MSP Execution #27: Claude McGee

***Some of this may seem odd, but it would make more sense if you listen to the podcast or if I ever find my Missouri State Penitentiary story. (probably going to end up re-writing it, ugh)

We talked about doing the little series of Missouri State Penitentiary stories, and tonight we are going to deliver another. We have covered the MSP and the hauntings. We also talked about Carrie Hofland in the Teresita case; she spent about three years in MSP. I was trying to find one and decided to look through the executions to pick one. Well, this guy’s picture definitely pulled me in, and I had to look into his case, or should I say cases. He was just a bad guy, but some the story of his life is almost comical. I had not heard of him, although his case was a pretty big deal in 1930’s Southeast Missouri. This is the story of the 27th person to be executed in the gas chamber at MSP.

Claude McGee was born August 5, 1912. I cannot be sure, but I believe he was a junior. I found a marriage announcement for Bertha and Claude. Bertha was the name of his mother; so, this was my assumption. It was not easy finding information on him and his family. I did find that he was born in Charleston, and then moved to Paris, TN. After six years, he moved to KC, before settling in Cape Girardeau in 1933. His record online only states mill worker as his occupation, but he was said to have worked on the river for a time. By the start of 1935, he was unemployed and living with his mother, Bertha. Most of this first story comes from his own confession. When we talk about what happened to Claude McGee, or what he became, we must start with the murder of William Thomas Carlton (W.T. Carlton).

On the morning of May 8, 1935, Claude was shooting dice on the lawn of the Frisco Depot. One man by the name of Johnson mentioned that he knew a lady that carried a large sum of cash in her bosom. They only knew that the lady was the wife of the man that operated the pumping station at Grays Point. John Manor, and acquaintance of Claude, pulled him aside to ask if he heard this right. They asked another man that was present, Ira Collins, to help them steal this money. Ira had a model A Ford and would drive the men up to the Carlton home. Later in the day, they talk with a man named Floyd Smith and tell him of their plans. He agreed to go along.

At about 7 PM, Manor arrived at Claude’s home. The two men walked to meet up with Smith and Collins. There were two guns brought along, and Claude and Smith both armed themselves. The four men made their way out to Grays Point and parked about 100 yards south of the station. The family was not home, which they had noticed when they drove by. Ira Collins was to stay in the car, drive back down the road, and upon seeing the Carlton family return, he would follow them home to alert the other men.

Claude, along with Manor and Smith, gained entry by breaking a window on the west side of the pump station. The living quarters were in the south wing of the building, and the men made their way through the rooms sifting through drawers and cabinets, looking for money. They did not have much luck, and it is believed they found around $7. After an hour, about 9 PM, W.T. Carlton and his wife and daughter returned home. When they were walking up to the house, Flora, saw the kitchen light go out and screamed. Carlton, went around the house to the pump station entrance and attempted to go into the home that way. The men were holding the door closed to keep him out, and he was eventually shot. One shot hit him in the forearm and the other in the temple. According to the robbers, Carlton came through the door shooting. In Claude’s confession, he stated that he shot at him 1-2 time and Smith shot 2-3 times. Mrs. Carlton would go on to say that she heard five shots. That would only account for the shots fired by the robbers and none by Carlton. Also, investigators found the door splintered in such a way that suggested that Carlton was shot through the door and never had time to discharge his weapon. Also, both shooters claimed they didn’t even know if they had hit the man. They turned and ran. After Mrs. Carlton heard the shots, she saw a man run from the house. She began to trace her husband’s steps, leaving her daughter where she stood. She was stopped by a man with a gun, ordering her to give him the money in her bosom. This man was Floyd Smith. She told the man she didn’t have any, and he told her he knew she did. The man made her walk in front of him back the way she had come. The darkness allowed her the cover she needed to unfasten the safety pin holding a small container under her dress. She nonchalantly dropped the container, holding $425, into the grass without the robber noticing. By this time, Claude and Manor had both made it back to Collins in the car. They waited for a time, but Smith did not come so they left without him. After holding the women for half an hour, along with their neighbors the Silcoxes, Smith drove away in the Carlton family car. Smith then drove to Cape where he left the car after having a flat tire.

