JAY WIECHERT was not an impressive sight. A diminutive man at around 5 feet 8 inches, he couldn’t have weighed more than 120 pounds. A full two years before his death, his cancer showed in his sallow skin, his balding pate affirmed his 71 years, and the reason for his ever-present, off-white, cotton-covered neck brace was a mystery. His glasses hadn’t been updated since, I’d guess, 1973, when he left corporate America to start his own business. He smoked a pipe while he reminisced about his childhood in rural Kansas, his two daughters, his engineering career made up mostly of creating fully automated machines. His voice was soft, his house in Fort Smith was clean, and he was solicitously polite as he offered me refreshments throughout our two-hour interview in the fall of 2014. Would you like some grapes? No? Strawberries? No? How about bread? Water, even? Simply put, Jay Wiechert was an underwhelming individual.
Not at all what you’d expect from the man who’d built every electric chair since 1976.
I first met Wiechert when I was in college. My mother—the executive director of a youth organization and a prominent member of Fort Smith’s civic scene—served with him on the Fort Smith Sesquicentennial Celebration Committee. They were working on the Fort Smith time capsule project, celebrating 150 years of the town perhaps best known for its employment of Judge Isaac Parker, more famously recalled as “The Hangin’ Judge” of the late 19th century. She wanted me to meet the engineer behind her latest endeavor, and his cavernous warehouse workshop was the perfect place for that to happen.
I sat in a wooden chair, its broad arms extending past the length of the seat, its back towering over my head. I ran my hands over a control panel on a nearby table. “What’s this?” I asked.
Wiechert removed his pipe and smirked. “That’s the electric chair.”
THIRTY-THREE years before entering the death business, Wiechert had prosaic origins in the Midwest. Born in Brazilton, Kansas (population so small no current census information is available on it), Wiechert was machine-minded from an early age; he began working in his father’s blacksmith shop at the age of 10, where he often assisted in the repair of farm equipment. By the time he finished grammar school, a high school had been built about 10 miles from his hometown. His parents, both of whom had only completed eighth grade, were happy to send their son on the bus for his higher education. If it weren’t for Wiechert’s two engineer uncles, his scholarship might have ended there. Because of their influence, Wiechert attended Kansas State, earning his bachelor’s and then his master’s in electrical engineering. He taught at nearby Fort Riley to help finance his schooling; the soldiers were surely grateful for his tutelage in electronics and math as they worked to establish their careers in the U.S. Armed Forces.
After completing his thesis, Wiechert accepted a position with Whirlpool in Michigan, heading up projects in the dryer division. He soon sought a transfer to Fort Smith, a move toward the South that his first wife, Sheila, who hated Michigan, welcomed.
It wasn’t long before Wiechert distinguished himself in the engineering of appliances. In the late 1960s, he invented the dryness sensor still used in most clothes dryers today. “That was the most valuable patent that I had,” Wiechert asserted. “The first year, it made one and a quarter million dollars. That’s the only one I had that was really, really valuable.” In return for the sensor’s design, the Whirlpool Corporation paid him $1. But Wiechert wasn’t bitter. “I mean, you’ve got the lab, the model shop … there’s a lot of people involved,” he said. “We generally had, like, 15 projects at the same time. They paid my salary, they paid for the model shop. It’s very fair that these things belong to corporations.”
On his resume, Wiechert stated that he was responsible for three patents during his time at Whirlpool, but he couldn’t remember what those three patents were for. He even admitted that his name was officially listed on far more than three patents, but he didn’t know exactly what that number could possibly be. As brilliant an engineer as Wiechert was, he was largely unconcerned and forgetful about many of the details of his life when we spoke, and since Whirlpool was the owner of all patents he created under their umbrella, this was one of the details of his life that was jettisoned.
