So Now You Know

Electric Chair

So Now You Know!

Yesterday, I had lunch with my girlfriend at a local diner. This diner is interesting as it’s decor is from the 1950’s. On each table, they use a painted clay flower pots to hold the creamers and sugar for us coffee drinkers. (Yes, I’m a coffee drinker.) On the outside of the flower pots are sayings and interesting facts. Our table had the following.

Electric Chair“The electric chair was invented by a dentist.” Needless to say, I was intrigued.

Later that afternoon, I googled it and discovered that in fact, the statement was true. A dentist from Buffalo NY invented the electric chair. Buffalo is just 75 minutes down the Thruway from where I live. Fascinated, I kept reading.

Alfred P. Southwick conceived of the chair as a humane alternative form of execution. He worked on refining it throughout the 1880’s. It first used in 1890 and quickly became the primary form of execution within the United States. The first person to die in the chair was Joseph Chappleau, convicted of beating his neighbor to death with a sled skate. Execution of Marth PlaceThe first woman executed in the electric chair was Martha M. Place, who died on March 20, 1899, for the bloody murder of her 17-year-old stepdaughter, Ida Place. In executing a woman for the first time, her executioners revised the placement of the electrodes, and placed them on her ankles. It was reported that Martha died instantly.

Due to its success, the use of ‘Old Sparky’ spread throughout the early twentieth century and crossed international borders and practiced in The Philippines. However, most other countries concluded that the chair had no distinct advantage over hanging.

I was fascinated to learn that on one occasion, the chair failed to kill its occupant, Willie Francis. Upon investigation, they learned that a portable chair was improperly configured by an intoxicated trustee. After his failed execution, lawyers for Willie Francis argued before the courts, that since Willie was ‘executed,’ he successfully fulfilled his sentence and should be released from custody. The argument was rejected, and Willie was successfully executed a year later in 1947.

Unfortunately, the device was not perfect and many executions failed to quickly and humanely kill their subjects, resulting in the chair falling out of favor. As lethal injection became the preferred method of execution, the use of electric chair slowly died, pun intended. Today, it is used only as a secondary form, when lethal injection is unavailable, or when the prisoner chooses it himself or herself when available. In most states, the chair has been retired except for those capital cases committed before March 31, 1998.

Fascinated, I continued my research and read how the chair works. I was surprised to learn that the individual was not subjected to a single, long jolt of electricity. Rather, a single, short duration, high-intensity shock was delivered to the top of the head to cause unconsciousness and brain death. Following the initial shock, the chair then produced a longer, lower intensity charge designed to shut down the core organs, including the heart.

So now you know.