Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Electric Chair

Electrocution Wanes

Sing Sing's electric chair depicted in a postcard (CORBIS)
Sing Sing's electric chair
depicted in a postcard

New York used various electric chairs for roughly 72 years.  In that time, 695 people were electrocuted for capital crimes.   Other states passed their own laws allowing electrocution and built their own chairs.  Several of these laws were pending in bill form even as Kemmler was awaiting the outcome of his appeals.  Other states took many years to abandon hanging—some did not start electrocuting their condemned criminals until the 1950s.  Some never adopted the electric chair at all—California, Arizona, and a few others instituted death by cyanide gas as their means of execution.  Three states (Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington) offer the option of hanging to this day.

Execution guerney in Huntsville, Texas (CORBIS)
Execution guerney in Huntsville,
Texas (CORBIS)

In 1977 Texas began conducting executions using lethal injections of drugs, claiming that this method was more humane than the electric chair.  In 1981 Oklahoma did the same.  In 1983 several more states made the switch from electrocution to lethal injection.  Beginning in 1979 a series of botched electrocutions focused national attention on the electric chair itself, and concern arose that it was both primitive and unreliable.  The condemned were suffering needlessly, the argument went.  Now that a more humane method was available, why not use it?  Legislators took notice, and even more states abandoned their electric chairs for lethal injection.

Death by electrocution is concluding a slow exit from its starring role in the drama of 20th Century justice.  Of the 85 executions that took place in the United States in the year 2000, only five were accomplished using the electric chair.  In 1999, three of 98 executions made use of the chair.  Only Alabama and Nebraska retain the electric chair as their only available means of execution, though bills currently in the legislatures of both states would allow for the condemned to choose lethal injection.  When these bills pass into law the nationwide trend toward execution through lethal injection will have swept the electric chair into history, where it will probably take its place beside the guillotine as a historical curiosity.

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