James E. Dukes Executed

The Last Death By Electric Chair in Chicago

On February 18th, sometime before the Pandemic, I was pondering what to write about and discovered that Italian Physicist Alessandro Volta was born February 18, 1745.  Volta is credited with inventing the first chemical battery and separating and identifying the odorless gas, methane.  You can probably deduce by his name that the term to describe electric potential (the volt) is named in his honor.  Actually, since he also discovered methane, we should also probably be saying, “Oops! I volted!” after consuming too many beans or onions but I digress.

Not fully understanding how my mind works, the thought of Alessandro Volta lead me to the thought of electricity which ultimately led me to the electric chair which led me to wonder who the last person was who was executed by electric chair in Illinois.  That brought me back to June 16, 1956, and the saga of James E. Dukes.

Unidentified Man in electric chair 1908, Source: Library of Congress Photograph LC-USZ62-14621

On that day, Detective John J. Blyth Sr. and his partner, Detective Daniel Rolewicz, of the Stockyards Station were on duty for less than an hour when they heard shots ring out near the New Mount Baptist Church at 223 W. 47th St.   They rushed to investigate and got into a foot pursuit with James E. Dukes.  

Prior to the officers’ arrival, Dukes, 31, had gotten into a heated argument and started beating his 16 year old girlfriend, Lorretta Green.    A deacon of the church, Charles Leggons, 49, and head usher, Thomas J. Sylvester, 23, exited the Church to assist Ms. Green. 

As Sylvester and Leggons emerged from the Church, Dukes pulled a 9mm automatic pistol from the purse of Green who ironically was carrying it for Dukes.   Dukes screamed, “I’ll kill you all!”

Dukes fired three shots at the men striking Sylvester in the chest and Leggett in the right leg.  Both men survived.

Detective Rolewitz and Blyth gave chase and Dukes fired three shots at Rolewicz from a range of three feet and missed.  As Blyth rounded the corner of the alley, Dukes shot him in the chest.  Rolewicz went to comfort his partner until the ambulance arrived and Blyth told his partner, “I’m going to die.” They prayed until Blyth lost consciousness.  He was pronounced dead at Evangelical Hospital

Later that same day, Dukes (alias Jesse Welch) was found hiding under an automobile at 4802 Wentworth Ave with a bullet wound in his forearm and shoulder. 

Detective John J. Blyth Sr.’s end of watch was June 16, 1956.  He was 40 years old and a 17-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department.  He was the third generation of law enforcement in his family and his Badge # 1395 (the same as his father’s) was retired that same year.  He left behind a wife as well as two sons and two daughters.  He was laid to rest at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.

Meanwhile, James Dukes was tried twice and convicted twice of the murder of Detective Blyth as well as the shooting of Sylvester and Leggons.  He was sentenced on August 16, 1956, to die by electrocution in Cook County’s electric chair.

Duke’s home on “The Wing”, as death row was called at the Cook County Jail, was the maximum security wing in the basement of the Cook County Jail where inmates were in seven-foot by four-foot cells for 21 hours of the day.  The electric chair was down the hall in the same level.

During that time if you murdered someone in Cook County, you were executed in Cook County.  No downstate trip.

Drawing of the first person to die by electric chair, William Kemmler, in 1889, Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library

After many appeals, legal maneuvers, and a refusal by Governor Otto Kerner to spare Dukes, he was led out of his cell at 7 minutes after midnight on August 24, 1962.  Dukes had converted to Catholicism while incarcerated and asked that his body be buried in consecrated ground.  He had refused his last meal and left written messages to his family. 

The Rev. Aidan, who was the Roman Catholic chaplain at the Cook County Jail, read prayers as Dukes was led to his death and stated to the press that Dukes went to his death quietly and without a word or a struggle.

Dukes was pronounced dead at 12:10 am by three doctors including the Cook County Coroner and was, ironically, buried in the same cemetery as Detective Blyth.

During his struggle, he did not issue any final words, but Warden Jack Johnson produced a copy of Plato’s “Apology”.  Dukes had requested that if the press wanted a statement the warden was to read a circled entry in the section entitled, “He is Sentenced to Death”.  It read, “The hour of departure has arrived and we go our ways, I to die and you to live.  Which is better God only knows.”

Dukes was the last execution in the County and the State of Illinois for twenty-seven years.  When executions resumed in 1990 the means was changed to lethal injection.

Currently, there is no death penalty in the State of Illinois.

You can visit the memorial to Detective John J. Blyth at The Officer Down Memorial Page.