BELZONI, Miss. -- In the imagination of Hollywood the state executioner is an ominous man wearing black clothes and standing in the shadows. His name is never known.
In Mississippi, Thomas Berry Bruce runs a roadside fruit stand and has also been the state executioner for 24 years. He is about to 'retire' from his state job, citing the pressure of news media calls since he went public about what he does.
'They call me every damn day, four or five times a day. Different papers. All the papers. You say one thing and they blow it up and turn it around. I got tiredof the whole damn thing.'
Bruce, a 67-year-old grandfather, is also plain tired. 'I been in it a long time,' he said. 'Let some younger fella have it. I'm tired of fooling with it.'
In an interview before his retirement, he was neither proud nor regretful about what he's done.
'Lord, I don't know,' he mulled, trying to recall how many men he's put to death on behalf of the state, '30, 35, something like that, 32. I don't keep up with them. It's pretty hard to remember everything. You try to forget about it anyway.'
Gov. Bill Allain on Friday named Charles Tate Rogers of Parchman to succeed Bruce, who resigned in a phone call to Allain earlier this week.
Rogers is a criminal investigator with the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, assigned to the state penitentiary at Parchman. He declined comment on his appointment.
The next execution in Mississippi is scheduled for Wednesday (May 20). Edward Earl Johnson, 26, convicted of fatally shooting Walnut Town Marshal J.T. Trest June 2, 1979, has exhausted the appeal process and is considered likely to go to the gas chamber.
A semi-retired millwright, Bruce, 67, was officially appointed June 8, 1963 -- although he says that as his predecessor's assistant he actually started killing convicts long before that.
Bruce received $250 per execution.
'It's not pleasant. It don't make me sick. It's just not pleasant,' he said.
'I guess you're killing somebody. Regardless of what they've done, you're still taking their life.'
Bruce began assisting Mississippi state executioner C.W. Watson in the 1950s when he was a policeman in Belzoni. He acted as Watson's security guard in the days when a portable electric chair was taken from jail to jail to carry out sentences on the spot.
It wasn't until 1954 that the gas chamber was installed at the state prison at Parchman and the condemned were brought there to die.
Bruce didn't like executions by electric chair. For one thing, current fluctuations were a problem. 'You can't control it. Or we couldn't,' he said, citing changes in temperature and humidity that affect electrical charges.
He also didn't like having to return the bodies to the families because they were often disfigured by the electricity.
'You had to shave their heads and you had to send them back to the family,' Bruce said. That was 'punishing the whole family -- which is not right.'
He eventually became sergeant in charge of security at the death-row compound at Parchman, where he and Watson were trained to use the gas chamber. Watson, however, developed a respiratory illness irritated by sulphuric acid used to vaporize cyanide during executions, so Bruce took over.
He is a legal rights advocate -- to a point.
'I believe they (the courts) should appoint somebody to defend (convicts) if they don't have a lawyer. And I think the man who represents them ought to do his best. Then I think there ought to be a limit to it,' Bruce said.
'I wouldn't want to execute somebody if they hadn't been through court yet -- the Supreme Court, check the records and all like that. I believe in that. I think it ought to be done. It's better to turn five guilty men loose than it is to convict one innocent one.'
Bruce did not consult his family when he took the job, and he still doesn't discuss it.
'If they bring it up I just try to answer their questions quick as I can and tell them we don't discuss it 'cause it's nothing to be talked about really,' he said.
His second wife, Hazel, didn't even know of his trade until about three months after their marriage in 1985.Mrs. Bruce said she was 'shocked, really shocked,' when she first learned of it. 'It's not discussed at all, not to me,' she said.
She acknowledged that being married to the executioner bothered her, but she did not try to change him. 'Somebody's got to do it. Somebody's got to be carrying the law out in the land. But you never thought someone in your immediate family would be doing it,' she said.
On occasion, however, his state job intruded on his private life.
'I've had some bad letters; bad telephone calls about me and blood money and all that stuff,' Bruce said.
Mrs. Bruce says she and her husband attend Baptist services weekly without comment from other churchgoers, and Bruce says he does not think executing people conflicts with Christianity.
He said, 'You're supposed to obey man's law within God's law, ain't you?'