Mary And The Killer

January 16, 2013 — 16 Comments

Not so long ago, I entered the Catholic Church on my hands and knees. Humbled by an atheistic life that was propelled by selfishness, materialism and lousy steering, I crashed into a wall. So groveling for God’s favor is an apt metaphor.

electric chairIn time, I was able to find a direction for my life–and stand–because the teachings of the Church became my true bearing. Buttressed by crystalline religious truths that melted away my cynicism and doubts, I eventually learned to walk in faith.

The path has been wondrous.

However, there’s an aspect to the Catholic perspective that draws me back to my knees–in a good way. Like a wide-eyed child who sees a butterfly for the first time, I’m in awe of the mysterious interplay between the natural and the spiritual, where mystics and saints have supporting roles in humanity’s epic drama. Directed by God, of course. It’s faith reaffirming.

Yet, there are extraordinary moments–supernatural private revelations–when Mary, the Mother of God herself intercedes in a person’s life and graces them with a glimpse of the Divine. Is the following story such an instance?

Claude Newman, an illiterate African-American man born in 1923, murdered his beloved grandmother’s abusive husband in 1942. Stealing the man’s money, Claude fled but was captured in a short amount of time. He was returned to Mississippi, found guilty by a jury and sentenced to die in the electric chair. [Note – As to motive, Claude may have murdered this man because he was caught raping Claude’s wife.]

Awaiting execution, Claude passes the time in his cell block with four other men. One night, he notices a “trinket” around another prisoner’s neck, he asks about it, there’s an argument, and the trinket is thrown to the floor. “Take the thing,” the man says. Strangely compelled, Claude places it around his neck. He has no idea that it’s the Miraculous Medal of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Later that night, Claude is awakened by a touch on his wrist. As he later tells Father Robert O’Leary–a priest who becomes a confidant–there stood “the most beautiful woman that God ever created.” Frightened, but eventually calmed by Our Lady, she says, “If you would like me to be your mother, and you would like to be my child, send for a priest of the Catholic Church.” Then she disappears.

Claude’s reaction is not unexpected. Yelling “a ghost, a ghost,” he then screamed for a Catholic priest. Father O’Leary arrived the next morning and upon hearing Claude’s story, he agreed to not only give Claude religious instruction but the other four cellmates as well. This would prove to be somewhat problematic as Claude couldn’t read or write and was woefully ignorant of all things religious. However, the other prisoners chipped in to help.

A few weeks passed and Father remarked to the group that he was going to teach them about the Sacrament of Confession. Claude said, “Oh, I know about that! The Lady told me that when we go to confession we are kneeling down not before a priest, but we’re kneeling down by the cross of her son. And that when we are truly sorry for our sins, and we confess our sins, the blood he shed flows down over us and washes us free from all sins.”

Hearing Claude say this, Father O’Leary sat stunned. Claude thought he was angry and said, “Oh don’t be angry, don’t be angry, I didn’t mean to blurt it out.” The priest said, “We’re not angry Claude. We are just surprised. You have seen her again?”

Claude motioned for the priest to join him away from the others. When they were alone, Claude said to Father, “She told me that if you doubted me or showed hesitancy, I was to remind you that lying in a ditch in Holland in 1940, you made a vow to her which she’s still waiting for you to keep.” Father O’Leary later recalled, “Claude then told me precisely what the vow was.” (Father told Our Lady that he would build a church in honor of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception. He did just that in 1947.)

The catechesis proceeded over the weeks and Claude was able to share the Blessed Mother’s insight about Confession as well as Holy Communion. Eventually, the teaching complete, all five men were received into the Catholic Church. Soon thereafter, Claude was to be executed after midnight on January 20, 1944.

The sheriff, named Williamson, asked him, “Claude, you have the privilege of a last request. What do you want?” “Well,” said Claude, “all of my friends are all shook up. The jailer is all shook up. But you don’t understand. I’m not going to die; only this body. I’m going to be with her. So, then I would like to have a party.” 

“What do you mean?” asked the sheriff.

