A Brief History of the Electric Chair

Guest Post by Kelly Oliver, W. Alton Jones Chair of Philosophy, Vanderbilt University

On January 4th, 1903, the famous inventor Thomas Edison electrocuted Topsy, an Asian Elephant and Coney Island circus attraction that had killed three of her trainers, one of whom tried to feed her a lighted cigarette. Edison documented the event, which was also a public spectacle reportedly attended by 1500 people, with his short film entitled “Electrocuting an Elephant.” The film brought together Edison’s most significant inventions, electric lighting, film, and electrocution as a means of instituting the death penalty.

The film was also a publicity stunt on the part of Edison, who waged what he called a “war of currents” with his rival George Westinghouse. Edison had invested himself in direct current electricity while Westinghouse had invested in alternating current, which could be more easily transmitted at higher voltages over cheaper wires. In a campaign to discredit alternating current, Edison tried to convince people that it wasn’t safe, first by using it to electrocute animals and eventually by endorsing it for use in executing humans. Edison reasoned that people would not want the same current flowing into their homes that was used in the electric chair.

In public demonstrations to discredit Westinghouse, Edison reportedly executed so many stray cats and dogs, often in circuslike spectacles involving first shocking the animals with direct current and then killing them instantly with alternating current, that the area near his lab in Menlo Park New Jersey was almost devoid of strays. In 1887, he held a public demonstration in West Orange New Jersey, where he used a Westinghouse generator to kill a dozen animals at once, which spurred the media to use a new term to describe death by electricity, “electrocution.”

A year later, Edison hired Harold Brown to help design the electric chair that would be used in the first execution of a prisoner, William Kemmler, by electrocution, which Edison called “being Westinghoused.” Brown continued Edison’s experiments on animals, electrocuting strays, along with larger animals like cows and horses.  The day before the first use of the electric chair on a human, Brown tested 1000 volts on a horse, which was killed immediately. This test was conducted to establish how much AC current should be used on Kemmler. Reportedly, after 17 seconds of 1000 volts, Kemmler was pronounced dead by the attending physician. But after a member of the gallery pointed out that he was still breathing, the doctor quickly ordered another jolt of 2000 volts. “According to witnesses, the second jolt caused his blood vessels to burst and his skin to catch fire.”

Another eyewitness pointed to the difficulty of determining death by electrocution: “For obvious reasons, the only means of determining the question of death while the body was in circuit was by ocular monstration; so that it can not be positively asserted that the heart’s action entirely ceased with the onset of unconsciousness…”. This raises the philosophical and political question of how to recognize the instant of death from merely seeing the body.

Even after the horrific report of Kemmler’s execution, most eastern and southern states adopted the electric chair, known as “riding the lightning” as the most humane method of execution. Seemingly disavowing the gristly effects of electrocution, and holding onto the fantasy of instant death through electricity, the electric chair remained in use in the United States from 1890 through March 2010 (in some states the condemned can choose electrocution over lethal injection). Now, Tennessee is bringing back this gruesome form of execution.

Read more of Dr. Kelly Oliver’s work on the death penalty in The Southern Journal of Philosophy, in her book, Technologies of Life and Death: From Cloning to Capital Punishment, and in her contribution to Death and Other Penalties: Philosophical Interventions in a Time of Mass Incarceration (forthcoming from Fordham University Press in 2015).


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