by Darcia Helle
Humans have a long history of finding new and unique ways to kill each other, and the death penalty offers the perfect outlet for the more creative voyeurs among us. We want our vengeance, but we don’t want to look as if we’re enjoying it too much. With this in mind, our civilized American society continually seeks convenient and, we tell ourselves, painless ways to put our prisoners to death. Wanting them to die is acceptable; reveling in their torment is not. This is how the electric chair came to be one of America’s more infamous inventions.
Let’s go back to the year 1880, when capital punishment was a popular solution to violent crime all across the U.S. That year, 96 people were put to death and all but two were hanged. As incomprehensible as it might seem to us now, at that time in our history hangings were still occasionally public events. And, contrary to popular belief, hangings typically were not quick deaths. Depending on the skill, and perhaps the mood, of the hangman, the condemned prisoner could sway on the end of that rope for as long as 30 minutes before finally succumbing to asphyxiation. Occasionally, an overzealous hangman decapitated the prisoner with the noose. Some people found this all a bit unsettling and wanted an easier, more appealing way to kill people.
By the way, the two prisoners in 1880 who were not hanged were instead killed by firing squad, which was probably slightly more pleasant.
Now let’s move ahead to Buffalo, New York in the year 1881. On July 31, The Brush Electric Company installed arc lamps as streetlights, which were roughly 200 times more powerful than the typical filament lamps of that period. This was a major event. Everyone wanted to see how this new technology worked, and so visitors flocked to the building where the system was kept to see the coal-fired, steam-powered alternating current dynamos generating the voltage required to power these new lights.
One week later, on August 7, Lemuel (or Samuel or Edward, depending on the source) Smith went out drinking with some friends. That evening, he visited the electric company’s building to see how it all worked. He wanted to touch one of the poles and get a little thrill from the energy jolt. Police escorted him out of the building, but that didn’t deter Mr. Smith. He hid in the darkness and, after the police had left, he raced back inside. He placed a hand on one pole but felt nothing. So he placed his other hand on the second pole. The subsequent thrill he received was probably a little more than he’d bargained for.
The next day, newspapers reported Smith’s death as “painless”, noting that he was the first person to be killed by a dynamo. Joseph Fowler, the official Buffalo coroner, performed the autopsy. He reported that, had he not known the circumstances of Smith’s death, he would not have been able to tell how the man died. Outwardly, he appeared fine. Only after peeling away Smith’s skin did Fowler notice faint lines of darker cells following the path the electrical current took through his body.
The story of Smith’s strange death quickly spread. Dr. Albert Southwick, a dentist and former steamboat engineer, read the story with intense fascination. Southwick was an advocate of the death penalty, and immediately wondered if this quick and painless death with electricity could replace the less efficient method of hanging. He rigged his own primitive contraption to mimic the electric company’s setup and went on to experiment on stray dogs. He did this for a few years, perfecting a method he believed to be the perfect, painless execution.
Convinced by his own experiments, Southwick brought his idea to his friend, State Senator David McMillian, who then relayed the information to Governor David B. Hill. In turn, Hill requested that state legislature investigate the use of “modern day” electricity as a more humane method of execution to replace hanging.
At about this time, Thomas Edison was establishing himself as the giant in DC (direct current) electrical service. George Westinghouse was right on Edison’s heels with his own invention of AC (alternating current) electricity. The two competing electric company giants unwittingly helped pave the way for the electric chair.
In 1886, New York Legislature enacted Chapter 352 of the Laws of 1886, entitled “An act to authorize the appointment of a commission to investigate and report to the legislature the most humane and approved method of carrying into effect the sentence of death in capital cases.”
The Death Penalty Commission was soon formed. The three members were Elbridge T. Gerry, who was the grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Matthew Hale, who was a judge from Albany, and, of course, Albert Southwick. Elbridge Gerry was appointed chair, and the men got right down to work. They began with a detailed analysis of execution methods including options such as burning at the stake, impalement, the gallows, and the guillotine. The Commission also sent questionnaires to prominent judges, asking their opinions on the death penalty and the various options. Southwick ensured this questionnaire was heavily slanted toward electricity as the preferred method of execution.
Meanwhile, Southwick was intent on continuing his experimentation in order to prove he was right about electricity. In the summer of 1887, he made an arrangement with the city of Buffalo and the SPCA, allowing him to conduct further experiments on dogs. At the time, the city handled unwanted dogs by drowning them. The SPCA was concerned about overcrowding in the city pounds, which compelled them to allow Southwick and his assistant George Fell, another Buffalo physician, to test their “dog killing cage” on stray dogs. Southwick kept careful records of his experiments for scientific papers.
