Electric chair

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For other uses, see Electric chair (disambiguation).
"Old Sparky", the electric chair used at Sing Sing prison

Execution by electrocution, usually performed using an electric chair, is an execution method originating in the United States in which the condemned person is strapped to a specially built wooden chair and electrocuted through electrodes placed on the head and leg. This execution method was created by employees of Thomas Edison during the War of Currents, and has been used only in the United States and, for a period of several decades,[1] in the Philippines (its first use there was in 1924 under American occupation, last in 1976).

Historically, once the condemned person was attached to the chair, various cycles (differing in voltage and duration) of alternating current would be passed through the individual's body, in order to cause fatal damage to the internal organs (including the brain). The first more powerful jolt of electric current was designed to pass through the head and cause immediate unconsciousness[2] and brain death.[3] The second less powerful jolt was designed to cause fatal damage to the vital organs. Death may also be caused by electrical overstimulation of the heart.

Although the electric chair has become a symbol of the death penalty in the United States, its use is in decline due to the rise of lethal injection, which is widely believed to be a more humane method of execution. Although some states still maintain electrocution as a method of execution, today it is only maintained as a secondary method that may be chosen over lethal injection at the request of the prisoner, except in Tennessee where it may be used if the drugs for lethal injection are not available, without input from the prisoner.[4] As of 2014, electrocution is an optional form of execution in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia. They allow the prisoner to choose lethal injection as an alternative method. In the state of Kentucky the electric chair has been retired except for those whose capital crimes were committed prior to March 31, 1998 and who chose electrocution; inmates who do not choose electrocution and inmates who committed their crimes after the designated date are executed by lethal injection. In the state of Tennessee the electric chair is available for use if lethal injection drugs are unavailable, or otherwise if the inmate so chooses if their capital crime was committed before 1999. The electric chair is an alternate form of execution approved for potential use in Arkansas and Oklahoma if other forms of execution are found unconstitutional in the state at the time of execution. On February 8, 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court determined that execution by electric chair was a "cruel and unusual punishment" under the state's constitution. This brought executions of this type to an end in Nebraska, the only remaining state to retain electrocution as its sole method of execution.[5]


Early development[edit]

Electric chair history and laws in the United States
Color key:
  Secondary method only
  Has previously used electric chair, but does not today
  Has never used electric chair

In 1881, the state of New York established a committee to determine a new, more humane method of execution to replace hanging.[6] Alfred P. Southwick, a member of the committee, developed the idea of running electric current through a condemned man after hearing a case of how relatively painlessly and quickly a drunk man died due to touching exposed power lines.[7] As Southwick was a dentist accustomed to performing procedures on subjects in chairs, his electrical device appeared in the form of a chair to restrain the inmate while being electrocuted.[citation needed]

The first electric chair was produced by Harold P. Brown and Arthur Kennelly. Brown worked as an employee of Thomas Edison, hired for the purpose of researching electrocution and developing the electric chair. Kennelly, Edison's chief engineer at the West Orange facility was assigned to work with Brown on the project.[8] Since Brown and Kennelly worked for Edison and Edison promoted their work, the development of the electric chair is often erroneously credited to Edison himself.

To prove the danger of AC electricity and its suitability for executions, Brown and Edison publicly killed many animals with AC for the press in hopes of associating alternating current with electrical death in the midst of the current wars with George Westinghouse. It was at these events that the term "electrocution" was coined. The term "electrocution" originally referred only to electrical execution (from which it is a portmanteau word), and not to accidental electrical deaths. However, since no English word was available for the latter process, the word "electrocution" eventually took over as a description of all circumstances of electrical death with the new rise of commercial electricity. Most of their experiments were conducted at Edison's West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory in 1888. The demonstrations of electrocution apparently had their intended effects, and the committee adopted the AC electric chair in 1889.[9]

Brown intended to use alternating current (AC), then emerging as a potent rival to direct current (DC), which was further along in commercial development.[citation needed] The decision to use AC was partly driven by Edison's claim that AC was more lethal than DC.[citation needed]. The chair itself was designed and patented by Edwin Davis and Harry L. Tyler, of Corning, NY, using a design created by a physician from Buffalo, NY. Davis and Tyler noted that dry electrodes burned the skin during tests in 1890. The inventors improved conductivity of the connections at the head and leg using sponges soaked with saline solution. During the early phases of development, Tyler tested the electric chair on himself with less-than-fatal voltages. Tyler described the sensation as "...not at all an unpleasant one." He described it as follows:

