The 1973 Mc Alester Prison Riot and Fire

OHP standing guard

The most devastating riot which took three lives, caused several serious inquiries, burned 24 buildings together with costly equipment, furniture, and raw goods and paralyzed all utilities in the prison, started on July 27,1973, at about 2:30 p.m. close to the mess hall. A good part of the prison which the earlier generation of prisoners helped build was destroyed by the later generation of prisoners. Sixty years of work was undone in a few hours, inflicting a heavy loss of over 20 million dollars on Oklahoma's taxpayers. Before we get into details of the riot, we should explore the possible smoldering causes and the chronic problems which had been brewing for quite some time.


  1. Overcrowding; OSP, with a capacity for about 1,100 inmates, had a population of about 2,200 in the summer of 1973.
  2. The refusal of Governor David Hall to sign parole recommendations for drug offenders or those convicted of violent crime was driving the affected prison inmates to desperation. 
  3. The correctional officers were poorly paid ($390 a month), ill educated, and untrained. A consultant for ACA referred to the guards as "functionally illiterate or nearly so." These guards felt threatened when some controls were placed on their clubbing or gassing of the inmates. The use of mace was also curtailed.
  4. The security staff was severely inadequate in number which hurt security and control. Also, their monthly turnover rate was as large as nine percent. 
  5. The violence within McAlester was alarming. From January 1970 until the riot and fire of July 27,1973, records show 19 violent deaths, 40 stabbings, and 44 serious beatings of inmates. Much of this violence was attributed to the severe shortage of convict supervision.
  6. Continued racial segregation and discrimination, censorship, and restriction of mail, inadequate health care, poor food preparation, and idleness were factors which contributed either directly or indirectly to unrest at OSP.
  7. Narcotic traffic and beer making were commonplace. Gambling, loan-sharking, and power plays of 'convict bosses' became a vicious circle. These practices could, at times, lead to assaults and rapes.
  8. A majority of prisoners on January 22, 1973, staged a three-day hunger strike to elicit sympathy for their cause from the appropriate quarters outside the prison. 
  9. Poor communication and dialogue between the inmates and the authorities.

The experts say that most prisons experience problems which predispose them for a riot and their dry powder is ready to catch fire if there is a triggering factor, and if there is no triggering factor, there won't be a riot. In OSP's riot, the situation was of course ready to explode, but the triggering factor was not clear. Prison officials feared that riot was coming, but no one knew "when." When it did come, "it was somewhat of a spur of the moment deal." There were about 15 prisoners who were hiding long knives and were wandering around in the yard asking some other prisoners to join them. They went to the inmate mess hall and stabbed Lieutenant Thomas Payne and Captain C. C. Smith. Both of them had to be rushed to the hospital. Six or seven armed inmates started taking hostages. Then came the first call over the public address system: "We have taken over. We've got weapons. We've got hostages. It's a revolution. Come and help us." Within 15 minutes, a full-scale riot was in progress. Many people were reported unconscious or beaten up bloody bodies and black eyes. The mess hall had blood everywhere. It looked like a butcher shop. Many of the inmates found stashes of homemade beer and other intoxicants and became drunk. Some looted the medical supplies in the hospital area and began taking any kind of drugs available. Still others spent time in the paint shop, sniffing glue and paint thinner. They then armed themselves with long knives. By 5:35, the hospital had been seized and additional hostages taken, bringing the number of hostages to 14. By 6:00, all buildings on the north side of the main security area were burning. The print shop, chapel, library, and sign plant were destroyed. The plasma clinic, book bindery, broom and mattress factory, bakery, and mess hall were burning. Inmates roamed freely everywhere except the main administration area. At 6:20, the hospital was burning. At 7:30, the canteen had been torched. Some 21 officers were now held hostage, ten of whom were dressed in inmate uniforms. The flames and dark clouds of smoke added to the horror of the tragedy. The utilities were completely gutted, there was no electricity, and the prison plunged into complete smoky darkness as the night fell. The only light in the prison came from the burning buildings. The inmates had seized an outside telephone line in the fire house and were placing calls all over the country. Many inmates used the darkness as an opportunity to take revenge on fellow-inmates against whom they had a personal vendetta. Others plundered the cells of some of the "wealthy" inmates and took their personal belongings. Three inmates were stabbed to death by the rioting inmates. The officials at the key positions handling the tragic situation were Governor Hall; his Press Secretary, Ed Hardy; Leo McCracken, Director of Corrections; Irvin Ungerman, chairman of the Board of Corrections; Warden Anderson, and Sam Johnston, deputy warden (who was one of the 24 hostages).

