I Was Sentenced to Death in the Electric Chair – A True Story

By Clyde Thompson

There are two motivating factors in a person’s life. One brings him to God; another is love for God. Fear brings a man to realize the consequences of his sin and turns him to God, and love for God will cause one to grow in God’s favor. He loves God when he sees the love that was manifested in the Son of God.

When people have committed great sins, they sometimes feel that God cannot forgive them and therefore they are fearful before God. But when they come to realize that the blood of Christ is all-sufficient and can wipe away the guilt of sin, then they commit their lives to Christ, and no longer do they fear and tremble; they have put their trust where it ought to be and they know that God can and will deliver them from the power of darkness.

Wild Youthful Days

It is great and wonderful what God did for me. At the age of seventeen, I was sentenced to death in the electric chair—the youngest man ever sentenced to death in Texas up to that time. At the age of nineteen I was the youngest man ever placed on death row at Huntsville in 1931. I had sixty days to live.

There were three of us young men—I was seventeen, another thirteen, and his brother eighteen. We went hunting one night down on the creek; we had borrowed the pistol and shotgun of the brothers’ daddy without his knowing it. Having reached the creek, we debated which way we would go. We finally decided to go up the creek. We met two men, one of whom had had some trouble with the older brother and his daddy. We got into an argument and a fight with them, and shot and killed both of them.

Young people, I want you to understand that it makes no difference how good you are, how wonderful your parents are (my father was a gospel preacher) or how wonderful your elders and your deacons and your preacher are. If you are in the wrong place at the right time you could be in serious trouble, and it could take you a whole lifetime to get out of it, if you ever could.

The Death Sentence

I was sentenced to death twice in the same murder case within a year’s time. The first sentence was reversed; I was again tried and sentenced a second time. A month after my trial the eighteen-year-old boy was tried and sentenced to death also. After I had received the death sentence the second time, his case was reversed after about twenty months, and two years after his first trial he was tried again in the same case and received a five-year suspended sentence. You know, this is the difference in what money can do. My folks had no money. I went to death row while this young man was still waiting trial in the second murder case. They had two cases of murder against us.

A Commitment to Christ

While I was waiting on death row, they dismissed the second case against me. I heard brother P.D. Wilmeth preaching the gospel over the only radio at that time in the penitentiary. Now there are radios all over the prison system; everybody has access to either a radio or a TV. The radio over which I heard brother Wilmeth belonged to a guard; he had it out in the corridor of death row and I heard the gospel preached there.

Here I am, nineteen years old, and I had never made a commitment to my Lord. I sent for brother Willmeth and asked that he come up and baptize me, and he did. I was taken off death row and baptized there in the Walls Unit at Huntsville. That was six days before I was to be executed. Two days before I was to be executed I received a stay of execution to await the third trial of the other boy—which was the second murder case. Had that young man received the death penalty in that murder trial I should not be here tonight, I assure you.

The governor said that he could not see justice in letting one man die when there were two men equally guilty and he wanted to wait until the young man was tried in the other case. After the stay of execution, I had ninety days to live. Well, I thought that this time it would be the end of it, since I was sure the other boy would receive the death penalty and I would also be executed. But six hours before I was to be executed, the warden came in and told me that my sentence of death had been commuted to life imprisonment. I didn’t even believe him. I had made up my mind that this was the end of life. They had already taken me out of my cell and given me my last bath; they had offered me my last meal. You can have anything within reason you want to eat for your last meal when you are to be executed, but I didn’t have any stomach for it.

A Hard Road Ahead

The governor debated about commuting my term to twenty years, but decided, on advice of counsel, that he would commute it to life. They took me off death row, and for a year I lived as faithful to my Lord as I could in prison. Not one Christian from the outside came in to encourage me in the way of the Lord. Had Christians come in, and services been held in that institution, I am sure that the horrible things which happened afterward would not have happened and I wouldn’t have spent twenty-five more years in prison after I had already been in for three. But I spent twenty-eight years in confinement.

A year after I was released from death row they sent me to the Retrieve Farm which is down close to Angleton on the Gulf Coast, and this was a living hell on earth. They worked us as high as seven or eight weeks (from daylight until dark) without even one Sunday of rest. There was no time to even wash our socks. We would come in so tired at night that we would just fall in bed and not even remember that we had come into the building or whether or not we went to supper; we would just fall exhausted and then the next morning we were up and at it again.

