In 1923, Ed Mason made the thing. The guards came to him and said, “Ed, we know you’re a carpenter and you’re far away from home,” and they were right because Ed was British and this was Kilby, just four miles north of Montgomery. They worked the men at Kilby on cotton mills and dairy cows, so the building of a chair meant something; a new activity to refresh the soul.
“Ed,” they said, “we know you’re a carpenter and you’re far away from home. So just build this chair to pass the time.” So he did. When Mason asked for paint the warden said “all I’ve got is leftover road paint. It is the color of order and progress and it will look good on that chair.”
So Ed Mason painted one of America’s most voracious electric chairs. The condemned gave it a suitably horrifying name.
They called it Yellow Mama because all of their mothers were dead and this new demon made the gulf between Holman and Heaven a little bit smaller. Although Ed Mason finished crafting the beast in 1923, the state of Alabama refrained from using it until April 8, 1927, for the execution of Horace Devaughn, who earned his ride by way of murder in Birmingham. Horace only warmed the seat up because two weeks later, on a Friday night, Great War veteran Virgil Murphy fell before the current of Yellow Mama’s various nodes and nozzles; something so simple as wood and power did what all the bombs of the Kaiser could not.
The longer that Alabama used Yellow Mama the more efficient she became. Widespread electricity only came to the southern United States during the Great Depression; so state officials, possibly unsure of how long this federal bounty might last, approached executions with a kind of horrifying economy. This meant that throughout much of the early days of the TVA and into the nadir of the Second World War, Yellow Mama often swallowed multiple souls in a single day. The most egregious of these mass executions took place on the ninth day of February 1934, when the chair murdered five men in forty-seven minutes.
For 75 years Yellow Mama reigned over the Kilby Prison, and later the Holman Correctional Facility in Escambia county just north of Atmore. It grew in fame: as equal parts executioner, psychopomp, and cultural icon; the Yellow Mama became a byword for grisly state sanctioned murder and a symbol of the Bible Belt’s unbending moral rigidity and fondness for Old Testament justice. That chair was yellow, but its world was black and white.
How fitting then that its last victim might be someone so gray.
The death of Lynda Lyon Block excited the passions of the people because her life followed a circuitous route to Yellow Mama.* She was an educated white woman, a libertarian, and a former librarian. Lyon existed outside of the narrative of broken homes and burglaries. The confusion over her case and its bucking of well established tropes made her famous: journalists wrote about her loner tendencies, she appeared in a documentary about women on death row, some called her a martyr, and the – necessarily macabre – blog “Dead Man Eating” mocked her decision to forgo a last meal as an attempt to ‘keep her figure.’
Lynda Lyon killed a man.
On October 4, 1993, Lynda Lyon and George Sibley stopped at a payphone in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The two parked “near Big B Drug[s] in Pepperell Corners Shopping Center in Opelika, Alabama.” They had recently fled Orlando, Florida due to a domestic assault charge issued against Lynda after she knifed her elderly ex-husband Karl Block. The pair, often referred to as a common-law husband and wife, left The Sunshine State for Mobile, a city which Lyon described as “a large port where strangers come and go everyday.” They hoped to fade into obscurity along the Gulf Coast. Sibley and Lyon also brought her young son, Gordon, with them.
This proved to be a terrible mistake.
While they idled in that Wal-Mart parking lot and tried to plan for the future; a woman named Ramona Robertson saw a young boy signal her for help. She kept an eye on their Mustang as it moved from parking spot to parking spot. Eventually, overtaken with concern, she approached a uniformed police officer and told him about the child in the car.
Sergeant Roger Lamar Motley responded accordingly. Originally at the Wal-Mart to purchase supplies for the local jail, he took Robertson’s story seriously and began searching the lot for Sibley. Lyon still conversed on the pay phone near Big B Drugs. Eventually Sergeant Motley found Sibley and Gordon. He asked for some form of identification and Sibley, a radical libertarian and ‘Sovereign Citizen’ refused to supply it. This escalated quickly.
Witnesses reported Sibley reaching for a pistol, Lynda and George claimed that Sergeant Motley pulled out his service revolver first. Either way Sibley and Motley soon found themselves shooting at each other. Lynda Lyon remained on the payphone during the opening salvo. She saw her common-law husband and an officer ducking behind cars and firing off rounds and she put down that phone and pulled out her 9mm.
Lyon ran at Sergeant Motley and fired until he quit and “[s]he remembered later how surprised he looked.” As Motley faded from this world he reached inside his cruiser and put out a distress call.
Sibley and Lyon knew they had to get out of there. They left with haste and tore west, hoping against hope that they might make it out of the state before anyone noticed a dead officer. They only made it ten miles. Lee county law enforcement set up a massive roadblock on Wire Road in Auburn, Alabama. They pulled up alongside it, released Gordon to the authorities, and then Lyon attempted to negotiate with the police for close to four hours before finally surrendering.
During her trial she argued that Alabama never reentered the union after the Civil War, that there existed a conspiracy to silence her, and that Sergeant Motley’s character did not befit an officer of the law. Lynda Lyon failed to realize that Alabama measured justice in coffins. On May 10, 2002, Yellow Mama got Lyon ready for hers.
Lyon rests in the ground now and Yellow Mama is stored in the attic above the execution chamber at Holman Correctional Facility. They encountered each other for a brief dichotomous moment. One a symbol of the state’s power to enforce by violence and the other cocksure that they existed on a separate plane of freedom; yet they remain entwined, witnesses to each others’ last day.
*Although many media outlets referenced her surname as Block, she signed an April 29, 2002, petition to Governor Don Siegelman as Lynda Lyon, so I shall use her preferred surname for the rest of the piece.