The first execution by electric chair was a result of rivalry. Thomas Edison suggested the best way to produce instantaneous death by electricity was to use the alternating current electricity of his opposition, George Westinghouse, not the direct current electricity Edison used in his own street-lighting projects.
Surely, he argued, alternating current electricity was more dangerous, and therefore should be used for a more humane method of death than hanging. The term “electrocution” was first used to describe death by electricity when Thomas Edison killed a dozen stray cats and dogs at once with a Westinghouse generator. The smell of burnt flesh and hair permeated the air for blocks.
George Westinghouse never tested the fatal potential of direct current electricity. When William Kemmler was convicted of murdering his wife with a hatchet, it was alternating current electricity that would end his life, despite his lawyers referring to this punishment as cruel and unusual.
It is impossible to determine the cruelty of a method never used, reasoned the U.S. Supreme Court. Our relationship with electricity was one of fear and awe.
In 1890, Kemmler was the first person to be killed by electric chair. The first horse killed by alternating current electrocution died immediately, shocked with 1000 volts during electric chair tests the day before, with electrodes attached to his knees and his muzzle chained to a pole.
Twenty-three years later, Tennessee’s first electric chair was built with the same gallows wood previously used hang prisoners to death.
In 1903, when an elephant in the Coney Island circus was found guilty of murder and sentenced to electrocution, it didn’t matter that the murder happened in self-defense, a result of cigars being put out on the tip of her trunk. At least 1,500 people gathered during the day to watch Topsy be fatally shocked with 6,000 volts of electricity. That night, electric towers illuminated where the elephant once stood.
Unlike the distance afforded to witnesses of contemporary American executions, seventeen spectators watched Kemmler’s execution on wooden folding chairs directly across from him, reminiscent of the gallows-side seating in high demand just a few years before. They could see every strap and hear the jingle of each buckle fastening Kemmler into place.
An alternating current varies in magnitude and direction.
At the end of the 1800s, hospitals used electrotherapy to treat such afflictions as paralysis, rheumatism, and arthritis. Electrodes were first soaked in salt water and then applied to affected areas. To treat cancers, insanity, hysteria, and nervous exhaustion, patients stood on large copper electrodes, while another electrode attached to a wet sponge was passed over them.
Thomas Edison, in charge of carrying out Topsy’s death sentence, documented it in his short film Electrocuting an Elephant, within which footage of her death is set to music.
When the executioner flipped the lever, most of Kemmler’s body straightened out hard against the straps that held him in place for the seventeen seconds 1,000 volts flowed through him. Only his right hand clenched inward, and was cut so deep by his fingernails that blood trickled from the arm of the chair to the floor below him.
The music speeds up as a plume of smoke spreads upwards from Topsy’s feet. It billows out along with a crescendo of music as Topsy’s front legs bend, and then the rest of her tumbles over, obscured.
A direct current is a constant flow of electric charge in only one direction.
When the power switched off, Kemmler’s body heaved not with electricity, but with the force of breath. He was then shocked with 2,000 volts. Loud cracks of electricity flowed through him, and blood pooled on his face like sweat. His hair singed. The skin at the base of his spine lifted and curled.
Tennessee’s modern electric chair is regularly tested to ensure it will deliver 1,750 volts at seven amps over twenty seconds, disengage for fifteen seconds, and then engage again for another fifteen.
Optimal death by electric chair will render the victim immediately unconscious with the first jolt. If too much electricity is used, the skin might burn. If too little is used, the condemned might burn alive.
Shaky camera work makes it look like Topsy’s almost moving again, and maybe she was, breathing as if electricity didn’t leave three of her hefty limbs sprawled along the floor while her left leg extended and hovered.
Death row inmates are given a choice of available modes of execution in all states but Tennessee, where death by electric chair is mandatory in the event lethal injection drugs are unavailable. Because of this, Tennessee is currently one of nine states where people can be put to death by electrocution, but the only state where those people may be forced to endure it instead of something else.
Before contemporary electrocution, a condemned prisoner would be shaved. After what might be a long walk, he or she would then be strapped to an electric chair, and a wet sponge would rest underneath a metal electrode attached to his or her head. Another electrode would rest on his or her leg. Then, the blindfold or mask would be applied, hiding the eyeballs that may pop loose from their sockets as a jolt between 500 and 2000 volts is applied for thirty seconds. There might be severe burns where the electrodes were attached. If his or her heart is still beating after this, this process continues. Sometimes prisoners catch fire.
The day after Kemmler’s execution, The New York Times published the story Far Worse than Hanging, calling Kemmler’s death an awful spectacle.
This “war of currents” between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse did not end well for Edison, whose direct current electricity did not become industry standard. Alternating currents became universal for both lighting and executions.
Nikolai Tesla, when employed by George Westinghouse, claimed that if we want to reduce poverty and misery, if we want to give to every deserving individual what is needed for a safe existence of an intelligent being, we want to provide more machinery, more power.
Eighty-one inmates in Tennessee are currently scheduled to die.