The Electrical Execution Law - Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death - Mark Essig

Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death - Mark Essig (2005)

Chapter 10. The Electrical Execution Law

EDISON'S LETTER convinced Elbridge Gerry that he should abandon his preference for morphine executions and throw his support behind electricity. The three commissioners, Southwick, Gerry, and Hale, added some final touches to the commission report—including an extract from Edison's letter—and delivered it to the New York State Legislature in January 1888. Gerry, who was experienced in legislative matters, drafted a new capital punishment bill and attached it to the end of the report.1

The commission's bill changed the method of execution but did not stop there. Executions would take place not at the county jail but within the walls of three state prisons: Auburn, not far from Syracuse; Clinton, in northern New York near the Canadian border; and Sing Sing, along the Hudson River about thirty miles north of Manhattan. Fewer than twenty witnesses would be allowed at each execu­tion: a Supreme Court justice, the sheriff and district attorney from the county of conviction, two physicians, and "twelve reputable citi­zens" selected by the prison warden. The bill included an unusual press restriction: "No account of the details of any such execution, beyond the statement of the fact that such convict was, on the day in question, duly executed according to law at the prison, shall be published in any newspaper."2

The most surprising aspect of the bill had to do with the disposition of the prisoner's corpse. Doctors would conduct a postmortem examination, after which the prisoner's body was to be either turned over to a medical school for dissection or buried "with a sufficient quantity of quick-lime to consume such body without delay." Under no circumstances could a relative or friend claim the corpse, and "no religious or other services shall be held over the remains." Although the commissioners had chosen a killing method that would not mutilate the victim's body, as guillotine and garrote would, they recommended dissecting the corpse and obliterating it with quicklime. The "criminal classes … are certainly very indifferent as to the infliction of death," the commissioners explained, so capital punishment by itself would serve no deterrent purpose. But those same classes were also "superstitious" and would avoid committing a crime if "they were certain that after execution their bodies were to be cut up in the interest of medical science."3

Dissection was, in fact, widely feared. A corpse was considered sacred, and strong taboos forbade desecrating it or denying it proper burial. When gibbeting and dismemberment fell from favor a century earlier, officials settled on dissection as an alternative way to add horror to a capital sentence. (Dissection laws also provided medical schools with corpses, always a scarce commodity.) American judges, sensitive to the public horror it provoked, rarely sentenced the condemned to dissection. The death penalty commissioners hoped to remove the judges' discretion by making dissection mandatory.4

The quicklime poured into the coffin would prevent the corpse from becoming a commercial attraction. After an 1878 hanging in Pittsfield, 119 Massachusetts, the victim's father-in-law collected the body and put it on exhibit, charging admission of ten cents a head. A New York dime museum claimed to own the pickled head of Charles Guiteau, executed assassin of President James Garfield, while a competing museum advertised "The Head and Right Arm of Anton Probst, The Murderer of the Deering Family, amputated after Execution." After one New York execution, armed guards stood watch at the man's grave. "I'm not going to have any dime museum get ahead of me," a prison official vowed. "The graves will be watched until there is nothing down below."5

Electrical execution devices would be so expensive and complex that they could not be provided at every county jail, as gallows were. The commissioners, however, provided two reasons for moving executions to the three state prisons, and neither involved technology. First, they explained that the new location would make escape more difficult, county jails being notoriously insecure. And, because the site of execution would be far removed from the scene of the crime, the prisoner's friends would be less likely to gather outside the jail and express sympathy for the condemned, a common practice that was, the commissioners believed, "discreditable to public decency and dangerous to public peace." Like so much of American society, executions would become centralized and bureaucratized, the dangers of local variation removed.6

The death commissioners saw their main duty as controlling what they called the criminal classes. The term, usually synonymous with the poor, had been thrown around for decades, but it had a particular resonance in 1880s America. With the emergence of big factories and sprawling cities, the myth of the United States as a classless society became harder to sustain. The new economy had given birth to a permanent working class, and many of the workers were new immigrants from Germany, Russia, and Italy, who brought unfamiliar languages, strange customs, and dangerous political ideas.

