Designing the Electric Chair - 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 18. Designing the Electric Chair

AS CITY WORKERS in Manhattan nipped wires and chopped poles, William Kemmler suffered another legal defeat. On December 30 a three-judge panel of the New York Supreme Court—the state's second-highest appellate level—affirmed the lower court's decision in Kemmler's case. If the legislature had prescribed a punishment that involved "torture and a lingering death," it would be the duty of the courts to intervene. The question was whether electrical execution was cruel, and there was no reason to believe that the court's judgment on this matter would be more competent than the legislature's.

The judges also declared that it was "within easy reach of electrical science" to use electricity "to produce instantaneous, and therefore painless, death." As evidence they pointed to Manhattan's recent electrical fatalities: "The frequency and publicity of death by accidental contact with electric wires during the last few years, and especially the last few months, has made the deadly power of the electric current shockingly familiar wherever the newspaper is read."1

THE DAY AFTER the New York Supreme Court issued its ruling, Harold Brown traveled to Auburn, where William Kemmler was starting his seventh month in prison. Brown had first worked on the Auburn electrical plant back in August, just after the Kemmler hearings. Now his machinery was to be tested by the state electrocution commission, which consisted of the physicians Carlos MacDonald and A. D. Rockwell, as well as Columbia College's Professor Louis Laudy who had been Brown's host for the first public dog-killing experiments in the summer of 1888. For the Auburn tests the commission was joined by Dr. George Fell.2

Just as the tests began on December 31, 1889, one of the pulleys linking the steam engine to the dynamo snapped. While a workman repaired it, the prison warden, Charles Durston, took the visitors on a tour of his domain. Auburn prison was built in the 1820s as part of the movement to reform rather than punish criminals. Prisoners labored in prison workshops daily but they were forbidden from talking to each other, and they could not receive visitors or correspond with friends or family. The "Auburn system" of prison discipline became internationally famous. Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America grew from his travels in 1831 and 1832, but his official business on that trip was to study prisons, including Auburn. Enthusiasm for the penitentiary waned in the sixty years after Tocqueville's visit, but Auburn's program of strict discipline and manual labor survived. Warden Durston took his physician visitors to the prison workshops, where inmates—known as "stripeds," after their uniforms—earned their keep by making chairs, baskets, and other goods.3

By the time the tour ended, the pulley was repaired, and commissioners began their work. An old horse died from a thirty-second shock at 1,200 volts, and a four-week-old calf succumbed to a ten-second shock at the same voltage. As soon as the calf collapsed, Dr. Fell performed a tracheotomy and attached a "Fell Motor," an artificial respiration device he invented. The commission had invited Dr. Fell and his motor to Auburn in order to lay to rest the fears that electricity might stun rather than kill its victims. After thirty minutes of artificial respiration, the calf showed no signs of recovery and was pronounced dead.4

THE TESTS AT AUBURN showed that the Westinghouse generator had the power to kill a horse. Executing a human being required more complex considerations, such as the positioning of the victim. There was nothing inevitable about the choice of a chair. A writer in the Medico-Legal Journal suggested a tiny room, "something like a sentry-box or watchman's hut," with a metal-lined floor and an electrode descending like a shower head from the ceiling. In an illustration accompanying the article, a man—barefoot and with trouser legs rolled, as if ready for a walk on the beach—stands in the hut, ready to receive the current from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. If shocked while in a standing position, he would fall in a heap to the ground. This might do for horses and dogs, but it would rob a human execution of its proper solemnity. The writer therefore proposed that "spring locks" be attached to the hut and closed around the prisoner's neck and limbs to keep him upright. Another New York electrician advised standing the victim on a metal plate, with his hands stretched above his head and attached to wires, in the position of a scourging victim. The current would run from the floor plate to the hands, and "the body would be prevented from falling by the wires." Neither of these arrangements would have prevented the prisoner from foiling the execution by lifting his feet off the floor.5

The chair offered an easier solution. In an early proposal for electrical execution, published in Scientific American in 1873,tne writer advised placing the prisoner in a chair, and a German writer offered the same idea a few years later. Alfred Southwick—perhaps inspired by his professional experience with dental chairs—advocated a chair from the start, although he changed his mind about what form it should take. Interviewed late in 1886, Southwick explained that a floor plate under the seated prisoner's feet would serve as one electrode, while the other, a metal rod, would be "brought in contact with the back of the neck over the spinal column." Upon further consideration, however, South­wick came to believe that "an arm-chair, with metal arms, would be more convenient. The condemned would be seated in the chair and, at the proper moment, receive a full electric charge through the metallic arms." Another year passed, and Southwick changed his mind again. The death penalty commission report recommended "a chair, with a head and foot-rest, in which the condemned could be seated in a semi-reclining position; one electrode would be connected with the head rest, and the other with the foot-rest, which would consist of a metal plate." Others suggested a chair with metal plates adjustable to each side of the torso, or with two metal bands, one to fit around the neck, another around the chest.6


One scientist suggested that criminals be executed in an electrical hut, with the current running between its metal-lined floor and an electrode descending from the ceiling to the victim's head.

