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.

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Death and Taxes: The Real Story Behind Tennessee’s Electric Chair

Guest Post by Lisa Guenther, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Vanderbilt University

Yesterday, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill to bring back the electric chair as the default method of execution, should lethal injection drugs become unavailable or unconstitutional. While the first version of the bill restricted its application to death sentences issued after July 2014, a last-minute amendment lifted this restriction, making it applicable to those who are currently on death row. Theoretically, this means that we could be facing an execution by electrocution in Tennessee as early as Oct. 7, when Billy Irick is scheduled to be killed.

It is tempting to decry this return to the electric chair as a “barbaric” lapse into brutal forms of violence that do not befit a democratic nation such as the United States. It is also tempting to affirm this legislation as a more “truthful” display of what is really going on when the state kills, and to hope that the unconcealment of state violence will lead to more vigorous opposition. But it’s not at all clear that more truth leads to more activism, nor that brute violence is incompatible with US democracy.

In order to understand what’s happening in Tennessee – and in other states that are currently going out of their way to kill people, such as Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Utah – we must move beyond moral discourses on the death penalty and trace the material, political connections between state violence, economic inequality, and white supremacy in the United States.

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