Electrocution Became Standard for Execution: More Humane than Hanging?

“Old Sparky” from Sing Sing Prison. Source: NYC Department of Correctional Services

How did electrocution become a method of execution? The story involves a dentist watching a drunken hobo fry to death on an electrical line, hangings that resulted in decapitation, and the death of many, many animal subjects. Let’s take a look at how electrocution became a standard form of execution, what happened to the first victim of the electric chair, and the horror stories from the early days of electrocution technology.

More Humane Than Hanging?

Individuals felt electrocution would be a more “humane” replacement for the predominant execution method of the time: hanging. Executioners often had “problems” during a hanging, with the wrong rope length or an incorrect knot leading to decapitation of the condemned or a slow, painful death in front of hundreds of onlookers.

Alfred Southwick, a New York dentist, observed a drunken man die quickly and without pain after touching exposed power lines. Southwick happened to be on a New York state committee looking to find a more humane method of execution and proposed killing the condemned with electricity.

Electrocution, when performed properly, causes to succumb due to fatal organ damage. The heart relies on regular electrical impulses to beat, but electrocution overstimulates the heart, working it to the point of failure in a short amount of time.

The Electric Dunk Tank

Using a chair to send a lethal amount of electricity through the condemned beat out two other proposed methods of electrocution. The first involved strapping the individual marked for death to a rubber table and proceeding with electrocution (a setting eerily similar to our current system of lethal injection), while the second dropped the condemned into an electrified tank of water.

An Orphan Becomes the First Victim

William Kemmler began life under pitiful circumstances. Born to alcoholic parents in 1860, Kemmler was orphaned as a child and took to the streets to peddle for food. When Kemmler did find steady work as a cart driver, he fell into alcoholism. While intoxicated, he destroyed his cart and lost his livelihood when he bet that he could jump over an eight-foot wall on in his horse drawn cart.

This comedic, yet tragic incident did not lead Kemmler to the electric chair; the 1889 murder of his common law wife with a crude hatchet did.

Eight Minutes Lasted a Lifetime

Prior to Kemmler’s execution, officials attempted to determine the necessary amount of electricity to overload a human heart and cause death. Over 20 dogs, two calves, a horse, and an orangutan met death in the chair as practice runs.

Edwin Davis served as the  first state appointed electrician for this attempt, responsible for making sure the procedure went correctly.

Davis used two electrodes, one placed on the head and another on Kemmler’s back, to connect him to the lethal energy source. Unaware of the electrode to be placed on his back, Kemmer arrived at his execution in a suit and tie. Davis cut a hole through Kemmler’s last piece of dignity in order to place the electrode.

The first 1,000-volt jolt of electricity sent through Kemmler’s body lasted 17 seconds, failing to kill him. Kemmler sat unconscious, but his respiratory and circulatory systems continued to work. After a period of dead time that allowed the generator to recharge, the second attempt increased the current to 2,000 volts. Eight minutes after the initial jolt, Kemmler was declared dead; his body covered in ruptured blood vessels.

Several individuals watching from execution chamber attempted to leave before the end of the eight-minute struggle, but law enforcement official required they stay inside. After the electrocution, it is said that the electrode placed on Kemmler’s back burnt through layers of skin and muscle, settling on his spine, but there are no pictures or official accounts to support this gory detail.

Early Electrocution Mishaps

While the first attempt to execute an individual by electrocution does not sound like a rousing success, several even less successful cases would occur during electrocutions over the next several decades. The Sing Sing Correctional Facility housed many early electrocutions due to New York States’ progressive stance on moving away from hanging as a form of execution. Both of these unusual events, however, originate from Sing Sing.

In one bizarre 1903 electrocution, Fred Von Wormer’s date with the electric chair appeared to kill him. Upon his arrival in the morgue, however, Wormer began breathing. Prison officials contacted the executioner, who had left the premises, but when he arrived at the morgue Wormer’s vital signs had ceased. To ensure that Wormer really did die, the executioner placed him back in the chair and hit him with another thirty-second jolt.

Two and a half decades later, an execution witness bypassed a routine security screening and took a picture of Ruth Snyder during her electrocution. The image of Snyder, one of the earliest females to meet death by electric chair, landed on the front page of the New York Daily News the next day.

Currently, only the United States uses electrocution as a manner of execution, with the method only available in a handful of states. In no state is electrocution a first line option for execution. A condemned criminal must meet a set of pre-existing criteria and state that he or she desires electrocution over lethal injection, the preferred manner of execution, to be considered for electrocution.


Source: Wikipedia Commons

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