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Old Sparky, the electric chair used at Sing Sing prison

Execution by electrocution (usually referred to as the electric chair or simply the chair after its method of implementation) is an execution method originating in the United States in which the person being put to death is strapped to a specially built wooden chair and electrocuted through electrodes placed on the body. This execution method has been used only in the United States and, for a period of several decades,[1] in the Philippines (its first use there in 1924, last in 1976). The electric chair has become a symbol of the death penalty; however, its use is in decline.

Historically, once the person was attached to the chair, various cycles (differing in voltage and duration) of alternating current would be passed through the condemned's body, in order to fatally damage the internal organs (including the brain). The first jolt of electrical current was designed to cause immediate unconsciousness and brain death; the second one was designed to cause fatal damage to the vital organs. Death was frequently caused by electrical overstimulation of the heart.

The electric chair was first used in 1890. It was used by more than 25 states throughout the 20th century, acquiring nicknames such as Sizzlin' Sally, Old Smokey, Old Sparky, Yellow Mama, and Gruesome Gertie. In the late 20th century, the electric chair was removed as a form of execution in many U.S. states, and its use in the 21st century is very infrequent.[2]

Electrocution is currently an optional form of execution in the U.S. states of Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia, though they allow the prisoner to choose lethal injection as an alternative method. In the states of Kentucky and Tennessee, the electric chair has been retired except for those whose capital crimes were committed prior to legislated dates in 1998 (Kentucky March 31, 1998, Tennessee December 31, 1998) and who choose electrocution. In both states, inmates who do not choose electrocution or inmates who committed their crimes after the designated date are put to death by lethal injection. The electric chair is an alternate form of execution approved for potential use in Illinois and Oklahoma if other forms of execution are found unconstitutional in the state at the time of execution.

On February 8, 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court determined that execution via the electric chair was a "cruel and unusual punishment" under the State's constitution. This brought executions of this type to an end in Nebraska, the only remaining state to retain it as its sole method of execution.



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Electric chair history and laws in the United States
Color key:      Secondary method only      Has previously used electric chair, but does not today      Has never used electric chair

In 1887, New York State established a committee to determine a new, more humane system of execution to replace hanging. Alfred P. Southwick, a member of the committee, developed the idea of putting electric current through a condemned man after hearing about how relatively painlessly and quickly a drunken man died due to touching exposed power lines.[3] As Southwick was a dentist accustomed to performing procedures on subjects in chairs, his electrical device appeared in the form of a chair to restrain the inmate whilst being electrocuted.

He approached the leading electricity pioneers of the day to build the device but neither Thomas Edison nor Nikola Tesla—as part of the War of Currents—wanted their electrical system to be chosen because they feared that consumers would not want in their homes the same ("dangerous") type of electricity used to kill criminals. Edison, seeing this as an opportunity to promote DC electricity, agreed to experiment with the idea using the AC current.

The first electric chair was made by Harold P. Brown and Arthur Kennelly. Brown was an employee of Thomas Edison, hired for the purpose of researching electrocution and for the development of the electric chair. Kennelly, Edison's Chief Engineer at the West Orange facility was assigned to work with Brown on the project.[4] Since Brown and Kennelly worked for Edison, and Edison promoted their work, the development of the electric chair is often erroneously credited to Edison himself. Brown's design was based on use of Nikola Tesla's alternating current (AC), which was marketed by George Westinghouse and 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 partly driven by Edison's claims that AC was more lethal than DC. However, at the very high currents used for the device, which could be as high as ten amperes, the difference in lethality between the two types of currents was approximately a factor of two, which was marginal.

To prove that AC electricity was dangerous and therefore better for executions, Brown and Edison, who promoted DC electricity, publicly killed many animals with AC for the press to ensure that alternating current was associated with electrical death. It was at these events that the term "electrocution" was coined. The term "electrocution" originally referred only to electrical execution (from which it is a portmanteau word), and not to accidental electrical deaths. However, since no English word was available for the latter process, with the new rise of commercial electricity, the word "electrocution" eventually took over as a description of all circumstances of electrical death. Edison tried to introduce the verb "to Westinghouse" for denoting the art of executing persons with AC current. Most of their experiments were conducted at Edison's West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory in 1888.

The demonstrations on electrocution apparently had their intended effects, and the AC electric chair was adopted by the committee in 1889.[5]

When it came to building the actual state execution device, the Westinghouse company refused to sell an AC generator for the purpose, so Edison and Brown used subterfuge to acquire the AC generator. They pretended that the Westinghouse AC generator was for use in a university, and had it dropshipped to New York through a country in South America.