“A party!” said Claude. “Will you give Father O’Leary permission to bring in some cakes and ice cream and will you allow the prisoners on the second floor to be freed in the main room so that we can all be together and have a party?” The Sheriff consented and the festivities went off without a hitch.

Whatever good cheer may have been created by the party were quickly dashed–at least from Claude’s viewpoint–by a two-week stay of execution. It brought terrible anguish for him. “What have I done wrong these past weeks that God would refuse me my going home?” 

But Father had a sudden inspiration. He reminded Claude about James Hughes, a white man in another part of the jail who was to be executed as well. Hughes was a despicable, immoral reprobate who rejected God and loathed Claude. Father asked Claude if he would be willing to sacrifice himself for Hughes in an offering to God? Once he understood what that meant, he agreed, and for the next two weeks he offered his sacrifice and prayers. No one else on earth knew of this personal offering.

Claude was put to death in the electric chair on Feb. 4, 1944. Concerning Claude’s death Father O’Leary testified: “I’ve never seen anyone go to his death as joyfully and happily. Even the official witnesses and the newspaper reporters were amazed. They said they couldn’t understand how anyone could go and sit in the electric chair while at the same time actually beaming with happiness.”

Three months later, the pitiful James Hughes was likewise strapped into the electric chair. Asked if he had anything to say, he began to rant and curse but then stopped suddenly. Looking at the corner of the room, his faced turning to absolute horror, he screamed in terror. All of the observers were shocked. “Sheriff, get me a priest!”

Father O’Leary went to the condemned man, the room was cleared, and he heard Hughes’ confession. “He confessed all of his sins with deep repentance and intense fervor.”

When everyone returned, the Sheriff asked Father what made Hughes change his mind about speaking? Father hadn’t asked.

Knowing he needed an answer, the Sheriff went to the condemned man and asked, “Son, what changed your mind?”

The prisoner responded, “Remember that black man Claude–the one whom I hated so much? Well he’s standing there [and he pointed], over in that corner. And behind him with one hand on each shoulder is the Blessed Virgin Mary. And Claude said to me, ‘I offered my death in union with Christ on the Cross for your salvation. She has obtained for you this gift of seeing your place in Hell if you do not repent.’ I have been shown my place in Hell, and that’s why I screamed.”

“James Hughes was executed as scheduled, but the heavenly appearance of our Blessed Mother with Claude Newman and the subsequent vision of hell had instantly converted his soul in the last moments of his life.”

Why Claude Newman? Why James Hughes? What are we to make of any of this?

If events happened as chronicled, we make of it what we will. That Holy Mary would intercede in the lives of two inconsequential men, that the Mother of God would intervene to save two lowly creatures, that the Blessed Virgin would consecrate two souls to the redemptive love of her son seems, well, miraculous.

Maybe it is. Or it’s Looney Tunes. Like so many things in life, it’s a matter for personal consideration.

Thanks to the terrific work of Glenn Dallaire–which provided the inspiration and framework for this post–a more complete story of Claude Newman is here.

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  • Ishmael_Alighieri

    Thank you. That is an amazing and beautiful story.

  • Gus

    Wonderful and hopeful story. Thanks for sharing it.

  • My #1 favorite story. I had read that Claude’s wife was being sexually assaulted by his slave master. Claude ran to her defense and killed the man. It doesn’t matter the beginning, Claude’s conversion story is wonderful. Claude has been on my list of saints asking their intercession. (Even though he hasn’t been declared a saint) I told this story to the children in my 3rd grade CCD class. They loved it too. Our Lady of The Miraculous Medal, pray for us. St. Maximillian Kolbe called the MM the silver bullet. Praise God.

    • Pat, you’re correct as to the confusion. But either way, the conversion is the story. God bless.

  • Awesome story – this made my night! (Also happy to hear of your happy conversion.)

  • Arne

    I have to trying to remember this story,thanks for posting it. For insight as to intervention to “smallness of these men and us” try the blog:Remembering Fr. Willie Doyle. Irish Priest killed in action during WW1. As to a seldom heard perspective on the death penalty being pro- life go to Audio Sancto and 2012 arrchives scroll to You can be pro-life and support the death penalty. Some of the homilies you will smell the brimstone and get your ears burning helped me to get to Confession more often.

