William Kemmler (1890):
After Kemmler murdered his wife with an axe in 1889, he became a natural test subject for a new method of execution, ostensibly more humane than hanging or the firing squad: alternating current electricity, marketed by the inventor George Westinghouse. According to early witnesses, the gruesome execution took two tries over an eight-minute period.
Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1927):
Sacco and Vanzetti had been accused of murdering two guards while robbing a fortune from a shoe store. Italian-American immigrants and anarchists to boot, they were unpopular enemies of the first Red Scare and railroaded in a trial that completely disregarded their due process rights. Their execution in 1927 galvanized the American labor movement.
Albert Fish (1936):
Serial child molester and child murderer Albert Fish
was known to have killed and cannibalized at least five victims, but he claimed to have "had" more than a hundred, and refused to specify whether he was referring to molestation or murder. His execution wasn't particularly controversial.
Bruno Hauptmann (1936):
Hauptmann, accused of kidnapping and murdering the infant child of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wasn't a particularly controversial execution victim either--but irregularities in his trial cast doubt on his guilt to this day. We may never know for sure who murdered the Lindbergh baby, but we know who was executed for the crime.
Lena Baker (1945):
When 44-year-old maid Lena Baker shot her employer Ernest Knight, she credibly alleged self-defense. But the State of Georgia gave her a typically speedy trial by a typically all-white jury, and she was sent to the chair to die--a typical fate for black Southerners accused of crimes against whites.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1953):
The Rosenbergs, accused of spying for the Soviet Union during the first Red Scare, are a symbol of love and fidelity. Either could have escaped execution by implicating the other. Both refused. Later evidence would reveal that much of the testimony against the Rosenbergs was falsified, and that while Julius may well have been a low-level spy, he could not have sold nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union--the charge that led to his execution, as well as that of his wife.
Ted Bundy (1989):
Serial rapist and murderer Ted Bundy took the lives of dozens of women during the 1970s, and his 1989 death was in many ways emblematic of a "good" electric chair execution. The execution went smoothly; Bundy's guilt was not in dispute; and he was, without question, the worst kind of criminal. To this day, advocates of the death penalty defend its existence by citing the example of Ted Bundy. His execution was not, however, typical.
Allen Lee Davis (1999):
Davis was a monstrous figure--having murdered a pregnant woman and then her two children, aged 5 and 9--but his execution called into question the usefulness of the electric chair as a humane method of execution. Specifically, he bled from the nose, was burned more severely than most executed in the electric chair, may have been partially asphyxiated by his mask, and may have screamed. An inquiry by the State of Florida determined that the execution was humane, but it continued to raise questions.
Brandon Wayne Hedrick (2006):
Brandon Wayne Hedrick, executed for the rape and murder of a young woman in Virginia, may go down in history as the last person executed by electric chair in the United States. In February 2008, the State of Nebraska ruled that electric chair executions--already on the decline--constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Due to the possibility of a successful court challenge based on the Nebraska reasoning, states in which the electric chair is still technically permitted may be disinclined to allow it as an option.