JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post
This image of among the first electric/electrocution chairs is based on the designs of Dr. Alfred P. Southwick (1826-1898, MDS, DDS, SUNY Buffalo), who came up with the idea and started experimenting with it beginning in 1881. His was a mission of mercy, looking to find a quick if not instant salient to carry out the death penalty of a convicted murderer. NY Governor David B. Hill (1843-1910) looked to Southwick for a solution to a more humane way of executing people, establishing a distinguished panel of advisers to help him with this task. (In the small-world department, Hill succeeded Grover Cleveland as governor in 1885 following Cleveland's election as president of the U.S.--he also acted as executioner in at least two cases while he was the Sheriff of Erie county in the mid 1870s.)
Southwick's design/chair was first used on the condemned criminal William Kemmler in August 1890. Most everyone who witnessed this first attempt were aghast at the spectacle; George Westinghouse is reported to have uttered that the executions “would have been better off using an axe”. Theoretically the first application of electricity kills the brain in less time than it takes the body to respond to pain. This seems not to have been the case in many instances.
No tong afterwards Edwin F. Davis (1846-1923) conducted his own research on an effective and humane way to execute people and was awarded a patent in August 1897 for his “electrocution chair”. Davis would serve as NY state's “electrician”/electrocutionist from 1890-1914, delivering the final blow to 240 of the condemned during that time.
It was strange to me how anthropomorphic the design was, including the obvious head and less so for arms and feet. Overall, I think the relationship to a human form is unmistakable.
Excerpt from the article illustrating the 1888 electric chair:
“Execution by Electricity. The State of New York may pride herself in the fact that the gallows is to be banished and a more humane and scientific method of executing criminals is to be instituted. On June 4 Governor [David B.] Hill signed the bill authorizing that criminals should be put to death by an electric shock. The bill is to go into effect on January 1 1889 and new method of execution be applied in the punishment of crimes committed after date.”
SciAm writes that “instant death” occurs with the electric chair—it doesn't. The condemned would be lucky to have their brains damaged enough to not register pain, as it takes 45 seconds to several minutes for death to occur.
“...the criminal is seated bound to a chair having a metal seat connected with one pole of the current. At the back of the chair there is an adjustable head rest having a metal plate on its face and a metal band which passes around the forehead of criminal. The wires may be connected with dynamo which according to the bill may be of any approved type or the current may be supplied from electric light plant or there may be a private plant arranged especially for that purpose at the place of execution. Sponges or dampened cloths should be at the points of contact with the convict to render connection more perfect. At the proper moment switch is turned by the officer and instant death ensues. The current passes along the spinal column and the brain and nerve centers. The current may be few moments to bring about complete exhaustion.”
Scientific American, 30 June 1888, vol 58.