Criminal Economy - 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 12. "Criminal Economy"

THE Electrical Review thought so little of Harold Brown that it published a poem, "Mr. Brown and the Dog," which included the sarcastic couplet "No company employed him, and his motives he felt sure,/ Were thoroughly unbiased, philanthropic, and most pure." No one could prove that Edison Electric employed Brown, but the logic of such an arrangement was obvious: If Brown succeeded in outlawing high-voltage alternating current, Edison Electric would gain an enormous advantage.1

That goal appeared to be increasingly unattainable, since even more modest efforts to regulate electricity had been stymied. United States Illuminating continued to fight the state law requiring it to move its Manhattan wires from overhead poles to underground conduits, and in the fall of 1888 the company scored another victory. The state supreme court granted a preliminary injunction preventing the city from removing its wires. As Harold Brown and Arthur Kennelly were killing animals to prove the dangers of alternating current, lighting companies were winning the right to keep that current sizzling overhead.2

While Thomas Edison stayed in the background, Kennelly became an outspoken advocate of execution by alternating current. The editors of electrical journals regarded Brown with deep suspicion, but they took note when Kennelly spoke in defense of the dog-killing tests at the Edison lab. The Electrician, which had harshly criticized Brown's claims, changed its tune after hearing from Edison's chief electrician. "[A] letter from Mr. A. E. Kennelly," the Electrician noted, "completely rehabilitates Mr. Brown's position, and in our estimation invests the experiments with an importance which they did not before possess." Although the journal remained noncommittal on the relative dangers of the two currents, Kennelly had caused some advocates of alternating current to rethink their positions.3

Kennelly also took the fight to the popular press. When the New York World reported that, since the dog experiments started, "the faith of experts in electricity as an executioner has steadily decreased," Ken­nelly took it as an affront to himself and to his boss and immediately sent a long letter of rebuttal. "Having carried out those experiments under Mr. Edison's instruction," Kennelly explained, he had proven that he could "kill a dog instantly by electricity … and without sigh, moan, or struggle." Alternating current was "beyond all doubt more fatal than the continuous current."4

According to Brown, these dog experiments assessed the relative danger of alternating and direct currents for lighting purposes and had nothing to do with electrical execution. Most people failed to grasp the distinction. Brown's avowed goal of preventing accidental deaths and New York State's interest in intentional killing were two sides of the same coin: Both required knowing what type of electrical current could kill a human being.


Drawing cables into an underground conduit. Many companies resisted state laws requiring that all wires be placed under the street rather than on utility poles.

In November 1888 Thomas Edison granted his first public interview on electricity's dangers since his dog experiment for the World in June. He told the Brooklyn Citizen that electrical execution was "a good idea. The man will be killed with a current of the proper number of volts in the tenth of a second." He explained how he came to this con­clusion: "I did quite a lot of experimenting with currents on dogs. It was funny. At first, we used continuous currents. After the electricity charged the dog he stood still without the slightest change in his appearance. He did not move, and his eyes retained the same expression they usually wore. Then after a minute, or a minute and a half, he would collapse and tumble over, dead. Finally, we tried alternate currents… . Then it was found that this shock of one-tenth of a second killed the dog." Edison said that one dog was granted a reprieve after surviving a shock of 1,400 volts (current type unspecified): "He is walking round to-day as good as ever after his shock. We call him Ajax, because he played with the thunder-bolts."5

Edison used the occasion of this interview to tackle one of the puzzles of the debate: Although its advocates described electrical execution as painless, electric shocks were known to hurt quite a lot. Arthur Kennelly himself accidentally took a 1,000-volt alternating-current shock and vividly described the sensation as "violent rending pain." Defenders of the new execution method would have explained that Kennelly suffered only because he had not been killed. Nerve sensation, they said, traveled at a rate of about 100 feet per second, whereas electricity sped along at 160,000 miles per second. In the victim of lethal electric shock, a mismatched race was staged between the sensation of pain and the destructive force of electricity. By the time a nerve impulse from the victim's arm or leg meandered its way to the brain to announce the presence of pain, electricity had gotten there first and destroyed consciousness. As Edison put it, "There won't be time for these sense-bearing nerves to telegraph the news that he is hurt to his brain before he will be dead from the shock."6