All of these plans involved applying metal electrodes to the skin. When current encountered skin, which had a high resistance, some of the electrical energy was transformed into heat, which caused burning. At the Edison laboratory experiments, copper wire electrodes were wrapped around wet cotton to lower resistance, and Dr. Frederick Peterson adapted this idea for use on humans. He advised wrapping the electrodes in "a sponge or chamois skin, thoroughly wet in order to prevent burning."7

There was also the question of restraint. When Harold Brown was asked why he experimented upon dogs rather than cats, he replied, "Because the cat is very apt to wiggle around when you attempt to apply the electrode, and they also have claws." If the condemned man behaved less like a dog and more like a cat, the authorities would have trouble executing him. In his earliest public statements on execution, Thomas Edison proposed that manacles double as electrodes. "No matter what position the prisoner took, nor how much he twisted and turned, whether he stood or sat down, he could not escape the shock," Edison explained. In its 1888 report, the Medico-Legal Society noted the "unseemly struggles and contortions" that marked many executions and advised proper restraints: "A stout table covered with rubber cloth and having holes along its borders for binding, or a strong chair should be procured. The prisoner lying on his back, or sitting, should be firmly bound upon the table, or in the chair."8

This is the only point in the entire debate on electrical execution at which anyone raised the possibility7 of a table. A few lines later the report added, "We think a chair is preferable to a table." The reason for this preference was not explained, but it is likely that the chair was considered more dignified for the prisoner. On the gallows a prisoner stood tall and proud, a full participant in the ritual of retribution. Strapped to a table, he would be utterly helpless, resembling a bit too closely an experimental animal strapped to a laboratory bench for vivisection. The chair occupied a middle ground, allowing the necessary restraint and support but also paying at least minimal respect to the prisoner's humanity.9

The most controversial question involved the placement of electrodes. In Edison's view, the dozens of accidental deaths caused by grasping a wire with both hands proved the worth of a hand-to-hand arrangement. The Medico-Legal Society's physicians tested this theory by running current between the forelegs of a horse, but they were not satisfied with the results. Wishing to attack "the seat of consciousness" and the areas that "exercise jurisdiction over the lungs and heart," the report advocated placing electrodes on the head and spine. The positive pole, the doctors said, should go on the head, because "the electric stream flows from the positive to the negative pole"; the physicians apparently were unaware that with alternating current each pole alternated between positive and negative. However tentative the theories, experimental results seemed to support these recommendations. The report endorsed fixing one electrode to the chair such that "it will impinge upon the spine between the shoulders," while the other should be attached to "a sort of helmet" attached to the back of the chair.10


The Medico-Legal Society proposed an "electric table" before concluding that a chair would be preferable.

The Medico-Legal Society enjoyed no official authority, but the state commission appointed early in 1889 adopted most of its recommendations, with one slight revision. In March 1889 the commissioners killed nine animals at the Edison lab with the electrodes placed at different areas of the animals' bodies. They concluded that a current passing from the head to leg—rather than head to spine—worked best.11

It was up to Harold Brown to translate these recommendations into an execution device. His design—which he unveiled to the press in May 1889—featured an oak reclining chair with a head electrode in a "metal cap" and feet electrodes encased in "electrical shoes." In June or July of that year, a carpenter at the Auburn prison built a chair to Brown's specifications.12

In December 1889, after Dr. Fell and the state commissioners killed a horse and a calf at Auburn to test the execution dynamo, they examined Brown's chair. Dr. Fell believed that it was poorly designed, and he explained his views to Austin Lathrop, the state prison superintendent. Dr. Fell agreed that one electrode should go on the head, but he thought the second should be affixed near the spine on the lower back, so that the current flow "would include the heart and produce the greatest density in the neck, including the region of the medulla oblongata." This opinion contradicted that of the official state commission, which opted for a foot electrode, but the superintendent brushed this matter aside and told Dr. Fell to get to work. Back in Buffalo, the doctor designed a new chair, hired a carpenter to build it,* and shipped it to Auburn prison on February 12,1890. 13

