Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Last Stop

The Future

The electric chair at Sing Sing<br />(CORBIS)
The electric chair at Sing Sing
(CORBIS)
After the execution of Wiliam Kemmler in 1890, the first person legally executed by electricity died in the electric chair, George Westinghouse remarked "it could have been done better with an axe" (Cook, p. 2). Of course, Westinghouse had a reason for being critical. He and Thomas Edison were involved in an all-out battle to determine whether Edison's DC current or Westinghouse's AC current was safer for the American public. That battle included public electrocutions of live animals to show the dangers of their opponent's current. But the pragmatic Edison, always the arrogant, self-righteous crusader, was not to be outdone. In response to Westinghouse's efforts, Edison electrocuted a live elephant in New Jersey in 1889 using AC current. At stake were tens of millions of dollars in municipal contracts with America's cities, eager to light their communities with a safe electrical current.

Over one hundred years later, the electric chair has finally become a relic of the past. Although only 10 states allow electrocution, even those states are studying other means as well. The electric chair that killed 607 men and 7 women in New York State is not at Sing Sing anymore. It was moved in 1971 and now sits unused in Greenhaven Prison in upstate New York. However, the apparatus is still maintained by prison staff in the event it should have to be used again.

But the execution of females, no matter what the means, is truly rare in America. Of the 19,200 executions in the United States since 1608, only 560 have been women, which represent less than 3% of the total. In the 20th century only 28 female executions have taken place and 25 of those were prior to 1962. Even more significant though, is the fact that since the resumption of the death penalty in 1973, female executions accounted for only .6% of the total (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org). Today there are 53 females sitting on America's Death Row and some of those seem sure to die at the hands of the state. Their ages range from 23 to 70 years old. Some have been on Death Row for over a decade.

America's reluctance to execute females remains strong, even in the face of a deluge of executions that took place in the 1920s and 1930s. In that twenty year period, an average of 175 men each year were executed in America's prisons, more than at any other time in our nation's history. But women were not treated in a similar fashion. There is a cultural objection against executing females in America that transcends even the most strident passions of capital punishment supporters. Women are thought of as mothers. And many females who become involved in crimes and violence are usually perceived to be victims of unscrupulous men: six of the seven women who met death at Sing Sing were executed along with their male partners.

Ruth Snyder, Anna Antonio, Eva Coo, Frances Creighton, Helen Fowler, Martha Beck and Ethel Rosenberg are sure to be among the last women who will ever be executed in the State of New York, once the national showcase for capital punishment. It requires a great deal of determination, effort and persistence to execute a female in America. For the officials involved in the execution process, it also requires a certain level of emotional hardness that is not easy to find. Before she died in the chair on January 12, 1928, convicted killer Ruth Snyder wrote a series of articles for the New York press in which she rued the day when she ever left her husband for booze and another man. In one of these articles, published by the same press that crucified her daily during her trial, she wrote this brief poem, which may symbolize the plight of many of these Death Row women:

"You've blackened and besmeared a mother,
Once a man's plaything, a toy.
What have you gained by all you've said?
And has it brought you joy?
Someday, we'll all meet together,
Happy and smiling again,
Far above this earthly span
Everlasting, in His reign."

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