Electricity and Life - 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 4. Electricity and Life

EDISON'S ELECTRIC LIGHT inventions marked another triumph in the great tradition of electrical innovation that included Volta's battery, Faraday's researches in electromagnetism, Morse's telegraph, and the first powerful electrical generators built in the 1870s. In the shadows of this march of progress, however, a very different electrical tradition survived. In the eighteenth century electricity had served primarily as a source of amusement and a form of medicine, and those uses persisted into the nineteenth century. The mysterious fluid that carried telegraph messages and produced light also was sent coursing through the bodies of animals and humans for the purpose of entertaining, healing, and killing.

Physicians in the 1740s had discovered that some people who appeared to be dead could be revived by forcing air into their lungs. Suddenly, the boundary between death and life became blurred, and doctors began to distrust their ability to diagnose death. In the 1760s these doubts inspired the creation of the first "humane societies," organizations dedicated not to the welfare of animals but to reviving the apparently dead. Resuscitation techniques included not only assisted breathing but also vigorous shakes and thumps that were intended to get the blood moving again. The revivalists did not trouble themselves with those who expired after long illness; they focused, rather, on those felled by the sudden misfortune of drowning, suffocation, or lightning strikes. Hoping to learn how to revive lightning's victims, the English experimenter and radical democrat Joseph Priestley used a large Leyden jar to kill a mouse, a rat, "a pretty large kitten," and a dog in the 1760s. He then tried to reanimate his victims by blowing into their lungs through a quill. The attempts failed, and he stopped the experiments, judging that "it is paying dear for philosophical discoveries, to purchase them at the expence of humanity."1

Others thought electricity might help bring back those who had died from some other means. One experimenter revived a suffocated dog with electricity in 1755, and twenty years later another claimed to have shocked a drowned man back to life. The invention of the chemical battery opened new avenues of experimentation. Giovanni Aldini, nephew of Luigi Galvani, staged experiments to determine the value of electricity as a means of resuscitation in cases of asphyxiation. A strong current sent through a dead ox produced such a flailing of limbs that "several of the spectators were much alarmed, and thought it prudent to retire to some distance." Before London's Royal Society in 1803, Aldini conducted experiments on the body of a freshly hanged criminal. When the poles were touched to the jaw and ear, the face quivered and the left eye opened, while a shock from ear to rectum produced a reaction so strong as "almost to give an appearance of re-animation." Aldini concluded that "Galvanism affords very powerful means of resuscitation."2


Giovanni Aldini, a nephew of Luigi Galvani, tested the effects of electricity on the corpses of executed criminals in 1803. The columns are voltaic piles.

In 1818 a Glasgow chemist brought the body of a hanged man to his laboratory ten minutes after it was cut down. When the current from a battery was applied, "laborious breathing instantly commenced," but the man did not revive. At an 1827 hanging in Albany, New York, "eminent surgeons" stood ready "to try galvanic experiments upon the body, in order, if possible, to resuscitate it," but the authorities would not let them try When John Skaggs was hanged in Bloomfield, Missouri, in 1870, the attending physicians pronounced him dead after ten minutes, then carried his corpse into the courthouse and tried to revive him with a hand-cranked magneto generator. The sheriff, who considered it odd to kill a man and then try to bring him back to life, suspected that the doctors cut Skaggs down prematurely to improve the odds of reviving him. "The intention of the law is to hang him till dead," the sheriff told the doctors. "It means dead in the strict sense of the word—enough to stay dead." The physicians nonetheless applied the current and provoked muscular action. "The right leg moves on the table like that of a clog-dancer," the New York Times noted. "Left arm swings around like a pugilist's." Skaggs reportedly developed a pulse and began breathing, but he died later that night.3

Electrical experiments had become such a popular fad in Germany that officials banned tests with the severed heads of executed criminals. Denied human subjects, a German named Karl August Weinhold took to killing kittens and replacing their brains and spinal columns with an amalgam of zinc and silver. One kitten so treated reportedly developed a pulse and heartbeat, opened its eyes, and hopped around.4

