Hangmen of the Age of Electricity

Michael Louie


A few weeks ago, Human Rights Watch released a report describing negligence in the method the U.S. uses for lethal injection, stating, among other things, that veterinarians take more care in euthanizing cats and dogs than the state does in executing condemned criminals. However, the real irony here is not the fact that the process we use in killing criminals isn’t even fit to kill a crippled stray dog, but that over a century ago during the Electricity War, dozens of animals, including horses and a circus elephant, were electrocuted in an attempt to prove the lethal effects of electricity, pushing for the acceptance of the electric chair as an efficient instrument of death, as well as to sabotage a corporate rival. The animals will have their day.

It’s been two years since the last execution by the electric chair, and most states except Nebraska consider lethal injection their primary method of execution. The efficacy of the chair has varied widely, and there are many accounts where it failed to deliver the “quick and painless” death it initially advertised. One man was actually electrocuted and survived. His case went to the Supreme Court, claiming violations of the double jeopardy and cruel and unusual punishment clauses, but lost and he was sent back to the electric chair where he was electrocuted successfully. Bob Butterworth, Florida’s 33rd attorney general, once said, “People who wish to commit murder better not do it in the state of Florida, because we may have a problem with our electric chair.” Currently, eleven states still retain the electric chair as an option, depending on the prisoner’s request, when the prisoner was convicted and if current methods, like lethal injection, are ruled unconstitutional or encounter particularly sticky legal hurdles.

Lethal injection, by comparison, seems much tamer. It’s a three-drug process, starting with sodium thiopental, a short-acting barbiturate used as an anesthetic, followed by pancuronium bromide, which stops all bodily movement save the heart and would eventually cause death by suffocation, and finally, potassium chloride, a painful drug that ultimately kills the prisoner by inducing a heart attack. The whole process, from the outset, seems quick and painless: put the prisoner under, paralyze him to avoid any involuntary movements or gasping (this is, ostensibly, for the benefit of the witnessing audience), and then kill him. In fact, it even sounds almost somewhat arachnid in form. However, the HRW report, titled “So Long As They Die,” points out evidence that prisoners are not always adequately anesthesized, and are, in fact, in a lot of pain when the potassium chloride runs through their veins. It’s so painful, the report states, that the American Veterinarian Medical Association refuses to use it on animals unless vets can determine a suitable level of unconsciousness.

“The pancuronium bromide will conceal any agony an insufficiently anesthetized prisoner experiences because of the potassium chloride,” the report states. “Indeed, the only apparent purpose of the pancuronium bromide is to keep the prisoner still, saving the witnesses and execution team from observing convulsions or other body movements that might occur from the potassium chloride, and saving corrections officials from having to deal with the public relations and legal consequences of a visibly inhumane execution.”

Christopher Hitchens, in a 1999 Vanity Fair column, wrote something very similar after witnessing an execution: “[Lethal injection] looks and feels—to the outsider at least—more like a banal medical procedure, but this medicalized ‘putting down’ is designed to lead the drama and agony out of the business; to transform it into a form of therapy for society.”

It’s just this kind of “banal medical procedure” that the U.S. Department of Corrections is seeking when it searches for new routes to capital punishment. From developing electrocution in the late 1800s, to the adoption of lethal injection as a primary means for execution in the 1980s—the DoC has eagerly sought, and gained, approval from medical professionals that its procedures are indeed safe, painless and, preferably, do not stir up any mention of the 8th Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause. This usually leads to conflicts, due to loosely worded state mandates that require doctors be present at, and participate in, executions, which runs in diametric opposition to the first rule of the Hippocratic Oath (First, do no harm…). Recently in North Carolina and California, judges have ordered trained medical personnel (read: physicians) to have an active and explicit role at executions to ensure a suitable level of anesthesia before the pancuronium bromide is injected. This is partially in response to the botched execution of Willie Fisher in 2001, after which one of his lawyers wrote: “Instead of the quiet death I expected, Willie began convulsing. The convulsing was so extreme that Willie’s cousin jumped up screaming.” And earlier this month, at the Southern Ohio Correctional Institution, Joseph Lewis Clark sat up in the gurney a few minutes after the drugs were flowing, after 90 minutes of technicians probing for a suitable vein, and said, “It’s not working.”

