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"
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."
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 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.
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
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