Weinhold's tests may have inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, first published in 1818, the story of a doctor who, using body parts scavenged from the "dissecting room and the slaughter-house," cobbled together a creature and managed to "infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing." Edgar Allan Poe played corpse revival for comic effect in "The Premature Burial," in which a man is buried alive but then exhumed before he expires. He "seemed to be in a fair way of ultimate recovery," Poe wrote, "but fell a victim to the quackeries of medical experiment. The galvanic battery was applied; and he suddenly expired in one of those ecstatic paroxysms which, occasionally, it superinduces."5

TO THE WITNESSES of resuscitation experiments, the contortions of dead creatures proved that there was a link between electricity and the spark of life. Although no one managed to revive the dead with electricity, there was a widespread belief that it could improve the health of those still living. "Electricity is life" became the mantra of those touting the medical uses of electricity. In the 1830s some hospitals created "electrifying rooms" for therapeutic shocks, and instrument makers in Boston sold small magnetos with electrode attachments that could be applied to, or inserted in, various parts of the body. During the Civil War, the U.S. surgeon general set aside wards for soldiers with nervous system illnesses and used electricity in attempts to cure them. Although elite physicians claimed to use electricity only for a few complaints such as nervous disorders and paralysis, those less interested in respectability treated electricity as a cure-all. One company promised that its electrical device would heal "rheumatism, paralysis, neuralgia, sciatica, asthma, dyspepsia, consumption, erysipelas, catarrh, piles, epilepsy, pains in the head, hips, back or limbs, diseases of spine, kidneys, liver and heart, falling, inflammation or ulceration." The Sears catalog offered the "Giant Power Heidelberg Electric Belt" as a cure for impotence.6

History has not been kind to the nineteenth century's medical therapies. In i860 Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said that if most drugs then in use, such as mercury and arsenic, "could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind,—and all the worse for the fishes." Physiological theory held that health depended on maintaining the equilibrium between the body's intake (food, liquid, air) and outgo (bodily excretions). At a time when physicians lacked the instruments to see inside the body, their primary diagnostic tools were what came out of it. Their job was to manage a patient's delicate balance of forces and fluids, and they did so with drugs that caused sweating, urination, defecation, and vomiting. The therapies helped the body's systems regain balance. Just as important, the dramatic physiological reactions reassured patient and doctor that something was being done to cure the illness.7

Electrical medicine fit neatly into this scheme. The current from a battery or magneto was thought to preserve the healthful balance of a "fluid"—nerve force or animal electricity—that had become blocked or depleted. Although milder in its effects than many drugs, a medicinal electric shock produced tingles and shocks and sparks that served as clear evidence of therapeutic action. And it was impressive: By using electricity, physicians showed that they were masters of the arcane secrets of the era's most advanced technology. George Beard and A. D. Rockwell distilled the wisdom of decades of electrical medicine into A Practical Treatise on the Medical and Surgical Uses of Electricity, which was first published in 1871 and became the standard American text on the subject. The authors complained of "travelling charlatans" who sold electricity as a cure-all, but their own claims were nearly as sweeping. They advocated what they called "general faradization," in which the patient stood on a large copper electrode while the doctor passed the other electrode—contained in a moist sponge—all over her body, producing muscle contractions. The therapy, Beard and Rockwell claimed, invigorated the system and cured "all forms of pain and debility what­soever." 8

George Beard became famous for inventing an illness. In the 1860s many of his patients complained of vague ailments that included fatigue, anxiety, indecision, and sexual debility. Whereas earlier physicians claimed the problem was all in the head, Beard deemed it physical. Borrowing freely from Galvani's theory of animal electricity, he claimed the human body manufactured a "nervous force," electrical in nature, that carried messages between the brain and the body. But people possessed limited stores of this force, and nineteenth-century life—with its trains and telegraphs and bustling cities—easily exhausted it, producing what Beard called neurasthenia, or weakness of the nerves. He treated his patients with electricity, convinced that the fluid from a battery could recharge a depleted human system. Neurasthenia—or American Nervousness, as Beard titled his popular book—became the fashionable illness of America's upper classes. Like Sigmund Freud a few years later, Beard pioneered in the study of neuroses and the social causes of mental disease. For Beard, though, neurasthenia was not a mental illness to be talked through; it was the symptom of a disordered mechanism in need of a minor manipulation and a fresh infusion of energy.9

