JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post #94
It is ironic that the spiritual investment necessary for the electric chair—the ultimate legal act of revenge—was itself the product of an act of vengeance. In 1888 Thomas Edison, innovative and creative genius and social miscreant (and deep old friend and camping buddy of a howling intellectual horror, the anti-Semitic and fascist appeaser Henry Ford) brought his enormous weight to bear to wrestle public opinion in favor of his (that is the Edison General Electric Company) mode of power distribution (direct current or DC) versus that of his direct competitor, George Westinghouse (alternating current, or AC).
Things were not going well for Thomas Alva.
At nearly the same time the New York State legislature, under a mandate of 1886 and a law of 4 January 1888, was seeking new ways to kill prisoners, it having been determined that hanging people caused too much suffering (to the hanged). It was determined that death be best and less painfully delivered via electrocuting them. (Actually the procedures of the day for electrocution were less “sophisticated” than they would be by the turn of the century; the people killed in this manner in the first two decades of use of the electric chair were basically cooked from the inside out.) The dangling issue was the technology top be used to deliver the electricity.
And this is where Edison gets brilliantly, terrifically, ugly. He proposed that the state use Westinghouse’s AC system for electrocutions, and set up tests with the AC system to prove its superior qualities in providing power to the electric chair over the C technology. He did this so that the gross population would equate the Westinghouse system with electrocution, which Edison referred to as being “Westinghoused”, and choose Edison’s own DC technology, which wouldn't theoretically kill the consumer in their own house. The state chose the AC system; Westinghouse refused the state’s orders for his production; and then Edison stepped in and manufactured the AC system for the state’s use in electrocution over Westinghouse’s loud complaints. Evil genius.
This was also the start of Edison’s rather bizarre experience with filming electrocutions. He made several films for the New York state officials showing how well the AC system worked—he did this by showing how well the Westinghouse system electrocuted the animals that he dropped on the electrified plate fed by the AC current. Over and over again. Edison also made a film of McKinley’s assassin, Czolgosz, being put to death by electrocution, in an early docudrama session, showing the condemned man fidgeting a little before coming to death. Edison’s crowning achievement in electrocution films was his disgusting film of a circus elephant being put to death—I will not describe the film, and say that only a monster would do and make such a thing. Even in the present when we can see just about anything on the internet, watching this film is just impossible, it is just so horrific. (I do NOT recommend watching this, not at all. You will not be able to forget, try as you might and must.)
And if you couldn’t stand to watch something like this be done to an animal, why would it make sense to do this to a human?
There is no doubt that some of the electrocutions of human beings removed the person relatively instantly and painlessly. It would seem that this would be a minority. When I was researching a piece about the Rosenbergs (yes they were guilty) in 1985 I happened to talk with the maintenance guy at Ossining State Prison who “cleaned up” after Julius was removed from the electric chair. Quickly and quietly summarized, he said that his work with Julius’ remains were as gruesome as the execution. “Was this, was Julius Rosenberg, a special case, was he treated differently?” I asked, a little naively. “No”, he responded, “they were all like that”.
And while we’re at it, let’s consider the work of Dr. Varlot (of the Paris Hospital) in electrocuting the dead. Actually, what he proposed was another pretty gruesome use of electricity, only this time no one was hurt, as the receiver was already dead. Varlot proposed to “metalize” the dead (as we see in this unsettling image of a child being electroplated) for, well, some purpose. It just seems and seemed like a bad idea, al the way around. The medical uses of an electroplated baby seem very limited, and I can’t imagine anyone wanting to do such a thing to a dead child of their own. It is wrong on every level.
I know that electrocution is done and gone. It replaced hanging, and hanging replaced beheading, and so on; but the effect is providing an incrementally less gruesome way of revenge—the point being that even though the next newest method is less grotesque, it is still, at base, grotesque. Just less so.