Flipping the switch 

A convoluted history of the electric chair

The first death sentence in the United States to be served with electricity took place on the morning of Aug. 6, 1890. Shortly before 7 o’clock, William Kemmler, a Buffalo peddler convicted of killing his common-law wife with a hatchet, was led from his cell in New York’s Auburn State Prison to the recently completely death chamber where technicians were still tinkering with the prototype electric chair. His head had been shaved and his scalp was still bleeding slightly.

When asked if he had anything more to say, Kemmler bowed to the crowd of about a dozen uneasy doctors and law enforcement officials who had been invited to witness the historic event.

“Gentlemen,” Kemmler began, “I wish you all good luck. I believe I am going to a good place, and I am ready to go. I want only to say that a great deal has been said about me that is untrue. I am bad enough. It is cruel to make me out worse.” Bowing again, the impeccably dressed Kemmler removed his coat, handed it to the warden and, after adjusting his black and white bow tie one more time, took his place in the chair.

The execution that followed was praised by one ardent supporter of the electric chair, a dentist named Dr. Alfred P. Southwick, as an unqualified success. “There will be hundreds more executions by electricity,” Southwick enthused, “for the experiment of yesterday morning was a success. I don’t care what anybody says, science has proven that Kemmler died an absolutely painless death.”

Few of the other medical men in attendance at the execution shared Southwick’s opinion. Judging from the other eyewitness accounts, Kemmler’s maiden voyage in the electric chair must have closely resembled the maliciously botched execution scene in The Green Mile. After 17 seconds of a 1,000-volt current passing through electrodes on his head and spine and into Kemmler’s body, the doctor in charge proclaimed him dead and dentist Southwick proudly declared, “There is the culmination of ten years’ work and study. We live in a higher civilization from this day.”

Yet Kemmler’s body was still twitching in the heavy leather straps binding him to the chair—and breathing. The switch was flipped a second time, sending 2,000 volts coursing through him. As witnesses averted their eyes or watched in horror, Kemmler’s shuddering body smoldered and caught fire. An autopsy revealed that his skull had been badly scorched where the sea-sponge placed between his head and the electrode had dried out. The blood in his head had turned to blackened powder. Whether Kemmler felt any of this is as it happened to him was never resolved.

As befits a topic as contentious as capital punishment, Richard Moran’s new book on the birth of the electric chair—heralded by its proponents as the humane application of the young science of electricity to the age-old practice of putting criminals to death—is rife with controversy. By the end of the third chapter, ten or more controversies of the day have come to light: Private executions—empty rituals centered around a single carefully planned and state-sponsored death—versus public executions staged as a kind of group veneration of law and reprisal. Public executions as a deterrent to criminal activity versus public executions turned lawless free-for-alls that often led to a dozen or more new capital offenses when crowds rioted. Abolition of the death penalty versus updating it with the latest in technology to make it as humane and painless as possible. Alternating current versus direct current. Thomas Edison versus George Westinghouse.

The animosity between Edison and his rival in the electricity business, Westinghouse, is the most interesting of the controversies powering Executioner’s Current, which crackles along with all the high voltage of its subject matter behind it but rarely generates the amperage necessary to penetrate the thick skins of readers. The rivalry between Edison and Westinghouse also frames author Moran’s main argument, which is that the electric chair developed not out of any desire to make executions more humane or painless, but out of a tug-of-war between two business enemies over greater market share for their respective power systems.

Edison launched the “age of electricity” in 1882 when he lit up part of Manhattan with lights attached to his direct current (DC) system. Six years later, Westinghouse demonstrated his cheaper alternating current (AC) system by lighting up part of Buffalo. With AC fast gaining on DC, a desperate Edison tried to discredit alternating current by, oddly enough, endorsing it wholeheartedly—to power the electric chair. Using his considerable influence (Edison was already a national hero) to get the first electric chair powered by alternating current, Edison hoped to make his rival’s name inseparable from the dirty business of executions, and also strengthen his claim that alternating current was too powerful a system for household use.

After all, he reasoned, if it was used to kill convicted criminals, wouldn’t the average American think twice about using it to light his living room?

It’s an undeniably interesting subject, but Moran’s book falls short on many counts. He tends to repeat himself a lot, for one thing. He also gets a little too caught up in the intricacies of recreating certain historical events and establishing legal precedents—trials and committee hearings, particularly—to notice that the book has begun to drag while its characters are literally tied up in court for several long chapters.

A better approach to the subject would be to rent Mr. Death, the Errol Morris documentary about a curiously driven man with a morbid interest in improving the electric chair. Not quite the same era, but a more illuminating experience than Executioner’s Current.

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