ON THAT SAME DAY in February, Thomas Edison was bound for a vacation. "I am pretty well broken down with overwork and am going down in the North Carolina Mountains to freshen up," he wrote in a letter to Henry Villard. On his way to the mountains Edison stopped off in Richmond, Virginia, to lobby for his favorite cause. A state senate committee was considering bill no. 238, "For the Prevention of Danger from Electric Currents," which called for limiting alternating current to 200 volts. Edison's appearance drew such a crowd—including "dozens of ladies," the Richmond Times noted—that the hearings were moved from a committee room to the legislature's main chambers. The crowd cheered and applauded when Edison was announced. He smiled and bowed, then launched into a familiar speech, explaining electricity in folksy terms and charging that alternating-current companies risked lives to save money. Harold Brown followed Edison to the examination stand and explained New York's new execution law and how he had come to support it.14

The bill died in committee not long after Edison boarded his train for North Carolina. To the Virginians, Edison's motives seemed transparent. "Though purporting to guard the interest of the people of Virginia," one opponent said, the bill "was in reality a continuation of the struggle for supremacy of two electrical companies." Richmond, like most Virginia cities, was lit by alternating current, but the allegedly lethal current had yet to kill a man there. "Why should the promoters of the bill come here from New York and New Jersey, where persons had lost their lives by pure carelessness?"15

Ohio proposed similar restrictions on alternating current a month later. On Edison's orders, Arthur Kennelly packed up an alternating generator and took it to Columbus. The legislative committee considering the bill gathered at the local Edison lighting station, where Kennelly and Harold Brown quickly dispatched a calf and a horse. "Committee evidently impressed," Kennelly reported to Edison. The Ohio bill failed nonetheless.16

When New York's legislative session started in Albany in January 1890, the state senate's Committee on Laws proposed an investigation into the matter of electrical safety. Considering the carnage in New York City the previous fall, it seemed a reasonable undertaking. The newspapers, however, familiar with the rampant corruption in the legislature, believed that bribery was the true motivating force. In an article headlined "Electricity and the Spoilsmen," the Herald called attention to "two very fat birds known as the Edison and Westing-house roosters. Both are more willing to be plucked than to be slaughtered. It is well known that either of these birds is willing to give up a great deal of 'corn' rather than see the other fattened by legislative preference." The Times declared that the senators leading the investigation were quick "to grasp a matter that is agitating the public mind, and bend it to conform with their personal interests."17

The committee's hearings, which stretched through March and April, were a tedious and predictable affair, with both Westinghouse and Edison producing lawyers and experts testifying in precisely the way everyone expected that they would. The hearings could not even rely on the excitement of an appearance by Edison, who was still vacationing in North Carolina. One senator complained that the hearings without Edison were "like 'Hamlet' with Hamlet left out."18 But the committee's investigation was more farce than tragedy As the press saw it, the legislators were stuffing their pockets with bribes and neglecting the safety of the public. The lawmakers had hijacked an issue of great public concern, stalled any action through the expedient of endless hearings, and waited for public outrage to dissipate. Fortunately for them, no spectacular electrical accidents took place during the hearings to reawaken public fear. Edison's campaign to ban alternating current was dying with a whimper.19

AS THE STATE SENATE conducted its bumbling investigation into electricity regulation, one clause of the electrical execution act came under attack. Many saw the "gag law" provision—which barred newspapers from printing any execution details beyond that bare fact that it had taken place—as an unconstitutional violation of press freedom. The Electrical Review's editor worried that "secrecy would enable the executioners to cover up any blunders," while the New York Press editor expressed the darker fear that scientists "might experiment upon the condemned men and indulge in any species of brutality if they knew they were to be screened by the law." With a nearly unanimous voice, newspapers vowed to break the law. One editor recognized the situation as an opportunity: "They can arrest me if they choose, and if they arrest all of the editors who publish the reports, that will make another sensation and be another good story for us to publish."20

In February 1890 a state assemblyman introduced a bill to rescind the gag law and allow newspapers to print full accounts of executions. Elbridge Gerry traveled to Albany to fight the new bill, arguing that printing details of executions was "an incentive to crime rather than a deterrent." Laws forbidding publication of lewd materials such as "advertisements of bawdy houses" had withstood constitutional challenge, Gerry explained, and he saw no reason why the obscenities of violence could not be restricted as well. His view carried the day, and the gag law stood.21

Kemmler's sentence stood as well. Defeated in the New York Supreme Court, the prisoner met the same fate at the state's highest appellate level, the Court of Appeals. In a unanimous decision issued March 21, the court declared the electrocution law7 constitutional. In creating the law, New York's legislature had acted "with care and caution and unusual deliberation," the justices wrote. "It would be a strange result indeed if it could now be held that its efforts to devise a more humane method" had produced precisely the opposite result.22

* Although it has been claimed that the great American furniture designer Gustav Stickley built Auburn's first electric chair, the credit belongs to the anonymous Buffalo carpenter hired by Fell. Stickley did serve as director ofmanufacturing operations at Auburn prison from 1892 to 1894, and he may have built the three-legged chair that replaced the original one in 1893.