The Hanging Ritual - 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 7. The Hanging Ritual

ONE RAINY AFTERNOON a few days before the official start-up of the Edison system, a policemen ran into the Pearl Street station and said there was trouble at the corner of Ann and Nassau Streets. Edison rushed to the spot, where a wet patch of pavement was giving electric shocks, and a large crowd had gathered to await the next unwary passerby. Just as Edison arrived, an old horse approached, pulling a fruit peddler and his cart. When the mare reached a certain spot on the cobblestones, she reared like a circus stallion and galloped off at a frantic clip, nearly capsizing the cart. The crowd roared with laughter, but a policeman put a stop to the fun by blocking off the street. After Edison and his men cut the current, they dug up the street and found that a company laying steam pipes had damaged the electric main, allowing electricity to escape into the wet ground.

The newspapers played the story for laughs, and so did Edison, who said that a horse seller requested a dynamo for his lot so "he could get old nags in there and make them act like thoroughbreds."1

At the low voltages of the Edison current, accidental shocks were a source of humor, but the inventor understood that higher voltages could be deadly. The three arc lighting fatalities in 1882 had raised public concerns about the safety of electricity; they also revived interest in electricity as a method of deliberate killing. In late August 1882, a week or so before the cart horse incident, Edison received a letter from a woman who wanted to know if electricity could kill livestock humanely. He told her that a dynamo could "kill instantly."2

Others claimed that electric currents might be a good way to kill human beings. In 1879 the New York Herald had run several articles on executing prisoners with electric currents, and a year later the trade journal Manufacturer and Builder proposed placing a prisoner in "an arm chair—the seat of death" and using electricity to "shock the victim into the next world." The 1870s and 1880s saw many proposals for new ways of killing condemned prisoners. The suggestions arose from the growing sentiment that hanging—the standard method of capital punishment in America—was barbaric and therefore unsuitable for a civilized nation.3

HANGING RITUALS and other elaborate methods of execution arose alongside the modern state. In medieval Europe justice had been carried out on a private basis: When a person was murdered, his family members sought vengeance upon the killer. That practice held sway as long as political power was fragmented, but by the fifteenth century a few rulers had asserted control over large regions of Europe and found that personal feuds were not conducive to orderly government. In order to gain a monopoly on violence, they decreed that justice would be a public rather than a private matter—the state, rather than the victim's family, would kill the murderer. Authorities began to stage executions as public ceremonies in which criminals were branded, whipped, beheaded, burned, drawn and quartered, or hanged. These were not gratuitous displays of violence; they were civics lessons, intended to teach lessons on the perils of lawbreaking.4

The colonists who settled in America brought with them the English justice system, including hanging practices. As in England, the American theater of execution was strictly scripted: prayers in the jail cell, a formal procession through the streets to the gallows, a confession by the condemned, more prayers, and, finally, the drop. By taking a man's life, the magistrates demonstrated the power of the state, while the ministers gave divine sanction to the proceedings. The prisoner, by confessing, assured the authorities and the audience that the execution was just.5

The members of the crowd played the most important role, because the ceremony was performed for their benefit. Watching a hanging was considered a wholesome activity, even for women and children. In their execution sermons, ministers described the condemned not as a moral monster, utterly unlike the spectators, but as a common sinner, exactly like them. All people bore the stain of original sin; all were guilty of lust and anger—the man on the scaffold had just traveled a bit farther down the well-trodden path of iniquity. As they watched the execution, citizens faced the burden of sinfulness that was the fate of all men. The crime of murder destroyed families, sowed distrust among neighbors, and ripped communities apart; the execution ceremony brought them together again. A public hanging was intended to serve as a civic ritual of retribution and reconciliation.6


William Hogarth's The Idle 'Prentice Executed at Tyburn, 1747. Riotous crowds at public hangings were common in England and America in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

ON AUGUST 24, 1827, a man named Jesse Strang was hanged in Albany, New York, for the murder of his lover's husband. On the morning of the execution, the Reverend Lacey, an Episcopal minister, prayed with Strang in his cell for several hours. At precisely one o'clock, the condemned was ushered out of the prison. He wore black gloves, a long white shroud trimmed in black, and a white cap, also trimmed in black—traditional garb for the gallows. The minister walked on one side of Strang, the sheriff on the other. The jailer and other civil officials joined the procession, which was led by two black horses drawing a wagon that bore an empty coffin. The Albany Republican Military provided an escort.7

