The Age of the Electric Chair

GERMAN chancellor Otto von Bismarck wrote to his consul-general in New York in 1888 seeking information on electrocution, but German officials decided against adopting the method after learning of the problems with Kemmler's execution. American states were less cautious. Ohio adopted electrocution in 1896, and two men died in the chair the next year. In 1898 Massachusetts became the third state to adopt electrocution, and convicted murderer Luigi Storti became the state's first victim three years later.1

With electrocution protected by the courts, prison officials set out to refine execution techniques. Their task was made easier by rapid advances in the field of electrical engineering. The 1890s saw the first golden age of modern electrical theory, and the improved understanding of current also transformed the study of its effects on the human body. At the turn of the century two researchers at the University of Geneva conducted classic experiments in electrophysiology that confirmed the views of Edison, Kennelly, and other researchers: Alternating current was, in fact, more dangerous than direct. The researchers also distinguished between the physiological effects of high- and low-voltage currents. Low voltages (less than 120 volts) of alternating current killed by causing ventricular fibrillation. (This fact provided the clue that, half a century later, led to the invention of the cardiac defibrillator.) At higher voltages, alternating current damaged the central nervous system, causing loss of consciousness and respiratory failure. When the heavy current met the resistance of the body, electrical energy was transformed into heat, which destroyed the brain by cooking it.2

Arthur Kennelly left the Edison laboratory in 1894 to become an independent consultant, but his support for electrocution never wavered. In 1895 the eminent French physiologist Jacques d'Arsonval—who five years earlier had confirmed Edison's views of the greater dangers of alternating current—created a sensation by reviving the charge that the electric chair merely stunned its victims, who were then killed by autopsy. To refute the claim, Kennelly observed a Sing Sing execution in January 1895 and conducted more experiments on dogs. His report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, concluded that "where electrocution is properly carried out, there is not even a remote possibility of subsequent resuscitation of the criminal."3

Edison backed up his former employee. D'Arsonval's statements were "nonsense," Edison told a reporter; "electricity in the death chair kills instantly beyond possibility of resuscitation."4

Another outspoken electrocution proponent was Dr. Edward A. Spitzka. A professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and a famous brain anatomist, Spitzka was the son of Dr. Edward C. Spitzka, who witnessed Kemmler's execution. The younger Spitzka served as official physician at several executions and had the honor of penning the "electrocution" article for the classic eleventh edition (1910) of the Encyclopedia Britannica, in which he assured general readers, "When properly performed the effect is painless and instantaneous death." Spitzka's view became the conventional wisdom. Medical journals including JAMA—greeted electrocution with quiet acceptance or hearty approval.5

THE SAME MESSAGE spread through more popular venues. In 1901 Thomas Edison's motion picture company released Execution of Czolgosz, a film reenactment of the electrocution of President William McKinley's assassin. In the film, an actor playing Leon Czolgosz was strapped into an electric chair. The current was turned on and off three times in rapid succession, and each time he reared back and then relaxed. After the third shock, a doctor checked his heart with a stethoscope, found him dead, and gave a curt nod of satisfaction. The whole process took less than ten seconds. The film, which enjoyed enormous success, brought alive the fantasy of the quick, clean death that supporters of the electric chair had long promoted, while omitting the gruesome details that marked real electrocutions.6

Two years later, Edison's film company filmed an actual electrocution—but not of a human being. Topsy, a rogue Coney Island circus elephant, was condemned to death in 1903. Her owners proposed hanging her from a scaffold with a huge rope and pulley, but the ASPCA objected. Instead, Topsy was fitted with copper-lined wooden sandals on her right front and back left legs, and the sandals were wired to a dynamo at the local Edison lighting plant. As a Sunday crowd of 1,500 people looked on, 6,000 volts of electricity were sent through Topsy. She stiffened, then crashed over on her right side, dead. Cameramen from the Edison Manufacturing Company caught the execution on film. As with the Czolgosz film, Electrocuting an Elephant was distributed across the country and watched by thousands of viewers eager to see the killing power of electricity.7

With widespread popular and scientific support, electrocution spread to more states. In 1906 New Jersey abolished hanging and a year later killed a murderer in the electric chair. Present at this execution was Edward A. Spitzka, as well as two technicians of electrical death, Edwin F. Davis and Carl F. Adams. Davis, who controlled the switchboard room at Kemmler's execution, had become New York's official electrocutioner. In 1897 he was awarded a U.S. patent for an "electrocution-chair," and he supervised the first such deaths in Ohio and Massachusetts, charging $150, plus expenses, for each execution.8

