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What is the Electric Chair?

By Henry Gaudet
Updated May 16, 2024
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The electric chair is a device used to carry out capital punishment. When the device is used, a person is strapped into a specially constructed wooden chair, and electrodes are attached to his or her body. These electrodes carry the powerful current that kills the person. Through much of the 20th century, electrocution was the favored method of execution in the United States, but by the early 21st century, its use had severely declined in favor of lethal injection.

Alfred P. Southwick is credited with the idea of an electric chair as a humane alternative to hanging. At that time, during the 1800s, nooses were often poorly tied, and the individuals strangled slowly on the end of the rope. Southwick hoped his device would provide a quicker, neater demise.

During this period, George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison were battling for control of electric utilities. Edison tried to use the electric chair as evidence that Westinghouse’s plans, which called for alternating current (AC) like that used in the electric chair, was inherently dangerous and his own direct current (DC) design was safer. Despite this campaign, Westinghouse’s AC design was less expensive to implement because large amounts of expensive copper were needed for the DC design.

In 1889, New York became the first U.S. state to legislate for the use of the electric chair. After this legislation passed, the state needed three electric chairs, one for each facility conducting executions. Electrician Harold Brown was commissioned to build these chairs. Westinghouse, still trying to promote his AC designs as safe, refused to sell the required generators, and Brown had to acquire secondhand models.

On 6 August 1890, convicted murderer William Kemmler became the first man to die in the electric chair. After an initial shock of 17 seconds, Kemmler spasmed, still showing signs of life. He received another shock lasting over a minute before being pronounced dead.

Martha Place became the first woman to be executed by electrocution. She died in New York’s Sing Sing Prison on 20 March 1899. Before the end of the 20th century, 25 other women would be executed by electrocution.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that capital punishment is legal under the U.S. Constitution, it is not legal in many states, and many states have outlawed the use of the electric chair. Many countries similarly have made capital punishment illegal or have outlawed the use of the electric chair.

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Discussion Comments

By anon998037 — On Apr 04, 2017

@Drentel: The Bible also says forgive thy neighbor.

By Feryll — On Jul 29, 2014

In the United States there have been a series of problems with executions and the use of lethal drugs. There has been a shortage of the drugs and a couple of executions have not gone as planned. The prisoners who were executed ended up suffering for long periods before they died.

So we may soon see the electric chair as the chosen method of execution again at some point. Wouldn't a firing squad be quicker and more humane? We are making the whole process too complicated. I'm not saying we should kill people, but if we're going to do it then we should be able to do it the quickly and with as little pain as needed.

By Drentel — On Jul 29, 2014

The Bible says an eye for an eye and so on, so I think capital punishment is fine as a form of punishment. I think the biggest problem we have is we do not use this punishment often enough. The thought of being strapped into a chair and electrocuted would make me think twice about breaking the law.

Of course, you are more likely to die by lethal injection if you are sentenced to death now, but that doesn't sound like a picnic either.

By Sporkasia — On Jul 28, 2014

I find it barbaric that any country where the people call themselves civilized can support the use an electric chair or any type of capital punishment for that matter. Does anyone besides me think that it goes against common sense that we would execute someone for killing someone else. If we find the crime of murder so bad then how can we justify murdering a criminal?

You would think we would have advanced beyond this idea of killing people as punishment and as a deterrent to other people who might commit similar crimes.

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