"The brain feels numb. Bright lights dance and flash. Your head feels abnormally large. A heavy weight appears to bear down on your head. You feel as if you were treading on air, with everything around you a blank. You are alone--the only being, the only object, the only tangible thing in the universe. You gradually sink into insensibility."[10]

First executions[edit]

The first person sentenced to be executed by the electric chair was William Kemmler, a convicted murderer. An appeal was made to the New York Court of Appeals on the grounds that use of electricity as a means of execution constituted a cruel and unusual punishment and was thus contrary to the constitutions of the United States and the state of New York.[11] On December 30, 1889, the writ of habeas corpus sworn out on Kemmler's behalf was denied by the court, with Judge Dwight writing in a lengthy ruling:

We have no doubt that if the Legislature of this State should undertake to prescribe for any offense against its laws the punishment of burning at the stake, breaking at the wheel, etc., it would be the duty of the courts to pronounce upon such attempt the condemnation of the Constitution. The question now to be answered is whether the legislative act here assailed is subject to the same condemnation. Certainly it is not so on its face, for, although the mode of death described is conceded to be unusual, there is no common knowledge or consent that it is cruel; it is a question of fact whether an electric current of sufficient intensity and skillfully applied will produce death without unnecessary suffering.[12]

Kemmler was executed in New York's Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890; the "state electrician" was Edwin F. Davis. The first 17-second passage of current through Kemmler caused unconsciousness, but failed to stop his heart and breathing. The attending physicians, Edward Charles Spitzka and Charles F. Macdonald, came forward to examine Kemmler. After confirming Kemmler was still alive, Spitzka reportedly called out, "Have the current turned on again, quick, no delay." The generator needed time to re-charge, however. In the second attempt, Kemmler was shocked with 2,000 volts. Blood vessels under the skin ruptured and bled, and the areas around the electrodes singed. The entire execution took about eight minutes. George Westinghouse later commented that "they would have done better using an axe,"[13] and a witnessing reporter claimed that it was "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging."[14]

Serial killer Lizzie Halliday was the first woman sentenced to die in the electric chair, in 1894, but governor Roswell P. Flower commuted her sentence to life in a mental institution after a medical commission declared her insane.[15] Martha M. Place became the first woman to receive the deadly current in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison on March 20, 1899, for the murder of her 17-year-old step-daughter, Ida Place.[16]


The former State of Louisiana execution chamber at the Red Hat Cell Block in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, West Feliciana Parish. The electric chair is a replica of the original.

The electric chair was adopted by Ohio (1897), Massachusetts (1900), New Jersey (1906) and Virginia (1908), and soon became the prevalent method of execution in the United States, replacing hanging. Most of the states that currently use or have used the electric chair lie east of the Mississippi River. The electric chair remained the most prominent execution method until the mid-1980s when lethal injection became widely accepted for conducting judicial executions.

Other countries appear to have contemplated using the method, sometimes for special reasons. Minutes of the British War Cabinet released in 2006 show that in December 1942, Winston Churchill mused that Adolf Hitler might be executed in Trafalgar Square using an electric chair borrowed from the United States. 'This man is the mainspring of evil. Instrument - electric chair, for gangsters no doubt available on Lease Lend.'[17]

A number of states still allow the condemned person to choose between electrocution and lethal injection. In all, twelve inmates nationwide—seven in Virginia, three in South Carolina and one each in Arkansas and Tennessee—have opted for electrocution over lethal injection. The last use of the chair was on January 16, 2013, when Robert Gleason, Jr. decided to go to the electric chair in Virginia.[18]

After 1966, electrocutions ceased for a time in the US, but the method continued in the Philippines.[1] A well-publicized triple execution took place in May 1972, when Jaime Jose, Basilio Pineda and Edgardo Aquino were electrocuted for the 1967 abduction and gang-rape of the young actress Maggie de la Riva.

Notable persons and events[edit]

Notable individuals who went to the electric chair include Floyd Allen (1913), Larry Gene Bell (1996), Louis Buchalter (1944), Ted Bundy (1989), Leon Czolgosz (1901), Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck (1951), Albert Fish (1936), Donald Henry Gaskins (1991), Anna Marie Hahn (1938), Richard Hauptmann (1936), Harry Pierpont (1934), Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1953), Sacco and Vanzetti (1927), Hans Schmidt (1916), Ruth Snyder (1928), Charles Starkweather (1959), Gerald Stano (1998), George Stinney (1944), and Giuseppe Zangara (1933).