An event in Chicago became the touchstone for the era. On May 3, 1886, police fired into a crowd of striking workers in Chicago's Hay-market Square, killing four. The following day a group of anarchists held a peaceful protest meeting. When the authorities tried to break it up, someone threw a bomb among the police, killing eight officers. The bomb thrower was never identified, but eight anarchists were convicted on conspiracy charges and sentenced to death. By all accounts the trial was a farce: The prosecution proved that the men held radical ideas but not that they had anything to do with the bombing.

In nineteenth-century America, labor violence was not unusual, nor was the gross miscarriage of justice. What made Haymarket unusual was the hysteria it provoked. The New York Times prescribed the Gatling gun as the only remedy for "an acute outbreak of anarchy," while the St. Louis Globe-Democrat announced that "there are no good anarchists but dead anarchists." A Cincinnati paper recommended lynching the prisoners, and—although legal procedures technically were followed—that is more or less what happened. Despite abundant evidence of innocence, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down a final appeal, and four of the men were hanged on November n, 1887. All of the prisoners remained defiant to the end, and one shouted "Hurrah for anarchy!" from the scaffold. After the executions, the families held one of the largest public funerals Chicago ever saw, with 20,000 people marching in the funeral procession and 200,000 more lining the streets. One reporter noted that to the crowd the executed men were "martyrs in the cause of the poor against the rich."7

The Haymarket tragedy exposed the deep fears that pervaded the United States in the 1880s. As cities grew uncontrollably large and the working class demanded its rights, many of America's leaders felt as if the country was slipping out of their grasp and into the hands of the rabble. Mob violence, it appeared, had to be met by the measured violence of capital punishment. But the death penalty commissioners recognized that state violence had to be applied carefully, lest it promote rather than quell disorder. They reported that at the funerals of executed men "evil deeds are glorified into acts of heroism." A member of New York's legislature defended the clause forbidding funerals by noting "the insurrectionary funeral of the 121 Chicago Anarchists." The World noted approvingly that with electrical execution there would be "no glory left in execution—nothing, in short, but a cold and quiet death, such as dogs meet in the public pounds."8

Similar motives underlay the press gag provision of the proposed law. "The newspapers are extensively read by the criminal classes," the commissioners wrrote, "who glory in the description of the courage shown by their colleagues undergoing the sentence of death." The result was that "the execution, instead of operating as a deterrent, … has been known even to stimulate others to the commission of crime." If newspapers did not report on executions, this danger was removed.9

The execution bill Gerry drafted tried to complete the movement that began with the shift to private executions in the 1830s. Because sheriffs had found ways to skirt the law—and because newspapers always reported on executions—private hangings were not private at all. The hanging ritual still seemed to subvert rather than buttress the social order. By moving executions to central locations and providing for dissection, corpse destruction, and press restrictions, the bill was intended to destroy the old execution rituals and the dangers they posed to society. The invention of a more humane form of killing became subordinate to the larger goal of controlling the passions of the poor.10

IN MARCH 1888 the New York State Assembly's Judiciary Committee reported favorably on Gerry's execution bill, and the full Assembly passed it. The Senate Judiciary Committee, however, subjected the measure to a curious revision. It eliminated the clause substituting electricity for hanging while leaving in place the other provisions. A member of the committee considered electrical execution "so radical" that he thought it deserved another year of study. The full Senate, however, restored the excised provision and passed the bill by a vote of 87-8. The version of the bill passed by the two houses was essentially the same one Gerry drafted, with a few notable exceptions: The dissection clause was omitted; religious services were not forbidden; and the victim's family could claim the body. But the commissioners got most of what they recommended. Electrical executions would take place at three state prisons, with fewer than twenty witnesses, and unclaimed corpses would be buried in quicklime. The press gag clause survived. On June 4 Governor David B. Hill signed the bill into law.11

