The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History (McFarland and Co. Inc). Jefferson, North Carolina 1999 ISBN 0-7864-0686-0 288 pages, 50 illustrations. Cloth $39.95)
This book traces the history of the electric chair for over 100 years from the initial idea in 1881 to the present day. First designed as a method of killing unwanted animals by the SPCA, electrocution was substituted for hanging by New York State in 1888. The first use of the electric chair was in 1890.
While the New York legislature said it was making the change for humanitarian reasons, the real reason was money. Since the middle 1880s, the two chief American electrical entrepreneurs, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, were competing against each other in a no-holds-barred “battle of the currents” to win contracts with every city in the nation. At stake were millions of dollars in sales of equipment.
Publicly, Edison seemed to be staying on the sidelines of the electric chair debate, offering the use of his laboratory and testifying at hearings. Stolen letters and other information included in this book show that the chief lobbyist for the chair, Harold Brown, was taking direct orders from Edison, consulting with him at every step.
Westinghouse, also in secret, hired the best lawyers in the country to fight the electric chair all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the electric chair could not be considered “cruel and unusual punishment” because no one was sure what would happen when it was used.
After describing the first use of the chair, the book describes the executions of many famous victims, including women and children. Among the people who died in the chair were the assassin of President McKinley, the Lindbergh baby, the character that Theodore Dreiser used as the basis for An American Tragedy, Sacco and Vanzetti, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Ted Bundy. In all, over 4,200 Americans have been killed in the electric chair.
Over half the states and the District of Columbia used the electric chair at some point during the 20th Century, but most states have now switched to lethal injection. Only four states still use the electric chair as the sole means of execution. The four remaining states, Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Nebraska, all have bills in the works to pull the plug on the chair. The history of this strange invention seems to be drawing to a close.
Using newspaper articles, letters from archives and old reports, this book explains how such a bizarre invention came to be accepted by the public, despite the fact that it never worked very well. It explains why the courts refused to ban it and why, eventually, states pulled the plug and put “Old Sparky” into museums with other gruesome artifacts of the past.
REVIEW EXCERPTS"A history of the first decade of the electric chair. Brandon tells an absorbing story...an excellent, readable work”—Choice
“One must admire Brandon’s extensive research...essential”—Library Journal
“Highly readable, meticulously documented and absolutely fascinating history...an important contribution to the ongoing debate over capital punishment in this state and this country...recommended”—Bookmarks
“[the] most thorough study of the first man to be executed by current in America. Any serious student of law, New York history or politics owes himself the opportunity to read this great book”—New York Law Journal.
Table of Contents
Part One: A Shocking Invention
1. The Genie of the Gilded Age
2. The Hangman’s Terrible Legacy
3. The Death Commission
4. The Battle of the Currents
5. The People v. William Kemmler
6. Westinghouse’s Counter-Attack
7. Cruel and Unusual Punishment
8. The Human Experiment
9. The Reaction: ‘A Thrill of Indignation’
Part Two: Four Thousand Victims
10. The First Era: 1891-1966
11. The Electric Chair Reborn
This book is available in most local libraries
To purchase your own copy, try Amazon.com or your local bookstore.
Or try the McFarland and Co. Website.
This page created and maintained by Craig Brandon
Last updated December 2008