Prison inmates had formulated a list of demands to be delivered to the Governor, including a demand for live television coverage, a visit by Governor Hall to the cell block to discuss grievances, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, and newspaper reporters. At 7:45 p.m., the Governor's message to the inmates to "release all hostages and restore order, whereupon he (would) appoint a committee to investigate their complaints' was read out to the inmates, who refused to accept it.

By midnight, about 250 troops were poised to strike if necessary. But a strike would have been costly in terms of the lives of the 24 hostages and the countless inmates. With a knife at his throat, hostage Johnston urged restraint. He pleaded on the phone: "Whatever you do, don't let the troops come in here. Just give me time. I can talk them out of it." From that point onward, phone negotiations became more frequent. A few hostages had already been released on health reasons as a gesture of good will. By early morning, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol troops who were standing guard in the rotunda were replaced by National Guard troops to meet prisoners' request. Chairman Ungerman personally assured the inmates that no one would be beaten or abused as a result of the riot. Shortly after 8:00 a.m., approximately 250 inmates exited via the east gate, they dropped their weapons-hammers, screwdrivers, and homemade knives. At 8:30, four more hostages were released. When the Governor agreed to allow television and newsman inside the prison, the inmates agreed to release all hostages by 12:30 p.m. In the afternoon around 4:30, Governor Hall had a meeting with a group of nine inmates keeping his pledge. Following the meeting, Governor Hall said he felt that "ignorance" of the recent rules and policy changes at the prison was one of the reasons for the riot. He added that a new communication system would keep inmates informed of the changes. He indicated that inmates' grievances included medical care, uniform rules of punishment and detention, and living conditions within the prison. The hostages had been released, and most of the demands had been met; but the riot was still not over. On Saturday night and Sunday morning reports were received of new fires in the compound. Officials believed the new outbreak was likely caused by inmates looking for informers. Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers and National Guardsmen entered the prison at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday to begin sweeping the compound and looking for bodies, weapons, and hiding inmates. There were four deaths in all, but one of the inmates was found to have died of a heart attack. Numerous rumors of as many as 20 or 30 dead bodies were dispelled. Post-riot rumors are always very common.

The Aftermath of the Riot

Once the inmates had burned and destroyed their own dwelling, they had no place to sleep, no kitchen, no drinking water because of the broken water mains, no canteen, no hospital, and no medicines. The Red Cross supplied meals to 1,656 prisoners on Monday, but by Tuesday a temporary field kitchen was set up. It was not until October 23, that inmates began to eat hot meals again. They had their first shower on August 14, 1973, after 19 days of riot. On July 30, a pouring rain helped to put out the last of the fires which still smoldered throughout the compound; but, that same rain brought further distress to many inmates who remained within the walls amidst the rubble. The prison riots are generally brought on by a handful of prisoners, but the entire prison population suffers the miserable consequences.

Later in the week, it was discovered that three inmates had escaped. One of the escapee was Rex Brinlee who hid himself in a 6-foot hole until he could scale over the wall.

Despite their deadly nature, prison riots have their hidden heroes. Inmate Doyle E. Puckett, a 28 year old Tulsa convict also known as "Alligator," was cited for heroism and credited with saving the lives of at least two hostages. Prison counselor Danny Kennedy told of Puckett's holding a knife to the throat of another convict who had threatened Kennedy's life. "If he dies, you die," Puckett told the other convict. There are occasions when prison inmates surprise you by demonstrating the positive, benign, and benevolent sides of their personalities.

Most of the prison having been burned, all kinds of suggestions were made: to abandon it, to rebuild it, and improve upon it, or reduce its capacity. Officials agreed that Oklahoma State Penitentiary should be retained only as a maximum security institution with a population of 400 to 500 inmates, and with only one man per cell.

Exert from History of Corrections in Oklahoma - CHAPTER VI

More Oklahoma Department of Corrections history and 1973 Riot links:

Oklahoma Department of Corrections history

History of Corrections in Oklahoma

Oklahoma State Penitentiary - Wikipedia


Oklahoma Historical Society's - Encyclopedia of Oklahoma's History and Culture


Only in Oklahoma: Big Mac prison riot cost lives, millionsTulsa World article

1973 Prison riot at McAlester. The riot lasted an entire weekend and left three inmates dead; twenty four structures were damaged and only four buildings were left usable. There was not a single cause which created the riot, rather a combination of factors: overcrowding, cruel punishment by the correctional officers, inadequate health care, racial segregation and discrimination and mail censorship.  

Misc. Info about the McALESTER RIOT

1. Friday July, 27th 1973 at 2:30 P.M.

2. Five prisoners jumped two guards in the mess hall. (Capt. C.C. Smith & Lt. Thomas Payne)

3. 22 hours after the uprising the last 11 of the 23 hostages were released.

4. August 4th inmates back in their cells. (eight days on the ground)

5. Most devastating riot in american correctional history.

6. 1,636 inmates in Mack. Capacity 800

7. 20 to 30 million dollars damage.

8. Lost three lives.

9. 750 inmates occupied the cell block area. (behind prison wall, the bad or hard cons)

10. 570 inmates occupied the Industrial area. (camped in shacks, closed in by double fences)

11. All buildings burned except the Cell Blocks and Administration building.

12. 4 barrels of weapons (50 gal).

13. Warden Park Anderson. Deputy Warden San Johnston.

14. McAlester was built in 1908.

15. Less than a year after being built, Mack had its first riot 200 inmates because of the housing.

16. 65 years after Mack was built, worst riot in american correctional history.

17. 53% serving terms of 25 years to 1500 years.

18. Execuitioner was Rich Owens. He built the first electric chair in 1915. (Old Smokey)

19. Rich Owens has killed 75 men, 65 electrocution, 1 by hanging, 2 with a knife, 1 with a shovel, 6 by

20. Owens was tried for murder 4 times and acquitted. Killed first man age 13 a horse thief.

21. Owens is paid $100.00 for one, and $50.00 for extras. ($300.00 in one night)

22. Alcohol to clean the skin off, salt water for soaking the hood and the leg piece, shaves his head and
legs. (Good clear connection) Electrocutions was at NIGHT, lights would dim.

23. Runs up to about 40 seconds, switch hits 2300 volts, “I roll her back to 1700 volts and then work up
to 2300 volts again, the blood has to have time to cook in the heart.”

24. Rich Owens was boss of a convict construction gang, electrocuting was an extra job.

25. Electrocuted a calf to prove it would work.

26. Rich Owens died at age 67, cancer of the liver.

27. 1966 James French last death sentence. Oklahoma Legislation wrote a capital punishment law to
comply with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled previous death penalties were discrimimatory and
rarely imposed except against poor and minority defendants.

28. 83 died in the chair.

29. 27 black, 52 white, 4 indian.

30. Before 1915 it was the Sheriff’s duty in the county.

OHP standing guard

OHP ready to enter Mac

Inmates eating

OHP and National Guard standing guard

Electric Chair (Old Smokey)


America Pulling Plug on Electric Chair
More Humane Methods Replacing 'Antiquated' Execution Tool (

Jan. 24, 2000

By Robert Anthony Phillips

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. ( -- Is the electric chair doomed?

The conduit of lethal electricity that has been the instrument of execution used for over a century to kill more than 4,300 of America's convicted murderers, rapists and traitors soon might be put to death itself. By now an American institution, the electric chair has received various nicknames over the years and been portrayed in countless Hollywood movies.

But Florida recently passed a law offering condemned inmates a choice --electrocution or lethal injection -- and now the electric chair is the only means of capital punishment in just three states: Alabama, Georgia and Nebraska. Few inmates, given the choice, opt for electrocution.

And Georgia and Nebraska have proposed legislation to allow the condemned the lethal-injection option. Alabama state officials say similar legislation is being written there.

'The end of the electric chair'

"It really is the end of the electric chair, one way or another," said Craig Brandon, author of the book, The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History, published last month.

The move to decommission the last active electric chairs or offer the condemned lethal injection was prompted by the Supreme Court agreeing to hear a case of a Florida inmate who claimed the chair constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

The high court dismissed the case today on the grounds that the new law makes it moot. But experts say inmates from Alabama, Georgia and Nebraska could file similar appeals.

Nervous lawmakers in those states fear that, if the high court rules electrocution cruel and unusual punishment, their states would be left with no legal form of execution -- throwing their death machinery into chaos. This possibility is what led Florida to change its laws.

But some state officials believe the electric chair, which has been in use since 1890, when a convicted axe murderer was strapped into one in New York, should continue to be plugged in and used -- if the Supreme Court approves.

Such is the case in Georgia and Alabama.


Related Links:


Craig Brandon's Web site: Old Sparky: History of the Electric Chair


Protecting the death penalty

In Georgia, two proposed laws have been introduced. One would replace the electric chair with lethal injection if the Supreme Court rules the chair inhumane, the other would make lethal injection the method of death unless a condemned inmate specifically asks to be executed by electricity.

"[The legislation] is to protect the death penalty in the state of Georgia," said Morgan Perry, a legislative aid to state Sen. Eric Johnson, who proposed the lethal-injection option.

A spokesman for Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker said Baker favors a "fallback statute" to keep the electric chair as Georgia's sole means of execution -- pending the Supreme Court ruling.

"We want to keep the electric chair until somebody tells us we can't," said Jeff DiSantis, spokesman for Baker. "Our statute has been upheld on multiple occasions. We don't agree that the whole scheme has to be changed, unless we are forced to..."

DiSantis said keeping the chair active has nothing to do with the fear and shadowy aura long associated with the device, but simply a matter of keeping existing state laws in place and unchanged.

Alabama official says chair popular

Meanwhile, in Alabama, the Attorney General's Office is wrestling with proposed legislation in an attempt to keep the electric chair.

Assistant Attorney General Maury Mitchell told that his office is considering drafting a proposed law that would allow the state to automatically switch to lethal injection only if the high court rules against the chair.

However, Mitchell also said his office still is discussing the proposal and might consider giving 182 death row inmates the option of lethal injection.

Mitchell said that, based on calls he has received, most people in Alabama want to keep the electric chair, known there as "Big Yellow Mama." He also said that there are concerns from the state Department of Corrections that the cost of building a chamber for lethal injections could run to $500,000.

The Alabama Attorney General's Office has defended the chair, saying that death by electrocution occurs in 1/24th of a second and that the condemned do not suffer.

Alabama's legislative session begins in February.

Nebraska may to do away with chair

In Nebraska, state Sen. Kermit Brashear has introduced a bill in the current session to change Nebraska's method of execution from the electric chair to lethal injection -- again pending the high court's ruling. Nebraska last executed a man in 1997.

Spike Eickholt, Brashear's legal counsel, said the senator feels that the electric chair is "antiquated," and that there are more humane and modern means to execute condemned criminals.

"This is not a step towards doing away with capital punishment," Eickholt said. "The senator is a supporter of capital punishment."

A survey by The Associated Press of 45 state senators revealed that 22 favored putting away the electric chair and going to lethal injection. The survey also reported that 13 other senators were leaning in that direction.

Chair now gets little use

The electric chair, in its heyday the execution method of choice in 25 states and Washington, D.C., last was used in Alabama Jan. 7 when David Duren, 37, was electrocuted.

Last year, 98 men were executed in the United States but only three died in the electric chair -- two in Alabama and one in Florida, according to data compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. Texas, the state that executes the most convicted killers, uses lethal injection.

It was the Florida execution of Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis July 8, 1999, that prompted controversy. Blood poured from his nose when the current from "Old Sparky" slammed into his body. A Florida Supreme Court judge posted grisly photographs of Davis' body on the court's Web site, creating a firestorm of protest and also a stampede of computer users logging into -- and crashing -- the site.

Gruesome execution prompts appeals

Davis' electrocution prompted another convicted killer facing a death sentence, Thomas Provenzano, to appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. He claimed that the electric chair constituted cruel and unusual punishment because it didn't result in instant death, created a risk of pain and mutilated the body of the condemned prisoner.

But the state's highest court ruled in a narrow 4-3 decision that the chair was neither cruel nor unusual punishment.

Then a Florida inmate on the verge of execution, Anthony Bryan, challenged the chair's constitutionality. The Supreme Court agreed to hear his arguments and Florida halted all executions until the high court resolves the matter and swiftly changed its laws to allow lethal injections.

Florida had been using the electric chair since 1924.

'He jerked as much as he could'

In its grisly and macabre history, the electric chair has become a feared -- and even romanticized -- icon of capital punishment, author Brandon said. Old movies show romantic views of men walking the "last mile" to their doom in the electric chair and prison lights dimming as the switch was thrown.

But Hollywood's fabricated version of death by electric chair has given way to grim realities -- reports of flames shooting from condemned men's heads during electrocution, seared flesh on electrocuted bodies and executioners having to use several jolts of electricity to finish the job.

Still, the electric chair has its fans. Raymond D. Neal, whose twin sister was murdered by serial killer Gerald Stano, said it was one of the best feelings of his life when he watched Stano die in Florida's electric chair.

"The power slammed into him and he jerked as much as he could and that was it," Neal told "I saw the life going out of his hands. Afterward, me and my brothers smoked cigars to celebrate. I'm so glad Florida has the guts to keep the electric chair. At least there was a split second of pain. With lethal injection, you just go to sleep."

Neal made his comments before Florida instituted lethal injection.

A parade of criminals

Brandon credits Alfred P. Southwick, a Buffalo dentist, as being the first to come up with the idea of using electricity to kill condemned criminals in 1881. But the author says that over the years, several other people have claimed to be the "father" of the notorious chair.

A lobbyist for Thomas Edison was credited with early experiments and building the device for the first electrocution at Auburn Prison in New York. Two other men were credited with designing the chair.

And, it has worked -- most of the time.

Electric chairs have been used to execute such well-known criminals as serial killer Ted Bundy; Bruno Hauptmann, convicted of kidnapping and murdering the young son of Charles Lindbergh; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the nuclear secrets spies; Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President William McKinley; and New York gangster Louis Lepke.

In New York on Aug. 6, 1890, axe murderer William Kemmler became the first man to die in an electric chair. It took two jolts of current to kill him, historians said.

Operating chair takes experts

Brandon said the chair once was thought of as a "high-tech" alternative to hanging, which frequently resulted in decapitations or slow strangulations. He said that many of the original electric chairs were actually made from wood from old gallows.

The author said that in 1886, a special New York "Death Commission" was investigating new ways to legally kill and it considered the guillotine, the garrote and even burning at the stake as the official means of execution before settling on the electric chair.

But Brandon believes as more states did away with the electric chair and electrocutions became rare, the operation of the chair became a lost art and resulted in more botched executions.

"It takes a lot of expertise," Brandon said. "It's not something you just hook up, plug in and turn on. It depends on how big the person is, how much resistance he has. The executioners in the 1930s executed people every week. We don't have people anymore like that. It is a vanished skill."

Low moments in electrocution

In his research, Brandon said he came across many examples of bizarre electrocutions and cases.

In Auburn, New York, the power went out before a scheduled execution and prison officials ran a wire from the outside and over the prison wall to hook into the electric chair.

In January 1928, the New York Daily News ran one of the most infamous front-page pictures of all time -- Ruth Snyder being put to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing. Photographer Thomas Howard entered the death chamber with a miniature camera strapped to his leg on the night that Snyder and her lover were executed for killing her husband.

In 1946, a drunken executioner in Louisiana mistakenly sent 200 volts, instead of 2000, into the body of a condemned killer. The man survived. But when the executioner tried to do the job right, prison officials halted the proceedings because it was after midnight and the death warrant for the man had expired.

The case went up to the Supreme Court, Brandon said, which ruled the state could hold a second execution without violating the man's constitutional rights. The second time, he died.

Some condemned men have tried to survive the chair. Cannibal Albert Fish swallowed needles in an attempt to short-circuit the mechanism.

The 'electric executioner'

The use of the chair also resulted in so-called "star" executioners.

One was Edwin Davis, "the first electric executioner." During his lifetime, he was credited with pulling the switch and electrocuting 300 prisoners in several states. He also took out a patent for parts of the electric chair.

Robert Greene Elliott, a regional executioner, flipped the switch on condemned men in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey in a long career that started in 1926. He also wrote a book, Agent of Death. Elliott's personal journals of executions can be found at The Web site.

Learning a new skill

The electric chair's fall from grace here is forcing Florida's Department of Corrections (DOC) to go back to school. The state, experienced in killing convicted murderers in the electric chair since 1924, now must learn a new skill -- lethal injection.

The DOC has dispatched a team to learn to kill with chemicals. The corrections staffers witnessed two lethal injection executions in Virginia Jan. 11 and Jan. 13, Virginia Department of Corrections officials confirmed.

"Obviously, there is a little more to an execution than sticking a needle in them," said Larry Fitzgerald, chief spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which has overseen the execution of 201 condemned murders since 1982. "It's a whole process ... how to physically transport the inmate, family visitation, how to handle the media and any number of things. A lot of states look to us because we have done so damn many and we do them without a hitch."

While Florida hasn't tapped into Texas' self-proclaimed expertise in lethal injection executions, representatives from other states including California, Colorado, New Mexico and Tennessee have visited Texas to view their methods, Fitzgerald said.

Florida's DOC was mum when asked about the team of staffers sent to view the lethal injection. DOC spokesman C.J. Walsh did not return repeated calls for comment.

But at the Jan. 13 execution of Steven Roach, 23, who was convicted of murdering an elderly woman in 1993, a Virginia corrections official said five staffers from Florida were viewing the lethal injection process.

In 7 states, choice of chair or needle

While only three states exclusively use the electric chair for capital punishment, seven others still keep it as an option for the condemned. Those states are: Arkansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Virginia DOC spokesman Larry Traylor said condemned prisoners there are asked to choose between the electric chair and lethal injection. He said that many of the condemned inmates who refuse to choose are executed by lethal injection. In the execution chamber at Virgina's Greensville Correctional Center, the base of the electric chair can be seen under a curtain that divides the room.

But no matter what means of death an inmate chooses, it is not cheap.

In Delaware, which gives the condemned a choice between lethal injection and hanging, the state spent more than $47,000 on its first lethal injection in 1992. The Virginia DOC says costs associated with the "death watch" and execution by lethal injection have averaged $44,119.08 per execution (2,916 hours at an average hourly overtime rate of $15.l3). Traylor said the high costs are due to extra staffing required for an execution.