Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Electric Chair

The Curious Dentist

In Buffalo, New York, a dentist named Alfred Southwick kept abreast of the latest developments concerning electricity.  As a medical man, he thought electricity could be useful to him in his practice, perhaps as an anesthetic.  When a Buffalo man stumbled into a generator at the city's power plant and was electrocuted, Southwick got an idea;  death from exposure to electricity, he thought, was an instantaneous, painless way to die.  It could be adopted by the State as a replacement for hanging.  At the same time Dr. George Fell, also of Buffalo, was coming to the same conclusions.  After having shared their ideas with each other at a meeting of a Buffalo scientific society, Drs. Fell and Southwick went to Colonel Rockwell, the head of the Buffalo Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  Electrocution, they told Rockwell, was a far more efficient and humane method of disposing of unwanted animals than drowning, which was the method then most often employed.  Rockwell agreed.  In 1882 Southwick and Fell began a long series of experiments on Buffalo's surplus animals, publishing their findings in scientific papers as they progressed.

Southwick had an influential friend in New York state government—Senator Daniel MacMillan.  When Southwick showed MacMillan the results of his experiments, MacMillan was struck by how useful electrocution would be against those who wanted to abolish the death penalty.  The main benefit of electrocution was, Southwick claimed, its quick and painless nature.  If abolitionists could no longer claim that capital punishment was cruel and painful then their arguments against it would carry no weight.  MacMillan, a strong proponent of capital punishment, took Southwick's ideas to Governor David Bennett Hill.  Hill was convinced;  in his 1885 State of the State message he charged the New York legislature with finding "a means for taking the life of such as are condemned to die in a less barbarous manner."

The legislature did not address Hill's concerns in 1885.  In 1886 he took a different tack, appointing "A Commission to Investigate and Report the Most Humane and Practical Method of Carrying into Effect the Sentence of Death in Capital Cases."  Appointed to the committee were Alfred Southwick, Matthew Hale, and Elbridge Gerry.  The conclusion arrived at in their 95-page report was this—that of all the types of execution that could possibly replace hanging, electrocution was the best option.  The report, submitted in January of 1888, recommended that New York should adopt electrocution as a replacement for hanging.  A proposed bill for the amendment of the Criminal Procedure Code was included.  It was introduced in the legislature almost immediately.

Public reaction to the bill was mixed, and by Spring it seemed doomed, having suffered several amendments that left it a shell of its former self.  But on May 8, the final day of the legislative session, Senator Henry Coggleshell maneuvered the bill back into its original form and got it passed with a voice vote.  Such political gymnastics were uncommon, but raised few eyebrows in an era known for greed and graft.  Governor Hill signed the bill on June 5, and it was set to become law on January 1, 1889.  From that point forward, condemned criminals in New York would be electrocuted instead of hanged.  What remained to be decided, though, was which system, AC or DC, would be used in the New York death chamber.  

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