The militia escort was not a formality. Steamboats and ferries arriving in Albany were swarmed with passengers, and the roads into the city were choked with carriages and farm wagons. Visitors thronged the streets and sidewalks, bringing normal business to a halt. With great difficulty the militiamen managed to part the crowds to allow the procession to make its way to the execution site. The gallows had been constructed next to a bend in the Ruttenkill, a small river about a quarter mile from the state capitol building. From the valley floor steep hills rose abruptly on three sides, forming a natural amphitheater, and more than 30,000 people crowded the hills. Earlier in the day, when the crowds first started to swell, thirteen companies of volunteer militia had marched to the execution site and formed themselves three deep in a large circle, keeping the spectators from surging toward the scaffold.

A little before half past one the circle of soldiers parted to allow entry to the hearse, the civil and religious officials, and the condemned man. Strang mounted the steps to the gallows, and the sheriff invited him to address the crowd. In a voice loud enough to reach the hilltops, Strang expressed sorrow for his crimes and hope that his death might atone for his sins. He urged those present to "reflect upon the effects of sin and lust" and avoid his terrible fate. The sheriff granted the condemned man another hour of prayer to make his peace with God, but Strang said he was ready to die. Reverend Lacey read the burial service of the Episcopal Church: "In the midst of life we are in death: Of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased." Strang joined fervently in the prayers.8

When the service was ended, Reverend Lacey commended Strang to his maker and resigned him to the civil authorities, and the prisoner drew the cap down over his own face. The sheriff bound Strang's legs, pinioned his arms behind his back, and adjusted the noose around his neck. The sheriff gave the signal, the drop fell, and Jesse Strang "was launched into eternity."9

In its formal aspect—the procession, the gallows confession, the prayers—Jesse Strang's 1827 hanging resembled the execution ceremonies in Massachusetts Bay a century before, but the similarities ended there. In his gallows speech, Strang held up a pamphlet titled Confession of Jesse Strang and declared that "every word that it contains … is true." The condemned man used the last minute of his life on Earth to plug a lurid account of the romance and murder that led him to the noose. Strang's endorsement delighted the hucksters who were working the huge crowd to sell the pamphlet, along with other goods. Thirty thousand spectators required food and drink, and Albany's tavern keepers and grocers happily supplied rum and ale, bread and meat. Rather than the Puritans' solemn ceremony, hanging day had become a public holiday. In the nineteenth century there was probably no single event that attracted as many spectators as a hanging, and the men and women were not always on their best behavior. According to a newspaper account of Strang's hanging, "scenes of the most disgraceful drunkenness, gambling, profanity, and almost all kinds of debauchery" had occurred around the gallows, "even at the very time the culprit was suffering."10

The type of disorder witnessed at Strang's hanging was not unusual, and it was beginning to make America's ruling classes nervous. Sheriffs were staging hangings as their predecessors had a century before, but the United States had become a very different place. The country's population had grown enormously, from 1.5 million in 1750 to 13 million in 1830. Many of the newcomers crowded into cities, where the nature of work and social life was being altered. Before the Revolution America had been a paternalistic society. Most goods were produced in small shops, and owners worked alongside their employees and kept a close eye on them, both when they were at work and in their leisure hours. The emergence of large factories and the growth of a market economy changed that. By the 1820s the United States was home to tens of thousands of masterless men, who put in their hours at work and could do what they pleased in their free time: get drunk, go to theaters, gamble, visit brothels. They also had a tendency to express their views through group violence. In the years before the Civil War, there were riots over elections, abolition, Catholicism, Mormonism, brothels, race, immigration, working conditions, theatrical performances, and a dozen other issues. The first American police forces were created in these years specifically to address the problems of mob violence.11

The working class revealed a reluctance to behave as their betters wished, and this independent streak revealed itself at public executions. The sheriffs and clergy tried to teach lessons about state power and the price of sin, but members of the audience, bent on drinking and gambling, proved to be reluctant pupils. Sometimes the condemned man chose to "die game"—according to the phrase at the time—refusing to play the contrite role and defying the authorities to the end. In such cases the crowd often treated the condemned man as a hero and the authorities as villains. "An hundred persons are made worse, where one is made better by a public execution," one man wrote in 1826. The mob had wrenched control of the ceremony out of the hands of the authorities and given it a subversive new meaning.12