Part of the problem is the process still follows the same protocols as when it was developed in 1977 by Dr. Stanley Deutsch, an Oklahoma anesthesiologist. The process was widely adopted by 37 out of 38 states that perform capital punishment, as an alternative to the electric chair and hangings (the last hanging was in Delaware in 1996; Washington and New Hampshire still retain it as an option; Utah, Oklahoma and Idaho still allow firing squads). The process hasn’t changed since then, though it seems (doctors and ethics aside) that simply switching to a more powerful barbiturate than sodium thiopental, like vets do with animals, could help alleviate a lot of legal arguments. In fact, in the California case of Michael Morales, the court suggested using a stronger anesthetic. Their only problem was finding doctors who were willing to ethically compromise themselves to monitor the execution. If the April rulings explicitly requiring a doctor’s participation in executions are any indication, this trend may render modern capital punishment logistically impossible.

But it wasn’t always like this. Throughout history, doctors have played a role in developing methods of execution—from Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin during the French Revolution to Dr. Alfred P. Southwick, a Buffalo, New York dentist, known as the “father of electrocution.” Back in the 1880s, Southwick was pushing for a new method of execution to replace hangings. His experiments with electrocuting animals was gaining support in the legislature and the conversation quickly turned to the power supply. Shortly after, George Westinghouse was engaged in an Electricity War with Thomas Edison over what Edison called the “executioner’s current.” Electricity was starting to make its way into homes and Edison, sensing an opportunity to grab a bigger share of the market, launched a huge PR campaign expounding the dangers of Westinghouse’s alternating current while promoting the “safety” of his own direct current. Since neither Westinghouse nor Edison wanted their current associated with the power supply for the electric chair, both fought bitterly— with Edison and his assistant Harold Brown using public spectacle (electrocuting dozens of animals, including a circus elephant, on metal plates powered by Westinghouse’s AC), political corruption and outright deception and sabotage, while Westinghouse went to the courts protesting the electric chair constituted “cruel and unusual punishment,” and later funded appeals for prisoners sentenced to death by it.

Edison eventually won, but not without some very shady business, much of which is detailed in Richard Moran’s well-researched book The Electrocutioner’s Current. For one, Edison’s assistant Brown was working as a supposed “independent” expert advisor to the State on the affairs of death by electricity. Brown frequently wrote articles for The Electrical Engineer and spoke publicly about the dangers of AC. He was outed in August 1889 when the New York Sun published letters stolen from Brown’s office detailing extensive correspondence and financial deals with Edison. Brown and Edison also had another insider working for them: Dr. Fred Peterson, a friend of Brown’s, working on the board of a government committee selecting the best design for the electric chair. When Westinghouse, perhaps unable to match the resources of the Edison/Brown machine, refused to sell his AC generators to prison authorities, they acquired one through an associate’s electrical company. The Westinghouse dynamo was then given to Auburn State Prison. Brown and Edison, apparently without irony, also both testified on behalf of the state that execution by electricity was quick and painless.

The first man to die by the electric chair was William Kemmler at Auburn State Prison in August 1890. Aside from the virgin voyage, Kemmler’s execution is well remembered for two reasons: his ceremonious bow and speech in which he said “I think it is much better to die by electricity than it is by hanging. It will not give me any pain,” and the horrified reactions by the witnesses, which included several doctors, the prosecuting district attorney and many newspaper reporters, to the events that followed. As Warden Charles Durston attached an electrode to Kemmler’s spine and fastened another to his head, Kemmler said, “Now take your time and do it right, Warden. I don’t want to take any chances with this thing you know,” according to Ted Conover’s account in his book Newjack. Durston spoke briefly with the electrician, then gave the signal—“Goodbye, William.”

Instead of the clean, painless execution everyone expected, the first 17-second shock didn’t kill Kemmler, even though prison physician Dr. Edward Spitzka pronounced him otherwise. As doctors checked for a pulse, witnesses watched Kemmler struggle to breathe and blood pulsed from a wound where his index finger had cut into his thumb. Witnesses panicked as Spitzka shouted: “Turn on the current! Turn on the current, the man is not yet dead!” The chair was powered up for another two minutes, in which witnesses saw blood droplets forming on Kemmler’s cheeks from burst capillaries and heard his teeth grinding. There were also problems with the power supply and Kemmler’s body alternately slumped and strained against the leather straps. Newspapermen fainted. The DA ran for the door gagging and collapsed outside, according the New York Times.

Kemmler’s botched execution was ultimately hailed as a success, albeit open to some improvements. Many, like Southwick, believed Kemmler hadn’t suffered during the electrocution. “There is the culmination of ten years of work and study,” he said afterward. “We live in a higher society from this day”—in sharp contrast to other witnesses’ accounts like the one that appeared in The Times of London: “It would be impossible to imagine a more revolting exhibition.” Much of the blame was aimed at Spitzka, who later admitted the execution had been a failure.

