Portrait of John Spenkelink

Portrait of John Spenkelink with Electric Chair

by Anthony De Frange (1923-1983)

Original oil painting of an American murderer
who became a national cause célèbre

Canvas size:  16" x 20"    Frame size:  24.5" x 28.5"

This portrait was commissioned by Loretta Powers, a concerned citizen of San Francisco, California, to protest the death penalty and the execution in the electric chair of convicted murderer John Spenkelink on May 25th, 1979.  This is a highly unusual case where De Frange's talent was used to render a political statement against what many consider a cruel and unusual punishment. From Goya to Warhol, protest art, aka activist art, aka resistance art, has a powerful and noble place in the annals of art history.

Loretta Powers

There are too many governors and presidents that
 have proved they are criminals." -- Loretta Powers

Loretta Powers (1925-2014), a native San Franciscan, was a classically trained musician and teacher.  A child prodigy, Ms. Powers was first violinist with the Portland Youth Symphony.  During the 1960's and 1970's, she operated a performing arts studio where she was a music and ballet teacher, drama/voice coach, and piano accompanist. In solitary protest against capital punishment, Powers signed a $500 contract with De Frange to paint John Spenkelink from photographs in his blue-gray prison setting.  $500 in 1979 is equivalent to $1,729.39 in 2018.  From her reading, Powers concluded that Spenkelink was innocent.  She said in an interview with Russ Cone, reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, "He was a scapegoat.  He was framed... Our nation is getting too barbaric.  It's like Fellini's 'Satyricon'.  Executions aren't essential.  It was just a bloodthirsty governor working out his fears."  She collected signatures to petition to ban the electric chair, adding,"the 90-year use of the electric chair is something to be ashamed of." 

A lonely vigil in memory of an executed convict

By Russ Cone

The two huge rooms on the third floor of 142 Taylor St. comprise a theatrical studio after all. There is an upright piano, but little furniture.

On one wall a giant poster of Alan Ladd's "This Gun For Hire," a photo of Rudolph Nureyev in flight, sketches of ballet dancers. Further along, photos of British actor Alan Bates. An uncompleted, bluish oil of flowers in a bowl rests against an easel.

In the second, large room, a tad musty in the filtered afternoon sun through old curtains, several oils by the copyist Anthony De Frange hang from walls. There's Alan Ladd, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Tyrone Power and Vivien Leigh in three-quarter life costume of Scarlett O'Hara in silvered wood.

The collected poems of Rabindranath Tagore lie amid a clutter of books and magazinbes in an open chest, along with such titles as "My Life in Art," "The Film Actor" and Moliere's "The Learned Lady."

On a chair lies a stack of hand-printed messages on large, artist's sketch sheets. The top one reads:

"Spenkelink evokes love, sympathy, mercy, kindness, tears of compassion, tender feelings and great empathy. I love John A. Spenkelink -- Laure."

John Spenkelink was executed in the electric chair at Florida State Penitentiary, Tallahasse, last May 25th, for killing a fellow drifter, Joseph Szymankiewicz, by shooting him twice with a handgun and bludgeoning him with a hatchet.

Spenkelink claimed he acted in self-defense after Szymankiewicz had raped him and forced him to play Russian roulette.

Spenkelink was the first person to be executed against his will in the United States since 1967, a matter of concern to an estimated 500 death row inmates nationwide, 135 of them in Florida.

"Laure" -- actress-turned-drama coach Loretta Gassie Powers -- read a lot about Spenkelink in Time, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek and Saga magazines and the newspapers.

"The people of this country are too interested in trivia," she says. "An execution can be worked in without people even knowing it . . . It was just the most tragic event I've ever heard of."

In solitary protest, Powers signed a $500 contract with De Frange to paint Spenkelink from photographs in his blue-gray prison setting.

De Frange has seen a bit. Among the celebrity portraits in his studio at 678 Geary St. are voluptuous nudes of men and women.

Nevertheless, he says, "it was kind of eerie painting him."

It's the first time I've painted an executed person, though I have done many portraits of deceased persons.

"But," he is quick to add, "I'm not involved in the politics of it."

Powers, mother of five grown children, among them Rex Rabin, who operates San Francisco Antique Photography, says, "I intend to make a little shrine in my studio. I'm going to ask people to sign up against capital punishment.

"And, as part of the drama classes," she continues, "I will have them read the newspaper accounts of the execution."

Powers, a member of New Orleans' Gassie family, which maintains the Louisiana Historical Society, says she was first drawn into an interest in criminology after the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst. She notes, "I quit my job at the post office because of the turmoil. That was the prelude of my interest.

"There are too many of our governors and presidents that have proved they are criminals," she says.

From her reading, Powers has concluded that Spenkelink was innocent. She says "he was a scapegoat. He was framed . . . Our nation is getting too barbaric. It's like Fellini's 'Satyricon.'

Executions aren' essential. It was just a bloodthirsty governor working out his fears." It was Florida Governor Bob Graham's signature on a death warrant, which no court would overturn, that finally sealed Spenkelink's execution.