After making the move to work for General Electric in Kentucky for one miserable year, Wiechert returned to his beloved Fort Smith for good, striking out on his own with his eponymous Wiechert Manufacturing. Don’t bother Googling it—you’ll be out of luck; Wiechert had no website and never advertised. “Companies know about people like myself,” Wiechert said. In fact, his former employer Whirlpool gave him his first big solo job in 1973: building the controls for putting the foam in refrigerator cabinets. Soon his business expanded to designing and building machines that would tool and sand combination shower/tub inserts or regular old doors for houses. He routinely built fully automated machines that would occupy seven or eight thousand square feet. “That’s how I made my living. Automated machinery.”
Which is exactly how he got in to the electric chair business. “Back in the ’70s, the federal government put a hold on capital punishment. And when the feds allowed capital punishment—that must’ve been, I don’t know, ’76 or something—the state of Arkansas couldn’t find anybody to build an electric chair. Theirs was gone for some reason. I guess they called me and I said, Yeah! I’ll build you an electric chair. How difficult can that be? In my business, the hard part is not electrocuting somebody! Killing somebody is a piece of cake.”
In 1976, with no internet and no research library in Fort Smith, Wiechert drove the 63 miles north to Fayetteville, where the University of Arkansas had a full research facility. He obtained a library card and found one extremely helpful book. “It was written by an executioner—would’ve been, like, 80 years or so ago. He had a technical background. I can’t remember the gentleman’s name now. Anyway, I got a bunch of books from U of A, and I just figured out how to do it.”
Most people don’t realize that the electric chair isn’t a chair at all—the condemned can sit anywhere they darn well please. It’s the electrodes, placed on saline-dampened sponges attached to the prisoner’s head and leg, that do the business.
After designing the electrodes and control panel, Wiechert gave the state a quote—he can’t remember how much it was—and because he held his professional engineer’s license, he was selected over the one other fellow who provided the state a bid. After receiving the purchase order, Wiechert drove another 35 miles to Mountainburg, where he bought a hog. He remembered: “Brought the hog back to my office and locked all the doors. Made some special electrodes that would fit the hog. Set up the recording equipment. Executed the hog, and everything worked great. Butchered the hog and filled up the freezer. Hauled the equipment down to Cummins and installed it. It sat dormant for quite a few years. We didn’t use that equipment for quite a few years.”
Fourteen years, to be exact. On June 18, 1990, John Swindler became the first (and, interestingly enough, the last—and therefore only) inmate to die in Arkansas’ electric chair. Wiechert was in attendance. “He was a cop killer from Fort Smith. He killed a Fort Smith cop. So I flew my little airplane down there, landed on their dirt strip—this was late in the afternoon. The prison officials made a big party of it—I shouldn’t call it a party—but they had buckets and buckets of fried chicken, fed everybody. The Fort Smith cops, they brought a couple of busloads down there. It was kind of a non-event. You know, we just executed John Swindler. This was, like, 11 o’clock at night. After all the ceremony was over, I just flew my little airplane back home that night—midnight-thirty. Most exciting part of the whole thing was just taking off from that dirt strip at midnight-thirty because there was no lights, and trying to figure out where the runway was. But I was glad to be home that night. Slept in my own bed.”
Excitement over a dark takeoff is just about as emotional and reflective as Wiechert got. When I asked him for this interview, his first question was, “How many people are going to see this?”
“Well,” I replied, doing the mental math, “There’s about eight other MFA students in my class—plus my teacher—so, about 10?”
“Ten would be okay,” he replied.
And he was so loath to talk about the electric chair that we didn’t even get to it until two hours after we began our conversation. He fed me, took me on a tour of his backyard, showed me a branch that had fallen during a recent storm and was dangling precariously over the electrical wire that ran from the telephone pole to his house.
“I better go to my shop and get my chainsaw to cut that thing down,” he said, before one word had been uttered about the most notorious part of his engineering career, maybe because he’d rather focus on the work he likes to call “do-gooder jobs.” In fact, it was this side of Wiechert, the “do-gooder” side, that those who knew him were more likely to know him for (although his humility ensures that most people don’t even know about that). He created a machine that enabled a quadriplegic woman to cut cables in a factory: “It was obvious she was doing something because an hour later, there was a bucket full of wire. She just loved the sh*t out of that.”
