The New Spectacle of Death - 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)

EPILOGUE. The New Spectacle of Death

SHORTLY AFTER World War I, when he was about seventy years old, Thomas Edison began taking annual camping trips with Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and the naturalist John Burroughs. A story was told of a time the party's vehicle broke down in West Virginia. A local mechanic took a look under the hood and pronounced the problem to be mechanical. "I am Henry Ford," the automaker said, "and I say the motor itself is in perfect order." The mechanic then suggested a short in the electrical system. "I am Thomas A. Edison," came the response, "and I say the wiring is all right." The mechanic then peered skeptically at the white-bearded Burroughs and said, "And I suppose that must be Santa Claus."1

Although still very much alive, Edison had entered the realm of the mythical, occupying an outsized place in the American imagination. Until his death at age eighty-four in 1931, he continued to experiment; his most successful later ventures involved the production of cement (8,000 tons of which helped build Yankee Stadium) and the manufacture of electrical storage batteries. In 1913 readers of Independent magazine named him the "most useful" man in the United States. There could be few higher compliments in a nation so earnestly devoted to the practical, but the award did Edison something of a disservice. His greatest feats lay in coupling the useful with the magical—a machine that talked, light without fire—in ways that transformed the lives of everyone in the modern world.2

In his later years Edison gave a great deal of thought to his place in history. He collaborated on an official biography, published in 1910, and in an endless succession of newspaper interviews he reminisced—with great enthusiasm and intermittent accuracy—about his life of invention. There was one topic, however, that Edison omitted from the biography and almost never mentioned to reporters: his role in the creation of the electric chair. During a 1905 interview, he broke his silence on the matter and revealed that his views had changed little since 1889: He still believed capital punishment was a "barbarity," and he still considered electrocution to be the quickest and therefore most humane of methods. When asked whether he had invented the electric chair, Edison grew indignant: "I did not invent such an instrument."3


Edison in 1895.

New York's introduction of electrical execution was a momentous change that required the political, medical, and technological skills of many men, including Alfred Southwick, Elbridge Gerry, Governor David Hill, Harold Brown, George Fell, Arthur Kennelly, and Carlos MacDonald. But because of his immense fame and powerful reputation, Thomas Edison's opinions carried the greatest weight. Through the experiments at his laboratory and his tireless promotion of the new law, Edison—more than any other single person—ensured that electrocution would be the state's method of capital punishment.4

Edison genuinely believed that the electric chair was more humane than hanging, but he went to such lengths to defend it only because he saw it as a useful weapon in his battle against alternating current. Although inspired in part by an intense dislike for George Westinghouse, Edison's most powerful motivation in the battle of the currents was his genuine fear of alternating current.

In one limited sense Edison succeeded in his campaign. It was only in the midst of the electric wire panic of 1889, when he was pressing for severe restrictions on alternating current, that Westinghouse and the other recalcitrant lighting firms began to cooperate with efforts to place their wires underground, thereby lowering the risk to the public. Ultimately, however, Edison lost the battle of the currents, as alternating current became the industry standard. He certainly had overestimated its risks, probably because he generalized too broadly from the case of Manhattan, where high population density, sloppy installations, and lax regulation combined to make high-voltage current especially dangerous. In other cities—Paris, Berlin, Chicago—underground wires and better regulation made it safer. A ban on alternating current also would have handed much of the electricity market to the Edison interests, and the public recognized the danger of this. As the World explained, "We do not want to be grilled by electricity or oppressed by monopoly"5

The question is not so much why Edison's campaign failed as why he thought it might succeed. "It is impossible now that any man, or body of men, should resist the course of alternating-current develop­ment," an electrical journal stated in 1889. "Joshua may command the sun to stand still, but Mr. Edison is not Joshua." Edison's nearest approach to triumph—during the wire panic—was also the moment of his defeat. When the city work crews chopped down the offending electric light wires, the resulting gloom served as an advertisement for electric light; only when the light disappeared did people realize how dependent upon it they had become. Alternating current could satisfy the demand much more easily than direct. If Edison had succeeded in banning alternating current, he would have saved many people from accidental death. Yet he also would have stalled the spread of electricity and stymied industrial growth.6


The placement of Manhattan's electrical wires in underground conduits beautified the city and lowered the risk of accidental shock. The illustration on the left appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1889; the photograph on the right was taken about 1910.

