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executioner's current

13 November 2003

In 1887, a New York State commission charged with figuring out how to electrically execute condemned prisoners wrote to Thomas A. Edison to ask the inventor's advice. Edison replied that as a lifelong progressive, he abhorred the death penalty. The commissioners wrote back to say that they understood, but since people were going to be executed anyway, could he please suggest how to do it? Edison recommended

"alternating machines," manufactured principally in this country by George Westinghouse. . . . The passage of the current from these machines through the human body, even by the slightest contacts, produces instantaneous death.
Edison, you see, sold direct current to homes and businesses; Westinghouse, the apostle of alternating current, was Edison's primary competitor.

Richard Moran's fascinating Executioner's Current tells how the electric chair was adopted in New York State. In the summer of 1890, the world's first judicial electrocution took place in Auburn, New York. A murderer named William Kemmler was strapped into the untested device and subjected to 1000 volts of alternating current for 17 seconds. Kemmler lived. The executioners had to jolt him again, with 2000 volts this time; the current began to incinerate Kemmler's body before he finally expired.

So much for Edison's "instantaneous death" theory. Yet the experiment on Kemmler turned into standard American practice for the next 75 years and more – in fact, there were no real technological advances in electric chairs; they remained ordinary wooden seats with a few live wires attached. But they were modern. Moran notes that public hanging, the norm for executions in the U.S. before 1890, had become politically unviable. Hanging often tortured its victims. With a show of scaffold bravado, a hanged man could become a martyr, particularly within immigrant communities. Far from deterring crime, the gallows fomented social instability.

Electrocution was a way to conduct unspectacular executions in private, far from the prisoner's community. And it was a venue for a contest between rival inventors. As Westinghouse and Edison fought for control of the nation's electrical grids, they lost no opportunities to sling mud at each other. For Edison, the mud took the form of assertions that alternating current was lethal in any amount. He promoted a stooge of sorts, engineer Harold P. Brown, to conduct dubious experiments in which AC killed animals faster than DC of the same voltage. These nauseating exhibitions won Edison the skirmish: the machines that killed Kemmler were Westinghouse generators.

Westinghouse won the corporate war, however: the power that enters your home today is AC, not DC. But of course, Edison is a legend, Westinghouse a footnote. History is made by the rhetorically adept – or the unscrupulous. But it can be written impartially and with great sensitivity, and Richard Moran does so here – especially in his dignified, respectful treatment of Kemmler and other condemned men.

Moran, Richard. Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair. New York: Knopf, 2002.