He also designed, built and donated the Creekmore Park train, a miniature locomotive well-known to Fort Smithians. When my husband and I had almost 10 foster kids—and two biological—we picked that iconic train as the setting for our family pictures. It’s so popular, in fact, that the wait for the 25-cent ride can be an hour or longer during the Christmas season. He even built time capsules for other cities’ celebrations; in nearby Greenwood, he designed, built, and donated the time capsule marking our country’s bicentennial back in 1976. “We’re gonna open that up in 2076. You wanna go with me?” he asked me. “Let’s make it a date.”
A date was never to be, though. Before his death, he was busy as the only working manufacturer and maintainer of electric chairs in the nation and, as the only other nation that occasionally uses the electric chair is the Philippines, he may have been the only manufacturer and maintainer in the world. “Some states have to maintain their electric chair because the inmates that were sentenced to die with the electric chair have a choice: lethal injection or electric chair.” He wasn’t thrilled that he was the last of his kind, however. “I don’t travel well. Last time I was in Nashville was quite a few years ago. I’ve been to that prison many times. The last time I talked to them was no more than a week ago. I don’t know if they’ll ever have another electrocution or not.”
Tennessee may not ever have another electrocution, but on September 4, 2014, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a law requiring death by electric chair when lethal injection is not available. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Tennessee is one of nine states—with Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Virginia—where electrocution is an authorized alternative means of execution, though lethal injection is the primary method for all of them.
Fort Smith’s newspaper the Southwest Times Record reported that at an April 29, 2014, execution using lethal injection, Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett “writhed, moaned, and clenched his teeth before he was pronounced dead about 43 minutes after his execution began.” Reports released by the Department of Public Safety blamed the poor placement of intravenous lines, but concern regarding the means by which inmates are executed has increased in recent years. If lethal injection is discontinued, there are 22 other states that will be looking for death penalty alternatives.
Concerns about lethal injection were no surprise for Wiechart. “I think lethal injection will go by the wayside pretty soon. I predicted that 10 years ago and I was wrong. But, you know, we’re really the only developed nation that does that anymore.”
For now, though, the U.S. does indeed still employ capital punishment. Just last year, Arkansas made national headlines as the state sought to use its store of lethal injection drugs before they expired. Eight executions were scheduled for April 2017, with two executions planned every day for four days. The state carried out four of these planned executions, with three of the other inmates given stays of execution by the state Supreme Court and the fourth granted clemency by the governor. And in just the first five months of 2018, 10 executions have already been carried out across the country, all by lethal injection. One inmate in particular waited 31 years from his sentencing to his execution, another serious problem as far as Wiechert was concerned. “Judge Parker has a quote: You have to have two things to have a deterrent: One, you have to have the surety,” Wiechert said. “Two, the proximity. It has to be immediate and it has to be a sure thing.”
Judge Parker surely knew the quandaries associated with the death penalty fairly well. Parker condemned 160 people to death by hanging. Of those, 79 were executed, earning Parker his “Hangin’ Judge” moniker. With less than 50 percent of his punishments being fulfilled, he condemned the justice system for its lack of certainty: “In the uncertainty of punishment following crime lies the weakness of our ‘halting crime.’”
As an expert witness, Wiechert testified that the electric chair wasn’t cruel and unusual. But more than that, he believed that none of the current execution methods were cruel and unusual. “I think most of the ways that we’ve used the last 150 years have been OK. There isn’t anything wrong with electrocution. And if it’s not botched, there’s nothing wrong with lethal injection. I don’t have a problem with hanging. The U.S. Army set up procedures for hanging years ago. Works very well. There’s nothing wrong with hanging.”
But that didn’t mean he was a fan of capital punishment. “The only reason I got involved was because of my engineering, but I never got involved because I had a political argument. Never.”
