It’s a ‘There But for the Grace of God’ Book

C. J. Plogger is a native of Colorado who answered a call from the Church of God in Moundsville, W.Va., and later “moonlighted” as a tour guide at the old West Virginia Penitentiary there. Davis Grubb is one of the state’s more famous writers, having written, e.g. “Night of the Hunter” and “Fool’s Parade,” both of which became popular motion pictures.

As with North Carolina’s Thomas Wolfe and Wheeling’s Hall of Fame member Keith Maillard, even though Grubb left home in his youth, he never stopped looking back towards Moundsville. All three of these great writers — and there are many more like them — seem to have taken as the theme song for their literary works Bruce Springsteen’s “My Home Town.” When I argued one of the first prison reform cases before the state Supreme Court, I began with some lines from Davis Grubb: “All visitors to Moundsville are shown two local landmarks. The first is an ancient Adena Indian burial mound and the other is the 19th century West Virginia State Penitentiary. One is the burial place of the unknown dead, the other is the burial place of the unknown living.”

The Rev. Plogger has salvaged the names and faces — and in most cases the last words — of 94 of the hundreds and hundreds of men who entered the portals at 818 Jefferson Avenue in Moundsville.

In a straight forward, almost cinema verite fashion, he has put human faces on what most people would consider “the worst of the worst” in the history of the Mountain State. (This phrase comes from a former warden, Don Bordenkircher, who learned the trade with Operation Phoenix building “tiger cages” in Vietam. He was subsequently hired by two separate governors. When he returned the second time under John D. Rockefeller IV, his initial plan was to put the 100 toughest inmates in one boxing ring and let them brawl it out until only the “King of the Hill” was left standing. This was blocked by a local lawyer who argued that the fight had not been sanctioned by the W.Va. Boxing Commission.)

A Roman Catholic nun struck a mighty blow against capital punishment with a book (and later a movie starring Sean Penn) called “Dead Man Walking.” This was an account of her visitations with a man on death row in Louisiana. He was later executed. The trouble opponents of the death penalty have is that most people can come up with some hypothetical situation — Tim McVeigh is a favorite example — where the biblical “eye for an eye” would be justified. When Gaston Caperton first ran for governor of W.Va., he told an audience at Clarksburg that he supported the death penalty for “multiple murders.” A reporter asked him, “Is that two, three, four, five…” before Sen. Lloyd Jackson intervened and hustled Caperton away.

From the kindly black face of Shep Caldwell of McDowell County, killed on 10 October 1899, to Elmer David Bruner of Cabell County, executed on 3 April 1959 (whom some might think “looked” like a murderer), Plogger has by indirection demonstrated that the “worst of the worst” bear an uneasy resemblance to those faces that we see in family picture albums.

There is, however, one glaring exception to this generalization: It is indeed passing strange that a state whose African-American population has always been a low single digit, 43 percent of those executed were persons of color. A cynic might say that in West Virginia although justice is blind, it has not always been color blind.

The book is an easy read, without any artifice, but it must, for me anyway, be taken in very small portions. The stories are just too much, too painful to digest in large portions. To take one story at random: Wilfred Davis was the son of a Methodist minister in Randolph County.

He had been sent to the reform school at Pruntytown as a juvenile. Several years later the chief of police of Elkins arrested Davis. A published report said he was “extremely drunk and disruptive.” Someone (speculation was that it was his brother) slipped him a gun and just as the chief was about to put Wilfred in jail, he pulled the gun and hot him. He had just told the chief, “You’re making a big mistake.”

On the day before his execution, Wilfred wrote to his brother and said that he was ready “to meet his Maker.” (One wonders how his brother received the letter.) Wilfred went to bed that night, slept soundly and had his last meal at 4 p.m. A local paper reported that he joked and laughed with the guards. At 5:36, the trap was sprung and at 5:50, Wilfred was pronounced dead. Before the trap was opened, the prison chaplain had said, “Now, Wilford, you need the dear Savior more than ever before.”

“Yes, He is here. Bless the Lord,” was the reply.

Plogger is clearly no “bleeding heart liberal” and “Pronounced Dead” is no jeremiad against the death penalty, such as “Brief Against Death” by New Jersey death row inmate Edgar Smith (and literal “pen pal” of William F. Buckley, publisher of the National Review.) Plogger expressed his basic intent in the last words of the book: “Hopefully, the poor choices made by these men, will help others to make positive choices in the future.”

Others may see the book as an illustration of the old, old adage: There but for the grace of God go I.

To paraphrase a famous passage from Nietzsche, the impression that I came away with was that if you stare too intently at some of the pictures, you might find someone staring back at you.

Before attending Harvard Law School, Rogers, of New Martinsville, spent slightly more than eight months as a guard at the West Virginia Penitentiary in 1963. He is currently an “Official Visitor” on the Capital Unit at S.C.I. Greene in Waynesburg, Pa. “Pronounced Dead” may be purchased online from Amazon, Books-A-Million, and Barnes & Noble or at the former prison in Moundsville.

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