My grandfather was a death row doctor — he tested psychedelic drugs on Texas inmates
Editor’s note: In this special contribution to The Texas Tribune, Austin writer Ben Hartman tells the story of his search for the truth about his late grandfather, a prison psychiatrist on Texas’ death row who performed little-known medical experiments on inmates in the 1960s.
Eusebio Martinez was polite — even happy — as he entered the death chamber that August night in Huntsville in 1960. He may not have understood his time was up.
A few years earlier, Martinez had been convicted of murdering an infant girl whose parents had left her sleeping in their car while they visited a Midland nightclub. He’d been ruled “feeble-minded” by multiple psychiatrists and had to be shown how to get into the electric chair.
As he was strapped in, a priest leaned in and coached him to say “gracias” and a simple prayer. Just before the first bolt knifed through his brain, Martinez grinned and waved at the young Houston doctor who would declare him dead a few minutes later.
That doctor was my grandfather.
For three years at the end of his life, Dr. Lee Hartman worked as a resident physician and psychiatrist at Huntsville’s Wynne Unit. From 1960 to 1963, he witnessed at least 14 executions as presiding physician, his signature scrawled on the death certificates of the condemned men. All of them died in the electric chair – “Ol’ Sparky” – a grisly method that left flesh burned and bodies smoking in the death chamber as my grandfather read their vital signs.
I had always known from my father that his dad, who died before I was born, worked for the prison system as a psychiatrist.
But I had no idea that he’d worked in the death chamber, witnessing executions. Or that he’d been involved in testing psychedelics on prisoners to see if drugs like LSD, mescaline and psilocybin could treat schizophrenia. Or that he’d been hospitalized repeatedly during his lifelong struggle with depression.
And I didn’t know the truth about his death at age 48, when he was found on the staircase of his house in Houston’s exclusive River Oaks neighborhood.
My obsession with my grandfather’s life grew from my father’s sudden death from a stroke at his Austin home in 2014. Last summer, I came back to Austin after 14 years overseas and began searching for clues about my grandfather – in the state archives, in Huntsville and in boxes of old family keepsakes kept by my aunts.
I reported on crime and police and prisons for several years as a journalist in Israel, and now I wanted to investigate a mystery in my own family tree. I wanted to learn about the man whose story had always seemed more literary than real – a Jewish orphan from the Deep South who fought in World War II, sang in operas and became a successful doctor before tragedy cut the story short.
I wanted to know the man my father was named for, and to use the search as a way to beat a path through my grief over my own father’s death.
Through my grandfather’s personal papers, newspaper clippings and long-buried state records, I found a man – brilliant, thoughtful and sensitive – who witnessed great human drama and suffering in the Death House, and in the process became a determined opponent of capital punishment. He outlined his thoughts in a collection of diary entries and a 19-page handwritten treatise I found in my grandmother’s old keepsakes.
“The death penalty,” he wrote in 1962, “is irreparable.”
Mississippi orphans become doctors
My grandfather was born in Greenville, Miss., in 1916, one of two twin boys placed in foster care after their father died of yellow fever and their mother moved away.
The boys ended up at the New Orleans Jewish Children’s Home and attended the elite Newman School down the street, just like hundreds of other Jewish orphans of their day.
My grandfather and his brother went on to graduate from Louisiana State University’s medical school. Along the way, my grandfather trained as an opera singer, met my grandmother, started a family, served in the Army Air Corps as a flight surgeon during World War II, then returned home to his family and started his medical career. For a decade he worked as a small-town general practitioner in Louisiana and East Texas.
In 1957, he moved to Houston and enrolled in the Baylor College of Medicine to study psychiatry, a major mid-life career move that, according to my father, was partly motivated by my grandfather’s desire to understand his own battles with depression.
Within a few years, he had gone to work in Huntsville as part of a contingent of Baylor College of Medicine psychiatrists sent to the Wynne Treatment Center, a diagnostic unit for mentally ill inmates that had opened the previous year.
