Old Sparky:
Famous Victims 
of the Electric Chair

More than 4,400 people have been killed in American electric chairs since 1890. Included on this page are profiles of a few of them.

William Kemmler was the first person to die in the electric chair. His death on Aug. 6, 1890 in Auburn Prison was witnessed by two dozen people but thousands read about the experiment the next day. 

Kemmler was convicted of murdering his girlfriend, Tillie Ziegler, with an axe. He admitted the crime to police and said he would "take the rope" for it, but because he was the first person convicted after New York State changed the law he went to the electric chair instead. 

His case became a full-fledged legal battle when millionaire entrepreneur George Westinghouse took up his case and hired the best lawyers in the country to take it all the way to the Supreme Court. 

Kemmler's execution was botched when one of the attending physicians ordered the current turned off too soon. When it was turned back on it was left on so long that Kemmler's flesh burned, filling the execution chamber with the smell of burning meat. One of the witnesses fainted and several predicted that the experiment had been such a failure it would never be used again. The next year, however, New York killed four more people on the sa
Leon Czolgosz was executed in Auburn Prison on Oct. 29, 1901, just six weeks after he assassinated President William McKinley in Buffalo. Czolgosz was a mentally unstable anarchist who had convinced himself that his failure to succeed in America after immigrating from Poland was the result of a government conspiracy. 

The assassination took place at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo. Witnesses said Czolgosz hid his pistol in a bandaged hand, but he swore there had been no bandage. McKinley survived the shooting for a week, but finally died of his injuries. 

Museums offered as much as $5,000 for Czolgosz's body or his clothing. For this reason, prison officials took the unusual step of dissolving his body and earthly effects in sulphuric acid after his execution. While he was being strapped into the chair, Czolgosz said "I killed the president because he was an enemy of the good people, of the working people. I am not sorry for my crime." 

Czolgosz's execution  became the subject of one of Edison's earliest motion pictures, "The Execution of Czolgosz," using actors to play the parts of the murderer and prison officials. 

Martha Place was the first woman to die in the electric chair. On the day of her execution, March 20, 1899, the state executioner, Edwin F. Davis, said he treated her just like any other condemned prisoner and made no changes in the protocol, except that her hair was snipped while she was on the chair, instead of earlier in her cell. 

"Somebody has to execute her and that is my job," Davis told his successor, Robert Elliott. 

Place was convicted of killing her stepdaughter at their home in Brooklyn on Feb. 7, 1898. She was a New Jersey dressmaker who had abandoned her husband to live with a Brooklyn widower, first as a servant and then as his wife. The wife and stepdaughter quarreled constantly and finally Place tossed a a glass of sulfuric acid into the girl's face and then smothered her with a pillow. 

Wearing a black gown she had made while in prison, Place was strapped into the chair by a matron because Gov. Theodore Roosevelt felt it would be immoral for men to perform that task. 

Chester Gillette was executed in the Auburn electric chair on March 30, 1908 for the murder of his pregnant girlfriend, Grace Brown, at Big Moose Lake on July 11, 1906. Gillette claimed that Grace Brown committed suicide when she became depressed. 

His trial in Herkimer, New York, attracted national attention after the district attorney released a series of love letters Grace wrote to him just before her death. 

Gillette's case was the basis for Theodore Dreiser's 1926 novel An American Tragedy and the 1951 movie "A Place in the Sun" with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. 

For more information: Murder in the Adirondacks Page. 

Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco attracted international attention when they were charged, convicted and executed of murdering two men during the 1920 robbery of a South Braintree, Massachusetts shoe factory paymaster. Many felt that the the two Italian immigrants and admitted anarchists were being punished for their politics. 

As international pressure mounted and new evidence was presented, Gov. Alvin T. Fuller refused to order a new trial and the two men became martyrs, inspiring protests throughout America and Europe.

Robert Elliott, the executioner at Charlestown Prison on Aug. 23, 1927, said the notoriety of the two men made him a little nervous, so he was careful that nothing out of the ordinary would happen. 

"I knew that the eyes of the world were on Boston that night, that the least thing out of the ordinary or the slightest mishap in the death chamber would be inflated into a sensation that might result in serious repercussions," he wrote in his memoirs. 

Sacco shouted, "Long live anarchy!" just before he was killed.

Elliott's home was destroyed by a bomb less than a year later and although no one was charged with the crime, he assumed it was the work of sympathetic anarchists. In 1977 Gov. Michael Dukakis signed a proclamation that the two had not been treated fairly. Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote a poem about the execution called "Justice Denied in Massachusetts."

More Information: Sacco and Vanzetti.

Ruth Snyder is most famous for the photograph that was taken at her execution rather than her crime. The wife of Albert Snyder, the art editor of Motor Boating magazine, Snyder had a series of lovers. After taking out a $95,000 insurance policy on her husband she plotted with her final lover, Henry Judd Gray, to collect on the policy.

On March 13, 1927 the two beat Albert Snyder with a pair of window sash weights, strangled him with wire and then doped him with chloroform. She was the first woman put to death by Elliott. 