The bill encountered surprisingly little opposition from lawmakers in its path through the legislature, and most newspapers backed it as well. Some observers did worry that a humane method would destroy the deterrent effect of capital punishment. Gerry later admitted that killing with morphine was rejected in part because it might "make death somewhat agreeable" and "rid it of its terrors." Electricity seemed to strike the proper balance between humanity and terror. In Gerry's view, "Criminals would infinitely more dread a silent going away—to be deliberately killed by a terrible but silent force to them unknown." Park Benjamin, a prominent electrician, agreed, explaining that "the instant extinction of life in a strong man by an agency which it is impossible to see, which is unknown, may create in the ignorant mind feelings of the deepest awe and horror, and prove the most formidable of all means for preventing crime." The new execution law tapped into the sense of mystery surrounding this invisible force that no one could properly explain. Lightning from the heavens splintered trees, and the artificial lightning of battery and dynamo carried telegraph messages, produced blazing light, and cured illnesses. The power to kill was the latest manifestation of electricity's magical powers.12

Although terrifying, electrical execution was also said to cause no physical suffering, therefore offering more evidence of the glorious progress of civilization. "The state of New York may pride herself in the fact that the gallows is to be banished and a more humane and scientific method of executing criminals is to be instituted," Scientific American wrote. According to the New York Times, "It will be creditable to the State of New-York to be the first community to substitute a civilized for a barbarous method of inflicting capital punishment." With Olympian certitude the Tribune insisted that "no right-minded person can fail to approve the enactment of the law."13

A FEW VOICES nonetheless declined to approve. "Talk … about cthe dark ages' and 'barbarism' is nonsense," the Buffalo Express wrote. "We know what hemp will do, but we don't know what electricity may do. This movement is a pure scientific experiment, in which criminals are to be killed to test an open question."14

The Express realized that—beneath a veneer of scientific authority—the death penalty commission's report was full of holes. In support of its recommendation, the report provided three sorts of evidence: testimonials from electrical experts such as Thomas Edison, none of whom had personally investigated electricity's ability to kill; reports of accidental deaths from electricity, which had not occurred under controlled conditions; and the dog-killing experiments of Southwick and Fell, who were largely ignorant of electrical technology, and who had failed to record the technical details of their tests.15

The law decreed that death must be "inflicted by causing to pass through the body of the convict a current of electricity of sufficient intensity to cause death." No one had yet specified the type of generator, voltage, amperage, or how to attach electrodes to the body.16

"The technical difficulties of killing a man with electricity … are considerable," a medical journal stated, "and apparently have not been by any means completely studied out by the learned Commis­sion." According to the Herald,Dr. William A. Hammond, former U.S. surgeon general, described the commission's arguments as "the weakest he had ever seen in an official paper." The Herald went on to observe that the new law seemed to be "somewhat senseless if not, indeed, very idiotic."17

All the bluster about progress and civilization and science could not hide the fact that no one knew how to kill a man with electricity. The New York World recognized the deficiencies in the commission's report. Rather than simply point out these facts, the newspaper decided to investigate, and a reporter persuaded Thomas Edison to conduct some experiments.18

BY THE SUMMER of 1888, calling on Thomas Edison required a journey to Orange, New Jersey, where the inventor had a new home, a new laboratory, and a new wife.

Like many nineteenth-century widowers, Edison did not dawdle in his quest for another bride. Early in 1885—about s i x months after Mary died—Edison traveled to an industrial exposition in New Orleans in the company of his daughter, Dot. As much as he loved machines, Edison found himself distracted by Mina Miller, a nineteen-year-old, dark-haired beauty from Ohio who was attending the exposition with her father, Lewis Miller, a wealthy inventor of farm machinery. Edison could not pursue his attraction in New Orleans, but opportunity arose again soon, when he traveled to Boston and stayed at the home of Ezra Gilliland, a friend and business associate. Conveniently enough, Mina Miller attended school in Boston and was a friend and frequent visitor of the Gillilands.19