It was part of an agreement between Baylor, the Houston State Psychiatric Institute and the state prison system: The schools provided psychiatrists who could treat and counsel troubled inmates, and the prison supplied inmates for experiments.
For three years my grandfather shuffled back and forth between Huntsville and Houston, where he’d established a part-time psychiatry practice in Bellaire and in his spare time sang on stage as part of the chorus of the Houston Grand Opera.
Early in my research, I was searching an online newspaper archive for my grandfather’s obituary when an unrelated article stopped me.
The United Press International wire report from May 1962 is headlined: “Stickney Dies In Electric Chair.”
“At 12:26 a.m. Stickney was strapped into the chair. He made no last statement, so to speak. Three charges of 1,600 volts charged through his body. At 12:30 a.m. Dr. Lee Hartman, the prison doctor, pronounced him dead.”
Twenty executions were carried out in Huntsville in the three years my grandfather worked there, and he wrote about the 14 he presided over.
He has the same erudite, wordy writing style of my father, peppered with historical references and written in handwriting eerily similar to that of his son. Each entry begins with the date and the dead man’s name, race, crime and victim. In small print above the list, he wrote “1500 volts X 15 sec – 200 volts X 30 sec – 1000 volts X 15 sec – 200 volts X 30 sec” — a morbid list of the fatal series of shocks in the death chamber.
All 14 of them seem to have had an effect on him, but none more than the execution of 24-year-old Howard Stickney, charged in May 1958 with the murder of Clifford and Shirley Barnes in Galveston. Stickney fled the country, only to be arrested the next month in Canada and extradited to Texas, where his youth, his flight from justice and his fight to clear his name made him an instant cause célébre.
His death row file at the state archives is testament to his celebrity – letters and postcards from admirers, clergymen and students at the University of Texas Law School who filed appeals on his behalf.
My grandfather’s diaries are full of entries about Stickney. On Nov. 10, 1961, he wrote “Howard Stickney – tonite” followed by an entry further down the page detailing the throng of reporters crowded outside the death chamber.
“Stickney in shroud before door to execution room and we were all on our way to execution chamber when phone rang,” the entry reads. “Apparently a complete surprise to Stickney, who broke down, prayed and wept.”
The call, at 12:32 a.m., came from a judge who had granted a 10-day stay of execution.
My grandfather’s diary entries at times combined the grisly and the mundane. On April 18, 1962, he detailed the execution of Adrian Johnson, a 19-year-old black man convicted of murder who asked “Is there a hood for my head?” before he was strapped in.
“Johnson said ‘Hi, how ya doin’ to one of the prison guards in the room before the first shock came through, causing his head to smoke and leaving 3rd degree burns on his leg,” the entry says.
Above this entry he wrote in all caps “SEDER?” — perhaps remembering plans for the Passover meal that night.
The horrors of execution by electric chair dart across his pages in language that is sparse and direct. Such as in the case of “Howard Draper, Jr. – Negro – rape of white woman – heart beat 5 min. after final shock,” or George Williams, a young black man executed for murder, whose heart beat two minutes after the last shock.
In November 1961, he witnessed the execution of Fred Leach — a 40-year-old schizophrenic who he examined and diagnosed as severely disturbed. My grandfather’s assessment of Leach’s sanity appears on a bench warrant contained in the condemned man’s file in the state archives, but it wasn’t enough to spare Leach’s life.
He witnessed back-to-back executions in 1962 on frozen January nights. And the entries in his diary and the treatise became longer and more detailed, revealing a sense of growing anger and distress.
First came Charles Louis Forgey (“only white man I know of executed for rape – rare”) put to death on Jan. 10, 1962, on a 14-degree night that saw Huntsville’s streets covered in ice and sleet.
My grandfather wrote that Forgey was “hyperventilating so greatly that he staggered before sitting in chair … Few tears on face as he entered room. Said ‘wait a minute’ before gag placed in mouth and then said ‘God bless you all’ after being strapped into chair. 1st shock at 12:02 – pronounced dead (by me) at 12:06 – very livid – 2nd and 3rd degree burns on scalp and left leg and much smoke, more than usual from crown (of head) possibly due to cold. Crown still hot on roller after death. Everyone in good humor and rather jocular.”