Not long after New Jersey introduced its death chair, Davis retired from the business, and Carl Adams replaced him as the entrepreneur of electrical death. As the chief electrician at the New Jersey state prison in Trenton, Adams constructed the state's electric chair, which proved so successful that Adams Electric Company had a new line of work. When Virginia became the fifth state to adopt electrocution in 1908, Adams submitted a bid to install "one complete Electrocuting Plant." The bid—$3,200—included an assurance of success: "We fully guarantee our machine to give perfect satisfaction if operated according to our instructions." Six months after the contract was signed, Adams informed Virginia officials that he would give them free of charge a newly designed component of the chair that was not specified in the contract, because "the more efficient we make the outfit the better it will be for our future business with other States." In 1912 Adams installed an electric chair at South Carolina's new death house.9

The first four states to adopt electrocution—New York, Ohio, Massachusetts, and New Jersey—were in the North and had long been at the center of America's humanitarian reform movements. The next four states to make the switch were Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky and South Carolina. The electric chair assumed a different identity in the South, where the alleviation of physical suffering had never been a top priority. In the years after Reconstruction, the white population brutally enforced the disenfranchisement and social subjugation of African-Americans, about 2,000 of whom were lynched in the South between 1890 and 1910. Accused of some infraction against racial codes, the victims were seized by white mobs and hanged or burned, often before a cheering crowd.10*

After its founding in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began a campaign against lynching. For the first time southern leaders became fearful that the killings and publicity surrounding them might damage the region's economic prospects, and they began to condemn lynching. The number of lynchings began to decline after 1910, largely because of the rise of "legal lynching": quick judicial trials that offered black defendants only marginally more constitutional protection than did a lynch mob. As the number of lynch­ings fell, the number of state-imposed executions rose just as quickly. In a half-dozen southern states, those executions took place in the electric chair, that latest symbol of humanitarian progress. Between 1908 and 1930, Carl Adams's chair in Virginia killed 148 people, all but 17 of them black.11

IN 1913 ARKANSAS, Indiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Vermont adopted the electric chair, and by 1930 those states had been joined by Texas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, the District of Columbia, Illinois, and New Mexico. In 1924 Nevada became the first state to adopt an even newer method: placing prisoners in an airtight chamber and filling it with hydrocyanic gas. For a decade Nevada remained the only state to use gas. Critics believed the new method—with its claustrophobic chamber and invisible agent of death—was worse than electricity, and the recent experience of poison gas deaths in World War I offered no reassurance. In 1933, however, Colorado and Arizona built gas chambers, and by 1955 eight more states followed suit, convinced that the gas chamber marked another step in the march of progress. The matter remained open to dispute, because bungled gas executions sometimes caused prisoners to gasp and choke as they died. As a result, some states continued to opt for electrocution. Between 1935 and 1949 five states adopted the chair: Connecticut, South Dakota, Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia. In all, twenty-five states plus the District of Columbia passed electrocution laws.12

The controversy surrounding electrocution never disappeared. There was evidence that, in some cases, electrocution killed fairly quickly But throughout the century electrocutions often went horribly wrong, causing prisoners to suffer the extreme pain that accompanies cardiac arrest, tetanic muscle contraction, asphyxiation, boiling body fluids, and severe burns.13

IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY there was strong support for capital punishment at all levels of society. Over the course of the twentieth century, doubts grew about the morality of the death penalty and its effectiveness as a deterrent. Nine states abolished capital punishment between 1907 and 1917; however, in the wake of the race riots and Red Scare that followed World War I, five of those nine states reinstated it. By the 1920s, all but five states imposed capital punishment. The number of executions peaked during the Great Depression in 1935, when 199 criminals were put to death.14

For the next four decades, the execution rate declined steadily Many people came to believe that crime resulted from mental illness or corrupting childhood influences; if criminal acts did not result from free choice, the argument for deterrence lost all force. Notorious cases in which the guilt of the condemned was widely doubted—such as those involving Sacco and Vanzetti or the Scottsboro boys—also produced doubts about the wisdom of this irrevocable sentence. Gallup polls showed that between the 1930s and the 1960s, support for capital punishment declined in the United States, until opponents slightly outnumbered supporters, even in the South. By 1965 fourteen states had abolished capital punishment, the most ever. Even in states that retained the death penalty, juries were reluctant to impose it. Judges, affected by the same social trends, became more receptive to appeals from death-row inmates. By the late 1960s, the U.S. legal machinery of execution had ground to a complete halt.15

