The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

July 30, 2012

The music got him 'All stirred up inside

Conneaut youth was youngest Ohioian to be executed in electric chair

By CARL E. FEATHER - cfeather@starbeacon.com
Star Beacon

— Floyd Hewitt loved to listen to the radio, especially that cool jazzy music that got him “all stirred up inside.”

Trouble was, it was 1927 and there were not many radios in the North Conneaut neighborhood where Hewitt, 16,  lived. In fact, there was but one receiver, in the home of neighbors Frederick and Celia Brown.
Had the radio been in the home of any other North Conneaut residence, it is likely that Mr.  Hewitt would have lived and died without notoriety, leaving behind just one more rectangle of granite in the East Conneaut Cemetery, where the bones of other Hewitt family members are on deposit.
But fate wrote a different story for Floyd Hewitt, who was the first person from Ashtabula County to die in the electric chair and also the youngest Ohio person to suffer that fate. He was the second youngest Ohio person to die for a crime, relinquishing the first-place spot by just a few days to Otto Leuth, who hanged for his crime Aug. 29, 1890.
One might say that Floyd Hewitt, born on Halloween 1910 in Albion, Pa., came into this world destined for a dark deed. The son of Olive and William Hewitt, who were estranged at the time Floyd went on a murderous rampage, Floyd and his mother shared a home with W.H. Miner, a Conneaut barber, on Lake Road, Conneaut.
It was Valentine’s Day, 1927, when Floyd paid an evening visit to the Brown home, a new, modest structure that Mr. Brown built for his family the prior year. The house still stands on Lake Road, immediately across from the City of Conneaut Water Department.
Mr. Brown, an engineer caller on the Nickel Plate Railroad, was working the afternoon shift and would not be home until shortly past midnight. It being Valentine’s Day, the ether was charged with jazzy music and Floyd’s mind with amorous intentions.
“The jazz made me feel queer inside,” he would later confess.
As Mrs. Brown sat on the davenport mending the trousers of her 5-year-old son, Freddie, Floyd felt “an uncontrollable desire to make advances.” That being unsuccessful, he struck her with a blow from his hand.
Floyd, who stood 6 feet 3 inches and possessed “the body of a large man,” was determined to fulfill his passions, one way or another.
Mrs. Brown grabbed a stove poker — a cast-iron item with a long handle and slight hook at the end that was used to stir up coal or nudge firewood — and poked Floyd in the ribs. He grabbed the poker from her, struck her once on the head, and chased the terrified woman to the landing of the stairs leading to the second story.
It was there Floyd delivered his second blow with the poker. Blood spurted on the fresh walls and floor of the bungalow. She struggled with him down the stairs and to the sleeping porch, where another blow sent her to floor. Her body fell upon the poker, which had become bent from the force of the attacks.
Freddie was playing Flinch by himself when the commotion began. He ran to the basement and took cover under a work bench, near a box of his old toys. Floyd would later tell police that he was afraid that Freddie “would tell on me,” and so he followed the child’s screams to the basement.
As Freddie screamed “Daddy! Daddy!” Floyd picked up the child’s baseball bat and swung. There were two  sickening cracks of oak upon childhood cranium; the screams stopped.
Floyd walked upstairs, deposited the baseball bat in a waste basket next to Mrs. Brown’s body and washed the blood from his hands in the kitchen sink. Then he walked across the street to his house, read the newspaper and went to bed. 
 
Fred Brown arrived home shortly after midnight to a dark, unlocked house. The incandescent light split the darkness to reveal the repulsive scene.
“I ran from the house to a neighbor’s to give the alarm and call the police ... they found my little boy in the cellar. I am overcome with grief. I cannot talk any more,” Brown told a reporter.
The news and accompanying fear spread through the community; one neighbor woman, afraid of being alone with a nefarious murderer unaccounted for, actually had Floyd stay the night in her home that night for safety.
Nevertheless, police suspected Floyd from the beginning. He was arrested at 10:45 a.m. the following morning, after stopping to use a public restroom facility near city hall. A key piece of evidence linking him to the crime was the button from a lumberjack’s sweater found at the murder scene. Floyd just happened to be wearing that type of sweater the morning he was arrested, and the garment was missing a button and had blood on it.
At 2:40 p.m. that afternoon, Sheriff Frank Sheldon and detective H.H. Hannum announced to the press that Floyd Hewitt had made a confession. Indeed, he had made two confessions — one written, another oral, as he walked through the house with the law enforcement officers and gave them a blow-by-blow account of the horrific deeds. 
A crowd of 200 to 300 persons gathered at the city hall to watch as the big kid from North Conneaut was removed from the city jail and taken to the county hoosegow. Meanwhile, his mother declared to reporters that “He could not do it, there never was a better boy. ... My boy never gave me a minute’s trouble all his life. He was a very good boy in every way.”
She denied that her boy had visited the Brown home that night and said that he “would never think of doing a thing like that.”
She told reporters that her son had worked on the lakes, presumably on a ship, the prior summer and also had delivered newspapers to earn money.
“Even as big as he is, he never went to bed without kissing me good night. If he had a dollar, he would give me half of it, all of it, if I wanted it,” she said.
The following day, Floyd Hewitt denied his confessions. And Mrs. Brown and her son were buried in Glenwood Cemetery in one grave, little Freddie in her arms. Fred Brown recalled her son saying just two weeks earlier, after having been to his first funeral, “Daddy, I don’t want them to ever put me in a deep hole like that.” And he recalled his wife’s comment about how smart Freddie was.
“She said, ‘Freddie is so bright, I’m afraid we will never be able to keep him.’ She went and took little Freddie home with her,” Fred Brown told reporters.
 
