A family in upstate New York closely guarded an unusual and bizarre secret. The patriarch of this family was a paid executioner. The neighbors thought he was a normal guy. A good neighbor and family man. The father of two children. He kept up his house and was good to his family. He would wake every morning and put on his uniform and head out for work. He was a deputy sheriff and his days were filled with writing traffic citations and arresting citizens for breaking the law. But at night he would go home and wait for The Letter. It didn’t come every night, but when it did, he would put on a suit and tie and he would answer the call. In order to avoid exposure and keep the press off his trail, he would change the license plate on his car and replace it with another. Then he would head out into the dark of the night to fulfill the sinister request revealed in the mysterious letter. The Letter told him who he was to kill and when he was to do it.
There is a certain amount of skill required for the job he contracted out to do and the more he did it the more skillful he became. Not everyone was suited for this line of work. The first person he killed, was 40-year-old Gerhard Arthur Puff. A German immigrant from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
He would tell his victims to sit in a chair before he would place leather straps around their body and a mask over their face. Then he would kill them. He never tortured them. He made sure they died quickly and as painlessly as possible. He didn’t consider himself a monster. He was just doing his job. He figured if it wasn’t him, someone else would be killing these people.
After he confirmed the victim was dead, he was back in his car, heading home. According to his travel log (he was paid $0.08 per mile for his travel expenses) he pulled into his driveway at 1:30 a.m. Another mission completed. He usually never had to travel further than 160 miles to complete his contract.
A few days later, he received a letter with two checks—”one in the amount of $150.00 and the other in the amount of $12.80 covering your services.” The language in these letters was always the same—exceedingly formal and intentionally cryptic.
The last contract he fulfilled was on January 22, 1963, in New Jersey. He ended the life of a man named Ralph Hudson.
The executioner’s name was Dow Hover. He was a trained electrician and was employed as a deputy sheriff for the Columbia County Sheriff’s Department in upstate New York. He was the last executioner for the state of New York.
He also performed fourteen executions in New Jersey and was the executioner for six executions in Connecticut during the mid-1950s to early 1960s.
His later life was characterized by intense grief and he died of an apparent suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning on June 1, 1990.
New Jersey Governor, Richard J. Hughes, found himself in the position of Chief Executive with the power to end or continue the life of a fellow human being. Years later he told his stepson how torturous it was to be thrust into that role.
Maintaining public support for the death penalty has long depended on keeping the act of killing prisoners shrouded in secrecy—no television cameras, no interviews with the execution team, no revealing of the executioner’s identity. Conversations about the death penalty often remain abstract, focused on issues like “justice” and “deterrence.” Rarely do they focus on how the death penalty affects those most intimately involved, transforming everyday people into professional killers. The voices and stories of the people who carry out executions are almost never heard.
Lorne Clarke, a Canadian singer-songwriter, wrote and recorded a song about the life of Dow Hover called Execution Nights.
When Dow Hover died he left behind evidence of his work in a filing cabinet in his house which included the execution letters he received from the warden of Sing-Sing Prison.