Edison became so infatuated with Mina that he lingered in Boston, eager for more encounters. Neglecting the rough labors of the laboratory, he sank into the refined world of the Gilliland household and joined in the sorts of activities—polite literature, boating parties, parlor games—that he normally disdained. He recorded his experiences in a diary, the only time in his life that he kept one. He read Hawthorne, Goethe, and Rousseau, and was not much impressed with any of them, and he found some of the outdoor activities even less congenial. One day after supper he and Dot threw a ball back and forth. Amazingly, Edison claimed it was the first time he ever played catch: "It was as hard as Nero's heart—nearly broke my baby-finger—gave it up." Dot read him the outline of her proposed novel, which was about "a marriage under duress." Her father told her "that in case of a marriage to put in bucketfulls [sic] of misery. This would make it realistic."20

For a man with such a pessimistic view of the wedded state, he cseemed terribly anxious to enter into it again. Mina Miller became "a sort of yardstick for measuring perfection," the inventor wrote, and the mere thought of her drove him to distraction. While walking the streets of Boston, he "got thinking about Mina and came near being run over by a street car." As the ultimate sign of his love, the famously slovenly dresser tried to please his beloved by improving his wardrobe: "For the first time in my life I have bought a pair of premeditatedly tight shoes—These shoes are small and look nice."21

Dot, to her dismay, found that she had been supplanted in her father's affections by a girl just six years older than she. Even Edison recalled that his constant talk about Mina "makes Dot jealous, she threatens to become an incipient Lucretia Borgia." Dot later recalled that this time was "the most unhappy of my life."22

Not much troubled by his daughter's sadness, Edison devoted himself to winning over Mina's devoutly Methodist family. Although her father, Lewis Miller, earned his money in farm equipment, he gained fame as the cofounder of the Chautauqua Institute, a new type of religious enterprise in western New York. Nineteenth-century Protestants harbored deep suspicions about most leisure activities. Virtue lay in hard work, they believed, while reading novels, attending plays, or going to the beach simply provided occasions for sin. At the Chau­tauqua Institute, Lewis Miller and a minister friend created an educational summer camp where middle-class believers could come together to listen to lectures on science and literature—as well as swim, boat, and fish. Chautauqua made vacationing safe for Protestants.23

Although the Millers were religious liberals by the standards of the time, they were far more church-oriented than Thomas Edison. To the extent that he thought about religious matters at all, he was a deist: He thought the design of the universe indicated a creator, but he did not believe in a personal God and never went to church. "My conscience seems to be oblivious of Sunday—it must be incrusted [sic] with a sort of irreligious tartar," he wrote in his diary. Later in the summer he traveled to Chautauqua, where he had an opportunity to charm the Miller family. Lewis Miller needed little convincing—what better match for his daughter than a wealthy inventor and industrialist like himself? Lewis's wife, Mary, was worried by Edison's ungodliness, but she accepted his explanation that he avoided church because he was hard of hearing. She was also won over by Edison's storytelling skills, which became legendary in the Miller family. "Our folkes try to tell storys," Mary Miller wrote in a letter, "when they gett along a little ways they will stop and say O if Mr Edison was hear he could tell it."24


Mina Miller Edison at about the time of her marriage to Edison.

As for Mina's two young brothers—ages ten and twelve—Edison knew the way to a boy's heart. He sent them a telegraph set and a telescope, as well his own favorite: the induction coil. Edison gave elaborate instructions for making the battery ("be sure in pouring the sulphuric acid that you do not let any of it spatter into your eyes") and explained that turning the crank built up an electrical charge that could be administered to unwitting victims. "The wheel should be turned about 200 times per minute for a black cat and 199 1/2 for a cat with a sanguine temperment [sic]," Edison told the boys. "This coil is very powerful. I tried it on a Dutch carpenter today and it knocked him down instantly."25

After his stay at Chautauqua, Edison persuaded Mina to join him and the Gillilands on a trip into the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Edison taught Mina Morse code, and on long drives through the mountains the pair conversed secretly by tapping messages onto each other's hands. On one of the last drives, Edison asked her to marry him. She tapped out "yes" in reply.26