On one occasion when Edison called for strict limits on alternating current, a reporter challenged his motives. "Your statements are shaped very much by your business connection," the reporter charged. "Assume that they are, which they are not," Edison replied. "That does not alter the truth of my statements. Would I be likely to make statements on a scientific matter which could be proved as wrong?"7

But this was not a matter of scientific truth or falsity. Edison and his opponents were engaged in the assessment of risk: How much danger would people tolerate in exchange for the convenience of electric light? After the wire panic, the public's fears about electrical safety quieted. Part of this was due to better insulation and better regulation, but people continued to die. Medical journal articles from the early twentieth century—such as "A Case of Death from the Electric Current While Handling the Telephone"—seemed to confirm Edison's worst fears about the domestic dangers of the current. By the 1920s—the decade when electricity finally became common in American homes—about 1,000 Americans died annually from electric shock. The panic over electrical accidents waned not because the deaths stopped but because they became routine. Accidental deaths involving street railways—and, later, automobiles—also initially created great public alarm. But, as with electricity, people eventually grew accustomed to the carnage.8

Edison had worried that if accidents led to deaths, people would decide to stick with cheaper sources of illumination such as gas and kerosene lamps. His greatest mistake was an uncharacteristic lack of faith in his own inventions. He failed to understand that electricity could kill people and still retain the public's enthusiasm.

Because of the Edison conspiracy against Westinghouse's alternating current, two distinct issues—whether the current was safe enough to use for lighting purposes, and whether it could kill criminals painlessly—became hopelessly confused, and neither received the attention it deserved. George Westinghouse was forced both to defend the safety record of his current and to attack its use for electrocution. With a stubbornness that matched Edison's, Westinghouse continued to insist that alternating current was harmless long after the claim lost plausibility. The many deaths from electrical accidents convinced the public, as well as the courts considering William Kemmler's appeal, that alternating current was lethal and that Westinghouse was less than honest. This loss of credibility damaged efforts to fight the electrocution law. The Kemmler hearings—the only serious inquiry into the legitimacy of electrocution ever undertaken—revealed that execution equipment was liable to failure and that medical knowledge of electrical death was woefully inadequate. But most of those speaking out against the new method were Westinghouse men. The opposition to electrocution never got a fair hearing, because any objections could be dismissed out of hand as the cynical machinations of George Westinghouse. Few appeared troubled that Thomas Edison's motives for defending electrocution were equally suspect.9

BY DESTROYING TH E GALLOWS, the builders of the electric chair hoped to take the spectacle out of executions. They promised a death that would be private, simple, and painless, leaving no mark on the corpse. As Edison told reporters in 1888, "Touch a button, close the circuit, it is over." The execution protocol that finally emerged was very different, requiring a hooded victim, elaborate machinery, an unseen and mysterious force, an attending priesthood of engineers speaking an arcane language, and a burnt offering. Deftly linking high technology and ancient sacrifice, the electric chair created a thoroughly modern spectacle of death.10

The public responded with enthusiasm. Prison wardens received thousands of letters from people who wanted to witness an electrocution. Almost all were turned down, but they found other ways to satisfy their curiosity. A New York dime museum featured a waxworks diorama titled "Execution of Criminals by Electricity" alongside such displays as "Beheading in Morocco," and an electric chair was among the many electrical wonders on display at the 1893 world's fair in Chicago. In the twentieth century electric chair acts became a staple of carnival sideshows; one performance featured a girl, said to be "immune" to electricity, taking shocks of 20,000 volts. Edison's Execution of Czolgosz and Electrocuting an Elephant were only the first of dozens of films to feature the new method of execution, ranging from the Clark Gable classic Manhattan Melodrama to John Waters's Female Trouble. Andy Warhol, a connoisseur of American icons, produced a series of prints titled Electric Chair in the 1960s and 1970s. Decommissioned electric chairs are now displayed at museums and draw large crowds. "It's one of the most popular things we've got," said an employee of a New Jersey museum. "Everyone who sees it goes 'Wow! The electric chair!'"11


Hamilton's drugstore in Auburn, New York, sold this postcard in the early twentieth century.