Police had little to go on, except that one of the robbers may have been named Joe and the one had worn a black zipper jacket and hat. Funny enough, this jacket and hat would be the key in apprehending the men. Collins had dropped the jacket and hat off on the porch of his friend that had originally left them in his car. A woman of the house discovered the items on the porch and called police. After eliminating the man as a suspect, they learned that he had left the items in the car of Ira Collins. This would lead to the arrest of Claude, Collins, and Manor. Smith was also implicated by the three men, and later arrested at his home. All but Smith made a full confession. Most of what I have told to this point came from the confession of Claude McGee, while some of it came from the story given by Mrs. Carlton.

Collins and Manor both waived preliminary hearings. At Claude’s hearing he claimed that officers wrote the confession for him and forced him to sign it. He claims to have been beaten and kicked before signing the confession to end the torture. Officers claim no such thing took place, and that the confession was made by Claude in a room full of officers and showed no signs of any beating. Claude’s brother and another man both testified that Claude looked as though he had been beaten after making that statement. He had bruises and scratches and a black eye.

In September 1935, Floyd Smith was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Claude’s trial took place in December, and John Manor was the key witness for the prosecution. He claimed to have acted as a lookout while Claude and Smith rifled through the home and eventually killed Carlton. The prosecution asked for the death penalty on the grounds that McGee fired the shot that killed Carlton. On December 6, 1935, Claude was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang. The jury deliberated only 4 hours. Claude was said to have shown little emotion until being taken out screaming “They’ve convicted an innocent man!” His hanging was scheduled for March 3rd. His attorney filed an appeal with the supreme court as he had been denied a change of venue. In mid-February of 1936, Claude, John Manor, and two other men escaped the Scott county jail at Benton. Claude was apprehended in a diner in Charleston only four days later, but it would be two years before John Manor would be found and returned to Scott County.

Claude McGee would escape the same jail a second time in November of 1936. He kidnapped two deer hunters and stole their car during this escape. This time he was on the run for about two months before being apprehended in Muskogee, OK and returning to jail. The supreme court ended up granting him a new trial on the grounds that a change of venue should have been granted in the original trial. At his second trial in October of 1937 McGee was again found guilty, but this time his sentenced was fixed at life in prison. There was quite a bit of excitement in the final day of the proceedings and at one point Mrs. Carlton slapped McGee’s defense attorney. McGee again exclaimed his innocence when being led from the courtroom. It’s important to note that Manor was not at this trial to testify as he was still on the run. Would the outcome have been the same if he had been? The first ballots cast by this jury were nearly split 50/50 for death. When John Manor was apprehended, he plead guilty to second degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison as well.

What about the other guy? Ira Collins, the driver. He plead guilty to accessory after the fact and was sentenced to three years, but got time served. Ira had never been in trouble before.

On Halloween, 1945, along with a man named Bert Ivan Grimm, Claude escaped from Missouri State Penitentiary. The two men hid in rail cars that were taken from the prison yard to the railway outside the walls. They abducted a Jefferson City insurance agent, Paul Harris. The two men drove with him for 75 miles before leaving him tied up in an old barn. They stole his car and about $140. The two were apprehended in Trenton, TN within two weeks. McGee was given an additional 12 years for the abduction of Paul Harris.

On January 10, 1948, Claude McGee would kill again. This time right in the prison yard. He attacked John Manor with a claw hammer, hitting him first right in the nose and then continuing to beat him, although the medical examiner stated that first blow would have alone killed him. Claude claimed self-defense, stating that Manor had been threatening him over a $20 debt that Claude owed the man. Guards and other prisoners testified that John was standing with his back to McGee and that there was no eminent threat to McGee. While the jury was deliberating, Claude made another attempt to flee. He sprung from his seat and bolted out of the courtroom, making it all the way into the courthouse yard before being overtaken by guards. For the killing of his accomplice, John Manor, McGee received another death penalty. This time the Supreme court upheld the verdict. After many delays, Claude’s execution was scheduled for January 5, 1951. Claude was held in solitary for four months before his execution. He spent his time reading, mostly the bible and seemed to have resigned himself to his fate. He was baptized just days before his execution. For his last meal, he requested stewed chicken and biscuits. He did not eat this meal, and when asked why he stated that he was “saving it for later.” When going in to the gas chamber, he took out a hanky and wiped down the seat before sitting. No chances were taken with him after his numerous escapes, and the shackles were left on him until the straps of the chairs were put in place. He told the guards he wasn’t scared to die. This could have been his last words though there was at least one source that said his last words were something else altogether. “See ya later, pal.” Claude was 38 years old when he took his last breath in the Missouri State Penitentiary gas chamber.

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