1880 - Most state
laws provide for capital punishment, usually by hanging.
Unfortunately, hangmen's ignorance produced horrific scenes of slow
strangling deaths and gruesome decapitations.
1881 - Dr. Albert
Southwick, a dentist and former steamboat engineer,
sees elderly drunkard touch terminals of electrical generator in Buffalo, New York.
He is amazed at how quickly and apparently painlessly the man is killed and describes episode to friend State Senator David McMillan.
1881 - McMillan speaks to Governor David B. Hill.
Hill asks state legislature to consider how modern
day electricity might replace hanging.
1882 - Thomas Edison was the first person to establish himself in electrical utility industry with DC service.
1886 - AC technology, developed by Westinghouse, was
much more flexible and economic seriously
threatens Edison's hold on electrical utility market .
1886 - Legislature enacts Chapter 352 of the Laws
of 1886 entitled "An act to authorize the appointment
of a commission to investigate and report to the legislature the most humane and approved method of
carrying into effect the sentence of death in capital cases."
1887 - Copper prices skyrocket when French syndicate
corners market. DC requires very thick copper
cables. AC has a strong economic advantage. Edison realizes this and starts planning his attack on
other that economic reasons.
1887 - Edison conducts demonstration in West Orange,
New Jersey, in which he kills large numbers of
cats and dogs by luring the animals onto a metal plate wired to a 1,000 volt AC generator. The press
describes these proceedings in detail.
1887 - Edison publishes pamphlet A Warning, comparing AC and DC, including of AC victims.
1888- Elbridge T.
Gerry (grandson of signer of Declaration of Independence), Dr.
Matthew Hale, a judge from Albany,are appointed to commission created by 1886 law.. The Gerry report
is a detailed analysis of execution methods.
June 4, 1888 - New York Legislature passes Chapter 489
of Laws of New York of 1888 establishing
electrocution as the state's method of execution. Medico-Legal Society of New York is designated to
recommend how to implement new law.
June 5, 1888 - Inventor Harold P. Brown writes a very
compelling editorial letter to the New York Post,
describing the death of a boy who touched a straggling telegraph wire running on AC current. Brown
recommends limiting AC transmissions to 300 volts, which negates economic advantage.
July, 1888 - Brown goes to Edison's West Orange, New Jersey lab to do research.
July 30, 1888 - Brown and his assistant Dr. Fred
Peterson of Columbia show experimental results
at the School of Mines at Columbia University by administering a series of DC shocks to a large Newfoundland mix dog.
By 1,000 volts DC, the dog is agonized but not killed. Finally, Brown finishes
the off with a charge of 330 volts AC. On a follow-up demonstration, SPCA steps in and second dog becomes first creature ever
publicly reprieved from execution by electrocution (although it was later killed at another demonstration).
Fall, 1888 - Medico-Legal appoints Brown's assistant
Dr. Peterson to carry out further research.
Over the next few months, they electrocute two dozen dogs.
December 5, 1888 - Brown and Peterson electrocute
two calves and a 1,230-pound horse. The New
York Times account ends with the observation that "alternating current will undoubtedly drive the
hangmen out of business in this state." This PR is probably engineered by Brown or Edison.
December 12, 1888
- Peterson committee submits report to New York Meidco-Legal Society,
recommending use of chair rather than tank of water or rubberized table.
December 13, 1888
- Westinghouse writes letter in NY Times accusing Brown of acting
"in the interest
in and pay of the Edison Electric Light Company."
January 1, 1889 - World's first Electrical Execution Law goes into effect.
March, 1889 - Brown meets with Austin Lathrop,
superintendent of New York prisons, to arrange for
purchase of Westinghouse AC generators to power the electric chair. Because Westinghouse will not
sell directly to the prisons, Brown and Edison resort to subterfuge to acquire three generators for $7,000 to $8,000.
March 29, 1889 - William Kemler kills his lover Matilda
("Tille") Ziegler with an axe in Buffalo,
which was then known as :the "Electric City of the Future."
Spring, 1889 - Joseph Chappleau, convicted for
poisoning neighbor's cows, is first person sentenced to
death under Electrical Execution Law. His sentence is commuted to life imprisonment.
May, 1989 - William Kemmler is sentenced to death.
