Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Stone Upon Stone: Sing Sing Prison

The Electric Chair

In 1881, an eccentric dentist from upstate New York named Dr. Alfred Southwick witnessed an accidental death by electrocution in Buffalo. It was probably the first death ever associated with electricity. It then occurred to Dr Southwick that electricity could be a way to "humanely" execute criminals. For years, the accepted method of execution was hanging. But this procedure had its problems. If the hangman wasn't careful or was not conscientious about his job, mistakes could happen. The condemned may not die as fast as desirable or, if the rope was too long or the prisoner too heavy, decapitation could occur. Hanging was derived from the Middle Ages and it was still a messy business. Government officials began to search for a more modern method of execution.

A model of Sing Sing's  electric chair (Courtesy of Sing Sing Prison Museum)
A model of Sing Sing's electric chair
(Courtesy of Sing Sing Prison Museum)

At the urging of Dr. Southwick, a death commission was established in New York in 1886 to investigate alternate methods of execution. Thomas Edison, who was very aware of the commercial possibilities of electricity, had an astute interest in the public's perception of safety issues. He did not want his direct current (DC) to be associated with pain and death. Edison embarked on a clever public relations campaign to demonstrate that his current was safe for public use. He electrocuted dozens of cats and dogs using alternating current (AC) to show that AC was particularly well suited for killing. After a yearlong public feud between Edison and George Westinghouse, who favored AC current, Edison emerged victorious. The death commission reported back to the Governor that AC current should be the method utilized in the execution process. A wooden chair was designed and ready for use in 1891. The stage was set for America's first legal execution by electricity.

Electric chair blueprint (Courtesy of Ossining Historical Society)
Electric chair blueprint (Cour-
tesy of Ossining Historical
Society)

William Kemmler, convicted of the drunken axe-murder of his girlfriend, Tillie, was the first to die by electrocution in August 1890. But the execution turned into a debacle when the chair apparatus did not work exactly as planned. The New York Times said Kemmler "died this morning under the most revolting circumstancesan execution that was a disgrace to civilizationIt was so terrible that the word fails to convey the idea." Some of the witnesses even fainted at the sight of Kemmler still very much alive and breathing after the current was applied. "It could have been done better with an axe!" said Westinghouse ironically. Although Kemmler's execution took place in Auburn prison, Sing Sing later executed its first prisoner, Harris A. Smiler on July 7, 1891. Three others went to their deaths the same day in the newly installed electric chair. These executions were performed somewhat successfully and soon, the public began to accept the idea of electrocution.

By 1916, all of New York's executions took place at Sing Sing. This was a dramatic change from years past when executions would be held in the county where the crime occurred and under the direction of local authorities. Executions were held in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Albany, Buffalo, New Rochelle and many other small municipalities whose officials had no experience in such matters. Bedloe's Island in New York harbor was a favorite execution site during the 19th century and many seafaring criminals were put to death there. Today, Bedloe's Island is better known as the site of the Statue of Liberty.

Once the state's central execution site was established at Sing Sing, a new death house had to be built at a cost of $268,000, a princely sum at that time. The building was isolated from the rest of the prison as much as possible. It had its own kitchen and hospital as well as an autopsy room. It is not true that the lights would dim in the nearby village of Ossining when the electric chair was used. Even the lights in the prison itself do not falter since the current used for executions was generated specifically for that purpose and wholly from within the prison walls. Under direction of Governor Alfred E. Smith, reconstruction of the facility continued until 1917. By then, all of New York's condemned were dispatched to the "Big House" on the shores of the Hudson to prepare for death.

And so began an era that would span nearly 75 years and ultimately take the lives of more than 600 convicts. New York would execute more people than any other state in America during that time and, as such, would become the flagship for capital punishment in the Western world.

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