Executioner’s Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair
by Richard Moran
Knopf, 271 pp., $25.00
On July 30, 1888, before an invited audience, one of the first executions by electrocution took place. The condemned prisoner was a seventy-six-pound dog of both uncertain provenance and unproven transgressions who answered to the name of Dash. The dog, incarcerated in a wooden cage, was brought before about seventy-five electricians assembled at the Columbia College of Mines in New York City. Bound, muzzled, and fitted with electrical contacts, he was initially zapped with 300 volts, which made him yelp and whimper but failed to kill him, then 400 volts, which also failed to do the job, and then 700 volts, which caused him to tear off his muzzle. Some of the witnesses, appalled at the dog’s obvious suffering, demanded that Dash be instantly destroyed—which he was with a burst of alternating current.
This experiment, designed to prove that electricity could replace the hangman, was in some ways typical of what was to follow. Although Dash had a friendly manner, he had been accused of biting two people—a capital offense, then and now—and he was made to suffer terribly from electric current. More to the point, it hardly mattered if Dash was a biter or not. What really mattered, as Richard Moran writes in his clearly presented history of the electric chair, was that New York State, following the advice of a special commission on the reform of capital punishment, had recently enacted a law to change its method of execution from hanging to electrocution. Dash was giving his life for progress.
The Electrical Execution Act of 1888 was the culmination of a long-standing reform effort to save capital punishment from itself. Although in general Americans supported the death penalty, opposition was growing to public hangings, which sometimes turned the condemned into instant, albeit short-lived, celebrities or, as sometimes happened, instantaneous martyrs, the hapless victims of inept executioners. The noose, while traditional, had its drawbacks. It had to be fitted just right, with the knot placed under the left ear, lest the condemned person strangle slowly or, as sometimes happened, have his head ripped from the neck. Occasionally, nothing worked. The New York State reform commission recounted the story of Margaret Dickson, a Scottish murderer, who was hanged in the 1730s, but who revived when the lid of her coffin was jarred open. She was known forever more as “half-hanged Maggie.”
If not hanging, then what? The commission examined thirty-four methods of execution—firing from a cannon, boiling, exposure to wild beasts, etc.—and came down to four. The guillotine, while swift and painless, was excessively gory, distinctly French, and uncomfortably associated with the carnage of the Revolution; the garrote, an iron collar tightened by a screw, while effective, was restricted to Spain and its colonies and presumably considered too exotically foreign; the hypodermic injection required the participation of medical men, who were against it, and one of the drugs proposed, morphine, could make death a blissful experience, eliminating the “great dread of death.”
Electrocution, on …