1889 - 1890 - Westinghouse funds appeals for Kemmler on
the grounds that electrocution is cruel and
unusual punishment. Edison and Brown are witnesses for the state. The appeal is denied, as are two
subsequent appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.
1890 - Edwin R. Davis, Auburn Prison electrician,
designs an electric chair model which closely
resembles our modern device, as well as elaborate testing procedures involving large slabs of meat.
August 6, 1890 - Kemmler is executed in the electric
chair at Auburn Prison, the first person ever to be
executed by electrocution. The first application of current is botched and Kemmler does not die until the
current is fired up a second time.
"The man never suffered a bit of pain!"
George Fell, executioner's assistance to first electrocution
"We live in a higher civilization from this day on."
Alfred P. Southwick
"Strong men fainted and fell like logs on the floor."
New York Herald
"They would have done
better with an axe."
In 1896, Ohio introduced
electrocution and in 1898, Massachusetts follwed suit. New Jersey was
Virginia in 1908, and North Carolina in 1910. Soon thereafter, at least twenty states were using electric
chairs, making it by far the most popular means of execution.
Both Edison and Westinghouse continued to prosper, with
Edison's company merging with
Thomson-Houston to become General Electric. Edison eventually admitted that he had been
shortsighted with regard to AC. In 1912, Westinghouse was awarded the Edison Medal by the American
Institute of Electrical Engineers for his "meritorious achievements in the development of the alternating current system.
References: Penrose, James E., "Inventing
Electrocution," American Heritage of Invention and Technology,
Vol.9, No.4 (Spring), 1994, p.34-45 Information from: http://www.theelectricchair.com/timeline.htm
The Electric Chair
The electric chair is perhaps something that we take
for granted for nowadays as the quickest
and most humane way of executing a human being. In the early days, however, the proponents of the use of electricity as a means of death had to prove that it was indeed the most proficient manner of execution. Chair inventor Harold Brown had applied for the chair's patent and, thus, set out on an campaign to prove its efficiency. Using a prototype, Brown demonstrated the chair's capabilities on more than fifty cats and dogs. The New York commission (which was the first state to consider the new invention) needed more convincing. Brown replied by killing a cow before a panel of advisors. He emphasized his chair's ability by killing a horse. The panel was impressed. On June 4, 1888, electrocution became a legal means of capital punishment.
The state knew that they
would need public support behind the method. In order to win over the
they sent Brown on tour with his chair.
Brown traveled the state executing animals in all of the major
population centers. Animals were recruited for the show as he went along. In Albany, Brown executed an orangutan. Its hair caught on fire.
August 6, 1890 saw the first ever electric execution of a human being.
The history maker was William Kemmler of Buffalo, New York. Kemmler was guilty of butchering his mistress with a hatchet.
A group of doctors and reporters gathered for the historic occasion. Kemmler was jolted for seventeen seconds. It failed to kill him.
Kemmler was unconscious but still breathing. The embarrassed prison officials electrocuted him again for seventy seconds.
Kemmler thrashed and convulsed as the electrodes seared his head and arms, filling the room with the smell of burning
flesh. Some witness fainted, while others fled the room. The killing took eight minutes.
While many critics rallied for the return of the gallows, New York remained faithful to the chair,
executing two more criminals without incident. The most botched electric execution, however, was the fourth.
William Taylor was slated for execution on July 27, 1893. The first jolt of electricity caused his legs to stiffen with a force so great that they tore loose from the chair's ankle straps. Like Kemmler, Taylor was still alive. When the executioners attempted to send a second charge through Taylor's body it was discovered that the generator in the powerhouse had blown. Taylor was removed from the chair and placed on a cot. Officials kept him alive with chloroform and morphine so that he could be officially killed by an active current. An hour and nine minutes later Taylor was returned to the chair and given a more than adequate charge.
A 1903 execution at Sing Sing was the last reported botched electrocution. Fred Van Wormer was electrocuted and pronounced dead.
Upon arrival to the autopsy room, however, Wormer began breathing once again. The executioner, who had gone home,
was called back to re-electrocute Wormer. Upon his return, Wormer had officially died. Nonetheless, Wormer's corpse was set into the chair
again and electrocuted with seventeen hundred volts for thirty seconds. He was the first dead man to be electrocuted.