The next was Roosevelt Wiley, a 29-year-old black man convicted of murder, who was electrocuted on “the coldest day in 25 years.”
“Lord bless all these men,” Wiley said, as he prayed while being strapped into the chair, and moments later: “Forgive them God for what they are doing,” and “God I pray that someday this will be over.”
Finally, in late May 1962, comes the diary entry on Stickney’s last night on earth. The newsmen were kept outside the chamber; my grandfather was one of several men inside with Stickney, including a priest who visited with the condemned man as he smoked a cigarette in his final moments.
“I kidded about tranquilizers I had in my packet and he asked for some ‘if I make it.’ At 12:24, warden returned – no stay, Stickney quietly sat in chair. – 1st shock at 12:25 – dead at 12:30.”
In a margin above the entry, he wrote: “Dignity and grace, shook hands with several guards while waiting, didn’t want to take coat off.”
After the execution, my grandfather consented to interviews by TV and radio stations before making his way home to try and sleep, with the aid of a sedative.
“Very shook up and angry over whole cruel mess,” he wrote.
In the 19-page treatise, my grandfather laid out arguments for and against the death penalty — and made it clear where he stood.
“The death penalty has a brutalizing and sadistic influence on the community that deliberately kills a member of its group,” he wrote, adding that it allows law-abiding citizens “to vicariously indulge in vicious and inhumane fantasies under socially-acceptable guises.”
“The death penalty is not applied impartially. There is such surfeit of these cases that to mention them would be redundant. The poor defendant is obviously at a disadvantage and frequently receives the extreme penalty while the wealthier accused escapes a prison term. There is well known discrimination on racial or class lines.”
He ends with a rhetorical flourish: “It behooves us all to remember that we are all singly and collectively responsible for the execution of capital offenders and we should solemnly ponder the striking words of [English poet] John Donne — Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”
State approved psychedelic experiments
In the photo, a man lies strapped to a gurney, with wires running from his head and body to a large, table-sized machine covered in knobs and switches. A heavyset doctor with glasses stands next to the foot of the gurney, observing the readings on the machine.
The caption reads: “Bodily functions of ‘insane’ convict are measured. Dr. Lee Hartman, Baylor Psychiatrist, injected inmate with LSD.”
The photo accompanied a Houston Chronicle article from May 15, 1960, headlined, “New Drug That Causes Insanity Used on Prisoners Who Volunteer.”
The article is a fascinating window into a time before LSD became synonymous with hippies, when it was “being explored as a boon to mankind” — in the words of the newspaper reporter — and even the Texas prison board apparently saw potential therapeutic benefits to using hallucinogens on problematic and troubled inmates.
Dr. C.A. Dwyer, a prison psychiatrist at Huntsville and a colleague of my grandfather’s, is quoted in the article saying that the tests were meant to figure out what part of the brain LSD affected, in hopes that it would lead them to the location where mental illness also resided. If LSD mimicked mental illness, the doctors reasoned, then finding a drug to counteract its effects might also lead to what Dwyer described as a “vaccine for schizophrenia.” They used a machine called a physiograph, which recorded prisoners’ brain waves, heartbeat, electrical skin resistance, pulse, blood pressure and respiration.
Dwyer said they would need tests from thousands of subjects to complete their work, and while the inmates who volunteered received no credit on their sentence or monetary reward, “a letter, detailing their efforts, is made a part of their records, and will be considered, I am sure, by the pardons and paroles board.”
Details on the extent of the program or the results of the testing appear nowhere in my grandfather’s papers. In fact, the only mention of it amid his voluminous accounts of the death chamber is a one-line diary entry: “Go to Huntsville tomorrow Bring LSD.”
Around the same time that he wrote that, he submitted an application to join the Texas Medical Association in October 1962. On the line for “research activity,” he wrote: “clinical investigation of new drugs for the treatment of mental and emotional illness.”
