Misguided Mercy: The War of Currents and the Electric Chair

Chantalle Uzan, Sebastian Moya, Jenny Ferretti, and Leah Castaldi

At the turn of the 19th century, Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and their associates raced to electrify the world. Out of their patent wars, company rivalries, and competing currents, the electric chair was born.

Edison and Westinghouse were fierce rivals, as businessmen and inventors. The meat of their competition lay in the electrical currents used by their companies; Edison Electric Light Company used the Direct Current while Westinghouse Electric Corporation used an Alternating Current.

“All generators produce AC internally. In this basic AC generator, the arms of the loop cut lines of force in opposite directions, causing electromotive force of opposite polarity to be generated in the conductor.”

Edison’s Direct Current was transmitted by expensive, heavy copper wires, which they buried underground. Westinghouse’s method could deliver electricity over greater distances more cheaply, but their wires were kept above ground. These exposed wires caused several electrical accidents and even deaths, and Edison used this to drum up public fear of Alternating Current.

During this “War of Currents,” a commission was formed to reform the means of execution in New York State, as hanging was increasingly seen as an archaic method. It was a dentist from Buffalo, Alfred P. Southwick, who came up with the idea for the electric chair.

On June 4, 1888, Governor David B. Hill signed the electrical execution bill into law. That same June, a reporter from the New York World asked Edison to investigate electric executions further, and he agreed.

Over the next year, Edison enlisted a team to perform experiments on animals at his West Orange lab. They shocked stray dogs with Direct Current, which never killed them. Alternating Current applied afterwards, however, usually did the trick. It was later suggested these dogs may have merely been stunned, then killed during autopsy, but to Edison and the reporters he convened, the link seemed clear.

These experiments lent credence to Alternating Current as an “Executioner’s Current”, so in May of 1889, axe murderer William Kemmler became the first man sentenced to death by electrocution. On August 6, 1890, at Auburn State Prison, Kemmler was electrocuted. However, he survived the initial shock. The executioner had to wait several minutes before the second, final, shock could be delivered. Though the execution was botched, witnesses proclaimed it a painless death.

The electric chair was ultimately adopted by 25 other states. While New York has since outlawed the death penalty, the electric chair was in use from its creation in 1890 until the state’s abolition of capital punishment. The last use of the electric chair in New York was on August 15, 1963.

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One comment

  1. Reblogged this on Bizarro Twins and commented:
    I made this!
    This was a final project for one of my classes in library science school; pretty nifty no? That’s my lovely mumblecore voice, by the way.
    Anyway, it’s my last week of the semester, so bear with me as posts are a bit fewer and further between. I’ll be all done after next Monday! Until summer classes start 😛

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