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.

Bibliography and credits
AC motors and generators. (1961). [Motion picture]. United States: Department of Defense. Retrieved from http://archive.org/details/gov.dod.dimoc.29943

Assembling a generator, Westinghouse works. (1904). [Motion picture]. United
States: American Mutoscope & Biograph Company. Retrieved from http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mbrsmi/westhpp.1947

Cayuga Museum. [Holding institution]. (n.d.) [The first electric chair]
[Photograph]. From Edison & the electric chair: A story of light and death (p. 255) by Mark Essig, 2003, New York: Walker & Company.

Death Penalty Information Center. (2013). Methods of Execution. Retrieved from

Edison, T.A. (1892). U.S. Patent No. 466,400. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent
Trademark Office. Retrieved from http://www.google.com/patents/US466400

The Evening World. [Publisher]. (1890). Extra: By Shock: Murderer Kemmler
Electrocuted at the Auburn Prison [Newspaper article]. Retrieved from http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030193/1890-08-06/ed-1/seq-1/

Execution of Czolgosz, with panorama of Auburn Prison. (1901). [Motion picture].
United States: Thomas A. Edison, Inc. Retrieved from http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mbrsmi/lcmp001.m1b38298

Federal Bureau of Investigation. [Publisher]. (n.d.). Gerhard Arthur Puff
[Photograph]. Retrieved from http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/topten/topten-history/top-ten-photos

Gessford, J.G. [Photographer]. (n.d.) George Westinghouse, half-length portrait, facing front [Photograph]. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/93511337/

Harper’s Weekly Company. [Publisher]. (1865). Execution of Champ Ferguson, the guerrilla, at Nashville, Tenessee, October [20, 1865.] [Print]. Retrieved from http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?814470

Higgins, R. [Photographer]. (1951). Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, separated by heavy wire screen as they leave U.S. Court House after being found guilty by jury [Photograph]. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/97503499/

Imperial Tobacco Company of Great Britain and Ireland. [Publisher] (n.d.). Small direct current motor, magnetic field and armature [Print]. Retrieved from http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?413469

Kennelly, A.E. (n.d.). [Page from laboratory notebook]. From Edison & the electric chair: A story of light and death (p. 144) by Mark Essig, 2003, New York: Walker & Company.

Library of Congress. [Holding institution]. (n.d.) George Wallace Melville, George
Westinghouse, and John Macalpine (left to right), full-length portrait, standing, facing front [Photograph]. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/96509025/

Library of Congress. [Holding institution]. (n.d.). View of shop from platform holding two 40-horsepower electric direct-current motors [Photograph]. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/nj1222.photos.112609p/

Lipkin, I. (2010). Eternal search [Recorded by The Re-Stoned]. On Vermel [CD].
Moscow, Russia: R.A.I.G. Retrieved from http://freemusicarchive.org/music/The_Re-Stoned/Vermel/

Los Angeles Herald. [Publisher]. (1890). How Kemmler died [Newspaper article].
Retrieved from http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84025968/1890-08-07/ed-1/seq-1/

Mississippi jailhouse groan [Recorded by Rube Lacey]. (1928). Grafton, WI:
Paramount Records. Retrieved from http://www.juneberry78s.com/sounds/ListenToCountryBlues.htm

Museum of the City of New York. [Holding institution]. (1886). Garden of 46
Remsen Street [Photograph]. Retrieved from http://collections.mcny.org/

Museum of the City of New York. [Holding institution]. (n.d.). [Snowy street with electric wires overhead] [Photograph]. From Edison & the electric chair: A story of light and death (p. 138) by Mark Essig, 2003, New York: Walker & Company.

