Robert G. Elliott

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Robert Greene Elliott (January 27, 1874 – October 10, 1939)[1] was the New York State Electrician (i.e., executioner) – and for those neighboring states that used the electric chair, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Massachusetts – during the period 1926–1939.

He was born in Hamlin, New York, the son of Irish immigrants Thomas Elliott and Martha Jane Elliott (nee Rowley). As a child he was a devout Methodist, and at one point his parents wanted him to be a minister. As a young boy Elliott recounts that he read of the first use of the electric chair and wondered what it might be like to throw the switch at an execution. He became employed in the prison service as a regular electrician, ultimately in charge of the power-house at Dannemora Prison in upstate New York. In that capacity he remotely assisted Edwin Davis at electrocutions at Dannemora State Prison. Initially his involvement was to change the armatures on the generator in the power house, so that it would temporarily produce enough power to send over high-tension wires to the electric chair elsewhere in the prison complex. In his Memoirs – "Agent of Death" (see below) he recounted that when Davis visited Dannemora to conduct executions, that he would be invited to dinner at Elliott's nearby house. This on-the-job training and personal rapport with Davis ultimately stood him in good stead in 1926 when he applied for and accepted the post of "State electrician", which had just fallen vacant by John Hulbert. On January 28, 1926 he officiated at his first execution, the double electrocution of Emil Klatt and Luigi Rapito. Although not wearing a mask or a hood, he tried to conceal his identity at first, not revealing his name.[2] For each execution he was paid the same fee of $150, the equivalent of $2,112.05 in 2018.

Elliott is credited with perfecting judicial execution by electrocution. He usually made the first contact at 2000 volts, holding it there for 3 seconds. Then he lowered the voltage to 500 volts for the balance of the first minute; raised it to 2000 volts for a further 3 seconds; lowered the voltage to 500 volts for the rest of the second minute; then raised it again to 2000 volts for a few seconds before shutting off the power. Elliott recommended that the ideal amperage for executions was around 8 amps.

His technique was intended to render the victim unconscious, in an instant, with the first massive shock, while the lower voltage heated the vital organs to a point where life was extinguished, without causing undue bodily burning. This oscillating cycle of shocks also seized the heart, causing it to go into arrest and stop beating. He often carried his own electrodes with him, including a head-piece made from a cut-down football helmet, lined with moist sponge.

A keen gardener and a quiet family man, Elliott ran an electrical contracting business and claimed never to have been more than an instrument of the people when he performed an execution.

Despite his calling, he profoundly disagreed with capital punishment, saying that it served no useful purpose. In his memoirs, Elliott wrote "I hope that the day is not far distant when legal slaying, whether by electrocution, hanging, lethal gas, or any other method is outlawed throughout the United States."[3]

He is reported to have executed 387 people, including Sacco and Vanzetti, Ruth Snyder, Irene Schroeder and Bruno Hauptmann. On January 6, 1927, he carried out the electrocutions of six inmates in two states.[4] Soon after the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, persons unknown planted a bomb under his house that destroyed his front porch. For some time later the State of New York paid for a 24-hour guard.

He published his experiences in a book entitled Agent of Death. Shortly after the executions, a newspaper reported that Elliott was haunted by what he had done, that the specter of Ruth Snyder bedeviled him. It was reported that Elliott required sedation to sleep, and that he was paralyzed with guilt. However, in Agent of Death, Elliott wrote that he was affected by the necessity of electrocuting a woman, but he was not the type of man to lose sleep over having done his job. In the foreword to his memoirs, his co-author, A. R. Beatty commented that Elliott had just approved the final chapters of the book before passing-away after a short illness. Elliott is buried in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, East Greenbush, New York. [5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ New York Times, Oct. 11, 1939, p. 27
  2. ^ The Saratogian, Jan 29, 1926. Elliott is described as being about sixty years old; he had actually had his 52nd birthday the day before the executions.
  3. ^ Gonnerman, Jennifer (January 18, 2005). "The Last Executioner". The Village Voice. Retrieved 13 November 2014.
  4. ^ Craig Brandon, The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History (McFarland, 1999) p222; "Six Executed in Electric Chair During One Day", Los Angeles Times, January 8, 1927, p4
  5. ^

Further reading[edit]

  • Elliott, R. G. (and A. R. Beatty). 1940. Agent of Death: The Memoirs of an Executioner. E.P. Dutton