A Lesson Before Dying

Ernest J. Gaines

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A Lesson Before Dying | Inspiration for Characters


Willie Francis

As Ernest Gaines prepared to write A Lesson Before Dying, he learned the story of Willie Francis, a black teenager who was sent to the electric chair twice. Gaines read all he could about the case, even meeting with one of Francis's attorneys. The Willie Francis case provided much of the inspiration for Gaines's novel, and a familiarity with the details of the case will enhance a reader's understanding of the social and institutional norms informing the context of Gaines's narrative.

In 1945 white pharmacist Andrew Thomas of St. Martinville, Louisiana, was murdered in his sleep. Lacking a suspect, police arrested black teenager Willie Francis on invented drug charges. After a speedy trial, in which the sole evidence against Francis was the police's claim Francis had confessed to the murder, an all-white jury took fifteen minutes to pronounce Francis guilty. Willie Francis was sentenced to death by electrocution.

On May 3, 1946, Francis was strapped into a chair known as "Gruesome Gertie"—the same name Gaines gives to the chair in A Lesson Before Dying. When the electric current was turned on, the chair slid around the room as Francis convulsed and screamed, "I am not dying!" Officials determined a drunken guard and an unqualified inmate had improperly wired the chair. Days later Governor Jimmie Davis ordered a second attempt at execution by electrocution.

Lawyers Bertrand DeBlanc and J. Skelly Wright took Francis's case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing it was cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore a violation of the Eighth Amendment, to return him to the chair. The Supreme Court nonchalantly described Francis's harrowing experience as "an innocent misadventure." The Court's 5-4 decision rested on the logic that since the faulty wiring was accidental rather than intentional, Francis's constitutional rights were not violated. Later, Justice Frankfurter, the same judge who had cast the deciding vote for re-execution, so regretted his vote he petitioned the governor on Francis's behalf. However, the case never made it back to the Supreme Court. Willie Francis died in the electric chair on May 9, 1947.

Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson

A Lesson Before Dying mentions two heroes of the black community during the Jim Crow era of the 1930s and 1940s, prior to the civil rights movement. Together, baseball player Jackie Robinson and boxer Joe Louis broke the "color barrier" in professional sports.

In 1938 Joe Louis had a celebrated win against the German boxer Max Schmeling. Louis's impeccable reputation made him a role model for black youth—including the young Jackie Robinson, who credited him with making his entrance into major league baseball possible. Robinson integrated professional baseball as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, shortly before Gaines's narrative begins. Robinson later became an outspoken critic of racist policies and norms. He and Louis became friends, and each man referred to the other as his hero. The main character in A Lesson Before Dying, Grant Wiggins, realizes the beneficial effect black heroes have on the black community and on individuals reaching for personal growth, and the narrator mentions both superstar athletes to highlight the significance.

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