I lost my faith completely. I didn’t believe that there could be a God who was merciful and could let these things happen to me. My daddy came to see me after I went to the Retrieve Farm, and I took the Bible that he had given me on death row and handed it to him and told him to take it because I didn’t believe it any more, and I would not try to live it. I know how that must have hurt my daddy, and it probably put him in an early grave. In 1938, he died at the age of fifty-three.

The next six years I tried with great determination to escape from prison. I made four major attempts to escape, but I was always plotting and planning to escape. I felt that if I was going to spend my life in prison it would be a very short one. And I would make them kill me or I would get away. At one time, trying to escape,a young man was shot down by my side and killed, and another one was shot and wounded. The guard rode up to within thirty feet of me and said, “Stop or I will kill you, too.” I stopped and looked back and saw him about to shoot me and I ducked my head. I had a high crowned hat on and he shot it off with a load of buckshot. Had his intentions been carried out I would not be here tonight.

I had two knife fights with fellow inmates on that prison unit and killed both of those men. Because of my past record of having been sentenced to death for murder (and this is a good example of what a past record can do for a person) they tried me for my life. Ordinarily a fellow would get five years or maybe ten for a crime of that kind in the prison (for fighting for his life and killing somebody) and yet they sentenced me to life both times. I now had three life sentences in the penitentiary and practically no hope of ever getting out, unless I broke out.

Well, things went from bad to worse. The officials soon realized that I was not a man who was afraid to die, and that I was determined to get away, so they put me in with other people of this kind so that we might be watched more closely. This was at the Central Farm. Then they built what they called “Little Alcatraz” out on the Eastham Farm, Northeast of Huntsville, and they took me out there with about twenty-five other fellows. They wouldn’t even let us out to work in the field without two guards over us because they knew that we were going to break if we could.

Finally, over on the Eastham Farm, four of us plotted and planned to take the arsenal and give guns to everyone who would shoot one. We hoped to kill anybody who got in our way as we escaped from that penitentiary. I had fallen so far that I would have killed every official and every inmate in the institution to escape from it. I was determined to get out of prison.

We captured two picket guards, got their two pistols, and with our knives and the two guards as shields, we went up the stairs to the arsenal. But they had laid a trap for us and we went right into an ambush. As I stepped out to open the door where the men could go into the arsenal, I was shot with a 30-30 slug through my shoulder. The guard was shooting at my head and missed. As I pulled this door open I looked around and saw these two men, that were friends of mine, lying on those steps dying. One of them still had his pistol in his hand. I ran over and grabbed it, but I could only use my left hand and I’m not a very good left-handed shooter.

I stayed in the hospital forty days and forty nights and they sent me back to Eastham Farm. I couldn’t even raise my arm. It was about two years before I could use it. I went out in the field and worked with a hoe with one hand. About six or seven months after I went back out there, a man was killed in the wing where I was and they charged me with murder for the third time in the penitentiary. (They were determined to sentence me to death.) You know, if one of those guards had been killed that I was shooting at, I certainly would have received the death penalty again. But it was just fortunate they were not. All three of those men who went up those stairs with me died, and it is just amazing that I didn’t—or that I hadn’t killed somebody and been executed for that. So they charged me with a stabbing though I didn’t kill the man, and the only reason they didn’t try me for my life on that case is because they couldn’t find witnesses to testify against me.

To the Dungeon

The officials of the penitentiary finally gave up on me. There was an old morgue behind death row that they had abandoned. It was an old concrete building containing six slabs that they had used to put caskets on. They put a steel door on it and put platted bars over the door opening, which was about a foot square. All the light I had came through those bars. The small cell was sandwiched between two tall buildings, and about five hours a day was the only time I could see my hand before me.

All the time I was in that building, I was allowed only a pair of shorts. They were afraid if I had anything else I would hang myself. They wouldn’t even let me have a light, running water, or anything else. I didn’t even have a spoon to eat with, for they were afraid I would sharpen it and kill myself or somebody else. Did you ever eat chili with your fingers? I have! When you have just a little bucket of cold water to wash your hands with, and you pour it over that chili with the grease and grime, you can rub your hands together all you want, but it won’t come off.