First Execution

The first person to be executed via the electric chair was William Kemmler in New York's Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890; the 'state electrician' was Edwin Davis. The first 17-second passage of current through Kemmler caused unconsciousness, but failed to stop his heart and breathing. The attending physicians, Dr. Edward Charles Spitzka and Dr. Charles F. Macdonald, came forward to examine Kemmler. After confirming Kemmler was still alive, Spitzka reportedly called out, "Have the current turned on again, quick — no delay."

The generator needed time to re-charge, however. In the second attempt, Kemmler was shocked with 2,000 volts. Blood vessels under the skin ruptured and bled and his body caught fire.

In all, the entire execution took about eight minutes. Westinghouse later commented: "They would have done better using an axe." A reporter who witnessed it also said it was "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging."

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 soon became the prevalent method of execution in the U.S., replacing hanging (although it saw very little use in the Western states, with the gas chamber the more popular alternative to hanging there). It remained so until the mid-1980s, when lethal injection became widely accepted as an easier method for conducting judicial executions.

In 1900, Charles Justice was a prison inmate at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus. While performing cleaning detail duties in the death chamber, he devised an idea to improve the efficiency of the restraints on the electric chair. Justice designed metal clamps to replace the leather straps, thus allowing for the inmate to be secured more tautly and minimize the problem of burnt flesh. Justice's improvements were implemented and he was subsequently paroled from prison. The ironically-named convict's fortunes took a turn for the worse eleven years later, when he was convicted in a robbery/murder and returned to prison under a death sentence. On November 9, 1911, he died in the same electric chair that he had helped to improve.[6]

A record was set on July 13, 1928 when seven men were executed, one after another, in the electric chair at Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville. In 1942, six Germans convicted of espionage in the Quirin Case were put to death in one day in the District of Columbia jail electric chair.[7]

Notable deaths by electric chair include Leon Czolgosz, Giuseppe Zangara, Sacco and Vanzetti, Hans Schmidt, Bruno Hauptmann, Lepke Buchalter, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Charles Starkweather, and Ted Bundy.

The electrocution of housewife Ruth Snyder at Sing Sing on January 12, 1928, for the murder of her husband was made famous when a newspaper reporter smuggled a hidden camera into the death chamber and photographed her in the electric chair as the current was turned on. The photograph was a front-page sensation the following morning, and remains one of the most famous newspaper photos of all time.

After 1966 electrocutions ceased for a time in the USA, but the method continued in the Philippines.[8] A well-publicized triple execution took place in May 1972, when Jaime Jose, Basilio Pineda and Edgardo Aquino were electrocuted for the 1967 abduction and gang-rape of the young actress Maggie de la Riva.

On May 25, 1979, John Arthur Spenkelink became the first electrocuted person after the Gregg v. Georgia decision by the Supreme Court of the United States in the U.S. in 1976. He was the first person to be executed in the USA in this manner since 1966. However, the last person to be involuntarily executed via the electric chair was Lynda Lyon Block on May 10, 2002 in Alabama.

A number of states still allow the condemned person to choose between electrocution and lethal injection. In all, ten inmates nationwide, five in Virginia, three in South Carolina and one in both Arkansas and Tennessee have opted for electrocution over lethal injection. The last use of the chair was on March 18, 2010, when Paul Warner Powell was electrocuted in Virginia. He elected this method.

Other countries appear to have contemplated using the method, sometimes for special reasons. Minutes of the British War Cabinet released in 2006 show that in December 1942, Winston Churchill proposed that Adolf Hitler — if caught — should be summarily executed in an electric chair, obtained from the USA. 'This man is the mainspring of evil. Instrument — electric chair, for gangsters, no doubt available on lease-lend'.[9]


'Old Sparky' is the electric chair that Nebraska used for executions. It is housed in the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Nebraska

The use of the electric chair has declined as legislators sought what they believed to be more humane methods of execution. Lethal injection became the most popular method, helped by newspaper accounts of botched electrocutions in the early 1980s.

The electric chair has also been criticized because of several instances in which the subjects were not instantly killed, but had to be subjected to multiple electric shocks. This led to a call for ending of the practice because many see it as cruel and unusual punishment [10]. Trying to address such concerns, Nebraska introduced a new electrocution protocol in 2004, which called for administration of a 15-second-long application of 2,450 volts of electricity; after a 15-minute wait, an official then checks for signs of life. New concerns raised regarding the 2004 protocol resulted, in April 2007, in the ushering in of the current Nebraska protocol, calling for a 20-second-long application of 2,450 volts of electricity. (Prior to the 2004 protocol change, an initial eight-second application of 2,450 volts was administered, followed by a one-second pause, then a 22-second application at 480 volts. After a 20-second break, the cycle was repeated three more times.)