Edison argued that AC was too dangerous and arranged public demonstrations where stray cats and dogs (purchased from local schoolboys for 25 cents each) were electrocuted.
A lot of publicity was carried out not by Edison but by a man named Harold Brown, who had the support of Edison and the technical help of some of Edison's associates.
In 1888 New York state changed the death penalty from
hanging (which sometimes didn't work well) to electrocution,
and Edison and his associates lobbied for the selection of an alternating current design.
Westinghouse funded appeals by some prisoners who argued that electrocution was cruel and unusual punishment.
In 1890 Auburn State Prison used the first electric
chair to execute a convicted murderer, using Westinghouse
"Kemmler was strapped into the chair on August 6, 1890. The first jolt
of alternating current lasted 17 seconds. Kemmler continued struggling. A second jolt lasted more than a minute, until smoke was seen rising from the body.
It was, The New York Times said, 'an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.'
The state commissioner on humane executions saw it differently.
It was, he said, 'the grandest success of the age.' "
source, more information on the history of the electric chair
Artist's rendering of Kemmler's execution
Information from: http://people.clemson.edu/~pammack/lec122/edison.htm
The Inventor of the Electric Chair Says YES, and Offers
a Plea for the Sentiment Against
Capital Punishment, Now Active in Many Lands and in Nearly Every State of the Union.
The French Government has decided to abolish capital
The guillotine, after a little more than a hundred years of service, is to be banished to the museums.
Four states of the American Union have abolished
capital punishment, and in at least one more
it has been virtually abolished by the refusal of successive Governors to sign death warrants.
New York still clings to
this relic of barbarous ages, but there are many citizens of this
who believe that the time has come for its abolition. Commodore Eldridge T. Gerry has long been an
ardent apostle of that mercy which tempers justice. Assemblyman Eagleton introduced a bill in the
Legislature last session substituting life imprisonment for the electric chair as a punishment for murderers, but it was lost by the wayside. Former Police inspector Alexander Williams has said that crime would be reduced if the death penalty were abolished. His point of view is that convictions for murder would be more certain if juror did not dread the responsibility of condemning men to death, and that the fear of the certainty of life imprisonment would act as a greater deterrent to criminals than that of the electric chair, which they have every reason to hope to escape.
Dr. J Mount Bleyer, who invented the electric chair,
and through whose efforts this more humane
method of killing murderers was substituted by law for the gallows, is one of the strongest advocates of the total abolition of the death penalty.
He has written for The World the following plea that New York do as France has done and relegate capital punishment to the realms of history.
By Dr. J MOUNT BLEYER F.R.A.M.S.
( Inventor of the Electric Chair )
We are living in an age of the world's history which
requires every individual to live in obedience
"law and order" established by civilized governments. The laws of any country which have for their object
the correction and regulation of human action and to determine between the right and the wrong are
progressive in their nature, like other institutions of the world. France has taken the lead among nations by abolishing the death sentence -- the most barbarous of all laws -- be it ever said to her credit!
I have always leaned toward the side of that justice
which demands that capital punishment be
abolished. I have, however, fathered electrocution as the most humane method of execution, and this
method has become the law of several states. This mode of legal execution was brought forward by me
owning to the fact that it is the quickest and most certain of all death penalties. Nevertheless I am for
the banishment of this most barbarous practice. This relic of the dark ages is one of the evils afflicting the enlightened civilized nations of the present era.
In reality capital punishment is only legalized murder.
Justice does not go with human passions, and
a perfectly dispassionate and unbiased judgment is a myth.
The chief aim with a true surgeon is to save a limb, not take it off. So it should be with the state.
The making of a man and citizen is a tremendous
undertaking, and so long as the law acts not as a
protector and developer of childhood and youth into manhood, saving it from the lurking and insidious foes to heath and virtues that are the true menace of our civilization, so long criminals and murderers will be made by the very law that later steps in to condemn them.
The state is inflicting capital punishment upon a
murderer is like the false mother in the judgment of Solomon -
- she prefers a dead son to a son whom she can reclaim by justice seasoned with mercy.
The true mother should redeem the criminal by keeping him out of harm's way, while at the same time promoting his moral and spiritual welfare
and making him by proper punishment and suitable work a useful though restricted member of the State.