The pair was married in Akron, Ohio, in February 1886, a year after they first met. On their honeymoon the couple traveled to Chicago, Atlanta, and Jacksonville, Florida, before arriving in Fort Myers, where Edison was building a winter home and laboratory. While in Florida he sketched plans for telegraph and telephone improvements, a new cotton-picking machine, a cream separator, and a hearing aid. He and Mina tried some more fanciful experiments as well. "Shock an oyster see if it won't paralize [sic] his shell muscle & make the shell fly open," he wrote in a lab notebook. "Dead failure," he scrawled below.27

For their northern residence, the couple chose a house in an area called Llewellyn Park in Orange, New Jersey, not far from Newark. Llewellyn Park was the first planned residential suburb in the United States, an exclusive neighborhood of private streets and grand houses on landscaped, wooded lots. The Edison house, known as Glenmont, was enormous—a twenty-three-room mansion in the Queen Anne style with stained-glass windows and carved wood paneling. A clerk in a dry goods firm had built and furnished the house at a cost of about $400,000, but his employers soon discovered that he had embezzled most of that money. The clerk fled to the West Indies, his firm assumed ownership of the property, and Edison bought it, furnished, at the fire-sale price of $235,000. Glenmont became home to Edison's three children from his first marriage, and over the next decade Edison and Mina would add three children of their own—a daughter, Madeleine, born in May 1888, and two sons, Charles and Theodore.28

GLENMONT SAT at the crest of a hill, commanding sweeping views of the Orange River Valley, which was mostly undeveloped at the time. "See that valley?" Edison asked his secretary one day as the pair enjoyed the scenery.

"Yes, it's a beautiful valley," the man replied.

"Well, I'm going to make it more beautiful. I'm going to dot it with factories."29

Edison's first project in the valley was not a factory but a new laboratory, which he began building in the summer of 1887. At that time, his lighting business was thriving, with more than 100 central stations across the country. In Manhattan Edison had expanded from the financial district uptown all the way to Forty-second Street, and there were also major stations in Brooklyn, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and St. Paul. All of the central stations purchased bulbs, dynamos, fixtures, and other equipment from the Edison manufacturing companies: the Lamp Company, Machine Works, Bergmann & Company, and Tube Company. Since Edison owned majority stakes in all of these companies, a large proportion of the companies' growing profits went directly into his pocket.30

As a result, the inventor could afford to build himself an extravagant workshop at a cost of more than $150,000 (the equivalent of nearly $3 million today). Constructed on a fourteen-acre plot half a mile from Glenmont, the laboratory looked like a tidy factory complex. It consisted of a main building, three stories high and 250 feet long, as well as four one-story buildings set perpendicular to it. The first smaller building held sensitive electrical equipment, the second a chemistry lab, the third a chemical storehouse and carpentry shop, and the fourth a metallurgy lab. Copper wires ran underground from a powerhouse—or dynamo room, as it was known—to all of the other buildings, supplying 100-volt direct current for lighting and power. The grandest space was the library, at one end of the main building, which had parquet floors, Oriental carpets, tall tropical plants, and polished wood bookcases holding one of the world's best private collections of scientific books and journals.

Visitors entering the heavy machine shop on the first floor encountered a chaotic scene. Leather belts whirred across the ceiling to spin the drive shafts that provided power; enormous machines roared as they planed, bored, rounded, and cut iron and steel; grimy workmen hammered and filed the new metal castings of the devices under construetion. Up a steep staircase lay another room as large as the first, with a similar range of activities, only here the noise was a few octaves lower, the machines more dainty, the workmen a bit cleaner. This was the precision machine shop, where men worked on the more delicate equipment, such as the intricate brass workings and delicate needles of the phonograph. Edison's private experimental room was on this floor. Nearby were a drafting room, where spectacled men turned Edison's rough sketches into precise plans for new machines, and various experimental rooms. The third floor held more experimental rooms and a large space used as a lecture hall and phonograph recording studio.


Edison's Orange, Newjersey, laboratory complex.