On Jan. 13, 1928, the day after her execution, the New York Daily News published a fuzzy picture on the front page showing Snyder at the moment of her death. Thomas Howard, a photographer and one of the official witnesses, had strapped a small camera to his leg and snapped the photo. The state attempted to prosecute Howard and the newspaper, but nothing ever came of it. For many years afterwards witnesses to executions were searched and asked to hold up their hands so they could not operate hidden cameras. 

Louis Lepke, whose real name was Louis Buchalter, was the most famous New York City gangster of the 1930s. At one time he had a private army of over 250 professional hoodlums who killed an estimated 80 people on his direct order.

After the New York district attorney's office and the FBI began an all-out effort to bring him to justice in the 1930s a $50,000 reward was offered and he was forced to go underground. He turned himself in fearing that other gangsters might put out a contract on his life.

The poet Robert Lowell, who was in prison as a conscientious objector in 1943, met Lepke and wrote a poem about him in which he said the prospect of the electric chair "shimmered" before the enfeebled gangster like a mysterious gateway back to the violent heights of his youth. Lepke was executed at Sing Sing on March 4, 1

Willie Francis was famous for being executed in the electric chair twice. On Nov. 4 1944, Francis, a 16-year-old black youth,  was convicted by an all-white jury of the murder of the town druggist in St. Martinsville, Louisiana. 

Louisiana used a portable electric chair so that the condemned could be executed in the parishes in which they were convicted. The two men who installed the chair at St, Martinsville Parish Court House on May 3, 1946 were a convict and a prison guard, neither familiar with how the chair worked. Witnesses said both had been drinking. 

After he was strapped into the chair and the current was turned on, Francis felt the jolt, but nothing else seemed to happen. "I am not dying," he told the jailers. The cables had not been properly connected and not enough voltage was going into the chair. Before the state could try again Francis' lawyer had filed an appeal that eventually went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Francis' lawyer argued that it would be cruel and unusual to force Francis to be electrocuted a second time. 

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Francis had to be returned to the chair and he was executed on May 9, 1947. There was no cheating the electric man a second time. 

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed at Sing Sing Prison on June 19, 1953 after their conviction on charges of espionage. They had been accused of passing secrets about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union at the height of the McCarthy era. 

Like Sacco and Vanzetti a generation before, their case attracted international attention because they were seen as victims of their political beliefs. They were the first American civilians ever to be sentenced to death in the electric chair  for espionage. 

Despite a last-minute stay of execution order from Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, the execution went on as scheduled after President Dwight Eisenhower refused a last-minute appeal. While Julius' execution went smoothly, the current had to be turned on and off five times before Ethel was dead. 

Charles Starkweather, who was the inspiration for the movie "Badlands" and a song by Bruce Springsteen, died in the Nebraska State Prison's electric chair on June 25, 1959. 

With his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Furgate, Starkweather, 17,  began his crime spree on Dec. 1, 1957 when they killed a gas station attendant for $108. Among his victims was millionaire industrialist C. Laurer Ward. After that, the state called out the National Guard in an attempt to capture him. They were finally caught after a high-speed chase in Montana. 

His father raised money for his appeal by selling locks of his hair. On the eve of his execution he was asked to donate his eyes but refused, saying, "Why should I? Nobody ever gave me anything." 

Ted Bundy, one of the most famous mass murderers of the 1970s, used his intelligence and good looks to lure his victims into a sense of safety. Then he would hit them over the head with a blunt object before raping and killing them. He may have killed as many as 50 women in this manner, all of them with long, dark hair parted down the middle. 

His string of murders stretched across the country from Washington State to Colorado and finally to Florida, where we has convicted for the murders of three Chi Omega sorority sisters in Tallahassee. 

In a final interview before his execution, Bundy blamed pornography for his behavior and warned society that it would produce other killers like him. 

During his execution, 200 people gathered outside the prison to light sparklers and shout "Burn Baby Burn" and "Roast in Peace." 

Bruno Hauptmann wasexecuted at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton on April 3, 1936 for kidnapping and killing aviator Charles Lindbergh's infant son on March 1, 1932.

One of the most sensational crime cases of the 20th century, the search for the killer of the "Lindbergh baby" attracted  international attention. Hauptmann was captured after he passed marked bills that were part of the $50,000 ransom payoff. 

After the circus-like trial, at which spectators outside screamed "Kill the German" and miniature replicas of the ladder used at the kidnapping were sold, Hauptmann's execution was routine. His last statement, written in German,  was, "I am glad that my life in a world that has not understood me has ended."

Although evidence was withheld that might have helped Hauptmann's case, the most recent books on the murder agree that Hauptmann was guilty of the crime.

More information: The Lindbergh Trial Page

These cases and many more are described in the book, The Electric Chair, An Unnatural American History , By Craig Brandon, McFarland and Co. Inc. Jefferson, N.C. 1999

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This page maintained by Craig Brandon.
 Last updated August 2003
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