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Reporter recalls watching legislator's killer die in electric chair in 1951

As a St. Petersburg Times reporter from 1948 to 1965, Jerry Blizin covered some of Pinellas County's biggest stories.

On a spring day in 1950, a man who called himself Charlie Gifford walked into a law firm in downtown St. Petersburg and asked to see Charles J. Schuh Jr. The genial young lawyer waved Gifford into his private office and told his secretary, "This will only take a few minutes.'' Then he closed the door.

Moments later, five shots rang out and Schuh, 36, lay mortally wounded in front of his desk.

The assassination stunned the community and the state Capitol, where Schuh was a respected state representative and close ally of Florida Gov. Fuller Warren. I helped cover the story, and when Gifford was convicted of first-degree murder, my editors wanted to follow the story to its somber conclusion. I was sent to Raiford Prison to witness his execution.

Gifford, a slender, stooped man of 71 or 72 who claimed his name was really Charlie Ross, had nursed a grievance for nearly three years. Schuh had represented his wife in a 1947 divorce case, which also involved hearings about his sanity. The proceedings filled Gifford with rage. He claimed Schuh had called him a liar. But just where, when and if this alleged insult took place remained unclear.

If a man had called him a liar when he was younger "I would have given him this," said Gifford, gesturing with a fist, but "now, if a man calls me a liar, I'll shoot him!" He had made a New Year's resolution to do just that, he said.

His penchant for violent outbursts was displayed again at his preliminary hearing when he was bound over for trial. "If I had two six-guns, I'd go back and face that (court)," Gifford said.

The trial and execution of Gifford took place with unusual speed. A jury found him guilty of first-degree murder on July 19, less than three months after the crime. Seven months later, he was executed.

Virtually everybody in St. Petersburg admired Schuh, a remarkably friendly man who seemed destined for an impressive political career. He won three medals for gallantry in World War II. He managed Warren's successful 1948 campaign for governor and was voted second most effective freshman by his colleagues in the Legislature. Many people believed he would be governor himself some day, and the Times said so editorially.

When I entered the death chamber at Raiford, my emotions were in turmoil. I thought about Schuh, about how his wife had lost her husband and his four sons had lost their father. I thought about the loss to St. Petersburg and the state. But I was also very uncomfortable at the prospect of watching a man being put to death in the electric chair.

As a police reporter, I had encountered death in many forms, but I had never seen someone executed. I tossed and turned all night in my room at a gray sheets motel in Raiford, then reported to the prison gate at 6 a.m. as directed. Newspaper reporters weren't allowed in the death chamber, so I had to apply to be one of the official witnesses to get in. I was accepted.

We gathered in a bleak execution chamber. The electric chair was in the center, but the controls were behind a glass-enclosed area. I was repelled by the sight of "Old Sparky," the electric chair. I was even more horrified to see that the executioner, a local electrician, wore a black hood reminiscent of the Inquisition. I was aware of ghastly tales of electrocutions gone awry — that smoke and flames sometimes erupted and prisoners in the chair thrashed and even broke their restraining straps.

It was quite cool in the chamber when prison officials led Gifford to the chair, but I was sweating. I knew that back in the days of public hangings, crowds used to enjoy such spectacles. Was I going to be a ghoul, too?

Today I am a decade older than Gifford was then, but to a 22-year-old reporter he seemed to be just a frail old man with a shaved head. Gifford, a retired butcher, said nothing as he was strapped in. He was fitted with the chair's sponge and cap devices, then covered by yet another black hood. Just before the first shock was administered, he lifted his right hand slightly and waved farewell.

The electrician/executioner ran a rheostat up and down. Gifford slumped in the chair. After a second shock he was motionless. There had been no smoke, no flames. This electrocution had gone by the book, as banal as it was final.

Schuh's wife, Kathryn, never remarried. She put all four of her sons through college. One, Charles E. Schuh, became a St. Petersburg City Council member and mayor. He died last month.

Mrs. Schuh was politically active and served for a time as president of the St. Petersburg Women's Democratic Club. In 1964 she was an unsuccessful candidate for Pinellas County tax collector.

She died Aug. 13 at 95. Family members said she never talked about her husband's murder.

Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Jerry Blizin, who lives in Tarpon Springs, can be reached at jbliz3@knology.net.

Reporter recalls watching legislator's killer die in electric chair in 1951 01/26/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 5:11pm]
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