Elbridge Gerry did not initially support electricity as a method of execution. He favored an overdose of morphine given by injection with the new hypodermic needle. Physicians, however, did not support Gerry’s preference for two reasons. First, they were concerned regular patients would develop added fear of these new needles because of the association with death. Second, physicians expressed concern that participating in executions would be a violation of their Hippocratic Oath.
Southwick, intent on pushing forward his dream of death by electricity, worried Gerry would ultimately reject his recommendations and set out to recruit help. On November 8, 1887, he sent a letter to Thomas Edison requesting the esteemed inventor’s opinion on details such as the strength of current required to ensure a quick and painless death. Southwick did not realize that Edison was a lifelong opponent of capital punishment. One month later, Southwick received a disappointing reply. Edison declined the request, stating that he did not believe the law had the right to kill.
Southwick was not to be deterred. He immediately replied, telling Edison that capital punishment always had and always would be used, and therefore it was best for them to determine a civilized and humane method of execution. Southwick went on to assure Edison that his opinions would greatly influence the Gerry Commission.
During this time, Edison and Westinghouse continued to battle over their different methods of supplying electricity, each wanting to prove theirs was the best and the safest. Edison’s follow-up reply to Southwick either reflected a change of heart or a calculated business play. He informed Southwick that he still preferred a world without capital punishment but, after careful consideration, he understood the merits of a more humane method of execution. He went on to recommend electricity as his method of choice, emphasizing that Westinghouses’s AC dynamo was the best option.
Albert Southwick’s ploy with Thomas Edison worked. The correspondence and Edison’s subsequent recommendation swayed Elbridge Gerry over to his side. Gerry relented and, on January 17, 1888 after two years of study, the Commission submitted The Gerry Report, a 95-page report recommending that New York State become the first place in the world to kill criminals with electricity.
The following spring, Charles T. Saxton, the chairman of the Assembly’s judiciary committee and a friend of Southwick’s, introduced the bill recommending that death by electricity become law. Two contentious parts of this bill threatened to stop it in its tracks. First, the bill called for a gag order on the press at all executions. The second, and at the time biggest, issue was the order of expeditious disposal of the condemned inmate’s remains. The inmate would be buried in the prison yard, without religious rites, and covered with quicklime in order to speed up decomposition. This issue was hotly debated by the Catholic Church, though it was a fight they ultimately lost. The Electrical Execution Act was passed on June 5, 1888, removing executions from the public eye, and launching the veil of secrecy still currently surrounding US executions. The law would officially go into effect on January 1, 1889.
The day after the Electrical Execution Act passed, June 6, 1888, a relatively unknown, self-educated inventor called Harold P. Brown wrote a scorching editorial letter to the New York Post. He described the death of a boy who’d touched an exposed telegraph wire running on AC current, chastising Westinghouse for supporting a “damnable” system that brought stockholder dividends at the expense of public safety. Brown recommended limiting AC transmissions to a reasonable 300 volts, despite knowing that would negate the economic advantage of AC electricity.
Thomas Edison, in the meantime, continued campaigning heavily for the use of Westinghouse’s AC current electric chair, in the hopes that consumers would not want the same type of electrical current used in their homes. Upon seeing Brown’s editorial piece, he immediately hired the inventor to do research at his New Jersey lab.
Several well-known electricians poked holes in Brown’s theories. Brown accused the electricians of being on the side of the wealthy and powerful, namely Westinghouse, and decided to stage a public experiment. On July 30, 1888, Brown invited 75 electricians to Columbia College of Mines, where he led a 76-pound Newfoundland dog onto the stage to be killed with electricity. The dog was large but friendly, which apparently disturbed some of the onlookers, so Brown assured them the dog had an aggressive nature and had already bitten two people. The dog, named Dash, was led into a metal cage, muzzled, and tied down while electric cuffs were tightened around two of his legs.
Brown first wanted to show the comparable safety of direct current. He sent 300 volts of DC electricity through Dash, provoking a sudden yelp followed by whimpers. Next Brown amped up the voltage to 400 and jolted Dash once again. The dog struggled desperately as he howled in pain. Brown set the charge up to 700 volts. This time, Dash tore through his muzzle, broke the straps on his legs, and nearly escaped the cage. Despite protests from the crowd, which was angered by the brutality displayed, Brown secured the dog back in the cage and zapped him with another 1,000 volts of direct current. At this point, Dash was barely clinging to life and in obvious agony.
