Murderer Converts on Death-Row

Two weeks before his scheduled execution by electrocution, convicted murderer and death-row inmate Claude Newman converted to the Catholic faith after receiving a Miraculous Medal from a fellow prisoner.

In 1942, Claude Newman, a 19-year-old black man, large in stature and mentally challenged, worked as a sharecropper on Ceres Plantation in Bovina, Mississippi. Sid Cook, the estranged husband of Newman's grandmother, worked there, too. On Dec. 19, 1942, intending to rob Sid, Claude stuck a shotgun in Sid's mouth, blowing a hole through his neck, killing him. Claude fled to Little Rock, Arkansas, where an FBI official eventually apprehended and arrested him on Jan. 8, 1943.

Trial took place in March and lasted two days. After deliberating for just 20 minutes, the 12-member jury convicted Claude in Mississippi's Warren County Circuit Court. Claude asked the judge, R.B. Anderson, to "go easy" on him, but since his crime was so brutal, the judge sentenced him to death.

Claude awaited execution in Warren County Jail, along with several other prisoners in for various crimes including murder, manslaughter, and larceny.

Another prisoner Ralph Harris was a lapsed Catholic from Greenville, Mississippi, serving three years for grand larceny. When the guards came to take Ralph to the penitentiary, he took off a Miraculous Medal he had been wearing and put it around Claude's neck, urging him to wear it. Claude did not refuse the medal. In fact, he told a Catholic religious sister ministering at the prison, Sr. Benna Henken of the Holy Spirit Missionaries, that he wanted to learn more about the woman depicted on it. Even though he had no previous connection to Catholicism, Claude said that the medal gave him "the feeling that he just had to belong to the Church of the Miraculous Mother."

So one day he said to Sr. Benna, "The thought came to me, 'Why not call for a Catholic priest?"

So Fr. O'Leary, a chaplain to Warren County Jail, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, taught Claude about the Catholic faith and helped him receive the Sacraments of Baptism, Reconciliation, and Holy Communion.

Father O'Leary wrote in 1945 that Newman "readily grasped Catholic teachings and understood them so well that one could not help but feel God and His Blessed Mother were his teachers."

In the days leading up to his execution, Claude told the priest, "Father, now I know that God loves me. I feel so happy and peaceful as never before. Oh, if only I could be executed tonight and go to God." But the governor granted Claude a two week stay, pushing his final day to February 4, 1944.

Claude said that this delay merely prolonged his agony. He spent the rest of his days, though, being a witness of faith to the other prisoners.

On the morning of Claude's execution, Fr. O'Leary heard Claude pray, "Please Lord, help the other condemned men here."

According to the local newspaper article printed the day following his execution, Newman was electrocuted at 7 a.m. and died quickly.

It said, "Since being confined in the Warren jail, Newman had embraced the Catholic faith. Newman's only comment prior to execution was that he was ready to go."

The article finished, "For his final meal last night, Newman ate a vegetable, beef dinner, and for dessert had coconut pie. Newman was visited by relatives yesterday."??

Months after Newman's death, a man named James Samuel Hughes, who had been in prison at the same time as Claude, faced execution in the same electric chair as him. James had killed a sheriff's deputy who tried to arrest him for incest. Hughes impregnated his daughter, Annabelle, and sexually abused his other daughter, Esther.

Moments before his death, Hughes expressed faith in Christ, too. The newspaper following his execution said that he "looked calmly up at the few present and said in clear-cut tones, 'I'm not afraid to confess the Lord Jesus Christ here tonight before man. May He have mercy on my soul, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.'"

God answered Claude's prayer by helping another condemned man in the moment of his death.

Claude Newman has since become somewhat of a Catholic cultural icon. Unfortunately, many of the details surrounding his powerful conversion remain cloudy.

Read about the controversy clouding this powerful conversion story.

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