Electric chair

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
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, conceived in 1881 by a Buffalo, New York dentist named Alfred P. Southwick, was developed throughout the 1880s as a humane alternative to hanging and first used in 1890. This execution method has been used in the United States and, for a period of several decades,[1] in the Philippines (its first use there in 1924, 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]


The late 1870s/early 1880s spread of arc lighting (a type of brilliant outdoor street lighting that required high voltages in the range of 3000-6000 volts) was followed by one story after another in newspapers about how the high voltages used were killing people, usually unwary linemen, a strange new phenomenon that seemed to instantaneously strike a victim dead without leaving a mark.[6] One of these accidents, in Buffalo, New York on August 7, 1881, led to the inception of the electric chair.[7] That evening a drunken dock worker, looking for the thrill of a tingling sensation he had noticed before, managed to sneak his way into a Brush Electric Company arc lighting power house and grabbed the brush and ground of a large electric dynamo. He died instantly. The coroner who investigated the case brought it up at a local Buffalo scientific society. Another member, a dentist named Alfred P. Southwick who had a technical background, thought some application could be found for the curious phenomenon.[8]

Southwick, local physician George E. Fell, and the head of the Buffalo ASPCA performed a whole series of experiments electrocuting hundreds of stray dogs, experimenting with animals in water, out of water, electrode types and placement, and conduction material until they came up with a repeatable method to euthanize animals via electricity.[9] Southwick went on in the early 1880s to advocate that this method be used as a more humane replacement for hanging in capital cases, coming to national attention when he published his ideas in scientific journals in 1882 and 1883. He worked out calculations based on the dog experiments, trying to develop a scaled up method that would work on humans. Early on in his designs he adopted a modified version of the dental chair as a way to restrain the condemned, a device that from then on would be referred to as the electric chair.[10]

The Gerry commission[edit]

After a series of botched hangings in the US there was mounting criticism of this form of capital punishment and the death penalty in general. In 1886 newly elected New York State governor David B. Hill set up a three-member death penalty commission, which was chaired by the human rights advocate and reformer Elbridge Thomas Gerry and included New York lawyer and politician Matthew Hale (grandson of Nathan Hale) and Southwick, to investigate a more humane means of execution.[11]

A June 30, 1888 Scientific American illustration of what the electric chair suggested by the Gerry Commission might look like.

The commission members surveyed the history of execution and sent out a fact-finding questionnaire to government officials, lawyers, and medical experts all around the state asking for their opinion.[12] The questionnaires were a bit skewed because they pushed forward electrocution and did not include the choice of abolishing the death penalty but, despite that, a slight majority of respondents recommended hanging over electrocution and a few recommended the abolition of capital punishment. The commission also contacted electrical experts including Thomson-Houston Electric Company's Elihu Thomson (who recommended high voltage AC connected to the head and the spine) and the inventor Thomas Edison (who also recommended AC, as well as using a Westinghouse generator).[13][14][15] They also attended electrocutions of dogs by Dr. George Fell who had worked with Southwick's in the early 1880s experiments. Fell was conducting further experiments, electrocuting anesthetized dissected dogs trying to discern exactly how electricity killed a subject.[16][13]

In 1888 the Commission recommended electrocution using a Southwick's electric chair idea with metal conductors attached to the condemned person's head and feet.[7] They further recommended that executions be handled by the state instead of the individual counties with three electric chairs set up at Auburn, Clinton, and Sing-Sing prisons. A bill following these recommendations passed the legislature and was signed by Governor Hill on June 4, 1888, set to go into effect on January 1, 1889.

The Medico-Legal commission[edit]

The bill itself contained no details on the type or amount of electricity that should be used and the New York Medico-Legal Society, an informal society composed of doctors and lawyers, was given the task of determining these factors. In September 1888 a committee was formed and recommended 3000 volts although the type of electricity, direct current or alternating current, was not determined and since tests up to that point had been done on animals smaller than a human (dogs) some members were unsure that the lethality of AC had been conclusively proven.[17]

Harold Brown demonstrating the killing power of AC to the New York Medico-Legal Society by electrocuting a horse at Thomas Edison's West Orange laboratory.

