Death of a Killing Machine

Christopher Shea is a Washington, D.C., writer.

Overshadowed, understandably, by news of war, a milestone in the history of the American death penalty has been sneaking up on us. Nebraska's legislators were expected to vote this spring to quit using the electric chair, sanctioning a switch to lethal injection as the state's execution method of choice. Nebraska will be the last death-penalty state to make that switch. Consumed by a budget crisis, lawmakers gave electrocution a reprieve until January. But it's clear that, very soon, the era of the electric chair, the most symbolically potent execution method since the guillotine, will come to an end.

Granted, condemned men and women are still free to choose the chair in several states, but they rarely do so. It's possible that the last person in human history deliberately killed with a burst of electricity will have been Lynda Lyon Block, a cop-killer and anti-government extremist whom Alabama dispatched last May, just before that state also changed over to lethal injection.

The end of the electric-chair era is an occasion for humility. That's because it is now clear that the chair, first used in 1890, was a 113-year mistake by the United States. (No one followed our lead in adopting it.) Not so much a moral outrage, although it may be that too: It was an actual mistake. The electric chair never worked as advertised. The story of how we got duped into thinking it would work, and why it took so long to correct the error, is an odd, sad, tale -- one that historians are just starting to grapple with. It's a story about blind faith in technology and behind-the-scenes maneuvering by unprincipled corporate leaders -- including Thomas Edison. And it's a story that makes you wonder, given the capacity for self- delusion of our ancestors, what we are blind to today as we consider the death penalty and various methods of carrying it out.

The father of the electric chair was a dentist by the name of Alfred Southwick. He lived in Buffalo, N.Y., and had also been trained as an engineer. His macabre "eureka" moment came in 1881, when he saw a drunk stumble into an uninsulated wire and get killed instantly (and, Southwick guessed, painlessly). The culture was on the lookout for a new execution method, as Americans were beginning to view hanging as a medieval throwback. Stories of torturous strangulations or surprise decapitations -- the all-too-common results of hangings gone wrong -- were widely disseminated. In 1834, the New York Legislature had come within three votes of banning capital punishment altogether, precisely because of public disgust over such barbarities.

In this environment, Southwick's peculiar idea of harnessing electricity to zap condemned inmates gained a foothold -- and some odd cheerleaders. One of the most distasteful was a gung-ho engineer named Harold Brown, who rented out an auditorium at Columbia University, affixed wires to cages holding dogs and killed them before horrified audiences -- even jaded reporters shouted at him to stop -- to demonstrate the efficacy of electrocution. It turned out he had a secret sponsor for his "research" (more on that later).

In 1888, a committee appointed by New York's governor endorsed electrocution. The next year, the sadist Brown, in the journal North American Review, painted a picture of the new world of executions that beckoned, capturing well the optimism of the era: "Dials of electrical instruments indicate that all the apparatus is in perfect order and record the pressure at every moment," he wrote, rapturously. "The deputy-sheriff throws the switch. Respiration and heart activity instantly cease.... There is a stiffening of the muscles ... but there is no struggle and no sound. The majesty of the law has been vindicated, but no physical pain has been caused -- such is electrical execution." Like others, Brown assumed that a painful electrocution was an impossibility, since electricity traveled faster than nerve impulses.

Yet a funny thing happened at the very first electrocution, on Aug. 6, 1890, in New York's Auburn Penitentiary. A very unfunny thing, that is. The "scene was so terrible," the New York Times reported, "that the word fails to convey the idea." After the first 1,000-plus volt jolt of electricity, ax-murderer William Kemmler started twitching, and witnesses screamed. The executioners slammed down the switch again. Kemmler's blood vessels broke, pushing blood through the skin. His skin and hair burned, and a stench filled the room. The electricity magnate George Westinghouse later offered this pithy summary of the ghastly scene: "They would have done better with an ax." Yet New York persuaded itself that the method was not at fault: Human error had simply slipped into the proceedings.

Of course, Kemmler's death, not the North American Review fantasy, served as the model for electrocutions down the years. "Botched" electric chair episodes were so common as to be the norm. Executions that went "smoothly" were still brutal, brutalizing events. By the 1990s, even grizzled Southern judges started saying enough is enough.

What had gone wrong? On a technical level, the problems with the electric chair were simple enough. Electricity doesn't kill by "frying" the brain or "polarizing" nerves or whatever else people usually think. As Theodore Bernstein, a retired University of Wisconsin engineer -- and one of the few scientists who has studied the electric chair -- has explained, electricity kills by disrupting the beating of the heart. The heart, though, can snap back from even a large shock. In a grim twist, it is especially likely to bounce back if another large shock is administered. (Think television's "ER" and its shouts of, "Clear!") The typical American electrocution involves delivering several shocks of varying intensity. And so the electric chair was designed in such a way that it would kill, revive and kill again. That huge levels of voltage might sometimes cause burns should not exactly have stunned anyone, either.

Why did it take a century to figure this out? Anyone who read about Kemmler's fate should have suspected something was amiss. In a recent issue of the Journal of American History, respected German historian Jurgen Martschukat offers one explanation for why we Americans failed to see what was before our eyes: technological intoxication. The 1870s and 1880s, he reminds us, were decades that witnessed awesome, even sublime, technical advances. It was a time when people who saw outdoor lighting for the first time would drop to their knees and cross themselves. One problem after another fell before the creativity of hero -engineers. In such an environment, to suggest that electricity might contribute to a step backward just didn't compute.

Yet Americans weren't only self-blinkered. Some powerful forces were also working hard to obscure the truth about electrocution, as Mount Holyoke College sociologist Richard Moran explains in a fascinating new book, "Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair." Moran argues that New York might not have adopted electrocution -- many leading citizens preferred, from conservative inclinations, to stick with hanging -- had Edison, American hero, not put his considerable clout behind it. But Edison's intentions were entirely ignoble, as Moran meticulously documents.

Edison wanted New York to adopt the technology of his corporate rival, Westinghouse -- against Westinghouse's wishes -- to execute criminals. Edison wasn't motivated by an interest in reducing the cruelty of the death penalty. Rather, he hoped Westinghouse's technology, which was clobbering Edison's in the marketplace, would be tarnished by an association with state-sponsored death. (Hence the title of Moran's book: title: Would you want the "executioner's current" running through your children's bedroom walls? Call it an early negative-ad campaign.) It was Edison who, on the sly, paid Harold Brown to execute those dogs -- and later calves and horses -- in experiments rigged to make Westinghouse's current look deadlier than Edison's.

Edison won the battle but lost the war. Westinghouse's alternating current -- not Edison's direct current -- killed Kemmler. Yet Westinghouse also won the competition to light America. The collateral damage from this corporate clash was the infliction of the electric chair upon America.

Our 19th century predecessors let themselves believe they could solve the moral problems of the death penalty through technology. Once they'd instituted the "solution," they let wishful thinking continue to blind them to bloody reality. Soon, Nebraska will join the ranks of states that think they've resolved their problems by switching to lethal injection. Have we succeeded this time around -- or simply updated our self-delusion?

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