According to a New York Times article from that day, Brown attempted to placate his audience, telling them that Dash “will have less trouble when we try the alternating current. It will make him feel better.” Brown then switched to AC, sending 330 volts through Dash and finally killing him. Brown’s audience gasped at the stench of burning fur and flesh. Brown, though, was just getting started. He was about to continue on with more dogs when the superintendent of the SPCA mercifully intervened, putting an end to Brown’s horrific display, at least for the day.
In the fall of 1888, while on Edison’s payroll, Dr. Fred Peterson was appointed head of the Medic-Legal Society’s committee and tasked with carrying out further research on the best design and current for the electric chair. Over the next few months, Peterson electrocuted two dozen dogs.
On December 5, 1888, Harold Brown and Dr. Peterson electrocuted two calves and a 1,230-pound horse. The New York Times article covering the event ends with the following prediction: “…alternating current will undoubtedly drive the hangmen out of business in this state.”
On December 12, Peterson submitted his report to the New York Medico-Legal Society, recommending the AC-powered electric chair over the DC option.
The following day, December 13, Westinghouse wrote an editorial for the New York Times, accusing the inventor Harold Brown of acting “in the interest in and pay of the Edison Light Company.” He was so infuriated by the decision to use his AC power source for the electric chair that he refused to sell any AC generators to prison authorities.
In March 1889, Harold Brown met with Austin Lathrop, the superintendent of New York prisons, in order to arrange the purchase of three Westinghouse AC generators. Westinghouse still refused to sell to prisons, but Brown easily worked around that by disguising the real purchaser’s identity. Now they had the law and the generators. All they needed was the actual chair and a condemned prisoner to sit in it. They didn’t have to wait long for either.
In Buffalo, New York, on March 19, 1889, William Kemmler murdered Matilda Ziegler, his lover, with an axe. In May, he was sentenced to death for his crime. His lawyer immediately filed appeals, arguing that electrocution was “cruel and unusual punishment”. Edison and Brown both testified for the state, ensuring that this form of execution was quick and painless, while doing their best to gloss over the problem areas such as varying tolerances to electricity and the unpredictable results. Brown held his ground and put on a good show. The state of New York won the first and both subsequent appeals.
In the meantime, Edwin R. Davis, an Auburn Prison electrician, built the first electric chair to be used in a prison. That first chair closely resembles the more modern version familiar to most people. It was fitted with two electrodes composed of metal disks held together with rubber, and covered with a damp sponge. These electrodes were attached to the condemned prisoner’s head and back. William Kemmler was to become the first prisoner executed on the new electric chair. Much to Westinghouse’s dismay, for many years being put to death this way was referred to as being “Westinghoused”.
On August 6, 1890, William Kemmler made history at Auburn Prison in Buffalo, New York. A group of doctors and reporters gathered anxiously to watch the historic event. Kemmler was strapped into the electric chair and jolted with 1,300 volts of electricity for 17 seconds. Just as the group was about to celebrate their success, someone yelled, “Oh my God! He’s breathing!” The warden immediately ordered the current to be restarted. A full two minutes passed while they waited for the charge to reach the full 2,000 volts of electricity. All the while Kemmler’s chest continued to heave as he gasped for breath, frothed at the mouth, and moaned. Finally, Kemmler was given another 70 seconds of electricity. Hw thrashed and convulsed in the chair, as the electrodes seared his head and arms and the room filled with the acrid smell of burning flesh. His body began to smolder, then caught fire. Some witnesses fainted, while others fled from the room in desperation to escape. In the end, the state-sanctioned “humane” murder turned into several minutes of torture. The autopsy later revealed the electrode that had been attached to Kemmler’s back had burned all the way through to his spine.
We have a tragedy or a success, depending on whose opinion you listened to from that time:
George Fell, the assistant to the executioner: “The man never suffered a bit of pain!”
Alfred P. Southwick: “Not a cry from the subject. Not a sound. [He] died without knowing anything about it.”
The New York Herald: “Strong men fainted and fell like logs on the floor.”
The New York Times: “…an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.”
New Jersey’s Camden Chronicle: “the world is horrified. … The electricity was turned on three times before the man was killed. The breath heaved; the nails cut into the flesh; the flesh sizzled and smoked, and was burned into a crisp; the clothing caught on fire, and one of the witnesses fainted.”
George Westinghouse: “They would have done better with an axe.”
State commissioner on humane executions: “…the grandest success of the age.”
While critics demanded the return of the gallows, New York steadfastly supported its electric chair. The state soon executed two more inmates, both without incident. The fourth inmate was not so fortunate. William Taylor was strapped to the chair on July 27, 1893. With the first jolt of electricity, his legs shot upward with such force that the ankle straps tore free. He remained very much alive. The executioner attempted a second jolt but the generator in the powerhouse had blown and there was no electricity. Taylor was removed from the chair and placed on a cot, where he was kept alive with chloroform and morphine. In one of our government’s unfailing absurdities, officials wanted to ensure Taylor remained alive long enough to be put to death on the chair. One hour and nine minutes after being partially fried, Taylor was strapped back into the chair and properly killed.