If capital punishment were abolished, would murderers
suffer any less, since they would receive
not only the punishment still open to infliction by the law but also the retribution? In Thibet, for the citizens of which we feel so great a contempt,
there is a reverence for that very principle of life that our civilization might do well to follow in many respects,
and when where, if there are willing to suffer from the inroads of vermin, at least every man's life is sacred to the law that created him.
The true scientific solution of the difficulty is to
redeem the murderer, like other criminals, and to give him a change to work out his
salvation on principles dependent upon a true civilization, rather than that bequeathed to us from the middle ages.
When we can produce Life
let us take it; until then let us utilize the punishment of criminals
benefit of the state. As Walpole said, "The worst use to which you can put a man is to hang him."
The greatest argument against capital punishment is
that the principle of life must not be
violated. The law of justice is unquestionable a life for a life. Yet the active principle of life is so
beautiful a fact, so mysterious, so baffling in all its workings, so insoluble even to science -- that
is so profoundly bent upon concealing it -- that the scientist confronted with this problem must cry
out "Do not destroy that beauty which it is our despair to solve; hold your sacrilegious hands from
the crime of destroying that which you cannot restore and which you cannot even understand."
It is true that the murderer, sending out of this world a human being in the vigor of life "with all
his imperfections on his head," challenges and deserves justice; and there it was that in distant ages
the crude ideas of barbarism could find no better solution of the problem than by taking, with all possible
tortures, the life of the murderer. Civilization in the course of time gave him a chance for life by instituting
a trial before "a jury of his peers." And our so-called civilization has found no improvement upon this system.
France, foremost, calls the halt to capital punishment.
The American nation cannot help but follow this lead.
Capital Punishment's Progress Toward Abolition
As man has become gradually more and more civilized he
has tempered with mercy the
administration of his justice. To-day criminals are put to death the world over by methods that are as
instantaneous as possible. Torture which was until very recently a part of everyday execution, is now
looked upon with horror.
The methods of execution
now used by the several nations are many. Great Britain, Austria, and
of the United States still cling to hanging. The theory of the gallows is that the drop breaks the criminal's
neck and kills him instantly, but this holds true only when the knot is perfectly adjusted; when, as is so
often the case, some trifling maladroitness in the tying of the "hangman's knot," the victim's neck is not
broken and he simply strangles to death. So many revolting scenes have been witnessed at hangings
during the slow strangulation of the swinging victim that New York and many other States have
substituted the electric chair, which has the merit of certainty and instantaneous action.
The Garotte Still Used in South America.
The garotte, still used in Spain and most of the
Spanish-American countries, is a collar attached to an
upright post, through both of which passes a powerful wooden screw. The criminal's neck is placed in the
collar, and the executioner, with one sharp turn of the screw, breaks the victim's neck.
It is a method similar in its action to hanging, but more certain to cause instant death.
In Turkey, Persia and some other Oriental countries the bow-string is the method of execution.
This is a stout cord of catgut placed around the victim's neck with two slip-knots, which are suddenly
drawn tight by two strong men. This kills the criminal by strangulation.
The guillotine, which is used in some parts of Germany, and has been used in France and Italy ever
since the French Revolution, is a heavy knife which drops between two upright posts and instantly severs
the victim's head. Italy abolished it many years ago; many states of Germany, while allowing it to remain
on their statute books, have ceased to enforce it, and now France is to abolish it.
The immediate reason for this is the inability of the Government to find any man willing to take the place of the executioner.
But public opinion had long been in revolt against the barbarity of these beheadings, which always took place in public,
and the Government, in deciding to end them forever, is but obeying the mandate of the people.
Capital punishment has been abolished in Italy, Norway, Romania, Holland, Portugal and Russia,
while in Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Bavaria and several of the states of northern Germany the rulers
refuse to sign death warrants, and criminals, thought sentenced to death, are virtually made life prisoners.
It will amaze many people to learn that there is no capital punishment in Russia, yet it is a fact.
Murderers and traitors are sentenced to the mines in Siberia, but they are not put to death unless tried by court-martial in a military or naval court,
in which case they are shot to death.
Burning at the stake, drawing and quartering, breaking on the wheel, skinning alive and other
barbarous methods of execution once common throughout the world have long been relegated to the
pages of history, along with the rack, the thumb-screw and other tortures as methods of examining witnesses.
