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Electric chair

The word electric chair has sometimes been used in disabled persons' organizations' publications to mean "electric-powered wheelchair".
The first electric chair, which was used to execute William Kemmler in 1890
The first electric chair, which was used to execute William Kemmler in 1890

The electric chair was a device commonly used for the execution of convicted criminals during the 20th century in the United States of America. It was first used in the late 19th century. The electric chair was utilized by more than twenty-five states throughout the twentieth 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." Its continued use in the 21st century seems to be rapidly on the way out. 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. 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 execution via the electric chair was carried out on William Kemmler in New York's Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890. 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 it soon became the prevalent method of execution in the USA and remained so until the mid-1980s, despite the increased popularity of the gas chamber beginning in the 1950s.

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

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

The electric chair declined 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. Very occasionally, the condemned man does choose electrocution. The last use of the chair was in May 2004, when James Neil Tucker was electrocuted in South Carolina in what may be the last ever use of the electric chair.


The condemned prisoner was typically strapped into the chair, with one electrode attached to the head and a second attached to the leg. At least two applications 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. However, 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 trusty. 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 was 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 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, 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.

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.

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Last updated: 10-15-2005 21:57:35
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