Historically, women have always had to do something particularly awful to be convicted of a serious crime, and to sentence a woman to death – oh! That didn’t happen all that often. Especially when the female in question was good looking. The law has always made an ass of itself when there’s a beautiful woman in the dock.
And don’t argue with me about it. I’ve been trying to prove it to you, see.
One of the most beautiful, indeed absolutely stunning women ever convicted of murder and sentenced to death in the United States of America was a gal by the name of Toni Jo Henry. That’s her, photographed in her cell on the morning of her scheduled execution. Her jailers opened up a telephone line to the governor’s office, and Toni Jo waited on her last hope in life, mindful that women – especially unusually attractive women – and especially in the South – were not generally put to death, no matter what they’d done.
And she was a looker. Nearly every description ever printed of her focused on her eyes. Toni Jo was “slim, hard-faced, flint-eyed,” “smouldering-eyed,” with her “snapping black eyes, and her long, wavy blue black hair.”
After three trials, three convictions, and three pronouncements of the awful sentence, she probably expected to die. But still she was light-hearted about it. As the photographer fussed with his camera, Toni Jo said, “I’ve smiled twice, mister. You haven’t shot yet. Have you any idea how much talent is being wasted here today?”
It was one of many jokes she cracked as she waited for the phone to ring, chain-smoking and making small talk. “That lighter is guaranteed for a lifetime,” she said at one point. “You know one person whose lifetime lighter lasted a lifetime.”
Alas, Toni Jo wasn’t always quite so funny.
Her real name was Annie Beatrice, but that was a little too frou-frou for a girl whose mother died when she was four. Raised by an aunt, she dropped out of grade school and started running away and ramming the roads when she was a teenager. By the time she was 17, she was known all over her home town of Lake Charles, Louisiana as a “lewd woman.” She fell into prostitution and drugs and all the other disgusting things implied in “lewd.” She was arrested several times for assault, larceny, and vagrancy. She snipped a man’s ears with a pair of scissors and went to jail for awhile. “Lots of men have loved me – but I hate ‘em,” she said. They called her “the most ornery gal east of the Mississippi” and the “bad girl of the bayou” and “tiger girl.”
But when she met Cowboy, a/k/a Claude Henry, she managed to turn herself around. That’s his photo. He doesn’t look like anything extraordinary, but Toni Jo was all over it. Cowboy called her a swell kid. He got her off cocaine. He said he loved her, and so she married him.
But even when they met, he was on bond for a murder charge for the murder of a police officer. After they were married, Cowboy drew 50 years for murder and went to the big house in Huntsville. Toni Jo went crazy and vowed that the law could not come between them. She decided she would break him out of prison if she had to do it with her own two hands, because she’d do anything – she’d “hang four times” for Cowboy.
Love makes you do crazy things.
Like steal some guns and ammo. Like set off on foot to get from Louisiana to Texas with some wiry good-for-nothing half-boyfriend slash accomplice in tow, a punk named Harold Finnon Burkes.
Like pull a pistol on some traveling salesman dumb enough to stop to give you both a ride. Like make the poor automobile owner strip naked and beg for his life before you shoot him.
After Toni Jo murdered J.P. Calloway, her squeamish companion made a remark she didn’t like and she called him a yellow rat and cracked his head with the butt and left him behind. That, of course, turned out to be a big mistake, because he was a rat, and before she knew it she was in a jail cell.
She wouldn’t talk, so they brought her husband from prison to wring a confession from her. “Please honey tell them the truth,” he said, over and over. So she did, admitting they bumped the guy off. “I let him say his prayers and then gave it to him right between the eyes,” she said.
Toni Jo Henry went on trial in Lake Charles, where her reputation preceded her. The judge let a huge crowd into a courtroom so packed sometimes the defense lawyers couldn’t see all the jurors. The flashbulbs sometimes drowned out the arguments of counsel. And all in attendance let their wishes be known. During the trial various audience members made the hanging sign by drawing their fingers across their throats while looking at the jurors. When jurors went to lunch, they heard men and women alike cry out, “hang her,” “hang that bitch.”
On the first appeal in State of Louisiana v. Henry, the Supreme Court of Louisiana said:
The populace clamored for the death penalty. They demanded the life of the accused and clearly manifested their desires to the jury by signs and gestures which could not be misunderstood. The trial was attended by throngs. Hundreds more than could be seated crowded into the courthouse. The courtroom was literally packed and jammed with spectators. The judge says that more than 150 either stood or were seated within the railing which separated his stand from the space reserved for spectators. The record clearly shows that they were present not merely through interest, but for the purpose of letting it be known that they demanded the death penalty…. public sentiment against the accused was at fever heat…. no punishment inflicted upon the accused except that of death would appease the wrath of the throng.
She got a new trial. The same result followed, so they gave her a third trial. But they ran out of excuses and finally set a date in 1942 for Toni Jo to sit in the Chair. Cowboy escaped from a prison farm a few days before she was supposed to be electrocuted in a desperate effort to reach her; he was captured two days later.
In a jailhouse interview just before she was supposed to die, Toni Jo decided she might as well “kick the lid off.” She talked about Cowboy.
“I was a bad girl at 13, a drug addict at 16,” she said. “Nobody ever cared about me before him. That guy is the king of my heart. He gave me a home and he got that drug monkey off my back.
“I remember the day I told him I was a cokie and the look on his face. He thought I just smoked marijuana and grinned. But when I told him my train went a lot further than marijuana he took me to a hotel room and I lay there in bed for a week and he would come in now and then and ask me how I was doing. He’d slap my face with iced towels and we’d both laugh.
“I think condemned persons fret more about losing contact with human beings than anything else. You feel so out of it. It’s more than these bars: it’s more like a hellish battle with long distance when she won’t give you a number – anybody’s number—not one friendly human being’s number. You get so cold and pretty soon you’re a freak even to yourself.”
The reporter asked about the man she killed, the man who left behind a wife and daughter. “I’ve asked myself a thousand times and I don’t know why I killed that man,” she said. “I’m willing to walk down to the chair and I’ll take my medicine.”
Toni Jo said her dying wish was to talk to Cowboy, and though it violated the rules, they let her call him. She did all the talking and he did all the crying. ”I know it has to come and I’m ready for it, honey,” Toni Jo told Cowboy. “I’m glad to have known you for the short time that I did. I’m sorry that things had to turn out this way. But you’ve got to live right, Claude.”
The governor, by the way, never did call.
Toni Jo promised to go quietly, except she squawked when they shaved her head. They promised to hunt up a scarf for her to put over her bald head, knowing the photographers were lined up outside to see her taken to the death room. One of those photos, at right, shows her jailer looking more sad than Toni Jo.
Toni Jo Henry was electrocuted November 28, 1942. The wire services all reported that Cowboy Henry screamed and thrashed and destroyed his cell in his grief.
In a final awful coda, Cowboy was released from prison a handful of years after his wife's execution. The decade didn't end before Cowboy Henry was shot and killed and raced into the dark to be with his bad girl from the bayou.
There are a number of books about Toni Jo Henry.
In Dutch: De Tijgerin van Louisiana, http://www.antiqbook.nl/boox/vin/17814.shtml
STONE JUSTICE written by Deborah McMartin & Evelyn Morgan was published by AuthorsHouse and is available on addall.com.
New in 2009: A new fictional treatment of Toni Jo Henry has been penned by Dr. Norman German, , professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University. You can download the Kindle version from http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0028AD3C2 or order a hard copy from http://www.asavagewisdom.com/.