A Haunted Existence

Man is the crowning glory of God’s creation. God made man in His own likeness and in His own image, and that’s why it is a sin to kill a man. It’s not a sin to kill an animal. If you just go out and shoot a dog, that is not a sin; but if you kill a man, that’s a sin. Why? Because man is made in the likeness and image of God.

There are eight people in their graves because I have lived, people who probably would be alive if I had not gotten them into trouble or killed them with my own hands. It is mighty sad to know that you’ve killed somebody and that you can’t do anything about it as far as giving back that life. We teach that repentance involves restitution, and this is true insofar as it is possible. But if you’ve ever killed somebody, you can’t restore that life.

The Lord knows that I would gladly take the place of any of those people in those graves if he could stand on the earth and be a child of God; but I can’t take their places. Then what is life for me? The mercy of God, the goodness and the blessing of God, that He showed to us through the blood of His Son. Sometimes we want to limit the power of the blood of Christ. And we say, “Oh, well, you can be forgiven of this sin or that sin, or some other sin, but the Lord just can’t forgive this one.” Beloved, if He can forgive one sin He can forgive them all, and if the blood of Christ is sufficient for one sin, it is sufficient for all sins. I didn’t realize this at first.

In this isolation cell I had three steps to make from one end to the other, and I walked back and forth in there like a wild animal for five and one-half years. I wore holes in that concrete floor where I made the turn at each end (with my bare feet). My feet got as hard as rocks.

A Time for Reflection

After I was there two or three months, I asked the guard who brought my food if he would bring me a Bible. I knew they wouldn’t give me anything else to read. He went to the warden and received permission to bring me a New Testament with Psalms. At the time I didn’t think much about it. I just wanted something to read to keep from going mad in that place.

I had trouble reading it since I had only a fourth-grade education. The King James Version was quite difficult then, though now I love it since I have educated myself in it. Somewhere I’d heard that the Bible was a book of contradictions, and so could not be the Word of God. Having nothing better to do, I decided I could prove that. So I started studying to prove the Bible was a book of contradictions.

The more I studied it, the more it convinced me that it was a book of truth and I was false. When I came to realize that this was actually the word of God and the only hope for man in this world, I repented in tears, on my knees day and night for months. I read the Bible and kept asking God if He could and would forgive a wretch like me, and take me and use me to His honor and glory. He did. I began to write articles for Christian papers—some of you may remember reading them many years ago. Christian friends would write me and send me literature, and I would take that literature and hand it to other people.

I wasn’t a hippie, but I must have looked one, because they only gave me a bath and shave once a week. They would take me out of my cell and down a corridor where there were men on each side, and here they would bathe and shave me, and I would pass out literature. The guard was very lenient with me. He would let me talk fifteen or twenty minutes. It wasn’t long until I had three fellows wanting to obey the gospel.

I wrote to a preacher in Dallas and asked him to come down and baptize these three men. He came and the warden came around and got me and the three men and they were baptized. They had built a new chapel in the Walls Unit since they baptized me. In the old chapel they had a baptistry, but when they built the new one they conveniently forgot the baptistry. So they didn’t have a place in the Walls to baptize anybody. Somebody remembered this old deep bathtub around on death row and suggested we use it.

We went down the corridor of death row, where men were waiting to be executed, and where I had been waiting once. There I saw these three men buried with the Lord in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life. I was there to greet them and to say a prayer for them when they came out of that old bathtub where I supposedly took my last bath. You think that wasn’t a thrill to me? It sure was! A number of other people were baptized in that bathtub, too.

I continued to study the word of God. They finally let me begin to get other things in there to study, and they even let me have a light in the place; finally they put running water in there, too. They just fixed me up to stay! Well, I had turned back to the Lord and I didn’t care any more about my freedom. I already had changed my attitude toward man, and it wasn’t too hard to get this hatred of people out of my heart.