BEARD AND THOMAS EDISON became acquainted in 1874, when Edison branched out from telegraphy into medical machinery and Beard offered to endorse the inventor's new product: the inductorium. Edison noticed that instrument makers were collecting tidy profits selling medical induction coils, which were used to transform low voltages from a battery into more powerful shocks, so he decided to enter the market himself. "This instrument should be in every family as a specific cure for rheumatism," according to an Edison advertisement that ran in more than 300 newspapers. In three months he sold more than 100 inductoriums.10

Edison's induction coil had uses beyond the medicinal. He suggested creating a burglar alarm by connecting the battery's wires to a door or window and the electrodes to a cat: "When a window is raised 45 or a door opened it will close battery ckt [circuit] & the handles being connected to a cat she will give an unearthly & diabolical yell & wake all up." This idea, contained in Edison's scribbled notes, never made it into print, but the newspaper advertisement for the inductorium does describe it as "an inexhaustible fount of amusement." Edison, who had played pranks with his induction coil in his days as a tramp telegrapher, thought administering shocks to unsuspecting victims was good fun. When he considered starting a "Scientific Toy Company," one of the devices he proposed was a "Magneto-elec-shocking Machine."11

The induction coil was a common toy even before Edison took hold of it. One electrical expert fondly recalled the "dreadful shock … given to our school-fellows when we became the proud possessors of our first electrical machine." The Ward B. Snyder catalog of sportsmen's goods advertised its electric battery as "an endless source of amusement for an evening party." In Salem, Massachusetts, an itinerant lecturer performed what a member of his audience described as "the old experiment of sending a sharp shock of electricity through the joined hands of some scores of people, each one of whom really believed he was the first one hit, so synchronous was the blow." At carnivals, fairgoers paid showmen for the pleasure of receiving shocks from an induction coil. Similar amusements took place at dime museums—those catchall institutions, brought to perfection by P. T Barnum, where visitors might see Siamese twins, a wax statue of a famous murderer, a temperance play, and the latest scientific apparatus. One New York dime museum advertised "New and Wonderful Galvanic Batteries. Always ready, (free of charge) for the use of visitors." The kinds of use were not specified, but they certainly included the surprising pleasures of receiving a mild electric shock.12

Electricity was also administered for darker purposes. In 1878 the Ohio state penitentiary began using strong jolts from an induction coil to punish inmates, applying the electrodes "to the bare skin of the convict in various places." The coil "is so small that it looks like a toy," the New York Sun reported, "but it makes the subject of punishment yell sometimes, as though he was badly hurt."13

Killing experiments, first attempted by Benjamin Franklin and others in the 1750s, continued in the nineteenth century. The British physician B. C. Brodie killed a guinea pig with a Leyden jar in 1827 and concluded that in victims of lightning strikes "there is an instantaneous and complete destruction of the vital principle in every part of the animal machine." Fifty years later Benjamin Ward Richardson, a noted British physician, applied sparks from a big induction coil to various animals. A frog survived twenty-five shocks with no obvious ill effects, and a rabbit emerged from thirty jolts with only singed fur. When Richardson coupled the induction coil with a large Leyden jar, however, he managed to kill pigeons, reporting that after receiving such a shock a bird will appear "perfectly, livingly, natural, and yet it will be dead. No mark will be left on its body."14


Edison's inductorium, a device for giving mild electric shocks, was sold as a cure for rheumatism and as "an inexhaustible fount of amusement."

Richardson, like Brodie, was investigating the physiological effects of lightning strikes, but others became interested in electrical killing for other reasons. In November and December of 1879, as Edison was preparing to unveil his incandescent lamp, the New York Herald published a series of articles on the possibility of executing condemned criminals with electricity. The Herald printed no comments from Edison on the matter, but the inventor's friend Dr. George Beard endorsed the idea. Beard claimed that sending a large Leyden jar shock from ear to ear would kill a man "in the small fraction of an instant."15