Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Electric Chair

Battle of the Titans

It was becoming evident that alternating current would eclipse direct current for providing power to towns and cities within a few years.  Evident to everyone, that is, except Thomas Edison.  In the face of irrefutable proof to the contrary, Edison clung to his belief that direct current systems were better and safer and would eventually dominate the market.  In 1887 he began trying to discredit Westinghouse and his AC systems.  He asked his staff to collect reports regarding deaths involving alternating current.  He hired lobbyists in several states in an attempt to limit the voltages that power lines could legally carry.  And most importantly, he made it known that he wanted New York's electric chair to use alternating current.

On June 5, 1888, the New York Evening Post published a letter from Harold Brown.  The letter was a warning about the dangers inherent in AC power.  The New York Board of Electrical Control, Brown said, should ban AC systems before there was a tragic loss of life.  Though Brown did not mention it in his letter, he had been an employee of Thomas Edison in the 1870s.  There is no absolute proof, but it appears now that Brown was acting as Edison's agent in the fight to brand AC power as dangerous.  If this is indeed true, then Brown was well chosen for the task.  He was fervent and dramatic, and he attracted a lot of attention. 

Brown staged a series of experiments on July 30, 1888 and invited members of the Electrical Board of Control and various press representatives.  Before those gathered he systematically applied different levels of current from AC and DC systems to several stray dogs, demonstrating, supposedly, the lethal nature of alternating current.  He repeated his experiments several days later, then continued them at Edison's laboratory in New Jersey.  Edison himself offered a bounty of twenty-five cents per animal brought in and surrendered for the experiments.  Finally, the experiments were brought to an end after Brown staged another public spectacle during which he electrocuted, using alternating current, two calves and a horse.

The New York Medico-Legal Society paid close attention to Brown's experiments.  They had been charged by the Department of Prisons with working out the details of the new execution system.  As none of the members had any experience with electricity, Brown's arguments carried a lot of weight.  When the Medico-Legal Society submitted its report in December, 1888, it was stipulated that the new device should use alternating current.

George Westinghouse portrait (CORBIS)
George Westinghouse
portrait (CORBIS)

Meanwhile, George Westinghouse was taking the high road.  He and his representatives argued vehemently against Brown's conclusions, saying that electrocution was more a matter of amperage than voltage.  They claimed from the start that Brown was merely an instrument of Edison; that he was trying to discredit a system that was at that moment eclipsing Edison's in popularity across the country.  For his part, Brown claimed that he was not an employee of Edison and was merely concerned about public safety.  He challenged Westinghouse to a sort of electrical duel, asking him to receive a certain amount of voltage via alternating current while he himself received the same amount via direct current.  Westinghouse never deigned to comment on the challenge, and Brown claimed that Westinghouse was afraid.  As the public relations battle raged the execution bill became law.  The first human subject in the new death apparatus would be the first New Yorker convicted of murder in 1889.  And the man to design that apparatus was Harold Brown.  The New York Board of Prisons, deeming him an expert, appointed him New York's official electric chair technician.  

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