The explanation sounded reassuringly mathematical, but it skirted some important issues. If only a fraction of a second separated the sensation of pain from the end of life, it was crucial to understand how and when death occurred. But doctors could not agree whether electricity killed by stopping the heart, cutting off the breath, destroying the blood, or some other mechanism. In an experiment described in the death penalty commission report, Dr. Fell anesthetized a dog and removed its chest wall so he could observe its heart. As soon as the current was applied, the heart "ceased its action and became a mere mass of quivering flesh," Fell wrote. "Not the least resemblance to a rhythmical movement was observed after the current was made." As Fell saw it, this irregular heart movement—what doctors today would call fibrillation—was proof that the dog had died instantly. Fell either did not know or did not admit that such heart failure did not cause immediate unconsciousness and often was accompanied by intense pain.7*

New York's Medico-Legal Society decided to find answers to the many questions surrounding electrical execution. The private society, which was dedicated to improving relations between the medical and legal professions, took up the matter of its own accord and had no official status with New York State. Its membership simply recognized that New York State needed expert guidance, and that a physician's knowledge could apply just as well to ending life as to saving it. The death penalty commission had rejected the injection of poison as a method of execution in part because of "the difficulty of finding any medical man who would act as a public executioner." As it turned out, electrical execution relied heavily on medical knowledge, and state officials had no trouble finding physicians willing to kill. Many doctors saw their primary responsibility as serving not individuals but the state. The death penalty was "a question of therapeutics," in the Medical Record's view. "If society can better preserve and protect itself against criminals by their strangulation or electrothanatosis, why, then, these measures should be employed. No question of first principles or inherent rights or sentiments is involved."8

In September 1888 the Medico-Legal Society appointed a committee to investigate the technical requirements of killing with electricity. One of the committee's members was Dr. Frederick Peterson, who had taken part in the Edison lab's dog experiments. In a report presented at the society's November meeting, Peterson and his fellow committee members recommended a current of 3,000 volts. On the question of type of current, the committee wavered: "Either a continuous [direct] or an alternating current may be used, but preferably the latter."9

Rather than adopt the committee's report, the Medico-Legal Society tabled it until its December meeting. A few members still needed to be convinced that alternating current was indeed more dangerous than direct. Others objected because the report was based on tests involving dogs, which were considerably smaller than humans. To reassure the doubters, the committee turned for assistance to Thomas Edison, who again agreed to serve as host for experiments in electrical killing. Arthur Kennelly and Harold Brown made the necessary arrangements.

Kennelly hoped to hold the tests at night because "an experiment of this kind by daylight naturally attracts very much curiosity and renders the necessary privacy and care difficult to obtain." He did not get his wish. On the afternoon of Wednesday, December 5,1888, Thomas Edison welcomed a group of observers, including members of the Medico-Legal Society, newspaper reporters, and—most important—Elbridge Gerry. Because Gerry was the chairman of the death penalty commission and the author of the new7 law, his views carried great weight.10

The guests arrived around noon, but equipment problems delayed the experiments until after three. Brown and Kennelly connected an alternating generator to a transformer, which they hoped would boost the current up well over 1,000 volts. The first victim was a calf weighing 124 pounds. They clipped the hair from two areas, between the calf's eyes and beside its spine just below its shoulders, and attached two electrodes, both covered with sponges soaked in a conducting solution of zinc sulfate. They ran the dynamo up to 1,100 volts and closed the circuit, but "the animal fell uninjured," according to Ken-nelly's notes. He determined that the problem lay with the transformer, so he disconnected it. He wired the calf directly to the dynamo, ran the current up to 770 volts, and closed the circuit for eight seconds. "Death was instantaneous," Brown claimed in his published report. Next came another calf, weighing 145 pounds, which died after receiving 750 volts for five seconds.11

To eliminate all doubt that electricity could kill animals larger than dogs and calves, Brown led in a horse weighing 1,230 pounds. This time he and Kennelly tried a different electrode arrangement that had been proposed by Edison, who believed that prisoners should be executed by placing an electrode on each hand, so that the current passed through the chest. To test this theory, Brown and Kennelly attached an electrode to each of the horse's forelegs. They applied 600 volts for five seconds, but the animal did not die, and a second shock of fifteen seconds also failed to kill it. Finally, 700 volts for twenty-five seconds proved fatal.

Kennelly's notes of the experiments indicated that the calves and horse suffered, just as many of the dogs had. But in a report of the experiments published in the Electrical World, Brown insisted that the deaths of all three animals were "instantaneous and painless." He concluded that "the alternating current is the best adapted for electrical executions."