One of the most remarkable parts of the laboratory was its stockroom, which, as Edison had planned it, held "almost every conceivable material of every size," including shark teeth, walrus hide, narwhal horn, tortoise shells, ostrich feathers, peacock tails, printer's ink, pumice stone, mica, oats, buckwheat, dried grasses, gums, spices, drugs, chemicals, sheet metals, ice-cream freezers, and wheelbarrows. "The most important part of an experimental laboratory," Edison explained, "is a big scrap heap." When two workmen were stranded at the lab during the great blizzard of 1888, the experimental storeroom doubled as a pantry, providing buckwheat for pancakes, maple syrup, pemmican, and macaroni with olive oil. In fair weather Edison's young sons lingered near the storeroom and begged pieces of gum chicle to chew. The men at the lab, including the boss, were given to chewing not only chicle but also samples of asphalt and tar.31

The range of equipment—from heavy machine tools to the most sensitive devices for measuring electricity—was unrivaled, as was the staff. Edison employed more than ioo men, including some of the country's most skilled craftsmen, chemists, and engineers. One of Edison's top researchers described the staff as "about as interesting an aggregation of learned men, cranks, enthusiasts, plain 'muckers' and absolutely insane men, as ever forgathered under one roof." Even more so than Menlo Park, the Orange laboratory was an invention factory, designed to let ideas flow smoothly from the library to the experimental areas to the drafting room to the machine shops. Between his men, material, and machines, Edison boasted, his new lab could "build anything from a lady's watch to a Locomotive."32

Although Edison personally had financed construction of the laboratory, he paid its operating expenses by conducting experiments and developing new products for Edison Electric, the Edison Machine Works, the Edison Lamp Company, and Bergmann & Company. The laboratory began operations at the end of 1887, just as the panic over the Westinghouse competition was peaking. As a result, most of the early experimental work was devoted to testing alternating-current systems, improving the efficiency of dynamos, motors, and lamp filaments, and developing better wire insulation. Assisting Edison with these experiments was a new hire, Arthur E. Kennelly, a quiet, serious, twenty-six-year-old Englishman with a thick mustache and thinning hair. Although self-educated, Kennelly was one of the few electricians of the day who had mastered the complex mathematical knowledge required for modern electrical engineering. He felt lucky to be hired by Edison. "The laboratory is just heaven," he wrote to a friend. "It is 131 certainly one of the finest in the world, and the finest in the States."33

In Edison's laboratory Kennelly began the pioneering research in electrical theory that would eventually earn him international renown and a professorship at Harvard. Some of his first experiments were also his most unusual.


Arthur E. kennelly

IN JUNE 1888, when the reporter from the New York World asked Edison for help answering questions about electrical executions, the inventor was happy to oblige. He instructed Kennelly and Charles Batchelor to prepare the machinery and scheduled an experiment for the afternoon of Thursday, June 21. The World procured a dog for the occasion. About twenty people, Edison among them, gathered outside the dynamo room at three in the afternoon. Kennelly laid a wooden board on the ground and topped it with a sheet of tin, one corner of which was attached by wire to an alternating-current dynamo running at 1,500 volts. Beside this tin sheet, but not touching it, Kennelly placed a metal pan filled with water and insulated from the ground with two strips of rubber. Another wire from the dynamo was attached to the pan. When the dog drank from the pan of water, its body would close the circuit between the tin sheet and the pan.34

Kennelly looped a rope around the animal's neck and tugged it toward the tin plate. The dog yanked violently and broke the rope, but it was quickly recaptured and tied with a stouter cord. Kennelly pulled the dog onto the tin plate, but it refused to drink. When it made another frightened leap, though, a front paw touched the pan of water while a back paw was still on the tin sheet. "There was a quick contortion," the World reporter noted, "a smothered yelp, and the little cur dog fell dead."

"How quickly will electricity kill a man?" the reporter asked.

"In the ten-thousandth part of a second," Edison replied.

When the reporter asked how to attach the electrodes to the condemned man, Edison picked up pencil and paper and sketched two hands manacled, with a chain attached to each manacle. The officers of the law could handcuff the condemned man in his cell and lead him to the place of execution, Edison explained, where a wire from a dynamo would be attached to each handcuff. "When the time comes, touch a button, close the circuit, and"—Edison snapped his fingers—uit is over."

"The current," Edison made sure to tell the reporter, "should come from an alternating machine."