the leg bands down to the execution chamber.
Another item Owens always made sure was available was alcohol. Unlike his predecessor who took the alcohol internally, Owens used it to clean the contact points where he attached the wires to the victim, explaining that “it makes for a good clear connection.” To guard against faulty connections, Owens also personally soaked the hood and leg pieces in a solution of salt water. “I have sort of an expression,” he said in a grim display of death chamber humor, “I say its time to go salt him down.” Other preparations included shaving the condemned man’s head and legs because, “hair burns and smells.” About an hour before the execution, Owens would take the guards who were to assist him to the death chamber to rehearse. “I stand outside the death chamber and say come and get him. They get me by the arm, one on each side, and march me in and sit me down in the chair. I’m acting like the prisoner, see. They strap me in good and tight. We do this six or seven times until I’m all satisfied it is going to come off in good shape.”
Owens studied his craft and felt there was a correct way to execute a criminal in the electric chair. During his time as an assistant, Owens observed several bungled electrocutions and developed his own method. “The trouble with a lot of fellows is that they try to electrocute a man too quick. I always run up to about forty seconds, when the switch hits twenty-three hundred I roll her back to seventeen hundred and then work up to twenty-three hundred again.” In explaining his method Owens said, “If you turn the juice on real strong and leave it on it won’t kill him as quick as if you turn it down some. The blood has to have time to cook in the heart the way I figure it.”
Rich Owens had a very hard attitude toward life in general, and the prisoners he was responsible for in particular. “I don’t think we electrocute half enough. Why put them up in cells and feed them like fattening hogs, at the expense of the taxpayers? Some of them peckerwoods say I would electrocute everybody in the penitentiary for two-bits apiece. They think I get a big kick out of it. Well, it is a pleasure to kill some of those dirty sons of bitches. Just think what they have done to people.”
Owens’ hard attitude extended beyond just talk and pulling the switch occasionally; when threatened he could be a very hard man to deal with. In November of 1937 Harlan Wells and Roy Glasby, two long-term convicts, tried to use him as a shield to escape from the prison walls. Owens was in the tool house when he felt an arm go around his neck. “Then I felt a knife gig me pretty solid. I thought what the hell-then wham they cracked my skull with a hatchet and I was out.” Owens remained unconscious about three minutes, and by the time he awakened the convicts had tied his hands behind his back with barbed wire and informed him that they were going to “Ride” him out of the walls or kill him. “I says you better go ahead and do the job now because I’m gonna kill you if you don’t and we’re all going to hell. You can’t win and you won’t get out. I’m not asking you for any mercy, and if I get out of here don’t you ask me for any.”
Using Owens for protection the two convicts started toward the front gate of the prison. “We started walking. They had that knife in my back about four inches. They’d turn it to steer me like a bridle on a horse. They was cutting out a pretty good space in my back. It made a bad sore.” As the men neared the prison wall, Owens yelled at Pat Watkins the tower guard to “go to shooting” then with his hands still tied he started kicking and butting the two convicts, causing all three of them to fall into a ditch.
In the struggle that followed, Owens managed to avoid the hatchet of one of the convicts and free his hands from the wire. The man with the hatchet then ran, but the other came after him with the knife. “He was stabbing at me trying to cut my head off. I grabbed the blade of that knife with him a yanking it. You can still see the scar here. I shook him loose and Pat shot him. That bullet missed my belly about half an inch. I believe I would eventually have come out without Pat shooting him, but it helped a lot when he did. It knocked him loose from the knife. I grabbed that son-of-a-bitch by the hair and socked that knife in to the neck bone, and I didn’t pull it out straight. I just ripped it out and let it slice clear across. Then I kicked him a couple of times in the mouth and said now die, you son-of-a-bitch and go to hell with the others.” Recalling this incident over ten years later, Owens’ only comment was “you just ought to have seen how that son-of-a-bitch looked.”
Despite severe wounds and loss of blood, Owens went after the second convict who had taken refuge in the tool shed after witnessing his friend’s death. Owens approached and the man began to beg for his life, but Owens was beyond showing mercy. “I said, you son-of-a-bitch I said I’d kill you if you didn’t kill me.” In a desperate attempt to escape, the man jumped through the tool house window only to be shot in the knee by a guard. “He went down bellowing and I finished him with a long-handled shovel. I sure smashed his brains out. Then I jumped up and down on his temple until I felt the skull crush in."
Unlike Deputy Sheriff John Lucky, taking a human life never seemed to bother Rich Owens. “I never give them a thought afterwards,” he said. “It’s just a job of work. Somebody has to do it and it might as well be me as somebody else. I’m just working for a living—an honest living—when I pull that switch it don’t bother me any more than jerking a chicken’s head off. I’ll swear I don’t know how many I’ve electrocuted. I don’t keep any account. Tomorrow after an electrocution I can’t even recall the name.”
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