AUTHORITIES TRIED various methods of reasserting control over hanging day. To limit the size of crowds, New York City officials in the late 1820s tried moving hangings to islands in the harbor, or starting the procession early in morning, or simply quickening its pace. In 1829 a newspaper reported that an execution procession moved "with such rapidity as to prevent the rabble from keeping pace." The public execution had become, in the words of one legal scholar, "a spectacle in flight from its audience."13

Many states took this flight a step farther: They privatized executions, moving them from public spaces to the isolation of the prison yard, where only a select few could watch. Pennsylvania abolished public executions in 1834, and a year later New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey followed suit. By 1845 every state in New England and the Mid-Atlantic region had privatized executions.14

Although the fear of riotous hanging day mobs was the most immediate cause of the new laws, private executions also reflected a more general move away from criminal punishments that involved the public infliction of pain. Over the course of the eighteenth century, American officials gradually made fewer crimes subject to the death penalty and began to be more sparing in their use of corporal punishments such as whipping. The practice of gibbeting—hanging the criminal's body in public for weeks or months after the execution—also stopped. In the 1780s and 1790s American states started building penitentiaries, where, in theory at least, criminals enjoyed the solitude to consider their crimes, grow penitent, and transform themselves into virtuous citizens. Rather than punishing the criminal's body, the state embarked on reshaping his soul.

The United States eased physical punishments earlier than its European counterparts. In the early nineteenth century, England operated under the "Bloody Code," a set of laws that rendered more than 200 crimes capital offenses. People—almost exclusively poor people—were hanged for petty offenses such as forging bank notes or stealing a few spoons. Similar codes prevailed in American colonies for much of the eighteenth century, although executions for these lesser offenses were much more rare in America than in England. After the Revolution most American states abolished the death penalty for crimes such as burglary and sodomy, retaining it only for murder and treason. Having fought a war to be free of the tyranny of King George III, Americans had no desire to institute his brutal system of punishments in their pure young nation. In 1794 Pennsylvania lawmakers invented the concept of degrees of murder, in which only first-degree—premeditated-killing earned the noose. The new ideas about criminal justice also became enshrined in the federal Constitution, in which the Bill of Rights protected accused criminals and banned "cruel and unusual punishments." That phrase, borrowed from the English Bill of Rights of 1689, guarded against a return to such barbarous European practices as burning alive or drawing and quartering. Capital punishment itself was not seen as cruel and unusual.15

Some people, however, believed that the logical conclusion of the move away from physical punishment was the abolition of the death penalty. From the 1820s through the 1850s a vigorous anti-capital punishment movement emerged in the northern states,* supported by, among many others, the poet William Cullen Bryant and the newspaper editor Horace Greeley. The death penalty foes were met by an equally vigorous group of death penalty defenders.

The battle turned on competing views of human nature. Religious conservatives believed that humans were deeply depraved, and that only harsh laws rigidly enforced could keep anarchy at bay. Civil government was the earthly representative of divine government, and biblical justice demanded death for murderers: According to Genesis 9:6, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed." Opponents of the gallows emerged from the same school of thought that created the penitentiary. In their view, human nature at heart was moral, reasonable, and capable of reform. People's characters were formed not by the corruption of original sin but by their environments, so convicted criminals needed not punishment but proper training. It was the government's duty to reform criminals, not to kill them. Abolitionists tended to belong to the more liberal Christian churches—Unitarian, Universalist, Quaker—while most vocal death penalty supporters were Congregationalist or Presbyterian. Walt Whitman, founder of a Brooklyn anti-death penalty group, denounced this ministerial support for the gallows in an 1845 essay: "When I go by a church, I cannot help thinking whether its walls do not sometimes echo, 'Strangle and kill in the name of God!'"16

