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Electric chair

Electric chair used to execute William Kemmler in 1890
Electric chair used to execute William Kemmler in 1890

The electric chair is an execution method in which the person being executed is strapped to a chair and electrocuted through electrodes placed on the body. This execution method is used mostly in the United States of America and has become a symbol of the death penalty there, although its use is now in decline.

Current use

It is currently an optional form of execution in the U.S. states of Alabama, South Carolina and Virginia, and the sole method of execution in Nebraska (the former three states 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 31 March 1998, Tennessee 31 December 1998]. In both Kentucky and Tennessee, the method of execution authorized for crimes committed after these dates is 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. In Florida, the condemned may choose death by electrocution, but the default is lethal injection.

Historically, once the person was attached to the chair, various cycles of current would be passed through the condemned's body, attempting to completely damage the internal organs (including the brain). Dramatic events included the condemned's eyes exploding on occasion and lying on their cheeks and the room smelling of burning flesh. In some instances the person would catch fire and burn while being electrocuted. These descriptions, although having factual basis, are atypical.

In the United States, most death sentences handed down are the result of persons being convicted of a statutory capital offense (i.e., an offense violating the laws of a particular U.S. state and punishable in that state by death). For such statutory capital offenses, state legislatures are the authorizing bodies for death penalty allowance and any approved death penalty methods.

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. From 1924 to 1976, the electric chair was used as method of capital punishment in the Philippines. In Ethiopia, where death penalty is still lawful, the usage of the electric chair was abolished in 1890 right after the delivery of two ordered units by emperor Menelik II.. This was due to the lack of electricity in the country. 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.



Usage of the electric chair throughout the United States.  States that currently employ the electric chair are colored teal.  States that historically used it are green.  Hawaii and Alaska are not shown, but neither historically used nor currently uses the electric chair.
Usage of the electric chair throughout the United States. States that currently employ the electric chair are colored teal. States that historically used it are green. Hawaii and Alaska are not shown, but neither historically used nor currently uses the electric chair.

Albert Southwick developed the idea of using electric current as a method of execution after having witnessed an intoxicated man die after having touched an exposed terminal on a live generator. [1]

The first practical electric chair was invented by Harold P. Brown. Brown was an employee of Thomas Edison, hired for the purpose of researching electrocution and for the development of the electric chair. Since Brown worked for Edison, and Edison promoted Brown's work, the development of the electric chair is often erroneously credited to Edison himself. Brown's design was based on George Westinghouse's alternating current (AC), which 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 entirely driven by Edison's attempt to claim that AC was more lethal than DC.

In 1886 New York State established a committee to determine a new, less inhumane system of execution to replace hanging. Neither Edison nor Westinghouse 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 type of electricity used to kill criminals.

In order 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, including a circus elephant. They held executions of animals for the press in order to ensure that AC current was associated with electrocution. It was at these events that the term "electrocution" was coined. Edison introduced 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 apparently had their intended effects, and the AC electric chair was adopted by the committee in 1889.[2] 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. However, Edison and Brown used subterfuge in order to gain a Westinghouse AC system. They bought an AC system, pretending it was for use in a university.

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. 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. These revisions were incorporated into the chair and Justice was subsequently paroled from prison. Ironically, he was convicted in a robbery/murder and returned to prison 13 years later under a death sentence. On November 9, 1911, he died in the same electric chair that he had helped to improve. [3]

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 the District of Columbia jail electric chair.

Notable deaths by electric chair include Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Ted Bundy, Charles Starkweather, Giuseppe Zangara, and Leon Czolgosz.

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 U.S. in 1976. He was the first person to be executed in this manner since 1966.

The last person who involuntarily was executed via the electric chair, however, 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, seven inmates nationwide, 4 in Virginia, 2 in South Carolina and 1 in Arkansas have opted for electrocution over lethal injection. The last use of the chair (as of 2006) was on July 20, 2006, when Brandon Hedrick was electrocuted in Virginia. He elected this method. Before that, it had not been used since May 2004, when James Neil Tucker was electrocuted in South Carolina. He refused to elect his execution method.