The New York Edison Company. [Publisher]. (1903). Thomas Alva Edison [Print].
Retrieved from http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?1227609

New York Public Library. [Holding institution]. (1908). Man in an electric chair
[Photograph]. Retrieved from http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?814386

New York Public Library. [Holding institution]. (n.d.) Thomas Alva Edison.
Photograph]. Retrieved from http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?1227610

New York Public Library. [Holding institution]. (n.d.) Thomas Alva Edison.
[Photograph]. Retrieved from http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?1227637

New York Public Library. [Holding institution]. (n.d.). Vulcan Varro [Print].
Retrieved from http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/id?1204938

New York State. (1907). Laws of the State of New York, vol. 1. Albany, NY: J.B.
Lyon Company.

New York State Archives. [Holding institution]. (1879). Assembly Chamber, State Capitol, ca. 1879 [Photograph]. Retrieved from http://iarchives.nysed.gov/PubImageWeb/viewImageData.jsp?id=840

New York State Archives. [Holding institution]. (n.d.). N.Y. Auburn. State Prison
[Photograph]. Retrieved from http://iarchives.nysed.gov/PubImageWeb/viewImageData.jsp?id=67569

New York World. [Publisher]. (1889). [The death of lineman John Feeks] [Print].
From Edison & the electric chair: A story of light and death (p. 214) by Mark Essig, 2003, New York: Walker & Company.

Omaha Daily Bee. [Publisher]. (1902). Burial of electric wires along city streets [Newspaper article]. Retrieved from http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn99021999/1902-11-23/ed-1/seq-28/

Omaha Daily Bee. [Publisher]. (1904). In the field of electricity [Newspaper article]. Retrieved from http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn99021999/1904-09-11/ed-1/seq-31/

Russell, L. [Photographer]. (1942). Great Falls, Montana. Anaconda Wire and
Cable Company. Spools of copper wire [Photograph]. Retrieved from http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/owi2001011338/PP/

Send me to the lectric chair [Recorded by Bessie Smith]. (n.d.). New York, NY:
Columbia Records. Retrieved from http://archive.org/details/BessieSmithMp3AudioSongs

St. Paul Daily Globe. [Publisher]. (1890). Shocked into eternity [Newspaper article]. Retrieved from http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90059522/1890-08-07/ed-1/seq-1/

Underwood & Underwood Studios. [Photographer]. (1920). Daniel Chester
French [Photograph]. Retrieved from http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/images/detail/daniel-chester-french-2106

The Washington Herald. [Publisher]. (1912). What of the Future in Electricity? [Newspaper article]. Retrieved from http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045433/1912-03-17/ed-1/seq-6/

The Washington Times. [Publisher]. (1917). Thomas A. Edison: Builder of civilization [Newspaper article]. Retrieved from http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1917-10-23/ed-1/seq-11/

Westinghouse, G. (1890). U.S. Patent No. 427,489. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent Trademark Office. Retrieved from http://www.google.com/patents/US427489

United States Department of Justice. [Publisher]. (n.d.). Louis Capone
[Photograph]. Retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Louis_Capone.jpg

University at Buffalo Libraries. [Holding institution]. (1901). Police photograph and report of Leon Czolgosz [Photograph]. Retrieved from http://library.buffalo.edu/exhibits/panam/law/images/assassin.html

Unknown artist. [Photographer]. (n.d.). Alfred Porter Southwick [Photograph].
From Edison & the electric chair: A story of light and death (p. 91) by Mark Essig, 2003, New York: Walker & Company.

Unknown artist. [Photographer]. (n.d.). Arthur E. Kennelly [Photograph]. From
Edison & the electric chair: A story of light and death (p. 132) by Mark Essig, 2003, New York: Walker & Company.

Unknown artist. [Photographer]. (n.d.). David Bennett Hill [Photograph].
Retrieved from http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=h000590

Unknown artist. [Photographer]. (1899). Martha Place [Photograph]. Retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Martha_Place_(cropped).jpg

Unknown artist. [Photographer]. (n.d.). Harold Pitney Brown [Photograph]. From
Edison & the electric chair: A story of light and death (p. 140) by Mark Essig, 2003, New York: Walker & Company.

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 😛

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: