Thomas Edison, who gave us the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, the motion-picture projector, and a host of other technological goodies, also gave us the electric chair--or did he?
According to “Electric Chair Wars,” Edison is credited, incorrectly, with inventing the electric chair. The dubious honor of having invented this execution device actually goes to a dentist, Alfred P. Southwick, who witnessed an intoxicated man get electrocuted during a visit to a power plant in Buffalo, New York.
Like many other serial killers, Southwick practiced on animals before trying his hand with people, convincing the city’s animal welfare organization that killing stray animals with electricity was more humane than drowning them. This attempt at persuasion having proved successful, the dentist and a legislator convinced the governor of the Empire State that electrocuting humans was a more humane way of destroying them than hanging.
The state had a new way of executing criminals, but it was yet to be decided whether alternating current (AC), championed by George Westinghouse, was deadlier that direct current (DC), endorsed by Thomas Edison. Southwick’s chair used the former, the brainstorm of Westinghouse employee Nicola Tesla. In 1890, the death sentence of William Kemmler offered the two rival inventors the opportunity to put their respective currents where their mouths were.
A showman of sorts, Edison staged the executions of domestic animals to convince the public that DC was a superior means of killing people (or domestic animals, at least) than AC. When Topsy, a circus elephant, objected to having been fed a lit cigarette and killed the drunkard who fed her this snack, she was labeled a “rogue elephant” and scheduled to be executed by hanging by her neck until she was dead, probably of strangulation. Edison saw his chance to offer what Ed Sullivan might have called “a really good show”: he would use AC to kill Topsy. Outfitted with copper-lined sandals and hooked to electrodes, she was given a lethal dose of the current and died a quick death, earning a belated memorial in 2003, in New York’s Coney Island Museum.
Edison was successful in getting the state’s Medico-Legal Society to urge the use of AC in New York’s electric chair. However, financed by Westinghouse, Kemmler’s attorney protested that the use of electricity to kill his client would be unconstitutional, representing, as it would, “cruel and unusual punishment.” Kemmler lost his appeal, and he was electrocuted, the chair employing AC. According to witnesses, a second jolt was required to kill the condemned man, and fire issued from his mouth.
According to “Both Sides of the Wall,” after receiving seventeen seconds’ worth of juice, “Kemmler's slumped body started to moan and wheeze,” prompting the attending physician to call for the second jolt, on the grounds that “This man is not dead!” Wanting to make sure they killed him this time around, the executioners let the current flow for 70 seconds (some claim 240 seconds), while smoke rose from his head and “the room was filled with the stench of human flesh.” In full, Kemmler spent eight minutes in the chair. In 1963, the use of the chair as a means of executing criminals was discontinued.
Legal challenges to the use of the electric chair have continued, intermittently, with a state judge ruling, on August 2, 1999, that “Old Sparky,” as the Sunshine State has nicknamed their chair, is not unconstitutional. There was some question as to whether it constituted cruel and unusual punishment after the “bloody execution of a 344-pound inmate,” Allan Lee (“Tiny”) Davis in July 1999, according to CNN. As the CNN article points out, citing the following instances, Allen’s case was “not the first time the mechanics of the chair raised questions”:
- In 1997, flames shot from the head of death row inmate Pedro Medina during his execution.
- In 1990, smoke poured from the hood of inmate Jessie Tafero as he was put to death.
- Frank Johnson was the first inmate executed in Florida's electric chair on October 7, 1924.
- On March 30, 1998, Judias "Judy" Buenoano became the first woman to die in Florida's electric chair.
- 12.19 years is the average length of stay on Death Row prior to execution.
- William Cruse, Jr. is the oldest death-row inmate in Florida, having been born in 1927, and Jerome Hunter, born in 1986, is the youngest.
- The oldest inmate to be executed, to date, is Charlie Grifford, who was 72 at the time.
The chair’s most infamous client was Ted Bundy, who was zapped on January 24, 1989.
The Sunshine State’s website also offers visitors a virtual tour of the state’s prisons, during which one may “visit a Death Row cell.”
Electric chairs appear in several horror movies and novels, including Stephen King’s novel The Green Mile and the movie, of the same title, based on it, in which a wrongly convicted healer meets a particularly nasty demise; The Gingerbread Man, in which a gingerbread man, possessed by the soul of an electrocuted killer, seeks revenge against the girl who fried him; Alive, in which an electric chair survivor is invited to participate in sadistic experiments that pit him against another prisoner and an extraterrestrial of sorts; The Horror Show, in which an electric chair survivor seeks revenge against the cop who arrested him; Shocker, in which an electrocuted killer returns from the dead, able to take charge of the force that killed him; and a host of others.
“Everyday Horrors: The Electric Chair” is part of a series of “everyday horrors” that will be featured in Chillers and Thrillers: The Fiction of Fear. These “everyday horrors” continue, in many cases, to appear in horror fiction, literary, cinematographic, and otherwise.