Yellow Mama: Seventy-five Years of Alabama Capital Punishment

During the frontier days and throughout most of the 1800s, public hangings were a common occurrence in Alabama. However, as the year 1900 approached, hangings started to be conducted in private by county sheriffs. It was not until 1923 that state legislation abolished hanging altogether, transferring the power of execution solely to the state. This legislation also established electrocution as the new method of carrying out capital punishment.

The state of Alabama had a well-established penitentiary system by 1923, and Kilby Prison was a newly constructed facility located a few miles north of Montgomery at Mount Meigs. Kilby Prison, also known as Yellow Mama, was specifically designated to handle all electrocutions. This marked the beginning of an era for Yellow Mama.

Yellow Mama, a solid oak chair, was constructed by Ed Mason, a skilled carpenter and convict from England, during his time at Kilby prison. Mason was serving a sentence for grand larceny when the warden at Kilby approached him with the task of building a suitable electric chair. It was not uncommon for prisoners to be tasked with constructing state electric chairs during that period. In appreciation for his craftsmanship, Mason was granted a 30-day pass from the facility. Unfortunately, he failed to return and was later discovered in a New York prison for a similar offense to the one that had originally landed him in Alabama.

Many people often question the reason behind the bright yellow color of the chair. Here’s the story behind it. There was a state highway maintenance shop situated near Kilby prison. This shop had an excess supply of yellow paint which was typically used to paint the lines on Alabama highways. One of the guards at Kilby approached the shop and requested some paint for the newly built state electric chair. As fate would have it, he was given yellow paint. As news spread about the electric chair, it quickly earned the nickname “Yellow Mama.” The first execution in Yellow Mama took place in 1927.

Yellow Mama, the electric chair used for executions in Holman prison, was retired in 2002 when lethal injection became the preferred method. However, the chair is still kept in a storage room above the room where lethal injections take place. Interestingly, inmates sentenced to death still have the option of choosing electrocution, but they must inform the Governor in writing within 30 days of their sentencing.

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If you’re interested in reading more articles about the fascinating state of Alabama, make sure to click “follow”! As a proud native and resident of the Shoals area in north Alabama, I love sharing stories and events that highlight the unique people and places in our state. If you have a story to share, don’t hesitate to email me at [email protected]. You can also find all of my previous articles by clicking on my photo and scrolling down.

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