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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