Get our free newsletter
With the words “William, it is time,” Warden Charles Durston led William Kemmler down a hall and into a room. A short time later, Kemmler became the first man in history to be executed by electricity. “The chair” as it exists today is fundamentally identical to the one used that morning in 1890 to whisk Kemmler off on his final journey.
The late 1800s was an era in which technology in general, and electricity in particular, seemed a force of boundless utility. It is perhaps understandable that the state of New York decided to switch to this technological panacea for dispatching the convicted. Remarkably, Kemmler himself was unconcerned about his status as a human lab rat, expressing confidence that death in the chair would be easier than the hanging he would have suffered had he murdered his wife a few months sooner. It therefore came as a surprise to the witnesses at the execution when Kemmler’s body seemed to writhe and convulse when the current was applied, and the unmistakable stench of burning flesh filled the room.
This is only one of many disquieting stories in Executioner’s Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair, sociologist Richard Moran’s detailed history of the confluence of events that led to the introduction of the electric chair. In it, Moran argues that both political struggle and industrial competition contributed to the acceptance of a killing device that was just as ghastly as previous methods.
The chair would never have been possible if there hadn’t been public dissatisfaction with the rope. Hanging, which could be a quick snap of the neck—depending on the skill of the executioner and the “cooperation” of the victim—could also result in a slow strangulation lasting 30 minutes or more. By the middle of the 19th century, both the method and style of execution were being re-examined, particularly in New York, where in 1885, at the behest of the governor, a commission chaired by Elbridge T. Gerry was formed to look for a more humane method. The state had, a few decades earlier, eliminated public executions, but memories of frequent botched hangings, and continuing newspaper reports of same, had made the public even more uncomfortable with the penalty.
It was the Gerry commission’s rejection of all known methods—most because they were barbaric, firing squad and hanging because they could be bungled, and the fast and sure guillotine because it was extremely traumatic for witnesses and “had unpleasant associations with the French revolution”—that set the stage for a method heretofore untried.
Surprisingly, Moran does not dwell too long on the public-opinion aspects of this evolution. If the introduction of the chair had little effect on, or indeed increased, the pain suffered by the condemned, the motivations for it were fundamentally compassionate, as Moran, an anti-death-penalty advocate, might have done more to emphasize. The bloody Civil War was still a living memory, medicine was a collection of crude techniques, and pain was a routine part of both life and death—but execution was beginning to be viewed differently. Although the language forbidding “cruel and unusual” punishment had long been in force, having been written into the Eighth Amendment, it seems clear that in the 19th century a more modern and humane concept of the term was beginning to take shape.
Electrocution as a means of execution had been suggested by a number of parties, most significantly by Scientific American (at least for animals) and by New York City dentist Alfred Porter Southwick, who had witnessed an accidental death by electrocution in his youth and thought it was a pretty good idea. Southwick was appointed to the Gerry commission and found himself fighting a losing battle with other commissioners to advocate electrocution in their final report to the state legislature. Looking for outside support, he wrote to Thomas Edison.
The celebrated inventor was having problems of his own. His fledgling electrical company was involved in a Betamax-vs.-VHS-style battle over electrical standards with the upstart Westinghouse. Edison held a range of patents for direct-current electrical distribution (which had powered the first lightbulb); Westinghouse head George Westinghouse championed alternating current. (In AC, the power flows rapidly back and forth in the wire, whereas DC flows continuously in one direction.) Either could be used to run a motor or light a room, but the practical differences were enormous. A DC-powered facility has to be within a few miles of the generating station—meaning that Edison’s company would have to pepper Manhattan with power stations to light it. AC would require far less infrastructure.
Edison, though he insisted he was personally opposed to the death penalty—Moran is clearly cynical about this claim—gradually realized that he might be able to turn Southwick’s request into a business advantage. In a move worthy of P.T. Barnum, he wrote back to Southwick with the information that alternating current was indeed quite deadly, suggesting that a Westinghouse dynamo then in production would be the best choice for effectively ending human life. A delighted Southwick used the letter of his new ally to turn the committee, and eventually the legislature, in favor of the method. Moran provides woefully little information about the mechanisms behind this institutional change of heart, which must have been extensive. Adopting a breathtakingly new program or technology is not something states did—or do—lightly.
Edison’s involvement in the story of the chair is less clear after that. Moran tries to push what are fairly minimal facts into evidence of a secret campaign for electric execution orchestrated by Edison. Whatever the case, the actual experimental work designed to prove that AC was the more deadly choice was carried out by one Harold Brown, a self-taught engineer and early advocate of DC power, with advice and some financial support from Edison. Edison, already as famous as an inventor could hope to be, was mindful of his reputation and legacy. He did not want to be remembered as the father of electrocution—indeed, he was hoping to associate Westinghouse with the ultimate zap. His only personal contact with Brown was on two occasions when he lent his Menlo Park, N.J., laboratories for press demonstrations of AC’s killing power on large animals.
Executioner’s Current, despite the intrigues of this, its primary story, succumbs to one of the hazards of popular nonfiction—the too-long-Harper’s-article syndrome. It would have made for an absolutely smashing 8,000 words in Harper’s (or the Atlantic or the New Yorker or wherever), but when written to a length to justify a double-digit cover price, the story of the electric chair becomes a rather thin soup. The Professor and the Madman, recently off the paperback best-seller list, is another example. But unlike Simon Winchester—who used redundancy and minutiae to stretch his story to book length—Moran has left his brilliant article largely intact, as three chapters within Executioner’s Current, finding his padding in dubiously relevant side stories (particularly the trial and appeal of Kemmler, told in excruciating detail) and in a rather cursory argument against the death penalty on moral grounds. The result is a book that varies so much in quality and interest that it almost reads like a collection of papers presented at the first annual “Invention of the Electric Chair” conference, rather than a
But Moran, perhaps inadvertently, does like-minded readers a service beyond the actual text: By outlining its citizens’ ingrained aversion to all things cruel and unusual, he provides the tools with which to argue that America is really much less pro-death-penalty than polls would indicate—Gallup figures have ranged from 50 percent to 61 percent pro-capital-punishment over the past decade—even if he never quite pulls the trigger on the issue himself.
But the driving force behind the introduction of electrocution—and later lethal injection, which Moran also
discusses—was the search for a way to dispatch the condemned that was fast and merciful. Moran never analyzes the public demand for a method of execution that could be believed to be less painful than a trip to the dentist—or for that matter, than the death many modern Americans ultimately face, in a hospital intensive-care ward. And yet understanding this instinct (deeper than the “public unease” with cruelty that Moran discusses) is, of course, key to understanding much of the history that Executioner’s Current comprises. Discomfort over the means of execution and discomfort over execution itself are part of the same humanitarian continuum.
But Moran, in a rush to condemn the New York process, fails to make this essential point. Intent as he is on proving that any execution is too painful to bear, he fails to make the logical argument that offers the best hope for abolitionists: that society still can’t come up with a way of killing that makes it entirely comfortable. CP