A state-of-the-art method of near-painless execution
... in 1895
. Today, the chair is a semi-barbaric anachronism
, a very weird, very scary type of execution that little kids will giggle
about 100 years from now like today's young historians-to-be giggle about the guillotine
. More importantly for my purposes, the chair's history is an astonishing
mish-mash of economics
, and science
. Even a cursory study
of the chair begs the question "How the hell did this wacky thing become the United States' preferred method of execution?"
The stock answer is that it was the most humane method available at the turn of the century. In the 1880s, hanging was more or less the way to go. But for all its simplicity, hanging is also relatively easy to screw up. Folks would end up "hanging around" for a while, slowly choking. Nooses would give way. Sometimes heads came off, and it was messy. Then there was "on purpose" beheading, also quick, also painless, and also easy to mess up. You don't want to hit the wrong place and only get an inch deep, you know? Plus, it seemed just a tad bit unamerican and medieval. What else was there? Firing squads? Gun in the back of the head? Seems too dictatorial for a so-called democracy, and too honorable for a criminal. So there was some clamor for a new way to kill, preferably an all-American, high-tech, humane, fascinating one, marketable to other countries.
Buffalo dentist Dr. Albert Southwick observed an old drunk being zapped to death by an electrical generator in 1881. A friend of several New York politicians, Southwick got the ball rolling in terms of replacing hanging with electrocution. However, the true catalyst behind the invention of the electric chair was Thomas Edison, and for not entirely benign reasons. From what I can tell, perdedor's analysis isn't exactly correct. Edison wanted direct current to power American life, and he founded the first electrical utility company in 1882. By 1886, George Westinghouse was pushing alternating current at his own power company. For large-scale production and distribution of power, Westinghouse's AC is the superior brand of current. Perhaps more importantly, it had great economic advantages; DC requires a lot more copper, and at the time, copper production was mostly controlled by a price-fixing French syndicate.
Edison had a feeling he was going to get screwed over in the AC/DC wars, so he fell back on the plan every hawker of an inferior product falls back on: slandering the competition's product. How do you slander a product that's cheaper and better than your own? By declaring it unsafe. Edison got himself a large 1000-volt AC generator and started frying massive numbers of animals, especially while the press was around. As perdedor states, it's not as easy to fry stuff with DC, so Edison has a small public relations advantage to exploit. While he was busy cooking dogs, cats, horses, and elephants (and taking video of many of the "experiments" - anyone with Halo 12 can watch the elephant take the big fall), Edison kept his eyes on the big prize: switching New York's method of execution from hanging to his competitor's power source. His "unsafe" argument would fare a lot better if Sing Sing was using a Westinghouse generator to kill hundreds of criminals, eh?
By the late 1880s, the Wizard of Menlo Park and partner in crime Harold P. Brown are running a full-time media and political manipulation machine. In late 1888, the New York Times prints "alternating current will undoubtedly drive the hangmen out of business in this state." Things begin to move fast. The New York legislature grants Edison's wish; on January 1, 1889, the Electrical Execution Law goes into effect, much to the delight of the Edison Electric Light Company. Westinghouse in turn refuses to sell generators to the prisons. So Edison's folks buy the Westinghouse generators and sell them to the New York prison system. Around the same time axe murderer William Kemmler is sentenced to death -- by electrocution. Westinghouse files an appeal for Kemmler, citing cruel and unusual punishment. The juries instead agree with the prosecution, and star witnesses Thomas Edison and Harold P. Brown. Chairs (which don't appreciably differ from the current models) are developed and tested over the next year and a half.
On August 6, 1890, William Kemmler becomes the first human being to be executed by electrocution, at Auburn Prison. A seventeen-second burst of 700 volts is delivered to Kemmler's body. The air hangs heavy with smells of burnt clothing and flesh. Kemmler is not dead. A 1030-volt charge is then delivered, with duration of two minutes. As smoke pours from Kemmler's head, the shock is halted. The murderer's brain has hardened, and Kemmler's back flesh has melted away to the spine. Says Dr. Alfred Southwick: "We live in a higher civilization from this day on."
Says George Westinghouse: "They would have done better with an axe."
I have much more to say about the chair. But it will have to wait for another day.