Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Electric Chair

Execution Evolves


A museum exhibit of an electric chair (CORBIS)
A museum exhibit of an
electric chair (CORBIS)

The story of the electric chair is complicated, improbable, and obscure. Very few Americans know that a dentist spearheaded the drive to make electrocution of condemned criminals the law in New York, and that two titans of late 19th Century industry battled fiercely over the electrical system that was to be used. William Kemmler, the first man to be executed in the electric chair, has passed quietly into history, as has the crime for which he was condemned. To most, the electric chair is merely a fact of life, a means to an end only notable to the extent to which it enters into one's opinion on capital punishment. But its entrance into American justice and culture was notable, indeed. Intrigue, treachery, murder, politics, progress, fame—the story of the electric chair has it all.

Over its history, America's attitudes regarding execution have evolved. From colonial times into the nation's early youth, its punishments were harsh: those found guilty of more severe crimes were executed publicly, usually by hanging, though burning, beheading, and pressing were not unknown. Other criminals faced such unpleasantness as branding, whipping, or nostril slitting. Even those convicted of minor crimes found their sentences both physically painful and publicly humiliating. For missing church one might find oneself confined in the stocks in the center of town for a few days. A woman who nagged her husband might have her tongue pierced with a piece of iron, or be forced to wear the branks, a metal head cage which featured a bit to prevent speech. To modern sensibilities this type of justice seems almost unimaginably brutal.

As America aged and grew, its courts adjusted sentences, keeping up with the general sense of enlightenment that swept the country. Minor crimes came to be punished more often with confinement than with humiliation. Military courts adopted the firing squad for their death sentences, and the most savage forms of execution were used less frequently. By the early 19th Century, they were replaced with hanging, and over time the hangings came to occur behind the walls of prisons or jails more often than in the town square. Most people no longer had the stomach for public executions. The general opinion was that justice could be served without bloodthirstiness, and while executions were necessary, they should be carried out as quietly and humanely as possible. Hanging seemed to meet these requirements.

A hanging (CORBIS)
A hanging (CORBIS)

Hanging, though, had its problems. The hangman's dilemma was one of physics—how to figure the proper distance for the condemned to drop before the rope pulled taut and dispatched him. Too short a drop wouldn't generate enough force to break the victim's neck, leaving him to strangle slowly, sometimes for as long as twenty minutes. Too long a drop would generate too much force, which resulted sometimes in unintentional beheadings. The variables in the equation were many—the type of rope, the type of knot, the placement of the knot and the weight of the condemned all figured in, and it was all too easy to miscalculate and get cruel or gory results. Late 19th century Americans felt strongly that they were living in a modern age; surely with all the new wonders of technology there had to be a quick, humane method to carry out the state's responsibility of executing criminals.

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