In 1895, Maria Barbella became the first woman to be sentenced to death in the electric chair,[19] but she was released on appeal in 1896.[citation needed] The first woman to die in the electric chair was Martha M. Place at New York‍ '​s Sing Sing Prison on March 20, 1899.

In a botched electrocution at Sing Sing in 1903, Fred Van Wormer was electrocuted and pronounced dead. But, upon arrival in the autopsy room he was seen to be breathing once again. The executioner had gone home, but was called back to re-electrocute Wormer. Before the executioner returned, Wormer died. Nonetheless, Wormer's corpse was set into the chair again and subjected to 1700 volts for thirty seconds.[citation needed]

The execution of William Kemmler, August 6, 1890

The electrocution of housewife Ruth Snyder at Sing Sing on the evening of January 12, 1928, for the March 1927 murder of her husband was made famous when news photographer Tom Howard, working for the New York Daily News, smuggled a hidden camera into the death chamber and photographed her in the electric chair as the current was turned on. The photograph was a front-page sensation the following morning, and remains one of the most famous newspaper photographs of all time.[20]

A record was set on July 13, 1928, when seven men were executed consecutively in the electric chair at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville.

On August 8, 1942, six German agents convicted of espionage and attempted sabotage in the Quirin case for their role in Operation Pastorius during World War II were executed by electric chair at the District of Columbia jail.[21]

James French was executed on August 10, 1966, the last person electrocuted until 1979. French was the first person executed in Oklahoma since Richard Dare was electrocuted June 1, 1963 and the only person executed in 1966.[citation needed]

On May 25, 1979, John Arthur Spenkelink became the first electrocuted person after the Gregg v. Georgia decision by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1976. He was the first person to be executed in the United States in this manner since 1966.

The last person to be executed via the electric chair without the choice of an alternative method was Lynda Lyon Block on May 10, 2002 in Alabama.[citation needed]


'Old Sparky' is the electric chair that Nebraska used for executions. It is housed in the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Nebraska

The use of the electric chair has declined as legislators sought what they believed to be more humane methods of execution. Lethal injection became the most popular method, aided by media reports of botched electrocutions in the early 1980s.

The electric chair has been criticized because of several instances in which the subjects were killed only after being subjected to multiple electric shocks. This led to a call for ending of the practice because many see it as cruel and unusual punishment.[22] Trying to address such concerns, Nebraska introduced a new electrocution protocol in 2004, which called for administration of a 15-second-long application of 2,450 volts of electricity; after a 15-minute wait, an official then checks for signs of life. New concerns raised regarding the 2004 protocol resulted, in April 2007, in the ushering in of the current Nebraska protocol, calling for a 20-second-long application of 2,450 volts of electricity. (Prior to the 2004 protocol change, an initial eight-second application of 2,450 volts was administered, followed by a one-second pause, then a 22-second application at 480 volts. After a 20-second break, the cycle was repeated three more times.)

In 1946, the electric chair failed to kill Willie Francis, who reportedly shrieked "take it off! Let me breathe!" after the current was applied. It turned out that the portable electric chair had been improperly set up by an intoxicated trustee. A case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court (Francis v. Resweber),[23] with lawyers for the condemned arguing that although Francis did not die, he had, in fact, been executed. The argument was rejected on the basis that re-execution did not violate the double jeopardy clause of the 5th Amendment of the US Constitution, and Francis was returned to the electric chair and successfully executed in 1947.

Recorded incidents of botched electrocutions were prevalent after the national moratorium ended January 17, 1977; two in Alabama, three in Florida, one in Georgia, one in Indiana and three in Virginia. All five states now have lethal injection as the default method if a choice is not made.

