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History of the Electric Chair

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The Electric Chair at Sing Sing Prison

"Old Sparky," the legendary electric chair at New York's Sing Sing Prison, was used to execute 614 prisoners.

Photo: New York State Archive.

The Idea:

In 1881, capital punishment was in common use in the United States--but that usually meant hanging, or occasionally a firing squad. Enter New York dentist Albert Southwick, who saw an old drunk accidentally electrocute himself on a power generator with no visible pain. He told a friend in the legislature, and the idea of executing people using the modern marvel of electricity began to take hold.

The Truth About Cats and Dogs:

The forerunner of commercial electricity was Thomas Edison, whose direct current (DC) approach was safer than George Westinghouse's newer alternating current (AC) technology--but inferior in every other discernible respect. To protect the safety of the American public (and his commercial interests), Edison held a demonstration in which he used a 1,000-volt alternating current generator to kill cats, dogs, and a large horse. Waiting in the wings were legislators eager to adopt Southwick's vision of a humane, electricity-based form of execution.

Chapter 489:

Southwick soon became part of a New York legislative panel charged with the goal of eliminating gruesome forms of execution by replacing them with electrocution. In 1888, before the electric chair had technically been invented, the State of New York added Chapter 489 to its state code--establishing electrocution as the state's official execution method.

The Strange Death of William Kemmler:

In March of 1889, William Kemmler murdered his lover Matilda Ziegler. He was sentenced to die two months later in Auburn Prison's electric chair, the first in the country. It took eight agonizing minutes to kill him but it did the job, and electrocution soon became the most widely used method of legal execution in the United States.

The Mercy Seat:

Between 1890 and 1973, over 4,000 people were executed in the electric chair--from infamous murderers to accused traitors to railroaded black defendants in the South. Perhaps the most famous electric chair executions of this era were those of Bruno Hauptmann (1936), the alleged murderer of the Lindbergh baby, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1953), alleged spies for the Soviet Union.

An Outdated Method:

After the death penalty came back from a four-year moratorium in 1977, the electric chair began to be replaced replaced by the gas chamber and lethal injection; only 154 people were put to death by electrocution. (Among them: Ted Bundy.) Gruesome botched executions, in which faulty equipment tortured prisoners to death or simply burned them alive, became almost routine--most notably in Florida, where the equipment was not well maintained and was occasionally used by undertrained staff.

The Nebraska Case:

By February 2008, the electric chair had mostly become a novelty. Only one state--Nebraska--still used it as a primary method of execution, all others having relegated it to optional status for prisoners who wanted a more distinctive death. So when the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the electric chair constituted death by torture, there was little outcry. If the electric chair is ever used to execute prisoners again, it will most likely be on an extremely small-scale basis.

The Electric Chair Outside of the United States:

The electric chair is sometimes used in the Philippines, but no other country on Earth currently uses it as an execution method.

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