The hardest thing for me to overcome was cursing and bywords. I had lived about six years with every-other-word I said being a curse word or a byword. For about two years after I turned back to the Lord these things would pop up in my mind, but I would say in my heart, “They won’t come out of my mouth,” and they didn’t. It took about two years to overcome this. I understood what James meant when he said, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

I studied diligently in that cell to educate myself. Among other courses of study, I took a two-year Bible course from Lee College in Tennessee. When I began studying in that isolation cell I couldn’t even speak or spell the most common words correctly. Your little seven- or eight-year-old children can spell better than I could spell at that time. When I quit school in the fourth grade, I was fourteen years old, the oldest and dumbest kid in my class—and the most embarrassed.

My daddy always planned for my younger brother to be a preacher, but he didn’t become one, and neither did my older brother. But the “ugly duckling” became a preacher. My daddy died before I came back to the Lord, though, and I’m sad about this, because I wish he knew that I am a preacher—for that would please him very much.

A Changed Life

I think that my life is a testimony to the fact that a person who has committed murder can be saved. I committed murder, and there are a lot of people saved in this world today because I have lived in it—even though there are eight dead because of me. I thank God that He used me for His cause, but I don’t thank God for sin. I thank God that He brought me to a sense of understanding that I couldn’t save myself, and the only hope was His mercy through Christ Jesus.

When one finds out that he is a sinner, lost, undone, and without hope, and he turns back to God, God will help him, and use him in this world. If we have committed sin, we need forgiveness of that sin, and until we realize that we are lost and undone, and unless we have repented of sin, we won’t be saved.

Finally they sent me out to Ramsey Farm and I did real well. I put the Christmas play on for Captain McAdams the last two years, and I’m real proud of those plays and the men who worked with me. Those men were from the Bible class I was teaching on the farm. When I left Ramsey Farm, I had eighty-one men in class and sixty of them had been baptized into Christ. We baptized nine out there at one time in a stock pond.

Final Developments

Later, my case came up for consideration for parole. The parole officers decided they would put it off for three years, and they wrote me a letter to that effect. I’d been in prison twenty-eight years, but they said they would review my case again in three years.

I had gotten acquainted with a Christian lady through a preacher friend who had been coming to see me. After a year of knowing one another, she and I fell in love and planned to be married as soon as we could. She worked and would not give up. She went to everybody about me—trying to get me out of isoIation and then out of prison. Mr. Ellis, the manager of the prison, told her one day, about four or five years before I got out, “Young lady, you might as well go on and forget this fellow. He’ll never get out of prison.” Well, that was the opinion of most of the officials down there and most of the inmates—and me, too. I just thought there wasn’t much hope of getting out of there. But all of these people underestimated the power of God and the influence of a good woman. The board turned me down, but two months later they released me on conditional pardon.

I was released from Huntsville prison after being in two months past twenty-eight years. My wife was there with a suit of clothes, a borrowed shirt, and a necktie. I was an old country boy and I had never owned a suit of clothes, and had never even worn a necktie.

My Concluding Work

My work now involves meeting those released inmates. When those boys come out, I invite them to my house and dress them in a suit of clothes so they will have something decent to wear when they ask somebody for a job. Before I send them on their way, I try to teach them the gospel of Christ and bring them to the Lord.

I have counseled with a number of men on four units of the prison system, but the doors are practically barred to me now because there were too many of them wanting to be baptized, and the denominational chaplains and the manager of the prison did not want those people baptized. It was all right to teach them and encourage them to live right, but not to baptize them. The devil is pretty smart; as long as he can keep a person from being saved he is real happy, and he has a lot of people working for him in this world today.

Beloved, the possibilities of teaching people who have been in trouble are tremendous. These people are really open-minded. They know they need help, and all it takes is somebody to guide them in the right way.

I want you to know how glad I am to tell you that there is a God in heaven, who is a merciful God. And Jesus Christ His Son died for your sins. It makes no difference how great your sins or how small, the blood of Christ is the answer. And then a faithful life unto death will bring eternal life to you.

If you haven’t obeyed the gospel of Christ we would encourage you to do so while time and opportunity are given you. If you have fallen short of God’s will, won’t you make it right with Him and live for Him in full dedication of life that He may bless you here and hereafter?

[NOTE: Clyde Thompson died of a heart attack July 1, 1979. His life story has been recorded in a book by journalist Don Umphrey (The Meanest Man in Texas, Quarry Press, P.O. Box 181736, Dallas, TX).