The well-publicized experiments at the Edison lab caught the public imagination. A Brooklynite wrote to Edison suggesting that electrical execution be combined with hanging, by weaving metal electrodes 153 into the hemp noose such that one pole would contact the spine, the other the throat. Combining the noose with an electric shock, the man wrote, would be "more wholesome than screwing the poor victim into a vise of electrical horrors." In Connecticut P. T. Barnum allowed electricians to give nonfatal shocks to animals in his menagerie, including a monkey, baboon, hippopotamus, and elephant. The monkeys screamed in agony, but the elephant, named Tom Thumb, reportedly "squealed with delight." When Chief, a rogue circus elephant in Cincinnati, had to be euthanized, his owners considered killing him with electricity, but they ended up strangling him instead, thus robbing alternating current's foes of an ultimate demonstration of electricity's killing power.12


The December 1888 horse-killing experiment at the Edison laboratory, as illustrated in Scientific American.

The Medico-Legal Society, meanwhile, continued its efforts to ensure that condemned criminals would not die by the rope. At the 154 society's annual meeting on December 12, the committee on electrical execution recommended that the state should give condemned prisoners a shock for fifteen to thirty seconds with an alternating current of 1,000 to 1,500 volts. The full society unanimously adopted the report and transmitted it to state authorities.13

The lessons of the tests were not lost on the press. The Daily Tribune noted that the Edison lab experiments "showed that less than half the pressure used for electric lights in our streets is sufficient to produce instant death. Evidently the danger from electric light wires has not been over-estimated."14

GEORGE WESTINGHOUSE disagreed with the Tribune's conclusion, and a few days after the experiments he published a response in several New York papers. Westinghouse argued that the Edison lab experiments were so carefully calibrated to cause death—with large electrodes placed at the most sensitive portions of the body-that they had no relevance to the possibility of accidental electric shock. "It has been found that pressures exceeding 1,000 volts can be withstood by persons of ordinary health without experiencing any permanent inconvenience," Westinghouse wrote. He described an episode in which a man "held his hand in contact with the wires [bearing 1,000 volts] for a period of three minutes without fatal results—in fact, was able to go on with his work after a short period." Not only could the shocks be survived, but "the alternating current is less dangerous to life" than the direct.15

As Westinghouse saw it, the real reason for the tests at the Edison laboratory had to do with the fact that Westinghouse sold a better, cheaper product and was destroying Edison's business.

It is generally understood that Harold P. Brown is conducting these experiments in the interest and pay of the Edison Electric Light Company; that the Edison Company's business can be vitally injured if the alternating current apparatus continues to be as successfully introduced and operated as it has heretofore been, and that the Edison representatives, from a business point of view, consider themselves justified in resorting to any expedient to prevent the extension of this system… . We have no hesitation in charging that the object of these experiments is not in the interest of science or safety, but to endeavor to create in the minds of the public a prejudice against the use of the alternating currents.16

Westinghouse could not prove his charges against Brown, but one claim in his letter was undoubtedly true: Westinghouse Electric was badly hurting Edison Electric's business. The Edison market position had deteriorated further since summer, as Westinghouse continued to win most of the lighting contracts in smaller towns and to expand much more quickly than Edison.17

Edison Electric remained silent on Westinghouse's charges, but Harold Brown proffered a dramatic challenge to Westinghouse in a letter to the New York Times. "First, allow me to deny emphatically that I am now or ever have been in the employ of Mr. Edison or any of the Edison companies," Brown wrote. He claimed that it was Westinghouse who was motivated by selfish business interests: To protect his alternating-current system, he was denying solid scientific evidence of its dangers. Because Westinghouse had insulted his honor, Brown proposed a duel: "I therefore challenge Mr. Westinghouse to meet me in the presence of competent electrical experts and take through his body the alternating current, while I take through mine a continuous current We will commence with ioo volts, and will gradually increase the pressure 50 volts at a time, I leading with each increase, until either one or the other has cried enough, and publicly admits his error." An electrical journal suggested a way to make the duel even more dramatic: It published an illustration of two men fencing with electrified foils. To the regret of many in the industry, the duel never took place.18

Brown found other angles of attack. In late December he sent a circular to city governments, insurance executives, and prominent businessmen in every town in the United States with a population of more than 5,000. He enclosed a copy of the Medico-Legal Society report, explaining that it supported alternating current's "adoption for EXECUTION PURPOSES at exactly the pressure used for csafe and harmless' electric lighting." Calling for laws limiting the current to 300 volts, Brown urged public-spirited citizens, "Lend me your aid in securing legislation which will keep this EXECUTIONER'S CURRENT out of our homes and streets and prevent reckless corporations from saving their money AT THE EXPENSE OF THE LIVES OF THOSE DEAR TO YOU." The appeal had its desired effect. Anxious citizens from across the country wrote to Brown, and in response he sent more information about the dangers of alternating current. Some letters brought requests for Brown's personal services, so he traveled to many towns to conduct tests on the local alternating systems, sometimes persuading mayors and city councils to support the call for a 300-volt limit.19

