The Historic Calcasieu Parish Courthouse. (Michelle Higginbotham / Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 30, 2012 9:40 PM
Editor’s Note: Over the years people have reported that the ghost of Toni Jo Henry — the only woman executed in the electric chair in Louisiana — haunts the Calcasieu Parish Courthouse. Below is her story, as told in response to a 2008 question.
In the 1940s, I was told, a woman was electrocuted in Lake Charles for murder. Who was the lady?
She was Toni Jo Henry — born Annie Beatrice McQuiston in 1916 — and she died in the electric chair just after noon on Saturday, Nov. 28, 1942, more than two years after she murdered Houston tire salesman Joseph Calloway, 43, with a .32-caliber bullet to the forehead as he knelt, stripped of his clothing, and prayed for mercy in a field outside Lake Charles.
Calloway, who was delivering a new car to Jennings, picked up the hitchhiking Toni Jo and her accomplice, Horace Finnon Burks, an Army deserter, just east of Orange, Texas, on Valentine’s Day in 1940. He was found four days later lying in a rice field — his legs drawn up beneath him as they had been when he fell and his body bearing signs of torture.
Toni Jo — “the darkly attractive gungirl,” as one 1940 American Press story described her — planned to use Calloway’s car in a scheme to rob a bank in Arkansas and use the spoils to fund the appeal effort of her husband, Claude “Cowboy” Henry, who was serving a 50-year prison term in Texas for killing a policeman.
She was arrested days later in Shreveport after family members there — including state police officer Capt. George McQuiston,
her uncle — persuaded her to turn herself in. Burks was arrested in Arkansas, where the two had split up after Burks grew
wary of carrying out the robbery.
Toni Jo both confessed to shooting Calloway and claimed that Burks had done it, but in the months before her execution she shouldered the blame completely in a statement she signed in hopes of swaying the courts to spare Burks’ life.
“Realizing that the date of my execution has been fixed for November 28, 1942, and that Finon Burks is also under sentence of death for the murder of J.P. Calloway on February 14, 1940, I wish to make this statement,” reads a passage from the confession, published in the American Press in the week before her death.
“I, Annie Beatrice Henry, fired the shot that killed the said J. P. Calloway. It is my hope that Finnon Burks will not have to suffer the death penalty.”
Burks died in the electric chair four months after Toni Jo’s execution.
“The Lord Jesus Christ is my Savior,” he reportedly whispered in his final moments. “I am ready to go.” It took two 2,300-volt
shots to kill him.
Four days before Toni Jo’s death, her husband, incarcerated in Brazoria County, Texas, escaped from prison — an attempt in August had failed — and set out for Lake Charles. But authorities arrested him in a Beaumont, Texas, hotel and placed him in solitary confinement.
As a child, Toni Jo endured beatings by her father, and she later became addicted to cocaine and worked as a prostitute in Shreveport’s red-light district. She reportedly fell in love with Cowboy because, unlike other men in her life, he treated her with respect.
Officials allowed the couple to talk for 10 minutes by phone two days before the execution date.
Toni Jo — who had converted to Catholicism under the tutelage of a local priest — reportedly told Cowboy to believe in God
and to serve his time without complaint or further escape attempts.
On execution day hundreds of people gathered on the courthouse steps in an unsuccessful attempt to see into the jail, where the state’s portable electric chair had been set up in a hallway. Toni Jo, her newly shorn head covered by a “gay red, white and green bandanna handkerchief,” left her cell and headed to the electric chair at 12:05 p.m., according to an afternoon edition of the American Press from that day.
Her final moments, as recounted in the story:
Quickly she came down the 22 steps to the first floor and marched straight to the chair that was wedged along with the master switch and other equipment in the eight-foot-wide first floor corridor.
She had a smile on her face and she kept it there till the end.
The executioner quickly set about the job of fasting the electrodes about her body. The brine soaked cap was placed on her head. “Goodbye, father,” she said, looking up at Father Richard. “You’ll be here won’t you?” “Yes, I’ll be right here,” the priest answered. A few seconds later, she looked at him again and smiled. Father Richard smiled back and said: “Keep smiling.”
The executioner threw the switch at 12:12 p.m., and Toni Jo was pronounced dead three minutes later. Her body went unclaimed by family members, and she was buried beneath a tree in Orange Grove-Graceland Cemetery.
The Informer answers questions from readers each Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. It is researched and written by Andrew Perzo, an American Press staff writer. To ask a question, call 494-4098, press 5 and leave voice mail, or email email@example.com