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Death of a Killing Machine

May 04, 2003|Christopher Shea | Christopher Shea is a Washington, D.C., writer.

WASHINGTON — 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.

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