  • ShowMeSteve

    Really good stuff MAS. Glad I found your blog a couple of days ago – but I have no idea or reason why. Or maybe I do.

    For one thing, I keep wondering if you’ve heard of or read “Jesus Shock” by the outstanding Catholic Apologist – Peter Kreeft. I believe the two of you share similar story telling talents. Or, have you seen the many Knights of Columbus books from their digital media collections. Three of my favorites – from the Veritas Series – are: Some Lessons from Genesis, The Message of Our Lady of Fatima and Lord, Teach Us to pray. BTW – long before the “pitiful” James Hughes saw his place in hell – Our Lady showed the 3 shepherd children from Fatima a chilling vision of Hell. Read all about it – see link below..

    But the real reason I wanted to comment was to say that anything you are dreaming of that connects to you to your past professional life is now toast – burnt and smoking. I know of a guy with a similar background as yours who assures me that when the Holy Spirit starts communicating with you (or actually when you start listening to Him) you can’t go back to the old ways. It’s obvious that He has something in mind for you and you’ve just got to pray and wait it out. He will let you figure out how to live until it’s clear. But perhaps not as you are accustomed.

    And, with all due respect – of course it is God who you are hearing, but via the person of the Holy Spirit. See John 16:7 – “But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you”.

    Your piece entitled “Is Killing a Human Embryo Immoral” leads me to believe that you need to join – on a fulltime basis – the battle against the Culture of Death. It’s a fulltime job.

    Best regards,

    • I’ve read Peter before but not “Jesus Shock.” And I’ll check out the KofC books and the link you mentioned. Gotta love your toast comment about my past professional life. I think you’re spot on. The patience is the hard part. Great comments!

  • Great blog! Subscribed.

    • All right Deb! Thank you. I know how busy everyone is so I try and make my posts worthwhile reading.

  • Br. Maximilian O.S.B.

    I have two things to say:
    1. Welcome home to the Catholic faith!
    2. My father told our family this story one night during our family rosary. It is truly an inspiration! Thanks again for sharing 🙂

    • It was my pleasure to share. From the mysterious to the mystical, I love our faith. God bless you Brother.

  • Br. Claude Lane, OSB

    Hey Marcus– happy “Almost Executed Day”! CN was supposed to be executed on Jan 20th, but was reprieved (until Feb 4th). It was revealed to Claude on this day his special mission to pray for the reprobate James Hughes– to whom Claude and the Blessed Mother would appear just prior to his own execution on May 19th, 1944. The readings from the mass for today were providentially appropriate– especially the first one from Isaiah. Thanks for helping to keep this story out there. It’s all about Our Lady’s deep, all-embracing love for us, especially manifested by the gift of her Miraculous Medal. Jan 20th was also the day (in 1842) that Our Lady appeared to the rich Jewish businessman, Alphonse Ratisbonne, in the Roman church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte. Keep up the good work!

    • Brother Claude, thank you. I’ll research Alphonse Ratisbonne. Perhaps it could be a good story.

  • joe_k

    This reminds me of a true story I heard from a Sister ministering to death row prisoners in Singapore.

    One of the female prisoners she was ministering was on trial for a drug-related crime which carried a mandatory death penalty. During the course of the trial she took to the bible, which she had never read before, and entrusted her fate to Jesus.

    However, when she was found guilty she became extremely angry and bitter, lost all hope, and tossed the bible aside. Nothing the Sister did could reach out to her. As the day of the execution approached, the Sister was despairing, and one night in a group Rosary prayer session asked for Our Lady’s intercession.

    The next day the Sister visited the woman in her cell, wondering what she could say to console her. To her surprise she found her elated and full of joy.

    She eagerly told the Sister: “Sister, you would not believe what happened! Last night a beautiful woman dressed in white visited me and comforted me. She was so loving and kind, she made me so happy!”

    The woman was a changed person. She was no longer angry or bitter, and like Claude met her end joyfully and happily.
    I was struck by the similarity to your story and thought I’d share. The Sister who related the story said it’s just one of the many instances of God’s grace and Mary’s love that she had been privileged to be part of.