The debate over capital punishment also took place on utilitarian grounds. Supporters believed executions deterred others from committing murder, and that outlawing the gallows would "unkennel the bloodhounds of disorder... and perhaps overturn the very foundations of political existence." Death penalty abolitionists considered this argument ludicrous. "Imagine a man who would like to kill another, sitting down and balancing the relative gravity of hanging or imprisonment," one lawyer wrote, "and ending it all by giving up the formation of the purpose because of capital punishment, or nursing and maturing it because of imprisonment for life!" On the other hand, many of those sentenced to life in prison managed to avoid serving the full sentence. Although successful appeals of capital sentences were rare in the nineteenth century, executive pardons were not uncommon, especially for well-heeled convicts or those who had gained the public's sympathy. "In point of fact imprisonment for life would mean confinement for a few years and then liberty to commit another crime," the New York Herald wrote. "Political influence and bribery would be brought to bear and the prisoner would simply laugh at his sentence as meaning next to nothing."17

Nearly every northern state saw legislative action to repeal the death penalty, and some efforts succeeded. In the wake of a hanging day riot in 1837, Maine passed a law that effectively (although not explicitly) ended the death penalty. In 1846 Michigan's government became the first English-speaking legislative body anywhere in the world to abolish capital punishment officially, and Rhode Island and Wisconsin followed within a decade. These successes, though, were unusual. More typical was the case of New Hampshire. When the state held a referendum on the issue in 1844, the vote ran two to one in favor of the death penalty.18

DESPITE THE LAWS that privatized hangings in the 1830s and 1840s, executions still drew a large audience, through the medium of the newspaper. The press expanded coverage of executions after the privatization laws went into effect, allowing people to satisfy in print an appetite forbidden in person. For the authorities, this seemed to be a perfect situation. The hanging rituals could assert their deterrent effect, but now the audience was dispersed—at home, on the streetcar, in the park. People could absorb the lessons of the spectacle without participating in it or disrupting it in any way.

In some counties, however, sheriffs flouted the privatization law by appointing hundreds of friends and constituents as "special deputies" with viewing privileges. Admission tickets distributed by sheriffs quickly found their way onto the black market, and those without tickets often climbed hills overlooking the prison yard. At the Tombs prison New Yorkers clung to chimneys and railings of nearby buildings to get a view of the sufferings of the condemned.19

Technically, there should not have been any suffering, because hanging methods had been changed over the years in an attempt to make executions more humane. The earliest gallows were two posts with a crossbar—the victim either walked up a ladder, which was then removed, or stood upon a cart, which was driven away. In either case, the prisoner fell just a few inches and died of strangulation. By 1800 the trapdoor gallows was common, and a few decades later some states adopted a new design: Rather than dropping the prisoner through a trap, these gallows used a suspended weight that, when released, jerked him up into the air. Sheriffs hoped that the force of the fall—or of the hoisting up—would break the neck and cause rapid death. Professional hangmen created a formula in which rope length was a function of the prisoner's weight: the heavier the victim, the shorter the drop. But many times these delicate calculations of anatomy and gravity failed to add up. Sometimes the drop was too short, and the prisoner strangled. Sometimes it was too long, and those assembled found themselves witness to a decapitation rather than a hanging.20

There is no way of knowing how often these problems occurred earlier in the nineteenth century, because most descriptions of hangings did not include such information. The lack of detail reflected the feeling that what was important about hanging day—the ritual procession, prayers, and confession—took place before the drop. Around 1850, however, newspapers began printing details of the victim's sufferings at the end of the rope. They described the prisoner's body convulsing and twitching, legs twisting and kicking, throat gurgling, eyes bulging, face turning purple. (The press was too delicate to note that most hanged men also urinated, defecated, and ejaculated.)21

Although the American people were largely deaf to pleas that capital punishment was unjust on principle, death penalty opponents had one strong card to play: the suffering of the condemned. Edmund Clarence Stedman, a foe of capital punishment, published long articles with explicit depictions of botched hangings and criticized "the dreadful, the inconceivable physical agonies of men who are hanged." He hoped to play on the public's sympathies, and the strategy worked. The New York Times claimed that bungled hangings were "accountable for most of what opposition exists among us to capital punishment." Maine in 1876 officially abolished capital punishment after a botched hanging outraged the public. Death penalty opponents, it seemed, had found the issue that might carry the day.22

But this strategy contained a flaw. In arguing that the problem with the death penalty was the suffering of the prisoner, Stedman and others suggested that the death penalty without pain would be unobjectionable, and they implicitly challenged death penalty advocates to find a better way to kill.

*The movement made little headway in the South, whose citizens believed capital punishment to be necessary for controlling the slave population.