She is now collecting signatures on a petition to ban the electric chair, adding "the 90-year use of the electric chair is something to be ashamed of."

Click to enlarge.

Anthony De Frange at work
Examiner Photo:  Gordon Stone

"It was kind of eerie painting him.  It's the first
time I've painted an executed person, though I have
done many portraits of deceased persons." 
Anthony De Frange

S. F. Examiner — Page 9
Thurs. August 16, 1979

John Spenkelink mug shot

Capital punishment: them without the capital get the punishment."
John Spenkelink

John Spenkelink was a drifter who was convicted in California for armed robbery and had been sentenced to five years-to-life.  He had just escaped from the Slack Canyon Conservation Camp when he shot and killed a small-time criminal named Joseph Szymankiewicz in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1973. He claimed that he acted in self-defense that Szymankiewicz had stolen his money, forced him to play Russian roulette, and sexually assaulted him. However, evidence and witness testimony from a co-defendant indicate that Spenkelink left their shared motel room, returned with a gun, and shot Szymankiewicz in the back. He turned down a plea bargain to second-degree murder that would have resulted in a life sentence. In 1976 he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. His co-defendant was acquitted.

Death Penalty

Spenkelink appealed his sentence, but in 1977, Governor Reubin Askew of Florida signed Spenkelink's first death warrant. In 1979 Askew's successor, Governor Bob Graham,  signed a second death warrant. Spenkelink continued to appeal, earning stays from both the U.S Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, but both stays were overturned,  meaning that Spenkelink would be the first man to suffer the death penalty involuntarily (Gilmore had insisted he wanted to die) since executions were resumed in the U.S. in 1976.Spenkelink's case became a national cause célèbre, encompassing both the broader debate over the morality of the death penalty and the narrower question of whether the punishment fitted Spenkelink's crime. His cause was taken up by former Florida Governor LeRoy Collins, actor Alan Alda, and singer Joan Baez, among many others.  Also at issue was the assertion that capital punishment discriminated against the poor and underprivileged—Spenkelink often signed his prison correspondence with the epigram, "capital punishment means those without capital get the punishment." The execution was finally carried out on May 25, 1979, in "Old Sparky", the Florida State Prison electric chair. That morning, Doug Tracht, a popular Jacksonville disc jockey, aired a recording of sizzling bacon on his radio program and dedicated it to Spenkelink.


Abuse allegations

Shortly after Spenkelink's execution and burial at Rose Hills Memorial Park, another Florida death row inmate alleged that prison officials had manhandled and assaulted Spenkelink during preparation for his execution. Several decisions lent credence to these allegations: corrections officials had obscured the death chamber's viewing window while Spenkelink was strapped to the electric chair, citing anonymity concerns;the county did not perform an autopsy on Spenkelink (in violation of state law) because the county coroner considered it a redundant and prohibitively expensive policy; and the prison superintendent had limited visits from family and clergy on Spenkelink's execution day, citing fear of a suicide attempt.

Governor Graham commissioned an investigation, which in September 1979 concluded that Spenkelink had been "taunted" and had loud exchanges with prison guards and staff immediately before his execution, but had not been physically abused.] Florida corrections officials responded by allowing witnesses to see the complete execution process going forward. Florida's counties now perform autopsies on all executed inmates.

Murder allegations

In spite of the state's investigation, a rumor began that Spenkelink had been murdered prior to his being brought into the death chamber. The rumor reached Spenkelink's mother Lois, who, after encouragement from a spiritual advisor, paid to have her son's body exhumed for a post-mortem examination. On March 6, 1981, Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi announced his finding that the cause of Spenkelink's death was the result of electrocution. -- From Wikipedia.org

Death Penalty Fast Facts

  • Capital punishment is currently authorized in 31 states, by the federal government and the U.S. military. 

  • As of 2015, the only places in the world which still reserve the electric chair as an option for execution are the U.S. states of Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.

  • Many people, including the American Civil Liberties Union, believe the death penalty inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law.  They believe that capital punishment is an egregious denial of civil liberties, civil rights and human rights.  They consider the death penalty is uncivilized in theory and unfair and inequitable in practice.  It discriminates against the poor and minorities.  It promotes racism and classism. 
  • It is a waste of taxpayer money, because it costs more to execute a murderer than life in prison.

  • Many police officers believe that reducing drug abuse, creating more jobs, enforcing gun control and increasing the number of police officers is a better deterrent to murder and violent crime than the death penalty.  The FBI has found the states with the death penalty have the highest murder rates.

  • Many family members who have lost loved ones to murder feel that a death sentence does not provide closure.  The mandatory appeals process in death penalty cases results in decades of court hearings with no certainty that justice will be served.  It only prolongs their pain.  Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole provides swifter and more certain justice.  

  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. opposed capital punishment, stating “I do not think that God approves of the death penalty for any crime, rape and murder included. Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology and above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.”

Anthony De Frange
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