Claude Newman was a twenty-year old African American who was sitting on Death Row in a Mississippi prison in 1943. His crime was that of ambushing and shooting a man named Sid Cook – the abusive and horrible second husband of his beloved grandmother. Although the murder may have felt emotionally justified, Claude found himself, nevertheless, awaiting execution in this Mississippi prison near Vicksburg.
One day, he noticed a medal hanging around the neck of a fellow prisoner. Claude asked the young man what it was. The other prisoner responded by cursing and throwing the medal to the ground. “Take it,” he said. The medal was a Miraculous Medal of Our Lady of Graces. Claude knew nothing about it, who was actually pictured on it, or what it represented. Nevertheless, Claude picked up the oval trinket and hung it around his neck.
During that night, Claude was awakened by a touch on his wrist. Looking around he beheld a glowing supernatural vision – “the most beautiful woman that God ever created.” The lady calmed the frightened prisoner and said,
“If you would like me to be your Mother, and you My child, send for a priest of the Catholic Church.”
Then the “beautiful woman” simply vanished. “A ghost! A ghost!” screamed Claude. He begged and pleaded for a Catholic priest to come see him.
The next morning, Father Robert O’Leary, SVD, was summoned (This priest was the one who preserved these details and documented these events.) After listening to the extraordinary experience that Claude described, the priest discovered that Claude was illiterate and knew nearly nothing about religion. So, the priest began to slowly and carefully teach him about the Catholic faith. Four other prisoners, who were deeply impressed by Claude’s experience and details, joined into the teachings of Catholicism. Occasionally, two sisters from Father O’Leary’s church joined the catechetical team to teach these inmates.
Several weeks later, when Father introduced the sacrament of Confession, Claude unexpectedly blurted out,
“Oh, I know about that! The Lady told me that when we go to Confession, we are kneeling down not before a priest, but before 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.”
The priest and nuns were stunned at this new revelation coming out of Claude’s mouth. Seeing their shock and surprise, Claude heartily apologized,
“Oh, don’t be angry – don’t be angry. I didn’t mean to blurt it out!”
Assuring Claude that he was far from angry, Father O’Leary asked Claude if he had seen the Lady again. Taking the priest aside, Claude admitted that he had.
“She told me that if you doubted me or showed hesitancy, I was to remind you that lying in a ditch in Holland (during the war) in 1940, you made a vow to Her which She’s still waiting for you to keep.”
This truth of this amazing revelation firmly convinced Father O’Leary of the authenticity of Claude’s experiences. In fact, during the war, Father O’Leary had prayed through Blessed Mary’s intercession for his own survival – promising to build a church in honor of the Immaculate Conception if he lived to do so. There was no way that this prisoner on Death Row could have known about that priest’s prayerful promise in 1940. And the Virgin Mary – through Claude – was correct. Father O’Leary had not built that promised church yet. With new inspiration and determination, this priest made sure that the church was finally built. His promise was fulfilled with its completion in 1947, and it is still standing today in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
As Father O’Leary and Claude Newman returned to the class on Confession, Claude told his classmates,
“You should not be afraid of Confession. You’re really telling God your sins, not the priest. You know, the Lady said that Confession is something like a telephone. We talk through the priest to God, and God talks back to us through the priest.”
About a week later, when Father O’Leary and the sisters were preparing to teach on the Blessed Sacrament, Claude asked if he could share what the Lady had told him about the Eucharist. The catechist joyfully acquiesced, and Claude shared with everyone,
“The Lady told me that in Communion, I will only see what looks like a piece of bread. But she told me that it is really and truly Her Son, and that He will be with me just as He was with Her before He was born in Bethlehem. She told me that I should spend my time like She did during Her lifetime with Him, in loving Him, adoring Him, thanking Him, praising Him, and asking Him for blessings. I shouldn’t be distracted or bothered by anybody else or anything else, but I should spend those few minutes in my thoughts alone with Him.”
Finally, the catechumens (inmates) were received into the Church. The baptismal records of St. Mary’s parish in Vicksburg record Claude’s baptismal day as January 16, 1944. He was actually scheduled for execution just four days later on January 20th.
As Sheriff Williamson asked Claude Newman if he had any last requests, he could not believe what the young prisoner told him:
“Well, all my friends are all shook up. The jailor is all shook up. But you don’t understand. I’m not going to die – only this body is. I’m going to be with Her. So, then I would like to have a party.”
And so, Claude Newman had his party with cake and ice cream, and his fellow inmates were allowed to attend.
On the morning of his execution, Claude was full of joy. As he prepared with Father O’Leary, Sheriff Williamson rushed in, shouting that the governor had granted a two-week reprieve. To the sheriff’s amazement, Claude broke down in tears, sobbing and crying inconsolably. Through his tears he said,
“But you don’t understand! If you ever saw Her face and looked into Her eyes, you wouldn’t want to live another day (without Her)! What have I done wrong these past weeks that God would refuse me my going home? Why must I still remain here for two weeks?”
Then Father O’Leary had an inspiration – and perhaps a reason why. There was another prisoner, James Hughs, also on death row for murder. Despite having been raised Catholic, he had led a horribly immoral life. Furthermore, James had a particular hatred for Claude and all priests as well.
Father O’Leary proposed to Claude that he offer his disappointment on not being executed that day for the conversion of James Hughs. Claude spent his final two weeks generously offering his prayers for the salvation of his troubled fellow inmate.
Finally, Claude Newman was executed on February 4, 1944. Father O’Leary testified,
“I have never seen anybody go to his death as joyfully and as happily. Even the official witnesses and the newspaper reporters were amazed. They said they couldn’t understand how anyone could sit in the electric chair beaming with happiness.”
When the time came for James Hughs to be executed, he violently refused all spiritual assistance, cursing and blaspheming – even while seated on the electric chair. Had Claude’s prayerful efforts all been in vain? The sheriff asked James if he had any last words. Suddenly, looking to a corner of the room, there was a surprised – then horrified, look on his face. James suddenly shouted, “Get me a priest!”
Father O’Leary was in the room, so he approached James and heard his full confession. Then, Sheriff Williamson, who could not bear his own curiosity, asked the condemned man what was in the corner. James explained that he had seen Claude Newman with the Blessed Virgin standing behind him with her hands on his shoulders. Claude had obtained from Our Lady that James be given a glimpse of his place in hell — where he was about to go! What James saw filled him with such horror that he screamed for the priest. Having confessed his sins, he could now die in peace.
Once again, the simple wearing of the Miraculous Medal of Our Lady of Graces called down Our Lady’s maternal gaze, saving not just the soul of Claude Newman, but of many souls in that Mississippi prison.