But it is only 200 years since they were burning witches Quakers in New England, and the pious Puritans of Salem no more realized that they were
acting like barbarous savages than did Calvin realize it when he burned Servitus at Geneva, or than Torquemador when he burned heretics in Spain,
or than Cromwell when he burned Archbishop Laud on Tower Hill. A woman was burned to death in London in the year 1790 as punishment for killing her husband.
It is not so many years since the civilized world emerged from the darkness of barbarism in its treatment of criminals, and it will be only a few years
more before the world comes to a realization of the fact that the divine mandate, "Thou shalt not kill," is equally binding upon the State as upon an individual.
The Arguments Against the Death Penalty.
The opponents of capital
punishment, apart from the purely ethical argument, base their
the following assertion: When a man kills another he does it one of two ways: either he is driven by a
sudden gust of passion or inflamed by drink or desire, in which case he is for the moment mad and never
considers the possibility of having to suffer for what he is about to do, or he slays after careful and
deliberate preparation, after making all his plans to conceal his crime and to make certain his own escape, in which case he calculates that he will not be punished at all, so it matters not to him whether the legal penalty for murder be death or imprisonment, for he expects to escape it entirely. Therefore,
in neither one case nor in the other is the death penalty a deterrent. But, say the opponents of capital
punishment, the infliction of the death penalty makes jurors reluctant to convict, and therefore brings the
law into disrepute, while if life imprisonment were the penalty convictions would be more certain and justice would not be travestied so often.
Transcribed by Mark Maier, University of South
Carolina. From: http://home.gwi.net/~dnb/read/electric_chair/electric_chair.htm
Execution by hanging was
a grim, hands-on business in early-20th century America. It took a
stomach indeed to wrap a noose around the condemned man, then let him drop through a gallows
trapdoor to choke and gasp and swing until he died.
Then in 1907, New Jersey
first installed the electric chair, latching onto a newfangled and
scary technology that the state’s own Thomas Edison was popularizing.
At the time, reformers considered electrocution a clean, progressive and humane way of carrying out the death penalty.
It also represented a radical break from the past, when
New Jersey and almost every other state
executed men by the hangman's rope.
For the next 56 years, the electric chair was the last
destination for murderers and gangsters in Trenton
prison’s death house – most notably among them, Bruno Hauptmann, the convicted killer of the Lindbergh baby.
At the time, electrocution was considered clean,
progressive and humane -- and a welcome change
from the past, when New Jersey and almost every other state hanged its condemned prisoners.
Under the old code of justice, every county had its
hangman, every county jail its gallows. But separate
executions in each jurisdiction seemed too inefficient as government became more centralized.
As for the method, it was, well, unpleasant. Dying men thrashed about, choking and wetting themselves.
New York's legislature grew revolted by several
inefficient hangings and looked for a new way to
execute people. Their solution was inspired by "The Wizard of Menlo Park,” Thomas Edison – although
ironically, he publicized electrocution not to promote himself, but to discredit a rival.
Edison, inventor of the light bulb and pioneer of
electricity, was marketing an electric transmission
system based on direct current. But another inventor, George Westinghouse, cut into Edison's business with a rival invention -- alternating current.
Both AC and DC are safe under household conditions. But
Edison claimed – falsely – that
Westington’s AC, with its much higher voltage, was too dangerous for anything but an electrocution..
In 1887, Edison began a series of bizarre experiments
at his West Orange lab, shocking unwanted dogs,
cats and even a circus elephant to death with AC to prove that the current was deadly stuff.
New York soon decided on
AC electricity as its substitute for hanging. Edison, delighted, urged
authorities to use the term "Westinghousing" instead of electrocuting.
But the first electrocution in history was a disaster.
The condemned man, ax murderer William Kemmler,
lived through the first round of shocks. His executioners at Auburn prison in upstate New York
had to do it all over again as the stink of Kemmler's burning flesh filled the death house. "They would
have done better with an axe," Westinghouse commented.
Yet New York had invested too much in its electric chair to give up.
“Electricity had this strange, almost religious aura to
it," said Thom Metzger, a Rochester, N.Y., author
whose book, "Blood and Volts," tells the story of electrocution. "Doctors were used it to try to revive
corpses. There were galvanizing belts that sent a current through your groin - a Victorian version of
Viagra. With all these strange uses, it made sense to use it to put people to death, too."
