Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Cellmates Escaped Hot Date

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Cellmates Escaped Hot Date

Article excerpt

Late on a Saturday night in the Duval County Courthouse in

October 1926, Bertie Hall became the first woman sentenced

to die in the Florida electric chair.

A couple of hours later, a couple of blocks away in the Columns

hotel, Billie Jackson stabbed her husband to death with a

kitchen knife. She would become the second.

Bertie and Billie became cellmates in the Duval County jail,

awaiting their date with Old Sparky.

They were not to die, of course. They were to become the stuff

of folk tale.

It would be 72 years before Judy Buenoano became the first

woman executed in the Florida electric chair last Tuesday.

What were the odds?

The first two Florida women doomed under the majesty of the law

in memory, side-by-side at the same time in Ham Dowling's local

lock-up?

Bertie and Billie were two good reasons Sheriff Dowling and his

colleagues had pressured the Florida Legislature to switch from

hanging to electrocution.

Nobody wanted to hang a woman, and murder was becoming an equal

opportunity crime. Electrocution was tidier and did not require

the local sheriff to spring the trap.

Women were smoking, bobbing their hair, dancing the Charleston,

drinking bathtub gin and knocking off their fellow man to a

degree hitherto unprecedented. Bertie, Billie and their fate

were symbolic of the times.

Old Sparky was Young Sparky when Bertie and Billie were doomed.

The Jacksonville-made chair had just turned 2 that fateful night.

Seven men had been put to death since the first execution Oct.

7, 1924. One still waited his turn.

Many thought it was a shame about Bertie and Billie. Most,

maybe.

But the law in 1926 was rigid. Correctness was not yet

political. Times were cruel. Circumstances perhaps were

mitigating in the heart, but the law left little wiggle-room.

Truth was, most everybody liked Bertie and Billie.

Bertie was said to fry the best chicken ever cooked in the

county jail. Sheriff's deputies used to take her out to make

undercover whisky buys in their unrelenting war against

bootleggers. …

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