‘Ten Minutes in Murderland’. Horror and Sensationalism in The St Andrews Citizen, Week 2: Electrical Executions

This is the second of our mini blog series featuring sensational headlines from The St Andrews Citizen newspaper. Spoiler alert: contains graphic descriptions of death by electrocution – not for the faint-hearted!

The article below is dated September 1st 1888:

In response to the state of New York’s decision to introduce the electric chair as means of exacting the death penalty, the article describes an incident where a man received an accidental electric shock, and appeared for some time to have died, before eventually regaining consciousness. The moral of his tale is grimly practical:

…if criminals are to be executed by electricity, cremation rather than burial had better follow, thus avoiding the possible occurrence of a horrible return to consciousness in the tomb.”

The decision to explore new methods of execution as a humane alternative to hanging had been suggested by the governor of New York some three years previously, during his State of the State address to the New York Legislature on January 8th 1885:

The present mode of executing criminals by hanging has come down to us from the dark ages, and it may well be questioned whether the science of the present day cannot provide a means for taking the life of such as are condemned to die in a less barbarous manner. I commend this suggestion to the consideration of the legislature.”

Although the Citizen quotation from the American Law Review shows that many were against the idea of considering the rights of convicted criminals, the inspiration behind the original electric chair was the notion that electricity entered and left the body cleanly, causing a swift and painless death. It was developed by dentist Alfred P Southwick who, after hearing about the death by electrocution of a worker who touched the terminals of an electrical generator, felt that the phenomenon might have a useful application. An early prototype of Southwick’s invention used a modified dentist’s chair.

While the electric chair was in development, intense competition had grown between Thomas Edison, inventor of the direct current (DC) power supply, and companies installing alternating current (AC) systems. While Edison’s electric company had pioneered early lighting systems, AC power was steadily gaining popularity. Publicly against capital punishment, Edison advocated the use of AC power to administer electrical executions in the hope that exploiting the connection between AC and deadly force would discredit his competitors. While consulting with electricity companies, the committee appointed by the state to oversee the final design of the electric chair became embroiled in this professional rivalry, now known as the ‘war of the currents‘. In probable collusion between Edison, committee members and AC power suppliers The Thomson-Houston Electric Company, AC generators of third party rival Westinghouse were covertly procured to power the electric chair. This attempt to tarnish the name of Westinghouse was so successful that Westinghoused became a slang term for electrocution.

The St Andrews Citizen, August 9th 1890

Illustration of Kemmler’s execution (source: Wikimedia Commons)

On August 6th, 1890, in New York’s Auburn Prison, William Kemmler became the first person to be executed by electrocution, after being found guilty of murder. In a grim execution scene which evokes the sentiments of the earlier article from The Citizen, the first current applied was ostensibly successful, until it was discovered that Kemmler was unconscious but still breathing. The attending physicians cried for the power to be turned back on immediately, but the generator required time to charge. The second current caused visible damage to Kemmler’s body, horrifying and repulsing the witnesses with the sight and smell. With this first electrical execution, ironically, the American Law Review’s wish for death to be ‘sufficiently revolting’ was certainly granted.

The St Andrews Citizen, August 9th 1890. Read the full article here

Despite the failures of Kemmler’s execution, the electric chair was subsequently adopted by other states, and eventually became the most prevalent method of execution in America, until it was overtaken by lethal injection in the late 20th century. The UK also considered introducing electrical execution, but there was found to be no advantage in that method over hanging, and capital punishment was eventually abolished in 1965.

Julie Greenhill
Reading Room Team

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