Electric chair

From Example Problems
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The term electric chair is sometimes used in publications by organizations of people with disabilities to mean "electric-powered wheelchair".
The first electric chair, which was used to execute William Kemmler in 1890

The electric chair is a device used in the United States for execution of criminals convicted of capital crimes, usually capital murder. The electric chair is one method of execution used when a capital crime trial results in conviction and the sentence of death is recommended by a jury or approved by the presiding judge. As with all capital cases in the United States, a lengthy appeal process allows the defendant repeated opportunities to assert innocence, challenge evidence, overturn the conviction or commute the sentence to life imprisonment. The electric chair is a primary form of execution in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Virginia. In the U.S. states of Kentucky and Tennessee, the electric chair has been retired except for those whose capital crimes were committed prior to legislated dates in 1998. [Kentucky 3/31/98, Tennessee 12/31/98]. In both Kentucky and Tennessee, the method of execution authorized for crimes committed after these dates is lethal injection. The electric chair is an alternate form of execution approved for potential use in Illinois and Oklahoma if other forms of execution are found unconstititional in the state at the time of execution. In the United States, state legislatures are the authorizing bodies for death penalty allowance and any approved death penalty methods.

The electric chair was first used in the late 19th century. It was used by more than 25 states throughout the 20th century, acquiring nicknames such as Sizzlin' Sally, Old Smokey, Old Sparky, Yellow Mama, and Gruesome Gertie. To be put to death in an electric chair is colloquially known as "riding the lightning." In the late 20th century, the electric chair was removed as a form of execution in many U.S. states, and its use in the 21st century is declining. The electric chair was also used, for a time, in the Philippines.


The first practical electric chair was invented by Harold P. Brown. Brown was an employee of Thomas Edison's, hired for the purpose of researching electrocution and for the development of the electric chair. Since Brown worked for Edison, and Edison promoted Brown's work, the development of the electric chair is often erroneously credited to Edison himself. Brown's design was based on Alternating Current (AC), which was then just emerging as the rival to Edison's less transport-efficient Direct Current (DC), which was further along in commercial development. The decision to use AC was entirely driven by Edison's attempt to claim that AC was more lethal than DC.

New York State in 1886 established a committee to determine a new, more humane system of execution to replace hanging. Neither Edison nor Westinghouse wanted their electrical system to be chosen because they feared that consumers would not want in their homes the same type of electricity used to kill criminals.

In order to prove that AC electricity was better for executions, Brown and Edison killed many animals, including a circus elephant, while testing out their prototypes. They also held executions of animals for the press in order to ensure that AC current was associated with electrocution. It was at these events that the term "electrocution" was coined. Edison introduced the verb "to westinghouse" for denoting the art of executing persons with AC current. Most of their experiments were conducted at Edison's West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory in 1888.

The experiments apparently had their intended effects, and the AC electric chair was adopted by the committee in 1889. [1]

The first person to be executed via the electric chair was William Kemmler in New York's Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890; the 'state electrician' was Edwin Davis. The first woman to be executed in the electric chair was Martha M. Place, executed at Sing Sing Prison on March 20, 1899. It was adopted by Ohio (1897), Massachusetts (1900), New Jersey (1906) and Virginia (1908), and soon became the prevalent method of execution in the USA. It remained so until the mid-1980s, despite the increased popularity of the gas chamber from the 1950s onwards.

At the turn of the century, Charles Justice was a prison inmate in Columbus and helped build and install Ohio's only electric chair. He served his time and was released from prison, but returned to prison 13 years later. On November 9, 1911, he died in the same electric chair that he had helped to build.

A record was set on a July night in 1929 when seven men were executed, one after another, in the electric chair at Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville. It was the largest mass electrocution in US history. In 1942 the same technique of criminals watching the others die was used to execute the six German Nazi war criminals captured by famous FBI agent J Edgar Hoover in the so called Quirin affair.

Notable deaths by electric chair include Julius Rosenberg, Ethel Rosenberg, Ted Bundy, Giuseppe Zangara, and Leon Czolgosz.

On May 25, 1979, John Arthur Spenkelink became the first electrocuted person after the reinstatement of death penalty in USA in 1976.

