Ernest Tyler was executed on June 24, 1942, at the Missouri State Penitentiary. He was 37 years old and one 39 people executed by lethal gas between 1938 and 1965. He was convicted and sentenced to death for murder. Missouri switched to lethal injection when executions resumed in 1989 but the gas chamber is still located in a small stone building (called the “Death House”) on the grounds of the Jefferson City Correctional Center in Jefferson City.
On a wall outside the gas chamber is a group of photographs of the thirty-eight men –and one woman– that died in the gas chamber. I saw the photographs during a tour of the prison a couple of years ago. I was familiar with prison mug shots from working on a website (Capital Punishment in Missouri) but these images were so different from those of the men currently (or recently) on Missouri’s Death Row (they don’t like to call it that). Nobody seemed to know where the originals of the photographs were. I finally found them in the State Archives and the story of how they got there is interesting.
A former warden –upon retiring– took with him the prison files of those executed in the gas chamber. He was concerned the files, and whatever history they might contain, would be lost or discarded. He kept them at his home for a number of years and then turned them over to the State Archives. Where I found them. I spent several Saturday mornings going through each of the files and photocopying as much as I could afford. Along with the photographs, I found newspaper clippings; letters from the inmates; reports by prison personnel; and a variety of gruesome forms and reports related to the executions.
There was nothing remarkable about Ernest Tyler’s file. I don’t believe his case got much coverage in the press, at least there were no clippings. There was, however, a letter from Tyler to his father, a minister in Kansas City, Missouri. Prison officials apparently kept copies of outgoing correspondence. The letter was dated April 15th and Tyler was scheduled to die on April 24th, nine days later. In it, Tyler pleads with his father to come to Jefferson City to visit him before his execution. The context of the letter suggests (to me) that his father was working on some last-minute appeal to save his son. Or maybe he couldn’t bring himself to see his son on Death Row. We’ll never know. Here’s the letter:
“Hello Dad: How are you and mother today? I am not feeling so well. I received your letter, Dad. I am asking you again to please come down here, and please stop telling me about you are waiting on those papers. You may never hear from them, and when you do it will be too late, I will be looking for you or mother one by Sunday, and tell Mrs. Hill that I am praying and hoping Mr. Hill will get well, and also tell Mr. Hill, that I thank her from my heart for what they have done for me. There are no way that I can really tell her how much I thank her for her work. Dad please do something just once I ask, and not as someone else tell you to do. What I mean about I asked you to get someone to take the case back to court, but you had to go fooling around with Mr. Edon and now I am asking you to come down here and you keep telling me about you are waiting on an answer (from) them papers. Dad you will not know anything about what the Governor is going to do until the last day, which is the 23rd of this month, and on the night of the 23rd of this month I am to go down, then you will not have time to get here. So I will be looking for one of you Sunday if not before. I am writing Maron a letter, please give it to her…
I’ll close for this time, dad looking for you soon, your son,
Ernest Tyler, Hall B.B.”
Nothing in the file indicated whether Reverend Tyler visited his son. I’m guessing he did not.