SOMETIME IN the 1930s, a black inmate on death row in a Southern state is asphyxiated in its gas chamber. As he breathes in the fatal fumes -- and as observers watch from behind a thick pane of glass -- he cries out: “Save me, Joe Louis! Save me, Joe Louis!”
The story has been told ever since, usually to illustrate Louis’ near-messianic status in a black America that had little else going for it in the years before World War II. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was among those telling it. “Not God, not government, not charitably minded white men, but a Negro who was the world’s most expert fighter, in this last extremity, was the last hope,” he wrote in 1963.
Too bad it never happened.
But the real story about that black inmate, 19-year-old Allen Foster, and how he died on Jan. 24, 1936, is a parable of a different sort. Instead of exalting a prizefighter, it illustrates one of the countless forgotten but horrific racial wounds that lie just beneath this nation’s veneer of civility and ooze and bleed from even the most superficial incision into our past.
Such stories are rarely recounted. To whites, they are largely alien, while to blacks, they are almost too commonplace for comment. But they help explain and illustrate the American racial divide as surely as Hurricane Katrina. They help explain the otherwise inexplicable, like those black crowds cheering O.J. Simpson a decade ago.
Foster, born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., was an all-too-familiar figure in the early 20th century South: black, impoverished, fatherless, uneducated, in trouble with the law. He was also mentally impaired. In 1929, at the age of 13, he was convicted of robbery and sentenced to the state Negro Industrial School until the age of 21. His crime: stealing eggs from a boxcar.
Foster was with the Civilian Conservation Corps in Ft. Bragg, N.C., when, on Sept. 28, 1935, he left the camp, walked down a country road and held up the wife of a local white farmer. The woman testified that he’d demanded money, then knocked her down with a bottle, then raped her at knifepoint. Within six weeks, he’d been tried, convicted and sentenced to death.
Foster later said he was clubbed into confessing. It’s impossible now to know the truth, though it’s surely a fair bet that his trial was perfunctory, his defense limited, his story given little weight against that of a white woman charging a black man with rape. Whether he deserved to die, though, mattered less than how he did. His execution was the first in North Carolina’s new gas chamber. Gassing had just replaced electrocution, ostensibly because it was “more humane.” It had worked just fine when tested a few weeks earlier on a couple of dogs.
Foster’s distraught mother did what she could to stave off the execution, sending off a series of pathetic, handwritten appeals on behalf of her only child to North Carolina’s governor, J.C.B. Ehringhaus. “I hate to worrie [sic] you so much but I just can’t help it Gov.,” she pleaded. “If it is just some way he could get life sentence and not be killed. I want to him to live that all I got to live for in this world. Please save him from that Gas please. I taught him all I could and all I knowed about the white people law.” In another note, she pointed to her son’s mental condition. “How offal it is to put a half crazy to Death,” was how she put it. “Earnest consideration” was being given to her case, she was assured.
But the execution was set for Jan. 24, 1936. And it proceeded as scheduled -- though hardly as planned. As a couple dozen newspapermen and witnesses watched at the state prison in Raleigh, Foster entered the death chamber. He wore only a pair of cotton boxing trunks and shivered in the freezing room. He was bound and chained to a chair, with a stethoscope taped to his chest. A dish of hydrochloric acid was placed underneath his seat. After everyone withdrew behind the glass partition, Foster said something, then clenched his fist and threw an uppercut. He was apparently recalling a boyhood bout with Louis, though it was surely imaginary: While born in Alabama, Louis had never been to Birmingham and had only begun to box after leaving the state. (But the Daily Worker later described things differently, and a myth was thereby born.) Foster then said goodbye to his mother and shouted his innocence.
THE EXECUTIONER pulled a string, and potassium cyanide pellets fell into the acid. Whitish-gray smoke -- hydrocyanic acid -- quickly enveloped Foster. He opened his mouth and inhaled what one death row veteran, W.T. Bost of the Raleigh Daily News, called “concentrated hell.” When Foster exhaled, it looked as if he were smoking a cigarette. Then he inhaled again. “Merciful minded watchers thought he was gone,” wrote Bost; instead, “he hadn’t started.” Two minutes and a dozen whiffs later, he was still talking, still saying something.
More time passed. Foster’s head dropped, his eyes bulged, his body convulsed, and still, he attempted to talk. In all, 10 more minutes came and went, 10 minutes of breaths deep and shallow, of writhing and retching and lurching violently, his eyes rolling grotesquely all the while. For a time, the doctors on hand debated whether to go back into the chamber and put more pellets in the dish. “And still,” Bost wrote, “that stout heart beat away.” Surely, he speculated, there was a use to which courage so extraordinary could be put. Only after 12 minutes was the inmate finally pronounced dead.
Though he’d defiled Southern womanhood, the spectacle left pretty much everyone believing that Allen Foster had gotten even more than he deserved. “Gas Execution Called Savage,” the Charlotte Observer declared the next day. Bost, who had witnessed five lynchings and as many hangings along with 153 executions in his day, called it “the most barbarous thing I have ever seen.”
“Between the two, give me electricity,” said the warden, who’d seen all 162 executions in North Carolina since 1909.
“Never again for me,” said the coroner. “It’s slow torture -- that’s what it is.”
“In death, Allen Foster is likely to be talked about far more in North Carolina than if he were another Joe Louis,” the Observer predicted.
Of course, that wasn’t so. In fact, whatever outrage there was quickly dissipated -- for the next 62 years, North Carolina continued gassings -- and Foster was completely forgotten. And would remain, were it not for the “save me, Joe Louis” legend, which developed partly because it was so plausible. After all, to whom else was an African American of that era to pray?
“I’m in death row, and I got only six more weeks to go,” another black man in another Southern penitentiary had written Louis in the spring of 1935. “Your picture hanging on the wall will make me feel better as I wait for the electric chair.”