New York's executioners began to perfect the
combination of amperes and voltage needed to kill a
man without cooking him. Slowly, other states began to replace the noose with the chair: Massachusetts in 1896, Ohio in 1898.
In 1906, the legislature
of New Jersey voted to get its own electric chair and to install at New
Jersey State Prison in Trenton,
thereby centralizing and modernizing the state’s lumbering old execution apparatus.
Thousands of people from
Trenton sent petitions in protest -- not because they opposed the death
but because they didn't want to play host to any more murderers.
"The people do not want the scum of other counties
brought here and put out of existence in the state
prison in old historic Trenton," fumed the Daily State Gazette of Trenton.
On the whole, however, electrocution was seen as
progress, coming at the same time a new penal code
abolished striped uniforms and lockstep marches.
In the fall of 1907, New Jersey State Prison built its original death row, an annex with six cells at one end and the machinery of execution on the other.
Wires ran from outside the prison walls to an
instrument panel blinking with a fearsome display of
lights. With a spin of a rheostat dial -- not the legendary "pull of the switch" – an executioner could
deliver a fatal jolt of 2,400 volts to whoever sat in the chair.
The chair itself was built by Carl F. Adams, founder of
Adams Electric, which is still in business
Hamilton. It never acquired a morbid nickname like Florida's "Old Sparky;" it was just ... the chair.
Heavy leather straps lashed each leg at the ankle. Two straps secured the arms, and straps on the waist, head and chest took care of the rest of the body.
A metal cap fitted above the seated man's head. The headpiece, together with an electrode strapped to the right leg, served as conductors for the fatal jolt of electricity.
Strangely enough, the State Gazette also reported that the chair was designed with comfort in mind:
"The chair is also adjustable, permitting the arm rest
to' be raised, the back rest to be shoved further
back and the head rest to be straightened forward, thus giving the man at least a comfortable seat in which to die."
All that was left that fall of '07 was to actually
execute a criminal
- and Somerset County delivered one.
He was Saverio DiGiovanni, 34, an Italian immigrant and
wool mill worker in Raritan who spoke little
English. That September, he fatally shot a fellow Italian, Joseph Sansome, for reasons that were never
established – perhaps jealousy over a woman or rage over an unpaid debt.
Under modern-day sentencing guidelines, DiGiovanni's
hotheaded act would almost certainly
have meant prison time without the death penalty. But these were less forgiving times, and after a two-day trial,
a jury took just 15 minutes to pronounce him guilty of first-degree murder.
The judge, James Bergen,
then became the first judicial officer in New Jersey ever to sentence a
to be shocked until dead.
"At first, there was no reaction," said Jessie Havens, a Raritan historian. "It wasn't until the death sentence was read to him a second time, through an interpreter, that he became highly emotional and had to be subdued."
Newspapers described DiGiovanni as a 5-foot-5,
bullnecked man an with gashes all over his body from
a life of fighting. In prison, he went through various mood charges. One moment, he was boasting that the chair couldn't kill him. The next, he was bemoaning his fate and weeping for his wife and baby left behind in Italy.
DiGiovanni spent all of one month on death row. Gov. Edward Stokes rejected his appeal for clemency, and the execution date was set for Dec. 11.
The doomed man had
no last meal. He was led out of his cell barefoot, a slit cut down the
right leg of his pants to make room for the
chair 's electrode. A pair of prison assistants showed the doomed man into his seat and put the helmet and straps in place.
Quietly sobbing and praying, DiGiovanni offered no resistance as a hood was draped over his eyes.
At 5:57 a.m., the assistants stepped back and motioned to the executioner, Edwin Davis.
A jolt of 2,400 volts surged through DiGiovanni's body
for a full minute, throwing his strapped form
against the restraints. After a few seconds had passed, the second jolt was delivered.
By electric chair standards, DiGiovanni's death was
quick and efficient. Most witnesses agreed he had
probably been killed instantly. "The burning of the flesh ... did not attend this execution," the Trenton True American reported.
There was no autopsy, and DiGiovanni's corpse was buried in an unmarked grave at Our Lady of Lourdes Cemetery in Hamilton.
A total of 159 other men
-- and no women -- would go on to die in the Trenton death chair.
paid the ultimate penalty for the Lindbergh kidnapping on April 3, 1936, a day which also saw mobs of
newsmen scurrying after the hearse that carried his corpse away from the prison.