The head and legs of the condemned person are shaved and the prisoner is strapped into the chair. A moist sponge is placed on the head to aid conductivity. One electrode is attached to the head and a second attached to the leg to provide a closed circuit. At least two jolts of an electrical current are applied with the time and current depending on the physical state of the condemed person. Typically an initial voltage of around 2,000 volts is applied for up to 15 seconds to stop the heart and induce unconsciousness. The voltage is then lowered to reduce current flow to approximately 8 amps.

In theory, unconsciousness occurs in a fraction of a second. However, there are many reports of things going wrong. There have been reports of a person's head on fire; of burning transformers, and of a chair breaking down after the initial jolt and letting the condemned wait in pain on the floor of the execution room while the chair was fixed. In 1946, the electric chair failed to execute Willie Francis, who reportedly shrieked "Stop it! Let me breathe!" as he was being executed. It turned out that the portable electric chair had been improperly set up by an intoxicated trustee. A case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court (Francis v. Resweber)[4], 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 the following year.

Regardless of how the execution is performed, cleaning up afterwards is unpleasant. Skin is inevitably burned and prison workers have to separate the burnt skin from the seat belts. The initial flow of electric current may cause the person to lose control over many bodily functions, including muscle movement, urination and defecation. To mitigate this, alterations to modern electric chairs include padding and inertia style retractable seat belts and the condemned may wear a diaper.


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.

As of 2006, 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, Nebraska, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. (Oklahoma and Illinois laws provide for its use should lethal injection ever be held to be unconstitutional.) Except for Nebraska, where it remains the only method of execution, inmates in the other states must select 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 2006, the primary method of execution in the state of Florida.

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. Trying to address such concerns, Nebraska's new electrocution protocol calls for administration of a 15-second-long jolt of 2,450 volts of electricity; after a 15-minute wait, a coroner then checks for signs of life (previously, an initial eight-second jolt of 2,450 volts was administered, followed by a one-second pause, then a 22-second jolt at 480 volts. After a 20-second break, the cycle was repeated three more times). Death penalty abolitionists in the state hope to see electrocution ruled as cruel and unusual punishment, leaving the state without a legal way of administering the death penalty if lethal injection is not legalized..

The execution of Brandon Hedrick will certainly not be the last use of the electric chair. The chair has recently made a comeback due to arguments that lethal injection is very painful. Many prisoners are choosing the chair over injection again.



  • Recently released Minutes of the British War Cabinet 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'.[5]
  • Edwin F. Davis, who threw the switch for the very first electric chair execution (of William Kemmler), received a U.S. Patent for his "Electrocution-Chair" (U.S. Patent No. 587,649, Patented August 3, 1897). Davis would continue as an executioner for twenty-four years, throwing the switch on 240 condemned men.
  • H. P. Lovecraft published in 1930 on Weird Tales 16 No. 2 a notable tale about the introduction of such a new execution mean: The Electic Executioner, by H. P. Lovecraft and Adolphe de Castro
  • Slang term for being executed in electric chair is "riding the lightning". Metallica has made an album named after this, with its title track being topical about the electric chair.


  1. (Nov 2000) "Alfred P. Southwick, MDS, DDS: dental practitioner, educator and originator of electrical executions". Journal of the History of Dentistry 48 (3): 117-22.
  2. Mary Bellis (2005). Death and Money - The History of the Electric Chair. About.com. Retrieved on 13 April 2006.
  3. http://www.cuadp.org/polmoney.html
  4. U.S. Supreme Court case, Francis v. Resweber: 329 U.S. 459 (1947)
  5. War crimes and war criminals, meeting held on July 6, 1942. Retrieved on 2006-04-25.

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