The December circular, a three-and-a-half-page typewritten document, offered a mere sketch of Brown's case against Westinghouse. In the early months of 1889 he published a more sustained attack, a sixty-one-page booklet titled The Comparative Danger to Life of the Alternating and Continuous Electrical Currents. It was a narration of Brown's crusade against alternating current, starting with his letter to the Evening Post in June 1888 and continuing through his experiments with Kennelly and Edison and his work with the Medico-Legal Society. Brown once again charged that Westinghouse was endangering the public for the sake of higher profits. "So many lives have been sacrificed by criminal economy in electric lighting that legislative control of the subject is imperatively demanded," he wrote. The pamphlet reprinted many of the relevant documents, including newspaper articles and letters, reports of accidents in various cities, detailed descriptions of the Edison lab experiments, and the Medico-Legal Society report. The pamphlet was professionally printed and mailed to the press and government officials across the country.20

WHILE BROWN and Westinghouse wrangled publicly, the electrical execution law quietly took effect on January 1,1889. Austin Lathrop, the superintendent of the New York State prison system, appointed a commission to finalize the technical plans. Dr. Carlos F. MacDonald, the chairman of the state's Lunacy Commission and a professor at Bellevue Hospital Medical College, headed the panel, and he was joined by a fellow physician, A. D. Rockwell, the coauthor with George Beard of the standard text on electrical medicine and a cofounder of the American Neurological Association. Late in February Lathrop and MacDonald met with Harold Brown in New York and told him they wanted to conduct further experiments. Once again Thomas Edison offered the use of his laboratory.21

On the afternoon of March 12, Brown, MacDonald, two surgeons, and a professor from the University of Pennsylvania convened in Orange. As in the earlier experiments, Kennelly handled the electrical apparatus and kept careful records in a lab notebook. By the end of the day, four dogs, four calves, and a horse had died. Since the new state commission had accepted the Medico-Legal Society's recommendation of alternating current, no direct current was used. The main purpose of the experiments was to determine the proper placement of electrodes on the bodies of the victims. Kennelly and Mac­Donald tried different arrangements: foreleg to hind leg, head to hind leg, back of the neck to hind leg, back of the neck to heart. The easiest deaths were suffered by those animals with one electrode on the head and another on a hind leg.22

These experiments "solved any doubts … regarding the certainty of quick death by the alternating current," Scientific American wrote. "As for the bodies of the slain, they so completely escaped disfigurement that the veal was perfectly suitable for human food, and it was returned to the butcher who had brought the calves to the laboratory"23

NOT LONG AFTER these tests, the state prison superintendent awarded Harold Brown the contract to acquire dynamos and other equipment for Auburn, Sing Sing, and Clinton, the three prisons where executions would take place.24

The state appropriated $10,000 for the necessary equipment, including three alternating dynamos. Brown had a choice of manufacturers, including Westinghouse, Thomson-Houston, and several European firms. He also could have contracted to have a generator built specifically for the purpose. But Brown insisted on Westinghouse machines, and he was unapologetic about his choice. He explained his reasons in the preface to the third edition of his Comparative Danger booklet, published sometime between March and July "The danger of the alternating current was admitted by all the prominent companies excepting the Westinghouse, which still protested that it was 'safe.' On this account," Brown explained, "its apparatus was purchased for the infliction of death upon condemned criminals." He explained further in a letter to the Evening Post: "I determined to educate the public by buying for electrical execution the same apparatus that killed … many [peo­ple] who made accidental contacts with 'safe' Westinghouse circuits."25

For a state expert, it was a startling admission: Brown acknowledged that he would use his official position to punish Westinghouse for his alleged intransigence on the safety issue and to bring alternating current into disrepute.