I’d like to say I asked Wiechert what his exact stance was on capital punishment, but I didn’t. He started to tell me a story about another execution, I think, but as he stood up to refill his pipe, he looked down at my iPhone, its voice memo app counting off seconds.
He nodded his head pointedly at the device: “Is that thing on?”
“Yeah, it is.” I reached for it. “But I can turn it off.”
“No, that’s OK. I’m not going to tell my story.”
It’s impossible to know now what Wiechert thought about the death penalty or the execution of individual prisoners. We could look to Judge Parker, who said “I never hung a man. It is the law.” But Parker was more forthcoming with his political views: “I favor the abolition of capital punishment, too, provided that there is a certainty of punishment, whatever that punishment may be.” Wiechert did agree that the uncertainty of punishment was a problem, and he saw a big advantage in the death penalty being completed with assuredness: “The big thing is, when you execute, the recidivism rate is zero. It’s zero.”
For states, though, the issue might be less moral and more economic. “When I was working with Florida, the attorney general told me that it was almost exactly $1,000,000 difference between capital punishment and life without parole. In other words, if we can execute the bastard, it saves us a flat million dollars. Flat million dollars!”
For Wiechert, economics and morality seemed inextricably intertwined. When his clients began moving their manufacturing south of the border, though industry practice may have dictated hiring an “expert,” he enlisted the help of the daughter of his second wife, a native of Puerto Rico, to translate the technical language of control panels into Spanish. And in 2005, when he was diagnosed with cancer, losing his insurance coverage did not deter him from flying his own plane with his private pilot’s license—until he realized that if he somehow hurt someone, he’d lose all the money he’d worked so hard to amass over the course of his entire career.
He really began winding things down in 2014. “I sold all of my equipment a few years ago. I hung on to one or two of everything. So I still do machine work, welding, whatever, but I do it at my own pace. I work for a half hour and I rest for an hour. I work for a half hour and I rest for an hour. I’ve still got half a dozen welders because everybody needs something. I have a lot of friends. I’m fortunate.”
And I was fortunate enough to think that Jay counted me among those friends. Before he died, he even put his engineering smarts to work to repair my broken German cuckoo clock.
CLOSE TO two years after his death, it’s sad to realize that we won’t get to keep our Greenwood time capsule date in 2076 (which, coincidentally, would not only be the 300th anniversary of our country, but also the 100th anniversary of his building his first electric chair). Wiechert won’t even be around for the much-closer opening of the Fort Smith time capsule, which is scheduled for the city’s 200th celebration in 2042, a mere 24 years from now. If he had been healthy, he might’ve made it. He would’ve been 99 years old, but it could have happened. I would’ve loved for him to be there when I read the letter my mom put in the capsule for me. I would’ve liked to take a picture of him with the miniature electric chair he put in the capsule to represent the city of Fort Smith.
When I asked him what kind of cancer he had, he said, “I don’t know if I want to talk about that.” He’d already given so much to his community, his family, his friends. He gave so much to me, personally—more information than he was comfortable with, for one. When I let him read a draft of this piece, he instructed me to take out every reference to his ex-wife: “She’s my friend and a good woman and I don’t want anything negative written about her.” He didn’t even want me to describe his single year in Kentucky as “miserable”: “I have friends there, and that might hurt their feelings.” So I didn’t press him to give me a deeper answer about his condition. He followed up anyway: “I actually don’t know, because I haven’t been treating it right.” His priorities lay elsewhere, I suppose.
Wiechert outlived the Hangin’ Judge, who died of heart degeneration and Bright’s disease at the age of 58. When I told him I was nearly through writing this piece, he said, “If you make a million dollars, I’m sure you’ll share it.”
“I’ll give you a dollar,” I replied.
Award-winning writer Heather Breed Steadham has written about guns, ghosts and Gary Busey. Her husband and three children love her—God bless them—and support her wild idea that she may one day become a novelist.
Ottumwa tri-weekly courier. (Ottumwa, Iowa), 31 July 1915. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.