The True Account
of Prisoner Claude
by John Vennari, from the March 2001 issue of Catholic Family News.
The following true story of Claude
Newman took place in Mississippi in 1944. The account was told by Father
O'Leary, a priest from Mississippi, who was directly involved with the events.
He has left for posterity an audio recording it.
Claude Newman was
a negro man who worked the fields for a landowner. He had married when he was 17
years old to a woman of the same age. One day, two years later, he was out ploughing
the fields. Another worker ran to tell Claude
that his wife was screaming from the house. Immediately Claude
ran into his house and found a man attacking his wife. Claude
saw red, grabbed an axe and split the man's head open. When they rolled the man
over, they discovered that it was the favorite employee of the landowner for
was arrested. He was later sentenced for murder and condemned to die in the
While he was in jail awaiting execution, he shared a cell-block of some sort
with four other prisoners. One night, the five men were sitting around talking
and they ran out of conversation. Claude
noticed a medal on a string around another prisoner's neck. He asked what it
was, and the Catholic boy told him that it was a medal. Claude
said, "What is a medal?" The Catholic boy could not explain what a
medal was or what its purpose was. At that point, and in anger, the Catholic boy
snatched the medal from his own neck and threw it on the floor at Claude's feet
with a curse and a cuss, telling him to take the thing.
Claude picked up
the medal, and with permission from the prison attendants, placed it on a string
around his own neck. To him it was simply a trinket, but he wanted to wear it.
During the night, sleeping on top of his cot, he was awakened with a touch on
his wrist. And there stood, as Claude
told the priest later, the most beautiful woman that God ever created. At first
he was very frightened. The Lady calmed down Claude,
and then said to him, "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." With
that She disappeared.
immediately became terrified, and started to scream, "a ghost, a
ghost", and fled to the cell of one of the other prisoners. He then started
screaming that he wanted a Catholic priest.
Father O'Leary , the priest who tells the story, was called first thing the next
morning. He arrived and found Claude
who told him of what had happened the night before. Then Claude,
along with the other four men in his cell-block, asked for religious
instruction, for catechism.
Initially, Father O'Leary had difficulty believing the story .The other
prisoners told the priest that everything in the story was true; but of course,
they neither saw nor heard the vision of the Lady.
Father O'Leary promised to teach them catechism, as they had requested. He went
back to his parish, told the rector what had happened, and returned to the
prison the next day to give instruction.
It was then that the priest learned that Claude
Newman could neither read nor write at all. The only way he could tell if a book
was right-side-up was if the book contained a picture. Claude
had never been to school. And his ignorance of religion was even more profound.
He knew nothing at all about religion. He did not know who Jesus was. He did not
know anything except that there was a God.
receiving instructions, and the other prisoners helped him with his studies.
After a few days, two of the religious Sisters from Father O'Leary's
parish-school obtained permission from the warden to come to the prison. They
wanted to meet Claude,
and they also wanted to visit the women in the prison. On another floor of the
prison, the Sisters then started to teach some of the women-prisoners catechism
Several weeks passed, and it came time when Father O'Leary was going to give
instructions about the Sacrament of Confession. The Sisters too sat in on the
class. The priest said to the prisoners, "Okay, boys, today I'm going to
teach you about the Sacrament of Confession."
"Oh, I know about that!"
"The Lady told me," said Claude,
"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."
Father O'Leary and the Sisters sat stunned with their mouths wide open. Claude
thought they were 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. We're just amazed. You have seen Her
"Come around the cell-block away from the others."
When they were alone, Claude
said to the priest, "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." And, Father
O'Leary recalls, "Claude
told me exactly what the vow was."
This convinced Father O'Leary that Claude
was telling the truth about his visions of Our Lady.
They then returned to the catechism class on Confession. And Claude
kept telling the other prisoners, "You should not be afraid to go to
confession. You're really telling God your sins, not this priest, or any priest.
We're telling God our sins." Then Claude
said, "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
About a week later, Father O'Leary was preparing to teach the class about the
Blessed Sacrament. The Sisters were present for this too. Claude
indicated that the Lady had also taught him about Holy Communion, and he asked
if he could tell the priest what She said. The priest agreed immediately. Claude
related, "The Lady told me that in Communion, I will only see what looks
like a piece of bread. But She told me that THAT is really and truly Her Son.
And that He will be with me just for a few moments as He was with Her before He
was born in Bethlehem. And that I should spend my time like She did, in all Her
time with Him, in loving Him, adoring Him, thanking Him, praising Him and asking
Him for blessings. I shouldn't be bothered by anybody else or anything else. But
I should spend those few minutes with Him."
Eventually they finished the instructions, Claude
was received into the Catholic Church, and the time came for Claude
to be executed. He was to be executed at five minutes after twelve, midnight.
The sheriff asked him, "Claude,
you have the privilege of a last request. What do you want?"