Much of the concern focused on racial disparities: African-Americans were sentenced to death far more frequently than whites convicted on similar charges. The legal battle was headed by the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund, which scored a victory in 1972 with the Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia. By a 5-4 margin, the Court invalidated the capital punishment statutes of every state. According to the justices who cast the pivotal votes, the problem was that some defendants were executed for crimes for which others received only prison sentences. Capital punishment was "so wantonly and so freakishly imposed" that it was an arbitrary and therefore unconstitutional form of punishment.16

The justices clearly implied that the death penalty would be constitutional if it were imposed in a less capricious manner. States set about drafting new laws that detailed in advance which particular types of murder cases—such as those committed during the commission of another felony—warranted a capital sentence. The Supreme Court upheld such laws in 1976, and by the late 1970s a new era of American executions had begun.17

The new laws did not end the arbitrariness of capital punishment. The decision as to whether to seek a death penalty in a particular case often had less to do with the "aggravating circumstances" of the crime than with whether the prosecutor was up for reelection soon. Although African-Americans were no longer sentenced to death at higher rates than whites, a different racial disparity emerged: A murderer was much more likely to be sentenced to death if his victim was white rather than black. Despite many instances of prisoners being released from death row after having been proven innocent, a majority of Americans continued to support capital punishment. By 2000, more than 3,000 convicted criminals were sentenced to death each year, the most since the Justice Department began keeping statistics in the 1950s.18

The situation in the United States stood in stark contrast to that in Great Britain, West Germany, Austria, Italy, Australia, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Mexico, which by the end of the 1960s had stopped executing criminals. In 2001 China led the world in executions, followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.19

The United States followed a path so different from its peers for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that the homicide rate in America was higher than that in any other Western nation. Another fact distinguished the U.S. case: It was the only Western nation to experiment with scientific methods of capital punishment. In the early 1950s a British royal commission conducted a systematic study of execution methods and concluded that hanging should be retained. In the commission's view, there was no solid evidence that either electrocution or the gas chamber was more humane than the gallows. Germany also had considered scientific methods but decided to keep using the guillotine and the ax, a decision that resulted not from a dispassionate assessment of available options but from an "ingrained, almost mystical prejudice" in favor of the traditional methods. The nations of western Europe stayed with nineteenth-century methods of execution until they abolished the death penalty after World War II. In the United States—where a mystical prejudice favored the embrace of the new—scientific methods made executions more palatable. Americans reassured themselves that killing was a legitimate state function, so long as it was done gently.20

When executions resumed in the late 1970s, states began to abandon their electric chairs and gas chambers and to execute criminals with hypodermic injections of drugs. First adopted by Texas and Oklahoma in 1977, lethal injection swept the country far more quickly than either electrocution or the gas chamber had. State after state made the switch, with a few offering condemned prisoners a choice between the needle and the chair. Although problems with lethal injection did occur, it came closer than any other method to fulfilling the ideal often mentioned in the capital punishment debates of a century before. Quick, clean, and unspectacular, lethal injection turned execution into a medical procedure. "It's extremely sanitary," a Missouri prison chaplain reported. "The guy just goes to sleep."21

In 2001 the Georgia Supreme Court deemed electrocution unconstitutionally cruel and replaced it with lethal injection. In a court opinion, the justices quoted with approval from the 1885 speech in which New York governor David Hill said that "the science of the present day" might provide a "less barbarous" method of execution. Those words had led to the creation of the death penalty commission and to New York's electrical execution law. Just as hanging was deemed unacceptable in the 1880s, the Georgia justices wrote, so now, at the start of the twenty-first century, "electrocution offends the evolving standards of decency that characterize a mature, civilized, society"22

As of April 2003, 4,432 men and women had died in the electric chair in the United States. Nebraska was the only state with electrocution as its sole method of execution. A few more prisoners may be electrocuted, but lethal injection has emerged as the method of the future. The era of the electric chair has come to an end.23

*In 1896 a white boy at a southern fair paid a nickel to hear the Edison phonograph and was treated to a recording of two black men being burned alive.

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