As of 2014, the only places in the world which still reserve the electric chair as an option for execution are the U.S. states of Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Virginia. (Arkansas and Oklahoma laws provide for its use should lethal injection ever be held to be unconstitutional.) Inmates in the other states must select either it or lethal injection. In Kentucky, only inmates sentenced before a certain date can choose to be executed by electric chair. Tennessee was among the states that provided inmates with a choice of the electric chair or lethal injection; however, in May 2014, the state passed a law allowing the use of the electric chair if lethal injection drugs were unavailable or made unconstitutional.[24] In the state of Florida, on July 8, 1999, Allen Lee Davis convicted of murder was executed in the Florida electric chair "Old Sparky". Davis' face was bloodied and photographs taken, which were later posted on the Internet. The 1997 execution of Pedro Medina in Florida created controversy when flames burst from the inmate's head. Lethal injection has been the primary method of execution in the state of Florida since 2000. On February 15, 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court declared execution by electrocution to be "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the Nebraska Constitution.[25]

Robert Gleason, executed in the electric chair at Greensville Correctional Center, Virginia on January 16, 2013, is the most recent individual to choose electrocution over lethal injection.[26][27]

See also[edit]

Nicknames of various electric chairs
State Electricians


  1. ^ a b "Philippines: The Death Penalty: Criminality, Justice and Human Rights". Amnesty International. 30 September 1997. Retrieved 2010-09-07. 
  2. ^ http://www.healthguidance.org/entry/12834/1/The-Effects-of-Electric-Shock-on-the-Body.html
  3. ^ http://www.dc.state.fl.us/oth/deathrow/drorder.html
  4. ^ http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2014/05/23/haslam-approves-electric-chair/9485545/
  5. ^ Liptak, Adam (February 9, 2008). "Electrocution Is Banned in Last State to Rely on It". The New York Times. 
  6. ^ "First execution by electric chair — History.com This Day in History — 8/6/1890". History.com. Retrieved 2014-02-11. 
  7. ^ Christen, AG; Christen, AG Christen JA. (November 2000). "Alfred P. Southwick, MDS, DDS: dental practitioner, educator and originator of electrical executions". Journal of the History of Dentistry 48 (3): 115–45. PMID 11806253. 
  8. ^ Moran, Richard. Executioner's Current. Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and the Invention of the Electric Chair. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002, p. 94.
  9. ^ Mary Bellis (2005). "Death and Money - The History of the Electric Chair". About.com. Retrieved 13 April 2006. 
  10. ^ "Peering" around through the years 1984-2006. A collection of Dick Peer newspaper columns from the Leader, Corning, NY. Edited (2014) by Lois Janes from Documents in the Corning Painted Post Historical Society Archives. Published by the Corning Painted Post Historical Society, 73 W. Pultney Street, Corning, NY 14830, copyright 2014.
  11. ^ "Electric Executions: The New York Court of Appeals Passes on the Question: The Famous Kemmler Case Decided," Lawrence Daily Record, Jan. 1, 1890, pg. 1.
  12. ^ Justice Dwight, quoted in "Electric Executions," Lawrence Daily Record, Jan. 1, 1890; pg. 1.
  13. ^ AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War; By Tom McNichol
  14. ^ "William Kemmler - Things To Remember While Reading Excerpts From "far Worse Than Hanging":, Excerpt From "far Worse Than Hanging" - JRank Articles". Law.jrank.org. 2004-08-19. Retrieved 2014-02-11. 
  15. ^ Robert Wilhelm. "The Worst Woman on Earth.". Murder by Gaslight. Retrieved 2014-12-22. 
  16. ^ "On This Day: First Woman Executed by Electric Chair". Findingdulcinea.com. Retrieved 2014-02-11. 
  17. ^ "War crimes and war criminals". United Kingdom National Arhives. July 6, 1942. Retrieved 2006-04-25. 
  18. ^ Green, Frank (January 16, 2013). "Va. man who killed two inmates is executed". Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved 2013-01-16. 
  19. ^ "Maria Barbella to Die". New York Times. July 19, 1895. Retrieved 2 August 2011. 
  20. ^ Time-Life Books, 1969, p. 185
  21. ^ "German saboteurs executed in Washington — History.com This Day in History — 8/8/1942". History.com. Retrieved 2014-02-11. 
  22. ^ "The Shocking Truth About Death in the Electric Chair". Archived from the original on 2008-02-02. 
  23. ^ U.S. Supreme Court case, Francis v. Resweber: 329 U.S. 459 (1947)
  24. ^ Berman, Mark (May 23, 2014). "Tennessee has long had the electric chair, but now it's going to be available for more executions". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 23, 2014. 
  25. ^ "Cases determined in the Supreme Court of Nebraska" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-04-13. 
  26. ^ "Convicted Murderer Who Pleaded for Death Electrocuted in Virginia". Abcnews.go.com. 2013-01-16. Retrieved 2014-02-11. 
  27. ^ "Home - WSLS 10 NBC in Roanoke/Lynchburg Va". .wsls.com. Retrieved 2014-02-11. 

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