At this point the state's efforts to design the electric chair became intermixed with what has become to be known as the War of Currents, a competition between Thomas Edison's direct current power system and George Westinghouses alternating current based system. The two companies had been competing commercially since 1886 and a series of events had turned it into an all out media war in 1888. The committee head, neurologist Frederick Peterson, enlisted the services of Harold P. Brown as a consultant. Brown had been on his own crusade against alternating current after the shoddy installation of pole mounted AC arc lighting lines in New York City had caused several deaths in the spring of 1888. Peterson had been an assistant at Brown's July 1888 public electrocution of dogs with AC at Columbia College, an attempt by Brown to prove AC was more deadly than DC.[17] Technical assistance in these demonstrations was provided by Thomas Edison's West Orange laboratory and there grew to be some form of collusion between Edison Electric and Brown.[18][19][20] Back at West Orange on December 5, 1888 Brown set up an experiment with members of the press, members of the Medico-Legal Society including Elbridge Gerry who was also chairman of the death penalty commission, and Thomas Edison looking on. Brown used alternating current for all of his tests on animals larger than a human, including 4 calves and a lame horse, all dispatched with 750 volts of AC.[21] Based on these results the Medico-Legal Society recommended the use of 1000-1500 volts of alternating current for executions and newspapers noted the AC used was half the voltage used in the power lines over the streets of American cities. Westinghouse criticized these test as a skewed self-serving demonstration designed to be a direct attack on alternating current and accused Brown of being in the employ of Edison.[22]

At the request of death penalty commission chairman Gerry, Medico-Legal Society members; electrotherapy expert Alphonse David Rockwell, Dr. Carlos Frederick MacDonald, and Collumbia College professor Dr Louis H. Laudy, were given the task of working out the details of electrode placement.[23][24][25] They again turned to Brown to supply the technical assistance. Brown asked the Edison Electric Light to supply equipment for the tests and treasurer Francis S. Hastings (who seemed to be one of the primary movers at the company trying to portray Westinghouse as a peddler of death dealing AC current[20]) tried to obtain a Westinghouse AC generator for the test but found none was to be had.[23] They ended up using Edison's West Orange laboratory for the animal tests they conducted in mid-March 1889. Superintendent of Prisons Austin Lathrop asked Brown to design the chair but Brown turned down the offer.[23] George Fell drew up the final designs for a simple oak chair and went against the Medico-Legal Society recommendations, changing the position of the electrodes to the head and the middle of the back.[16] Brown did take on the job of finding the generators needed to power the chair. He managed to surreptitiously acquire three Westinghouse AC generators that were being decommissioned with the help of Edison and Westinghouse's chief AC rival, the Thomson-Houston Electric Company, a move that made sure that Westinghouse's equipment would be associated with the first execution.[26] The electric chair was built by Edwin F. Davis, the first "state electrician" (executioner) for the State of New York.[27]

First execution[edit]

The execution of William Kemmler, August 6, 1890

The first person in line to die under New York's new electrocution law was Joseph Chappleau, convicted for beating his neighbor to death with a sled stake, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.[28] The next person scheduled to be executed was William Kemmler, convicted of murdering his wife with an axe. An appeal on Kemmler's behalf 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.[29] 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 proscribe 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.[30]

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 Carlos 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,"[31] and a witnessing reporter claimed that it was "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging."[32]


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

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.'[33]

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.[34]

After 1966, electrocutions ceased for a time in the US, but the method continued in the Philippines.[35] 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]

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.

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).

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.[36][37] A second woman sentenced to death in 1895, Maria Barbella, was acquitted the next year.[38] 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.[39]

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 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.[40]

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.[41]

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.[42] 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),[43] 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.[44] 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.[45]

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.[46][47]

See also[edit]