On two occasions -- July 15, 1924 and Nov. 18, 1927 -- the chair was used to put four men to death on the same day.
The last execution took place in 1963. New Jersey
abolished the death penalty shortly thereafter. By
then, electrocution, one-time scientific wonder that promised a humane death, seemed like the relic of a
barbarous age; the lawmakers substituted lethal injection as the preferred method of execution.
Today, 13 men await the deadly needle in a new,
two-tiered death row. None has been executed and
the appeals process means that more than a decade will elapse between sentencing and execution -- not the month long wait of DiGiovanni's era.
In 1980, the long-dormant death chair was moved from
storage into a new prison museum at the
Department of Correction on Stuyvesant Avenue in Ewing. Lately it’s been on display at State Police
Headquarters, part of its popular exhibit on the 1932 Lindbergh case.
Its leather restraints are completely worn away, and
the power’s long been turned off, but the heavy oak
seat is certainly the most gawked-at item in the whole place.
Prison guard union rep John Cunningham says it’s a
worthy item for display, considering the huge part it’s played in
carrying out Jersey justice.
"Hey, it's not pretty, but it is history," Cunningham said.
In the 1880's, two developments concurred to set the
stage for the invention of the electric chair.
In 1886, the New York State Government established a legislative commission to study humane forms of capitol
punishment. At that time hanging was the number one method of carrying out the death penalty,
even while considered too slow and painful a method of execution.
The second development was a growing rivalry between
the two giants of the young electrical
utility industry. Thomas Edison was the first person to establish himself in the industry with
DC service. Westinghouse, developers of the newer AC technology, challenged Edison's
dominance of the utility industry. At the same time, copper prices were beginning to rise and
DC depended on thick copper electrical cables. Rising copper prices made the DC service more
costly and DC had other disadvantages, it could not provide services beyond a few miles
of each generator. (What's the difference between AC and DC electricity?)
Edison reacted to the competition by starting a smear
campaign against Westinghouse,
claiming AC technology was unsafe to use. In 1887, Edison held a public demonstration in
West Orange, New Jersey, supporting his accusations. Edison set up a 1,000 volt
Westinghouse AC generator attached to a metal plate and executed a dozen innocent
animals. The press had a field day describing the event and the new term "electro-cution"
was used to describe execution by electricity.
On June 4, 1888, the New
York Legislature passed a law establishing electrocution as the
state's method of execution, but since two potential designs (AC and DC) of the electric
chair existed, it was left to a committee to decide which form was better. Edison actively
campaigned for the selection of the Westinghouse chair, expecting that the consumer would not
want the same type of electrical service in their homes.
Later in 1888, the Edison research facility hired
inventor Harold P. Brown. Brown had recently
written a letter to the New York Post describing a fatal accident where a young boy
died after touching an exposed telegraph wire running on AC current. Brown and his assistant
Dr. Fred Peterson began designing an electric chair for Edison. They conducted cruel
experiments using dogs, horses and cows to research AC electro-cution, publicly
experimenting with DC voltage to show that it left the poor lab animals tortured but not dead,
then testing AC voltage to demonstrate how AC killed swiftly.
The press always invited
to watch these experiments gave the research much publicity.
Dr. Peterson steered the government committee that had to select the best
electro-cution method. Peterson was still on the payroll of the Edison Company, so it was
not surprising when the committee soon announced that the electric chair with AC
voltage was chosen for the State's prison system.
On January 1, 1889, the world's first electrical
execution law went into full effect.
Westinghouse protested and refused to sell any AC generators directly to the New York
State prison authorities. Edison and Brown found a way around Westinghouse and
provided the AC generators needed for the first working electric chairs. Westinghouse funded
the appeals for those first few souls sentenced to death by electrocution, the appeals were
made on the grounds that "electrocution was cruel and unusual punishment." Edison and
Brown both testified for the state that execution was a quick and painless form of
death. The State of New York won the appeals. For many years people referred to the
process of being electrocuted in the chair as being "Westinghoused".
Edison's plan to bring on the demise of Westinghouse
did not work, on the contrary it
soon became clear that the AC technology was vastly superior to DC technology. Edison finally
admitted years later - that he had thought so himself all along.