"Well," said Claude,
"you're all shook up. The jailer is all shook up. But you don't understand.
I'm not going to die. Just this body. I'm going to be with Her. So, can I have a
"What do you mean?", asked the sheriff.
"A Party!" said Claude.
"Will you give Father permission to bring in some cakes and ice cream and
will you allow the prisoners on the second floor to be turned loose in the main
room so that we can all be together and have a party?"
"Somebody might attack Father," cautioned the warden.
Claude turned to
the men who were standing by and said, "Oh no, they won't. Will you
So, the priest visited a wealthy patron of the parish, and she supplied the ice
cream and cake. They had their party.
Afterwards, because Claude
had requested it, they made a Holy Hour. The priest had brought prayer books
from the Church and they all said together the Stations of the Cross, and a had
a Holy Hour, without the Blessed Sacrament.
Afterwards, the men were put back in their cells. The priest went to the chapel
to get the Blessed Sacrament so that he could give Claude
Father O'Leary returned to Claude's cell. Claude
knelt on one side of the bars, the priest knelt on the other, and they prayer
together as the clock ticked toward Claude's execution.
Fifteen minutes before the execution, the sheriff came running up the stairs
shouting, "Reprieve, Reprieve, the Governor has given a two-week
had not been aware that the sheriff and the District Attorney were trying to get
a stay of execution for Claude
to save his life. When Claude
found out, he started to cry. The priest and the sheriff thought it was a
reaction of joy because he was not going to be executed. But Claude
said, "Oh you men don't know. And Father, you don't know. If you ever
looked into Her face, and looked into Her eyes, you wouldn't want to live
Claude then said,
"What have I done wrong these past weeks that God would refuse me my going
home?" And the priest said that Claude
sobbed as one who was broken hearted.
The sheriff left the room. The priest remained and gave Claude
Holy Communion. Claude
eventually quieted down. Then Claude
said, "Why? Why must I still remain here for two weeks?"
The priest had a sudden idea.
He reminded Claude
about a prisoner in the jail who hated Claude
intensely. This prisoner had led a horribly immoral life, and he too was sent to
The priest said, "Maybe Our Blessed Mother wants you to offer this denial
of being with Her for his conversion." The priest continued, "Why
don't you offer to God every moment you are separated from Her for this prisoner
so that he will not be separated from God for all eternity."
and asked the priest to teach him the words to make the offering. The priest
complied. At the time, the only two people who knew about this offering were Claude
and Father O'Leary.
The next day, Claude
said to the priest, "That prisoner hated me before, but Oh! Father, how he
hates me now!" The priest said, "Well, that's a good sign."
Two weeks later, Claude
Father O'Leary remarked, "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 actually beaming with happiness."
His last words to Father O'Leary were, "Father, I will remember you. And
whenever you have a request, ask me, and I will ask Her."
Two months later, the white man, who had hated Claude,
was to be executed. Father O'Leary said, "This man was the filthiest, most
immoral person I had ever come across." His hatred for God, for everything
spiritual," said the priest, "defied description."
Just before his execution, the county doctor pleaded with this man to at least
kneel down and say the Our Father before the sheriff would come for him.
The prisoner spat in the doctor's face.
When he was strapped into the electric chair, the sheriff said to him, "If
you have something to say, say it now."
The condemned man started to blaspheme.
All of a sudden the condemned man stopped, and his eyes became fixed on the
corner of the room, and his face turned to one of absolute horror.
Turning to the sheriff, he then said, "Sheriff, get me a priest!"
Now, Father O'Leary had been in the room because the law required a clergyman to
be present at executions. The priest, however, had hidden himself behind some
reporters because the condemned man had threatened to curse God if he saw a
clergyman at all.
Father O'Leary immediately went to the condemned man. The room was cleared of
everyone else, and the priest heard the man's confession. The man said he had
been a Catholic, but turned away from his religion when he was 18 because of his
When everyone returned to the room, the sheriff asked the priest, "What
made him change his mind?"
"I don't know " said Father O'Leary, "I didn't ask him."
The sheriff said, "Well, I'll never sleep if I don't."
The Sheriff turned to the condemned man and asked, "Son, what changed your
The prisoner responded, "Remember that black man Claude
- who I hated so much? Well he's standing there [he pointed], over in that
corner. And behind him with one hand on each shoulder is the Blessed Mother. 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, to see your place in Hell if you do not
repent.' I was shown my place in Hell, and that's when I screamed."
This, then, is the power of Our Lady.
We see many parallels between these facts of Claude
Newman story and the Message of Fatima in 1917. There is the emphasis on:
· Sacramental Confession,
· Holy Communion,
· Making sacrifices for Sinners,
· the vision of Hell.
"Many souls go to Hell" said Our Lady of Fatima, "because they
have no one to pray and make sacrifices for them."
Original work and arrangements © 2002 CDIA
Work of God