The popularity of the electric chair declined in following years as legislators sought more humane methods of execution. Lethal injection became the most popular method, helped by newspaper accounts of botched electrocutions in the early 1980s.

A number of states still allow the condemned man to choose between electrocution and lethal injection. Occasionally, the condemned man chooses electrocution. The last use of the chair (as of 2005) was in May 2004, when James Neil Tucker was electrocuted in South Carolina.


The condemned prisoner is typically strapped into the chair, with one electrode attached to the head and a second attached to the leg. At least two jolts of an electrical current would be applied for several minutes, depending on the person. An initial voltage of around 2,000 volts is used to break the initial resistance of the skin and cause unconsciousness (in theory—people surviving to tell the tale are rare). The voltage is then lowered to reduce current flow so as to prevent burning. A current flow of around 8 amps is usual. The body of the condemned would heat up to 138°F (59°C), and the electric current would cause severe damage to internal organs.

In theory, unconsciousness occurs in a fraction of a second. There have been reports of victims' heads on fire, of burning transformers, and of letting the crying victim wait in pain on the floor of the execution room while the chair was fixed. In 1946, the electric chair failed to kill Willie Francis, who reportedly shrieked "Stop it! Let me breathe!" as he was being executed. It turned out that the portable electric chair had been improperly set up by an intoxicated trustee. A case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court (Francis v. Resweber), 329 U.S. 459 (1947), with lawyers for the murderer arguing that although Francis did not die, he had, in fact, been executed. The argument was rejected, and Francis was returned to the electric chair and killed the following year.

Further, regardless of how well the execution is performed, some skin is always burned and it is unpleasant for the guard charged with separating the burned, oozing skin from the seat belts. The victim loses control of his muscles after the initial jolt of electricity, and may start to defecate and urinate on the floor beneath the chair. This led to a refinement in modern electric chairs: they were padded, and came with automatic, car-style seat belts.


After 1975 Texas adopted lethal injection as a method of execution in 1982, the use of the electric chair reduced rapidly. As of 2004, the only places in the world still having the electric chair as an option are the U.S. states of Alabama, Florida, Nebraska, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Except for Nebraska, where it remains the only method of execution, inmates in the other states must select it or lethal injection. In the state of Florida, on July 8 1999, murderer Allen Lee Davis was executed in the Florida electric chair "Old Sparky". Davis' face was bloodied and photographs taken, which were later released by the Florida Supreme Court. Electrocution continues to be used as a method of execution in the state of Florida.

Electric chair at the Kentucky State Penitentiary

The electric chair has come under criticism because of several instances in which victims were not instantly killed, but had to be subjected to multiple electric shocks, leading to a call for ending of the practice because many see it as cruel and unusual punishment. Trying to address such concerns, Nebraska's new electrocution protocol calls for administration of a 15-second-long jolt of 2,450 volts of electricity; after a 15-minute wait, a coroner then checks for signs of life. (Previously, an initial eight-second jolt of 2,450 volts was administered, followed by a one-second pause, then a 22-second jolt at 480 volts. After a 20-second break, the cycle was repeated three more times.) Nebraska retains electrocution as its sole method of execution largely due to some strong anti-death penalty opposition in its state legislature; death penalty abolitionists in the state hope to see electrocution ruled as cruel and unusual punishment, leaving the state without a legal way of administering the death penalty if lethal injection is not legalized.

See also

External links

Electric Chair In Popular Culture

  • The heavy metal band Metallica named their 1984 album "Ride The Lightning". The cover art depicted an electric chair being struck by blue lightning. It was also the name of a song off the same album.
  • The film The Green Mile depicts in detail several executions by electric chair.
  • The TV Series Hill Street Blues had a series of episodes covering a criminal act and ending with showing the character's execution in the electric chair.

da:Elektrisk stol de:Elektrischer Stuhl es:Silla eléctrica fr:Chaise électrique he:כיסא חשמלי it:Sedia elettrica nl:Elektrische stoel no:Den elektriske stol pl:Krzesło elektryczne sv:Elektriska stolen zh:電椅