AT THE TIME the electric chair was invented, Americans were in thrall to the fantasy of the push button: the belief that, in the future, machines would do all of their work for them. Many tried to let machines do their thinking for them as well, and no one exemplified this engineering mentality better than Thomas Edison, the opponent of capital punishment who helped invent a killing machine. Like many death penalty foes, Edison believed that making killing more humane was a sign of progress, a step down the road to complete abolition. The strategy backfired. By making executions appear painless, Edison helped the death penalty survive. The electric chair—and the later scientific methods it inspired—masked the barbarity of killing in the civilization of the machine.

Mark Twain explored the new technologies of death in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, first published in the midst of the electric wire panic of 1889. Twain tells the story of a nineteenth-century mechanic who is knocked cold in a fight and wakes up in England in the year 528. The Boss—as the Yankee is known—grows powerful by introducing to Camelot such nineteenth-century wonders as newspapers, telegraphs, electricity, and gunpowder, but he runs afoul of church and royalty by trying to improve the lot of the oppressed peasantry. A plainspoken mechanical genius who tirelessly promotes the wonders of industrial society, the Boss bears a striking resemblance to Thomas Edison.

Written in the spring of 1889—at the time when electrocution experiments were taking place at the Edison laboratory and wires were killing people on the streets of New York—the ending of Connecticut Yankee offers Twain's dark views on the battle of the electric currents. In the final chapters, the Boss and a few allies find themselves trapped in a cave, with all the knights of England massed for attack outside. The Boss has a dynamo with him, and he fortifies the cave entrance with a fence of live electric wires—"naked, not insulated." At dawn one morning, the Boss inspects the fence and discovers a dead knight, "a dim great figure in armor, standing erect, with both hands on the upper wire—and of course there was a smell of burning flesh." Others followed and died so quickly they had no chance to warn their fellows. The electric fence killed 11,000 knights, so that the cave "was enclosed with a solid wall of the dead—a bulwark, a breastwork, of corpses, you may say."

Although nineteenth-century technology destroyed the best the sixth century had to offer, the Boss and his men remained pinned in the cave, with thousands of rotting corpses just outside and, beyond them, a considerable number of surviving enemy forces. "We were in a trap, you see—a trap of our own making," the Boss's top lieutenant explained. "If we stayed where we were, our dead would kill us; if we moved out of our defences, we should no longer be invincible. We had conquered; in turn we were conquered."12

The novelist and critic William Dean Howells, a good friend of Twain's, also saw the trap of scientific killing. On Christmas Day 1887, just after news had leaked of the death penalty commission's report, Howells wrote a satiric letter to the editor of Harper's Weekly that perfectly captured the era's rhetoric of blithe technological optimism.

I understand that the death-spark can be applied with a minimum of official intervention, and without even arousing the victim, or say patient, from his sleep on the morning fixed for the execution of the sentence… . I have fancied the executions throughout the State taking place from the Governor's office, where his private secretary, or the Governor himself, might touch a little annunciation-button, and dismiss a murderer to the presence of his Maker with the lightest pressure of the finger. In cases of unusual interest, the Executive might invite a company of distinguished persons to be present, and might ask some lady of the party to touch the button. Or, as when torpedoes are exploded or mining blasts fired in the completion of a great public work, a little child might be allowed to discharge the exemplary office.

Howells worried not that electrocutions would be bungled but that they would proceed precisely as planned. In the image of a young child—with "the lightest pressure of the finger"—pushing a button to end a man's life, he captured the true terror of the electric chair: When killing is made scientific, when it is made easier, it becomes not less but more horrifying.13