Although Edison Electric still denied that Brown was making these efforts to harm Westinghouse on its behalf, the company did publicize the new developments. The Edison managers sent out a circular titled The Deadly Parallelpointing out that New York State had purchased "three Westinghouse alternating-current dynamos," and that the execution current "will be of the same pressure as that used for electric lighting." The Edison current was described as "absolutely harmless, no matter how one may come in contact with it."26

Not surprisingly, George Westinghouse refused to sell his generators for the purpose of execution. Brown said that he managed to obtain them anyway, but he would not reveal how. According to the Times, "The news that three of their dynamos have been sold by Mr. Brown to the State will be a surprise to the Westinghouse people."27

AS BROWN MANEUVERED to acquire execution dynamos, lin­guists took up the task of naming the new method of killing. Soon after the law took effect, the World noted that "the gallows and the hangman will disappear, to be replaced by what? A machine! That is as far as anybody has yet got in describing the curious contrivance which will play such a ghastly role in future executions." Death by electricity and electrical execution were clumsy terms, certainly too long for space-conscious headline writers. Some looked to the past for models. The guillotine had been named after Joseph Ignace Guillotin, the strongest advocate (though not the inventor) of the device. Since Elbridge Gerry was the man most identified with the electrical method, some suggested gerricide. When the World sought Gerry's opinion in February 1889, he instead proposed electrolethe, "which is a combination of two pure Greek words… . The man who touched the button would be the electrolether, with the accent on the third syllable." Others interviewed by the World coined many words using the prefix electro-, including elec-tronirvano, electrorevoir, and electrosiesta. An assistant district attorney in Manhattan proposed virmort from the Latin for "man" and "death." A warden at the Tombs prison, more conversant in popular slang than classical roots, said, "What's de matter wid callin' her de whizzer?" A fellow warden proposed razzle-dazzle.,28

When the scholarly journal American Notes and Queries put out a call for new words, proposals arrived from professors at Cornell, Harvard, Brown, Johns Hopkins, and Yale. Most offered etymologically impeccable but thoroughly impractical words: electrophony, electricize, electroctony, thanelectrize, electrothanasia, joltacuss, voltacuss, electrostrike, galvanation, gal-vanification, electronation, and super electrification. A frequent suggestion was electricide, modeled after suicide or patricide. When some objected that this word implied the death of rather than death by electricity {patricide, for example, meant the killing of the father), the term was revised to electrocide (on the model of electroplate, or plating by means of electric ity). Forsaking Greek and Latin, one correspondent proposed the Teutonic blitzentod—lightning death.29

A Johns Hopkins professor threw up his hands in defeat: "The word will be a hideous one, however compounded." Julian Hawthorne (son of Nathaniel and an author in his own right) had the firmest grasp of how new words entered the language: "Very likely some chance inspiration of slang may settle the matter."30

The editor of American Notes and Queries wrote to Thomas Edison seeking his opinion. The inventor proposed ampermort, dynamort, and electromort, but he preferred to hand over the question to one of his attorneys. "The trouble is that none of us here remember enough latin [sic] to inspire confidence in the etymology of these coined words," Edison's secretary told the lawyers. "Mr. Edison would like you to revise them." The lawyer rejected Edison's ideas and proposed a different sort of coinage: "As Westinghouse's dynamo is going to be used for the purpose of executing criminals, why not give him the benefit of this fact in the minds of the public, and speak hereafter of a criminal as being 'westinghoused', [punctuation sic] or as being 'condemned to be westinghoused'; or, to use the noun, we could say that such and such a man was condemned to the westinghouse. It will be a subtle compliment to the public services of this distinguished man." That suggestion never made it into public discourse. The Edison interests decided instead to throw their support behind electricide}31

Largely missing from these discussions was the word that would eventually gain currency. The World's February 1889 article on the matter did not even mention electrocution. It is unclear precisely when the word was first used, but by the summer it appeared frequently in the World and in a few other popular newspapers.32

Electrocution was formed by combining electro and execution. Execution derived from the Latin sequi (follow), which with the prefix exmeans "follow out" or "carry out"—as in executing a sentence of death. Etymologically, electrocution meant something along the lines of "the following of electricity." Although state officials, most medical journals, and highbrow newspapers still preferred electrical execution, the more concise electrocution gradually crept into common usage, and the self-appointed gatekeepers of the English language were appalled. The editors of the New York Times wrote, "We pray to be saved from such a monstrosity as 'electrocution,' which pretentious ignoramuses seem to be trying to push into use. It is enough to make a philologist writhe with anguish." The Buffalo Courier lodged a "protest against the adoption of the proposed new words, electrocute, electrocution, and electrocuted. There's quite enough bastard philology already" A law journal described electrocution as "the very worst barbarism* yet perpetrated by an illiterate neologist."33

*A critic of electrical execution noted that George Fell shared a surname with a figure from a nursery rhyme—"I do not like thee, Doctor Fell/The reason why I cannot tell"—and commented, "The clue appears now perhaps to be within our grasp."

*To linguists, a barbarism is a word formed without respect for etymological meaning.