Justice was amazingly swift in that time long ago, when court documents were prepared on typewriters and data crawled in real time upon amplitude-modulated carrier waves. The system, nevertheless, worked very effectively.
A special grand jury returned two indictments against the 16-year-old on March 10. Floyd, who “showed little sign of emotions,” pled not guilty. The reporter took special note of the suspect’s appearance, “like a big overgrown boy, who did not realize the seriousness of the crimes with which he is charged.” Dressed in a blue suit, the boy smiled and said “This is certainly a beautiful day, isn’t it,” as he entered the courtroom.
Jury selection began April 4. The attorneys went through 325 potential jurors before a jury of nine men and three women could be seated. The trial began late in the afternoon of April 12.
The defense attorney, D.F. Dunlavy, was brief in his opening remarks. He stated that while the defendant is a “boy of 16 years physically, he has the mental qualifications of a child of 10.” The defense promised to show that Floyd was defective mentally and physically and mentally unable to commit the crime.
As to the confession his client made, Dunlavy said Floyd would have confessed to killing Abraham Lincoln if a law officer posed the question.
The defense thus planned to operate along two lines: Floyd did not commit the crime and his confession was the result of being mentally incompetent.
The state’s case was based upon Hewitt’s confessions, which included a surprise third confession made to a deputy while in the county jail. There was plenty of evidence, as well, including the missing button, and scratches on Floyd’s faces and hands. Oddly, however, the state could not produce the blood-stained deck of cards that little Freddie played with as the poker first made contact with his mother’s head.
Fred Brown took the stand and testified until “utter collapse” claimed him and he had to be removed from the courtroom, where 400 to 500 people gathered daily (the courtroom was the current county commissioners room).
“The eyes of practically every man in the courtroom were tear-dimmed,” observed a reporter. Brown kept saying “My poor little baby!”
The state rested its case on April 19 and the defense attempted to build a strong alibi for Floyd by calling witnesses who said they saw him at home with his mother when the murders were committed. But the alibis fell apart when a witness said Mrs. Hewitt herself had stated to a neighbor the following day “I wonder what they want Floyd for? He was home with me all the time, except for a few minutes he was over here.”
Several doctors gave their expert opinion on Floyd and his mental condition. On doctor testified that his physical features and habits, which included breathing through the mouth, would place him in the class of “moron.” Another doctor disagreed with the assessment. There was no question, however, that Floyd Hewitt was mentally slow.
The jury began deliberations late in the morning of April 26. There were three ballots: Guilt, degree and mercy. The jury was unanimous on all three, and after just 65 minutes, returned their verdicts: Guilty of murder in the first degree, with no recommendation of mercy. The 43-year-old judge, Charles F. Sargent, one of the youngest common pleas judges in Ohio, was constrained by law to sentence Hewitt to the electric chair. The execution date was set for Aug. 10.
“And may God have mercy on your soul,” Sargent said to Floyd Hewitt.
Olive Hewitt collapsed at the sound of the sentence. State attorney Howard J. Redmond broke down and wept audibly. “(Floyd) Hewitt’s lip seemed to quiver, a tear in his eye, but he did not break,” observed a reporter.
Afterwards, Fred Brown shared his thoughts on the matter.
“I feel sorry for his mother because she will lose her boy, but I cannot feel that more than justice has been done,” he told a reporter.
Brown, who was a Sunday school teacher of young adult men, said he maintained his faith in God throughout the ordeal and planned to return to his post as a teacher. But he would not be going back to the railroad to work; he planned to sail on the lakes as a fireman. And as for the house and its contents, he said he would sell it all except for a few knickknacks.
“I cannot bear to see those things again,” he said. “What I can’t sell and give away, I will burn. I want to sell my house and everything in it.”
Mr. Brown also told reporters that he had a promise to keep to his wife.
“She said to me that she never wanted any grass to grow over her face,” Brown told reporters. “And I will see to it that her wishes are carried out.”
 
Floyd Hewitt’s case was appealed to the higher court, which upheld the lower court’s decision. The Ohio Supreme Court denied an appeal. The board of clemency, likewise, denied a more lenient sentence, and the governor of Ohio refused to give Mrs. Hewitt and her daughter, Laura Irish, an audience on the day Floyd was to be executed at the Ohio State Penitentiary, Jan. 6, 1928. Even the appeal of the Rev. Ralph Davis, who had baptized Floyd, was disregarded.
“I am astounded at the stupidity of Hewitt and his lack of responsiveness to fundamentals of life and Christianity,” Davis told reporters.
Clutching photographs of his mother and father, his sister and her baby in his left hand, Floyd Hewitt, 17, entered the death room at 7:26 p.m. Jan. 6, a Friday. 
“I am innocent,” he told a prison worker shortly before being led to the death chamber.
While Floyd had been upbeat and nonchalant up until his appointed day, he was “pale when he came into the room. Tears filled his eyes, but he fought them back bravely. His long hair swept over his face, half concealing it,” noted a reporter.
While the executioners strapped him down and applied the electrodes, Floyd fainted several times, being out for only three or four seconds. A black mask was placed over his head, and at 7:41 p.m., 1,950 volts applied to his body for 10 seconds. For the next 40 seconds, 350 volts were applied, and then “for the last ten seconds that Hewitt’s soul was seared, 1,950 volts were again applied,” noted the newspaper account.
At 7:43 p.m. Jan. 6, 1928, Floyd Hewitt of Conneaut was pronounced dead.
Hewitt’s body was returned to Conneaut and, at his request, buried in East Conneaut Cemetery.
He still holds the distinction of being the youngest person the State of Ohio ever executed in an electric chair.