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The Electric Chair

Riding the Lightning


No form of execution has captured the American popular imagination like the electric chair.

An African-American prisoner is prepared for execution in "Old Sparky," Sing-Sing Prison's infamous electric chair. Photograph taken circa 1900 by William M. Van der Weyde.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
History: The electric chair is a quintessentially American invention. No less a figure than Thomas Edison petitioned for its first use, though his motives for doing so were less than pure. The world's first execution by electrocution took place in 1890, and it remained the most common form of execution until the 1980s. Death row inmates in ten states may still choose the electric chair (and in recent years, two prisoners have--in 2004 and 2006, respectively).

How It Works: The prisoner is shaved, strapped to a chair, and fitted with electrodes attached to conductive sponges--one on the head, one on the leg--creating a direct current. The prisoner is then hooded. The executioner pulls a switch, and 2,000 volts race through the prisoner's body as the internal body temperature approaches 140 degrees. If performed correctly, the procedure is supposed to cause immediate unconsciousness followed by near-instantaneous death.

Complications: The procedure is extremely gruesome to contemplate, and can burn conscious prisoners alive if performed incorrectly. Horrific accounts of botched electrocutions have essentially made the electric chair a relic of the past, an option selected by prisoners who fear lethal injection or simply want a more distinctive exit.
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