Next month marks the 35th anniversary of one of Chicago’s last electrocutions: Vincent Ciucci, a grocer in Little Italy, had been convicted of killing his wife and three children after his wife learned of a mistress who was pregnant. In a highly unusual press conference, held as Ciucci was being shaved and dressed for the chair, he confessed to reporters that he had shot his wife, but only in a fit of rage after she had killed their son and two daughters. None of those assembled believed him, and Ciucci went to his death.

Ciucci’s final moments were detailed in May God Have Mercy on Your Soul, a history of capital punishment in Cook County written in 1993 by Ed Baumann, a reporter for the Chicago Daily News who spoke to him that night. Baumann’s book documented all 171 executions carried out in the county–from the first public hanging in 1840 to the punishment of the Haymarket Square protesters to the county’s first electrocution in 1928 to its last in 1962. Though the book included a pair of essays arguing the merits of capital punishment, it functioned best as a historical sampler of public attitudes and as a revealing look at the knotty ethics involved in covering executions.

Now retired and the author of several books, Baumann has lived in Kenosha for most of his life. In 1944 he served in the Pacific as a cryptographer, then returned to pursue a journalism degree at the University of Wisconsin. By 1956 he was a criminal court reporter for the Daily News, and in 1958 he was assigned to cover his first execution. “You see a lot of people die when you’re a reporter,” he says. “You cover auto accidents, drownings, people jumping out of buildings….This was just a little different–seeing a person deliberately killed before your very eyes. And I wondered how I was going to react to it, but there wasn’t any reaction at all.”

Though he opposed capital punishment, Baumann didn’t mind covering executions. “People always have a morbid curiosity about death, and covering executions you knew that everybody was gonna read your story the next day.” In the past reporters had fraternized with condemned men; Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur even played rummy with one miserable soul. But Chicago newsmen had been under tight scrutiny since 1949, when Vern Whaley, a photographer for the Chicago Herald-American, had smuggled in a camera strapped to his leg and captured a sensational photo of James “Mad Dog” Morelli dying in the chair.

Security was also tight on March 22, 1962, the night of Ciucci’s execution. But in an unusual move Cook County sheriff Frank Sain invited seven local reporters into Ciucci’s solitary cell block just after 11 PM, much to the displeasure of warden Jack Johnson. According to Baumann, Johnson despised capital punishment. He knew the men condemned to die, and he wanted the executions carried out to the letter. “He thought the guy’s last moments should be his own and that you shouldn’t have these reporters there talking to him through the bars while they’re shaving his head and putting him in his execution suit and all that stuff,” says Baumann. “But it was a very rare opportunity, and we went anyway.”

Ciucci had been appealing his conviction for more than seven years, maintaining his complete innocence. But that night he told the reporters that he had been in his bathroom when he heard shots fired. After he came out, he said, he seized a rifle from his wife, saw his children were dead, and killed her in a fit of rage. “Nobody believed that,” says Baumann.

The reporters watched as Ciucci was examined by doctors, had his head shaved, and put on an undershirt and rubber trousers. Shortly after 11:30, the prison chaplain entered the cell block. According to Baumann’s book, the chaplain demanded, “Have you men no decency? Can’t you leave this poor soul alone to make his peace with God?”

“Fuck you, Father,” snapped Ray Brennan, a Sun-Times reporter. “We’re only doing our job. You’ve had seven fucking years to save this man’s soul. If you haven’t succeeded by now, by God, you haven’t been doing your job.”

At midnight Ciucci was led into the death chamber and strapped to the chair. Johnson fed him 1,900 volts, and he was pronounced dead at 12:09 AM. After the window to the death chamber had been covered, Brennan vomited down the front of his suit.

Baumann stayed behind after the others had left. Out in the hall he found Ciucci’s covered body waiting on a gurney, and with a reporter’s insatiable curiosity he lifted the sheet. In his book he described what he saw: “There was a deep, red burn, the size of a silver dollar, in the very center of the top of his shaved head where the electrode had sat. That was the only mark on him.”

Two more men were executed in Cook County Jail before the death penalty was abolished. When capital punishment was reinstated, electrocution was replaced by lethal injection, and the death penalty became the province of the state prison system: now the condemned die at Joliet, Pontiac, and Menard.

Baumann will take part in a roundtable discussion Sunday from 12:30 to 2 as part of the “All Things Chicago” weekend at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, 743 Garfield in Oak Park. For information call 708-848-7243. –J.R. Jones

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ed Baumann photo by Nathan Mandell.