On June 3, 1932, the Sunbeam Prison Camp near Jacksonville becomes the site of Florida's infamous "chain gang hanging." The 19-year-old inmate, Arthur Maillefert, is strangled by the chain that holds him in place; he is unable to stand because his feet are in stocks. The Maillefert case of abuse receives much attention and is reported in the New York Times.
A demonstration of leg restraint worn by Arthur Maillefert before his death. (Photo courtesy of FPC.)
The Sunbeam Prison Camp. (Photo courtesy of FPC.)
This story by Marlene Womack was printed in the Panama City News Herald on July 1, 2001. It details the events surrounding Maillefert's death.
Sunbeam Camp was Said
George W. Courson (Photos courtesy of FPC.)
George W. Courson, a 285-pound man in his 50s, held the post of captain of the convict camp. He came to Florida in 1898. After working for the railroad many years he accepted employment with the state road department. Courson had a wife, four grown children and two younger sons.
Nassau County native Solomon Higginbotham, 26, served as one of the convict guards. He had been employed in that capacity for about a month and was a widower with two small children. Higginbotham bore the same last name as Walter Higginbotham, the whipping boss who administered the fatal licks to Martin Tabert, a leased convict, in 1922. But this Higginbotham claimed no connection to the individual brought to trial in the Tabert case.
Two photos of Arthur Maillefert. (Photos courtesy of FPC.)
Maillefert, 22, of Westfield, N.J., came to Florida in 1930 but found few opportunities for work as a result of the worsening Depression. In late 1931, he robbed a gas station in Daytona Beach and fled to the Jacksonville area, where law officers apprehended him. As Volusia County Sheriff T.O. Milton and constable George Haney were escorting the handcuffed prisoner back for trial, he made a daring escape on the Halifax River bridge, by leaping from the car and lunging over the railing into the water.
The police dragged the river but found no body. Authorities picked up the prisoner in Titusville that night. At Maillefert's trial he was found guilty and sentenced to nine years of hard labor. Maillefert arrived at Sunbeam during the early spring in 1932. From the beginning Courson had problems with the rebellious young prisoner. Maillefert told fellow cons that the guards made it rougher on men from the North. Since his home was New Jersey, most referred to him as "Jersey." After Maillefert's death three months later, W.M. (Buddy) Gasque, a Duval County detective, was called in to investigate. Gasque stated that he was going to get to the bottom of this tragic incident and didn't give a damn "where the collar fit." A grand jury was convened. Courson and Higginbotham were arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
The sensational trial began in October 1932 in Jacksonville. Proceedings started at 9 a.m. but hundreds arrived as early as 6 a.m. determined to obtain seats in the courtroom. Those who remained jammed the hallways, anxious for any news concerning the case. This crowd continued during the entire length of the trial, which lasted for two weeks.
Jury selection took more than two days. State Attorney Charles M. Durrance and his assistant Samuel B. Wilson handled the prosecution. Courson was represented by A.C. Avriett; Higginbotham by Fuller Warren, who became Florida governor in 1949. Judge George C. Gibbs presided. Both defendants remained free on $60,000 bond.
Since several death threats had been made against Courson, Gibbs stationed deputies at the courtroom doors. Mrs. Julia Maillefert, mother of the dead prisoner, traveled from New Jersey for the trial with her son, William. She appeared in court every day dressed in mourning clothes but made no comments until evidence was placed on display. Then she became visibly shaken. Courson's wife was present with her children.
Arthur Maillefert's family at the trial. (Photos courtesy of FPC.)
The defense claimed the youthful prisoner committed suicide because he preferred death to imprisonment. But Dr. R.R. Killinger, the county medical examiner, soon poked holes in that claim, stating "there is practically no such thing as self strangulation when able to aid one's self because the desire to breathe is too great."
Testimony began with a few prisoners describing the way Maillefert became ill while "grubbing stumps in the early summer heat" on Wednesday, June 1, 1932. After he returned to camp and was checked by L.V. Tyler, the camp doctor, Courson forced Maillefert to drink a cup of castor oil, the standard treatment for prisoners who did not feel well.
Maillefert swallowed the first cup but when he refused a second cup, Denmark, the whipping boss, lashed him repeatedly with a 3-inch-wide, 18-inch-long rubber hose used to couple boxcars, while others like Courson were said to have gotten in their jabs.
Whipping prisoners became illegal in Florida after the Tabert case, but Denmark and the others believed they were alone in the camp. They did not know that trustee Bob Blake had returned for more tools and witnessed the beating.
After providing testimony, Blake also explained that the only way to get along at Sunbeam was to become a "chain gang rat," or stool pigeon. Maillefert did not play by those rules, however, and was always in trouble.
After the beating, Maillefert spent the night in great pain, housed in the stockade.
||The leg restraint and chain worn by Arthur Maillefert are displayed for the media outside the Jacksonville Courthouse on June 6, 1932. (Photos courtesy of FPC.)|
Early discipline included devices like the barrel restraint. (Photo courtesy of FPC.)