Nicknames of various electric chairs
State Electricians


  1. ^ [1][dead link] Philippines: The Death Penalty: Criminality, Justice and Human Rights
  2. ^ The Effects of Electric Shock on the Body
  3. ^ Order Upholding Constitutionality of the Electric Chair
  4. ^ Tennessee electric chair use could spur legal challenges
  5. ^ Liptak, Adam (February 9, 2008). "Electrocution Is Banned in Last State to Rely on It". The New York Times. 
  6. ^ Randall E. Stross, The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World, Crown/Archetype - 2007, page 171-173
  7. ^ a b Craig Brandon The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History page 12
  8. ^ Craig Brandon, The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History page 14
  9. ^ Craig Brandon The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History page 21
  10. ^ Craig Brandon The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History page 24
  11. ^ David Marc. "Southwick, Alfred Porter", American National Biography Online - 2000
  12. ^ Craig Brandon, The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History, page 54
  13. ^ a b Anthony Galvin, Old Sparky: The Electric Chair and the History of the Death Penalty, Skyhorse Publishing - 2015, pages 30-45
  14. ^ Craig Brandon, The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History, pages 57-58
  15. ^ Jill Jonnes, Empires Of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, And The Race To Electrify The World, Random House - 2004, page 420
  16. ^ a b Richard Moran, Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group - 2007, page 4
  17. ^ a b Richard Moran, Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group - 2007, page 102
  18. ^ Craig Brandon, The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History, McFarland - 1999, pages 70 and 261
  19. ^ Jill Jonnes, Empires Of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, And The Race To Electrify The World, Random House - 2004, page 166
  20. ^ a b W. Bernard Carlson, Innovation as a Social Process: Elihu Thomson and the Rise of General Electric, Cambridge University Press - 2003, page 285
  21. ^ Mark Essig, Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death, Bloomsbury Publishing USA - 2009, pages 152-155
  22. ^ Craig Brandon The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History page 82
  23. ^ a b c Terry S. Reynolds, Theodore Bernstein, Edison and "The Chair", Technology and Society Magazine, IEEE (Volume 8, Issue 1) March 1989, pages 19 - 28
  24. ^ Mark Essig, Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death, Bloomsbury Publishing USA - 2009, pages 225
  25. ^ Sarah Davis., A "Bungled" Execution and a Doctor's Guilt: The Horrifying Debut of the Electric Chair, December 4, 2014
  26. ^ Mark Essig, Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death, Bloomsbury Publishing - 2005, pages 190-195
  27. ^ Stuart Banner, The Death Penalty: an American history, Harvard University Press - 2009, pages 194-195
  28. ^ Carl Sifakis, The Encyclopedia of American Prisons, Infobase Publishing - 2014, page 39
  29. ^ "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.
  30. ^ Justice Dwight, quoted in "Electric Executions," Lawrence Daily Record, Jan. 1, 1890; pg. 1.
  31. ^ AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War; By Tom McNichol
  32. ^ "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. 
  33. ^ "War crimes and war criminals". United Kingdom National Arhives. July 6, 1942. Retrieved 2006-04-25. 
  34. ^ Green, Frank (January 16, 2013). "Va. man who killed two inmates is executed". Richmond Times-Dispatch. Retrieved 2013-01-16. 
  35. ^ "Philippines: The Death Penalty: Criminality, Justice and Human Rights". Amnesty International. 30 September 1997. Retrieved 2010-09-07. [dead link]
  36. ^ Robert Wilhelm. "The Worst Woman on Earth.". Murder by Gaslight. Retrieved 2014-12-22. 
  37. ^ James D. Livingston, Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York, SUNY Press - 2012, pge 64
  38. ^ James D. Livingston, Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded Age New York, SUNY Press - 2012, pages 64-65
  39. ^ "On This Day: First Woman Executed by Electric Chair". Findingdulcinea.com. Retrieved 2014-02-11. 
  40. ^ Time-Life Books, 1969, p. 185
  41. ^ "German saboteurs executed in Washington — History.com This Day in History — 8/8/1942". History.com. Retrieved 2014-02-11. 
  42. ^ "The Shocking Truth About Death in the Electric Chair". Archived from the original on 2008-02-02. 
  43. ^ U.S. Supreme Court case, Francis v. Resweber: 329 U.S. 459 (1947)
  44. ^ 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. 
  45. ^ "Cases determined in the Supreme Court of Nebraska" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-04-13. 
  46. ^ "Convicted Murderer Who Pleaded for Death Electrocuted in Virginia". Abcnews.go.com. 2013-01-16. Retrieved 2014-02-11. 
  47. ^ "Home - WSLS 10 NBC in Roanoke/Lynchburg Va". .wsls.com. Retrieved 2014-02-11. [dead link]

External links[edit]