There have been incidents of a person's head on fire; or of a burnt electrical transformer[11]. In 1946, the electric chair failed to execute Willie Francis, who reportedly shrieked "take it off! Let me breathe!" as he was being executed. It turned out that the portable electric chair had been improperly set up by an intoxicated trustie. A case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court (Francis v. Resweber),[12] with lawyers for the condemned arguing that although Francis did not die, he had, in fact, been executed. The argument was rejected on the basis that re-execution did not violate the double jeopardy clause of the 5th Amendment of the US Constitution, and Francis was returned to the electric chair and successfully executed in 1947.

As of 2008, the only places in the world which still reserve the electric chair as an option for execution are the U.S. states of Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. (Oklahoma, Arkansas and Illinois laws provide for its use should lethal injection ever be held to be unconstitutional). Inmates in the other states must select either it or lethal injection. In the state of Florida, on July 8, 1999, Allen Lee Davis convicted of murder was executed in the Florida electric chair "Old Sparky". Davis' face was bloodied and photographs taken, which were later posted on the Internet. The 1997 execution of Pedro Medina created controversy when flames burst from the inmate's head. Lethal injection is now, as of 2008, the primary method of execution in the state of Florida. On February 15, 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court declared execution by electrocution to be "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the Nebraska Constitution.[13]

See also

Nicknames of various electric chairs:

Several State Electricians:


  1. ^ [1] Philippines: The Death Penalty: Criminality, Justice and Human Rights
  2. ^
  3. ^ Christen, AG; Christen, AG Christen JA. (November 2000). "Alfred P. Southwick, MDS, DDS: dental practitioner, educator and originator of electrical executions". Journal of the History of Dentistry 48fkzklnbzn (3ghy): 115–45. PMID 11806253. 
  4. ^ Moran, Richard. Executioner's Current. Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and the Invention of the Electric Chair. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002, p. 94.
  5. ^ Mary Bellis (2005). "Death and Money - The History of the Electric Chair". Retrieved 13 April 2006. 
  6. ^ 312 People Died In Ohio's Electric Chair - News Story - WEWS Cleveland
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Philippines: The Death Penalty: Criminality, Justice and Human Rights". Amnesty International. 1 October 1997. Retrieved 2008-07-31. 
  9. ^ "War crimes and war criminals, meeting held on July 6, 1942". Retrieved 2006-04-25. 
  10. ^ [2]
  11. ^
  12. ^ U.S. Supreme Court case, Francis v. Resweber: 329 U.S. 459 (1947)
  13. ^

External links

Simple English

An electric chair is a specially built chair which is used to execute convicted criminals by electrocuting (giving them a strong electric shock) them. This means that they are being killed as a punishment for a crime that they did, usually a murder.

An electric chair is a strong wooden chair which has electrodes (which are objects often made out of metal that conduct electricity) for running electric current through the convict's body. One electrode is placed on the convict's head, and another is placed on the convict's right shin. When the switch is turned on, a 2,000 volt current goes through the convict. The current is to stop the heartbeat, cause unconsciousness, and cause death. Sometimes, the chair was made from the wood of the gallows which it replaced.

The electric chair is sometimes used as the very symbol of death penalty. It is also a part of Americana (that is: cultural symbols of USA) and the electric chairs of many states have ironic nicknames like Old Sparky, Yellow Mama, Gruesome Gertie, Sizzling Sally or Hot Seat. The execution itself is sometimes called "riding the lightning".

History of the electric chair

The electric chair was designed by Dr. Alfred Southwick, and first built by Harold Brown in 1888. Dr. Southwick had seen a drunk man falling in a generator and dying immediately from electric shock. [1] There had been a very gruesome hanging in New York in 1886 that did not go right. The drop had been too long and the convict's head was torn off. Many people wanted a less cruel method of execution. The state of New York chose the electric chair.

This execution method has been used only in the United States and, for several decades, in the Philippines (its first use there in 1924, last in 1976). The electric chair has become a symbol of the death penalty, and a part of American folklore. However, it is becoming replaced as a method of executing criminals in the United States by lethal injection. Altogether, 25 US states and the US federal government have used the electric chair.

The decline of the electric chair

Death in the electric chair is usually quick as the convict dies from electric shock which stops the heart. However, if something goes wrong, the death is more like frying the convict alive. The electric chair has been declared as a cruel and unusual punishment in many states and is no longer used in most states. In fact, there are no longer any states that use the electric chair as its main way of executing criminals. All states that use the death penalty use lethal injection as its main way of executing criminals now.

So far, the latest person executed in an electric chair has been Paul Powell, a man who killed a teenage girl and raped another. He was executed in Virginia in 2010.


  1. Macleod, Marlee. "THE ELECTRIC CHAIR". Crime Library on Retrieved 18 March 2010. 

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