Even though I enjoyed talking with Eli, I saw him too infrequently to imagine that he would someday teach me about living and dying.
Eli Faber was a retired history professor from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a cousin through marriage. I saw Eli and his wife, Lani, over eight years worth of family events.
“I am finished with the research and have begun writing,” he told me at a reunion. “I am determined to get this story out there.”
In 2003, while attending an academic conference in South Carolina, he stumbled upon photographs of prisoners executed by the state. One of the photos was of an African-American child, horrifying Eli that someone so young could be put to death.
In 1944 fourteen-year-old George Stinney was accused of murdering two white girls, ages seven and 11, in Alcolu, South Carolina. Following a rushed investigation and slipshod one-day trial, the teenager was convicted based on flimsy, circumstantial evidence. He died by electric chair, within three months of the murders.
There were no trial transcripts, necessitating that Eli make numerous trips to Alcolu to put the facts together. He interviewed dozens of people who lived through the events.
I was a lawyer who worked on juvenile delinquency cases. I was astounded that a child could receive the death penalty.
“I don’t think people truly know the horrors African-Americans have gone through, and we have to keep bringing it to light,” Eli said, the jaw of his angular face firmly set below his mustache, glasses, and curly hair.
His work seemed endless. I wondered if he would ever finish.
“I am halfway through, I think,” he said one year, as we sampled hors d’oeuvres at a wedding.
“I Don’t Have Much Time”
In March 2019 he was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer and began chemotherapy. I thought about his book — the book that would likely never be written.
In November the cancer metastasized. My wife spoke to him, and told me he wanted to discuss his book.
“The book is almost done,” he said, over the phone, his tone turning fierce. “I don’t have much time. I have to be brutally honest about this.” I unsuccessfully searched for an encouraging response.
He asked if he could mail me his manuscript, so I could check that his description of the legal procedures was accurate. His request gave me the gift of helping make his final months meaningful.
I read his account of the cruelties of Jim Crow South Carolina, and the state’s rush to kill a child. “This book deserves to be published,” I told him over the phone.
“Before I die I want to hold a copy of my published book in my hands,” he said, nearly shouting.
I was in awe of his tenacity. Placing his manuscript on my bookshelves, I hoped Eli would realize his wish.
A few months later his health worsened. His wife, Lani, set up hospice at home.
Relatives told me that a publisher had rejected the book. They would try somewhere else.
Eli died in April 2020, at 76. It was painful to think he died knowing his book had been rejected.
Last November my wife’s family held a virtual reunion. “I have good news about Eli’s book,” Lani told everyone. “We have a publisher.”
George Stinney’s Story
I called her that day. She clarified that the book had never been rejected. The first publisher proposed promoting it to academic institutions, but Eli turned them down.
“He was adamant that the book reach a general audience,” Lani said.
I was stunned that he had rejected an offer of publication from his deathbed. But he had worked too hard to compromise.
“He was such a perfectionist,” Lani said. “He would be sleeping — the chemo was so exhausting — and he’d awaken talking about the book. ‘Lani get a pad and pen. Add this to footnote 17...’”
I asked Lani what drove Eli to tell George Stinney’s story. “It was seeing that photo of the child ... he had to find out how a child came to be executed.”
I was sad that Eli never got to hold his hardcover book. But Lani convinced me that he was confident of publication. Shortly before he died, an editor from the eventual publisher told Eli that he would advocate to have the book distributed as popular history. Learning that Eli received this assurance lessened my sorrow.
When “The Child In The Electric Chair” is released on June 25, Eli Faber’s life and George Stinney’s death will be given new relevance by the book’s readers. But for me the book’s legacy is as much about how it came into print, as the history it resurrects.
I plan to place a copy of the book in my library, next to Eli’s manuscript. Together they will be a monument to living with a sense of purpose, no matter what fate has in store for us.