As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, August 21, 2011
By Greg Tucker, President Rutherford County Historical Society
In 1936, Woodrow Medlock, an aspiring Baptist preacher driving an Austin, picked up a 26-year-old hitchhiker in Westvue, the Rutherford neighborhood “across the tracks” from central Murfreesboro. The young passenger wanted a ride to the Public Square.
As they rode into town on West Main Street, Medlock asked the young man if anyone had ever talked with him about his soul. The disdainful and disinterested response was negative. Ten years later, Albert “Bantam” Dubois remembered that ride — and the question. (Court and news media records show the nickname as “Bantam.” Ralph Puckett and others who remember Dubois, however, recall that the nickname was pronounced “Bad’n” or “Badun” as in “bad one.” But, according to Puckett, “when he wasn’t drinking, he was as nice a guy as you could find.”)
In 1946, Dubois was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the death of Albert Willis, a local cabbie. By his own account, Dubois had killed four men over a ten-year period of drinking, bootlegging, doping, gambling and fighting. His most serious conviction prior to 1946 had been on a plea to manslaughter, for which he was imprisoned only 14 months of a 10-year sentence. While being held in the Rutherford County jail awaiting trial in the Willis case, Dubois requested that Medlock make a pastoral visit.
On this initial visit, Dubois said to the preacher: “The only thing that I am interested in is knowing how to die. Do you think a man like me can be saved?” But while the Dubois trial and appeals were pending, the comments of the accused often focused on contrition, sanity and impaired judgment.
On one of these visits, according to Medlock’s notes, Dubois said: “Yes, I am guilty, I killed that boy, I suppose, but it all seems like a dream to me. I hardly remember it. I remember I was drunk. How I wish someone would have locked me up and it might have saved that boy’s life … I would not have killed that boy if I had not been drinking … I would be glad to tell that boy’s mother and his relatives that I am sorry for this sin I have committed.” Dubois also asked Medlock to talk to the physicians that were evaluating his sanity.
Impaired judgment and contrition were raised at the Dubois trial in an effort to lessen the punishment. In previous cases, Dubois had successfully avoided harsh or capital sentencing. Prior to the Willis death, Dubois had boasted that despite previous killings he had “never served much time.” According to trial testimony, he said: “When I kill a man, I just sit in jail and say my story over so many times until it would be just that way.”
In the Willis murder case, however, Dubois was found to be sane and competent, and the trial court found no basis for leniency in sentencing. The appellate court agreed. After transfer to the state penitentiary, Dubois became more attentive to the message that Medlock brought to his cell.
Medlock believed that there was goodness in every person and that through an understanding and acceptance of God’s word that goodness could be found and nurtured even in a condemned man. Over a period of several weeks, Medlock visited frequently with Dubois and talked with him about the promise of salvation and the power of faith.
Dubois questioned and discussed each point of faith and Scripture that Medlock presented. When the preacher visited on the Monday following Easter Sunday (1947), Dubois quietly told of his decision to be baptized and how it had been done in a pool on the prison grounds. “I don’t mind dying, the only thing that worries me is the hurt it will cause my wife and children … (except for that hurt) I am thankful that I am going to die,” he said.
Explaining why he was thankful, Dubois said: “No doubt if I had never faced the (electric) chair, I would never have stopped long enough to consider what a dreadful thing it is to be lost. I had rather die now knowing that I am saved than be back walking the streets of Murfreesboro a lost man. I could very easily have been killed while out of prison and I know my soul would have gone to Hell.
“I had been warned many times to stop my sinful way of life but I never did. It took this (death sentence) to cause me to stop. My old Daddy prayed for me on his deathbed that I might be saved, he prayed that something would happen to cause me to be saved. I believe my old Daddy’s prayers are being answered … the chair, no doubt, was that only something that could happen to cause me to be saved.”
Dubois asked Medlock to be with him through his last night before the dawn execution. Around 11 o’clock on Thursday night, April 10, 1947, Medlock arrived at the state prison and was escorted through the gates and across the prison yard to “a little two-story building-the death house.”
Medlock recalled approaching the death house cell: “I saw a broad smile on his face the moment our eyes met … His wife was near him; we shook hands through the cell bars. He assured me he was happy.”
Medlock said a prayer and talked with Dubois and his wife about God’s promise. They discussed “good singing” and Dubois remembered hearing the Sullivan family sing gospel music and wished that he could hear them sing again. “I went to a phone and called Bro. Sullivan and told him what the prisoner had said,” remembered Medlock.
The Sullivans arrived by 2AM and sang continuously for several hours with Dubois and his wife singing along on several familiar hymns. At about 4AM, the Sullivans sang “If we never meet again this side of heaven … ” and prepared to leave.
The prisoner showed no signs of nervousness, according to Medlock. He assured the Sullivans that he had faith and that he very much enjoyed their singing. As the singers departed, prison personnel advised the wife that it would soon be time for her to leave.
“I saw the wife as she arose slowly and approached the bars and placed her arms through the bars and around her husband’s neck. I saw his arms come through the bars and slip around the neck of that wife that had stood by his side to the end. I saw them kiss for the last time … She said: ‘I can’t stand it!’ He said: ‘Honey, brace up. You know you can stand it if I can … you have children to live for, live for Jesus and teach the children the way of salvation and we will all meet again in Heaven … God bless you, good-bye’.”
As his wife was escorted to the prison waiting room in another building, Dubois asked the preacher: “Will you see that my wife has a way back to Murfreesboro?” Medlock promised to give her a ride.
Alone with Medlock while the chair was being readied, Dubois said: “I want you to take this written statement with my name signed to it and read it to the people back in Murfreesboro and warn them of the danger there is in putting off salvation.” Medlock took the paper from the condemned man and promised to carry out his request.
When the time came for the final walk, Dubois walked out of his cell without escort and went straight to the chair. Smiling, he thanked the guards for their kindness to him and his wife while he waited for his time to end. As he was buckled into the chair, he said a prayer aloud for his family, and then said he was ready.
The black hood was drawn over his face and the switch was thrown. Nothing happened.
There was an equipment problem. While the prison electrician worked feverishly to correct the problem, Dubois sat quietly. After 15 minutes, all was again ready and the prison chaplain lifted the hood briefly for a last word. Dubois smiled and said, “The Lord is still with me.”
The switch was thrown and “the little building trembled as though struck by lightning,” remembered Medlock. “When the body was brought down and laid out, he was still smiling.”
Medlock served as pastor for the Westvue and Bellwood Baptist churches and often based his message on the real story of a condemned man. The written final statement of Dubois was read whenever the preacher told about the man who found in his faith the strength and courage to face death without fear, and the capacity for love, kindness and concern for others.
In a pamphlet titled “My Experience with a Man Condemned to Die in the Electric Chair,” published and distributed by Bellwood Baptist Church, Medlock documented his story and reprinted the signed, final statement of Albert Dubois.
Greg Tucker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.