These setbacks didn’t deter other states from joining in the fun of electrocution. Ohio brought in the electric chair in 1896. Massachusetts followed, then New Jersey, Virginia, and in 1910, North Carolina joined the fray. Soon afterward, 26 states employed the electric chair as the execution method of choice.
Despite the volume of activity the electric chair saw over the years, all the kinks hadn’t been worked out of the design. In 1903, Fred Van Wormer was electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison and pronounced dead immediately afterward. His body was brought to the autopsy room, where he promptly began breathing again. The executioner had already gone home, thinking his job was done. He was called back to the prison to re-electrocute Van Wormer. By the time he arrived, the inmate had died – again. But he had not died on the chair, so his corpse was strapped back in and the executioner zapped him with 1700 volts for 30 seconds. Fred Van Wormer now holds the distinction of being the first, and probably only, dead man to be executed.
You might think design flaws were worked out as we entered the 20th century, making the electric chair the more humane execution method it was meant to be. Dozens of condemned inmates would vehemently disagree, if they were able to come back and share their opinions. More than seven decades later, in 1963, New York banned the electric chair, siting the execution method once touted as humane, to be “cruel and unusual punishment”.
Other states have been more stubborn in their conviction of electricity as the perfect means of death. Here’s a brief look at some of our more recent botched executions:
April 22, 1983: John Evans was executed in the state of Alabama. After the first jolt of electricity, sparks and flames erupted from the electrode attached to Evans’ leg. The electrode broke away from the strap and caught fire. Smoke poured out from beneath the hood covering Evans’ head. Two physicians were ushered into the death chamber and found Evans’ heart still beating. The electrode was reattached to Evans’ leg, and he was given a second jot. Thicker smoke surrounded Evans, and the smell of burning flesh filled the room. Doctors were again asked to check for a heartbeat, and again they found Evans still alive. Evans’ lawyer’s pleas for a reprieve were ignored. The third jolt left Evans’ body smoldering, but he was finally dead. The execution took a full 14 minutes and was anything but humane.
May 4, 1990: Jesse Joseph Tafero was executed by electric chair in Florida. Three separate jolts of electricity were needed to finally stop Tafero’s breathing, during which time six-inch flames erupted from his head. State officials regretted the botched execution, stating it was caused by “inadvertent human error” because a synthetic sponge had been substituted for the natural sponge they normally used.
March 25, 1997: Pedro Medina was executed in Florida. During the first two-minute cycle of 2,000 volts of electricity, a crown of 12-inch-high flames shot from the metal headpiece Medina wore. The death chamber filled with thick smoke and the stench of burning flesh, gagging the two dozen witnesses. An official flipped the switch to manually cut off the power before the end of the first cycle. Medina’s chest continued to heave as he struggled to breathe. Finally the flames died out, along with Medina. Prison officials blamed the fire on a corroded copper screen in the headpiece of the electric chair. Two experts later hired by the governor disagreed, concluding the fire was actually caused by the improper application of a sponge to Medina’s head.
July 8, 1999: Allen Lee Davis was executed in Florida. Davis was a large man of approximately 350 pounds, and would not fit in the prison’s electric chair. A new chair was built to accommodate larger inmates, and Davis was to be the first to give it a test ride. Before he was finally pronounced dead, blood poured from his mouth, onto the collar of his white shirt. More blood seeped through his chest, spreading to the size of a dinner plate and oozing through the buckle holes on the leather strap holding him to the chair. Photos of his bloody body cooking in the chair were leaked to media and on the Internet, causing public outrage.
Shortly after Davis’s botched execution, another Florida death row inmate challenged the constitutionality of the electric chair. Florida Supreme Court Justice Leander Shaw stated that, “the color photos of Davis depicts a man who – for all appearances – was brutally tortured to death by the citizens of Florida.” Justice Shaw went on to describe the botched executions of Jesse Tafero and Pedro Medina, calling them “barbaric spectacles” and “acts more befitting violent murder than a civilized state.”
Justice Shaw’s outrage has yet to extend to Florida voters, as the state is one of eight that still lists the electric chair as an optional method of execution. The other states are: Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, South Carolina, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Virginia.
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Suspense, random blood splatter and mismatched socks consume Darcia’s days. She writes because the characters trespassing through her mind leave her no alternative. Only then are the voices free to haunt someone else’s mind.
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