A Quick History of the Electric Chair

by tylercook on October 17, 2013

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The popular Warner Brothers film The Green Mile was my first cinematic exposure to the electric chair. I knew the technology existed, but the scene in which the inmate catches fire during execution turned an abstraction into reality. I came to find out that the history of this killing machine is rooted more in deception and corporate intrigue than science.

A “Shocking” Backstory

In the 1880s the most prevalent form of execution was hanging. Some sources report that hanging victims often lived for several minutes after breaking their necks on the initial fall, eventually succumbing to asphyxiation. There were also reports of total decapitation if the slipknot was too tight. The use of electric shock to kill someone was discovered on accident by a dentist, Dr. Albert Southwick, in 1881 (source). Allegedly, Dr. Southwick witnessed an elderly drunk shock himself to death on a generator.

Around that time the so-called “Current War” between proprietors of direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC) was ramping up. DC was famously supported by Thomas Edison, while AC was supported by Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse of Westinghouse Electric Co (source). In order to discredit his main competitor Edison started a smear campaign. He distributed pamphlets to many large cities about the dangers of AC. In 1887, Edison even held a public demonstration in New Jersey where he killed dozens of animals by placing them on a metal plate attached to a Westinghouse AC generator. It was there that the term “electrocution” was coined by combining the words “electric” and “execute.”

The First Execution

In 1889 the Commission on Humane Executions in Albany, NY was seeking an alternative to hanging. Upon asking his opinion, Edison was quoted as saying that death by electrocution was very humane and the best generators for the job were “alternating machines” manufactured by George Westinghouse (source). Edison hoped that by associating Westinghouse with death people wouldn’t want AC technology in their homes. It’s reported that Edison and his colleagues even tried to popularize the term “Westinghoused” for death by electric chair. In that same year the New York State Legislature adopted electrocution as the state’s official method of execution. Afterwards a committee was established to determine if AC or DC electric chairs should be used. They settled on AC; but some sources allege that the head of said committee was an employee of the Edison Co. After the decision was handed down, George Westinghouse reportedly started funding prisoner appeals to prevent use of the AC chair.

The inventor of the physical chair itself is unclear. Some sources say that Edwin R. Davis, a prison electrician, was commissioned to design the first chair (source). Other sources say that two Edison employees (Harold P. Brown and Arthur Kennelly) deserve the credit (source). What is clear is that on August 6, 1890, William Kemmler became the first person ever killed by the electric chair. Far from being humane, the New York Times reporter in attendance called it “an awful spectacle, worse than hanging” as Kemmler’s body caught fire after the initial surge failed to kill him.

The “Current” Situation

There are currently 8 states in the US that authorize the use of the electric chair; but none of those states use it as their primary execution method (source). The decline in the use of the electric chair is due mostly to the rise of lethal injection, which is considered to be more humane. The last person killed by electric chair in the US was Robert Gleason Jr. in January 2013 – the first such execution since 2010 (source).


Mason Durden writes on criminal law, law enforcement, corporeal punishment, personal injury law and other kindred topics. Curious readers can learn more about the legal world by visiting Pearland bail bonds and checking out their resources.




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