The next day Courson decided to break Maillefert's spirit once and for all. He ordered him to strip, then forced the unclothed prisoner into a 50-pound wooden barrel which he attached by hammering pieces of wood around his neck and tying on leather straps. When Maillefert complained that the fastenings were too tight, Courson replied that he didn't "give a damn." That day Maillefert spent most of the time sitting on a piece of U-shaped pipe in the yard. The pipe was the only place he could find that allowed him to see by craning his neck over the edge of the barrel.
Without clothing, Maillefert's badly bruised body became ravaged by flies, mosquitoes and gnats, causing numerous bumps and sores. Maillefert asked for food but received none. Guards lodged the barreled man in the cramped sweat box that night.
The next morning when a guard opened the door, prisoner E.L. Smith said Maillefert fell and because of the barrel rolled on the ground. Courson and some of the others broke out laughing. One remarked that he looked like an overturned turtle in the sand, trying to right itself. But Maillefert finally made it to his feet.
That afternoon while no one was paying attention to him, Maillefert began gnawing on his straps and broke loose. He grabbed an old piece of blanket as cover and ran into the woods, trying to escape Courson's persecution. But Jersey's freedom lasted only a short time. Higginbotham, some of the trustees and the bloodhounds soon caught up with him. The guard wanted to kill Maillefert on the spot, but a truck driver by the name of John Mathews, who witnessed the capture, stopped him.
When they all arrived back in the camp yard, Higginbotham pulled Jersey off the truck. He fell and a puppy he had befriended began licking his face.
Courson then made one last attempt to break Maillefert, according to Smith's testimony. He nailed illegal 17-pound stocks around his feet, then wrapped a trace chain around his neck.
As Maillefert hobbled back into the sweat box, Higginbotham attached the chain to the rafters. Maillefert asked for a drink of water and took a couple of swallows. Higginbotham snatched it from him and said, according to testimony, "if you can still drink, that damn chain's not tight enough." Then, as some of the prisoners watched, Higginbotham pulled the chain so taut the weakened Maillefert could not reach the floor if he collapsed. When one of them asked Courson how long he intended to keep Jersey in that position, he was said to have replied "till Christmas or until he's dead. I intend to get his damned mind right."
Maillefert told some that he knew he could not endure this punishment. He was too weak from lack of food and the beatings to be able to stand all night. Smith testified that in leaving, he heard Courson say in a low voice, "it won't be long," as they all walked to the mess hall for supper. Forty-five minutes later when they returned, a trustee checked on the prisoner and found him ashen and not breathing. The trustee and others quickly released Jersey. They tried to revive him for half an hour. But all efforts failed.
While the men worked on resuscitation, Courson was said to have come up with the story that Maillefert hung himself, according to several of the men. He ordered all of them to back his story. Tyler pronounced Jersey dead before he was carried to the mess hall so the encrusted sand could be washed from his body. Under orders that he protested, Higginbotham dressed Maillefert in his own suit and also supplied undergarments, his white shirt and a tie. Once Jersey was clothed, Higginbotham reportedly said, "he favors me."
At the opening of the second week, the judge ordered three sessions per day, one in the morning, afternoon and evening. By then threats had been made against the defense attorneys and the judge. Embalmer V.C. Wisner from the nearby Conant Funeral Home testified that the convict's body was "so badly bruised that separate bruises would be hard to describe."
The two defendants were the last to testify. With tears in his eyes, Courson spoke a long time about the way he made every effort to help the incorrigible boy. He claimed that he would have removed Maillefert from the box if he promised to do right, but the young man would never say those words. As to starving him, Courson said that he would have provided Maillefert his own meal if he had just asked for it.
But when the big question was asked by Durrance as to why he did not return Maillefert to the State Prison Farm once he experienced trouble with him, Courson replied that he was "powerless to do so with all the red tape."
Although 80 witnesses were summoned for the trial about 33 were called. Some of the convicts defended the camp captain, but several others presented a more lurid picture. They admitted they had seen men whipped, but none received the licking and floggings that Maillefert did.
On Oct. 15, 1932, after the 12-man jury deliberated two hours, they brought in a verdict of manslaughter against Courson, but acquittal for Higginbotham. Mrs. Courson began weeping while Mrs. Maillefert remained dry eyed and stared at the floor. Avriett said that he would immediately seek a new trial.
The Maillefert case became the basis for a motion picture. After the convict's death, improvements were made to the Sunbeam sweat box. Black convicts replaced the white prisoners at Sunbeam road camp.
MARLENE WOMACK, Contributing Writer. (The last of two articles on Florida's early penal system.) http://www.newsherald.com/archives/article.display.php?id=48787.
For additional information, see also the July 12, 1998 story in the Florida Times-Union.