An open records request I filed with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice seeking more information about the LSD tests and other experiments in Texas prisons was answered with a letter saying there was “no information responsive to your request.”
In the end, it turned out almost everything I was looking for was at the state archives in Austin and in boxes of family keepsakes.
In the state archives, I found the minutes of a prison board meeting held on May 9, 1960, at the Rice Hotel in Houston — just six days before the article about the LSD program appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
The document is titled “Experiment: Baylor School of Psychiatry,” and describes how Dr. Marvin Vance of the Baylor program presented a plan to use four inmate volunteers to test LSD. The Baylor doctors “have stated that there is no organic or physiological danger in using the drug,” the minutes note. The board approved the hallucinogen experiments – which eventually involved giving inmates LSD, psilocybin and mescaline.
My aunt and my father both told me my grandfather sampled drugs before he gave them to his patients to gauge their safety – though I suspect this was also a means of self-medication. My aunt told me that after my grandfather’s death in 1964, she and my grandmother disposed of the medications he kept at home — including a vial of liquid LSD they poured down the sink.
Finding Dr. Charalampous
Over the past several months I’ve tried to find people who worked with my grandfather in Huntsville, or descendants of those people who may have records. I’ve come up empty, save for one man who made a passing acquaintance with him at the prison, an encounter that left a powerful impression.
Dr. Kanellos Charalampous was a psychiatrist and professor at Baylor in the early 1960s who worked at the Wynne Unit with my grandfather and authored a large number of psychiatric studies, including several dealing with hallucinogens and illicit drugs and their potential as therapeutic agents.
When I called him at his home in Houston, the 86-year-old doctor said he only remembered meeting my grandfather once, when Charalampous first arrived in Huntsville one night in January 1962. They stayed up late at my grandfather’s house, drank a beer and visited some, but the next day Charalampous left for Houston and said he never saw my grandfather again.
His memory seemed spotty, but he told me my grandfather was a manic depressive. “It was obvious if you were around him,” he said. Then he pointed me to his biography, which had been published online in 2015.
Halfway through the book, Charalampous recalls his first night in the Wynne Unit and his visit with the psychiatrist in residence at the prison.
“We had a pleasant visit, enjoying a beer until, at midnight he explained he did rounds on the inmates at 2 am; during the day the temperature rose making the place unbearable. Obviously, I did not accompany him and going to the prison only once a week I did not meet him again until the trustees told me a few weeks later that he had stopped making rounds. I learned this talented man, also a great musician and vocalist, was a manic-depressive who injected himself with large doses of Thorazine to achieve a euthymic state in the days before lithium. A year later, this unfortunate colleague committed suicide.”
There has always been uncertainty about my grandfather’s death. He had suffered from heart problems earlier in his life and my aunts had always blamed heart disease for his death. My aunt, Marie Geisler, remembers very clearly watching the Beatles’ American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show the night before my grandfather died, and how cold and weak he seemed.
It had only been a year since he finished his stint at the prison, and a few months since his stay at a mental institution in Galveston — one in a series of hospitalizations for the depression that haunted him.
My aunt told me she came home from school to find him lying dead on the landing of the stairs in their River Oaks home, a bottle of morphine on the floor next to him. A few days before, he sang in a performance of Verdi’s “Otelo.”
I don’t know what role his time in Huntsville played in my grandfather’s death. On his headstone in Austin are four simple words: “scholar and compassionate healer.” That was the man I set out to find after my father’s death, and what I’ve pieced together is a picture of a troubled, brilliant man who showed great care for others – if not always for himself.
My grandfather’s obituary in the April 1964 Journal of the American Medical Association cites “acute myocardial failure.” His Harris County death certificate tells a different story: It lists the cause of death as “barbiturate poisoning (pentobarbital) … decedent took an overdose of pentobarbital.”
Decades later, that very drug would be used in lethal injection executions in Texas and more than a dozen other states.
Ben Hartman is an American-Israeli journalist originally from Austin. Twitter: @BenHartman