Unfortunately for prisoners, Edison wasn’t finished. The electric chair soon moved to Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York, where it would stay until 1963. At Charles McElvaine’s execution in February 1892, Edison proposed the best electrical contact might be made through the hands via a saline solution. According to Moran, “Since Kemmler’s execution, Edison had maintained that the blood in the hands and arms was a good conductor of electricity, whereas the skull and bones were poor conductors.” McElvaine endured several minutes of torture before prison staff removed his hands from the solution and electrocuted him the old way. Dr. T.S. Robertson, a witness at the execution, told the New York Times, “One of the worst features… is the effect [electrocution] must have on the deputies of the prison, the physicians and electricians who carry out the sentence.”

The electricians and doctors’ involvement in electrocutions is often overlooked by the sheer spectacle of a public execution, the contribution to which someone like Dr. Amos Squire, who was the official prison physician at Sing Sing from 1910 to 1925, far exceeds what doctors currently face during lethal injection. Squire witnessed 130 executions at the prison and his 1935 book Sing Sing Doctor, shines light on some of the early state “electricians.” The first “official” electrician in New York was Edwin Davis, coincidentally another of Harold Brown’s assistants, who worked from 1890-1914. Squire describes him briefly as a man of “high cheekbones and drooping black moustache. When duty took him to Sing Sing, he wore a Prince Albert coat and a black felt hat.” But it’s the account of Davis’s successor, John Hulbert, whose fate holds significance, not only for “hangmen of the electric age,” as Conover calls them in Newjack, but for ones of the pharmaceutical age as well.

Hulbert, Squire wrote, “was short and stocky, apparently a man with perfect nerves and excellent constitution.” Despite this, Hulbert relied heavily upon the procedural nature of the execution process. He spoke very little when he arrived at Sing Sing to perform an execution, and, like Davis, often left the same way—typical of Squire’s general assessment of the executioner: “He’s a lonely man. When duty brings him to Sing Sing, he does not seek companionship, and it seems impossible for anyone to extend to him a feeling of cordiality.” But Squire also recognized the importance of the execution process, giving it far more credence than nerves. “Executions move forward with a ceremonial precision that is intended to forestall any occurrence that might cause delay, create a disturbance, or increase the horror of the situation,” Squire wrote. “Since everyone in any way involved in the administration of the death penalty is bound to be on edge, a set procedure that obviates blunders and reduces the risk of confusion is necessary.”

Over the years, Squire watched Hulbert become depressed, and gradually urged him to quit. Hulbert insisted he needed the $150 he got for each execution (he was also doing executions in other states at this time, as was usual for electricians). “I could see all too well that he was slipping… I felt that perhaps the horror of the occupation of executioner had a dreadful fascination from which he could not escape,” Squire wrote. “Otherwise he would have found a way to readjust his life before it was too late.” Hulbert’s downfall came on a night in which two prisoners escaped from another part of the prison, which upset the coveted “ceremonial precision” Squire himself described. The disruption caused Hulbert to panic and fall “critically ill” on one of the benches, apparently of nervous collapse. Eventually, Hulbert regained his composure and performed the execution, and afterward Squire drove him to the hospital. “Hilbert [as Squire calls him] eventually resigned his post as executioner—but he had waited too long. Not long after his resignation he committed suicide in the cellar of his home.”

The emphasis on routine, procedure and ritual is integral to diminish what Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell in their book Who Owns Death? Capital Punishment, the American Conscience and the End of Executions describe as “executioner stress.” The book recounts, among numerous accounts of botched executions and various wild proclamations of justice both religious and legal, the cumulative toll executions take on its staff participants—the prison warden, guards, doctors, electricians and other switch-pullers—including depression and nightmares. One executioner, Donald Hocutt, described his daydream nightmares in the book: “I can’t believe what I’m seeing… prisoners singing in the fields. Shovels over their backs, lined up in the fields in rows, y’know, military rows, like we line ‘em up, and me having to shoot ‘em all, and they just keep singing.”

Squire himself suffered his own forms of executioner stress. As prison physician, he was required not only to make sure the condemned prisoner stayed healthy until he was executed, but give the signal for the power to be turned on, check for a pulse and signal again if the man was not yet dead, until he was—and then perform the autopsy. “I was the only member of the prison staff who was expected to watch the man in the chair every second, and I could not help but feel that in reality I, rather than the electrician who threw the switch, was the executioner.” Squire’s involvement in the execution process stretched from beginning to the literal end behind the “Little Green Door” of the autopsy chamber. No one on the prison staff seemed as steeped in every aspect of the process as he—prisoners simultaneously silently reviled him and begged him not to disfigure them too much in the autopsy room. Squire admitted there were times during an execution when he was checking for a pulse that “I have been so overwrought I was alarmed by the thought that what I heard was my own pulse rather than that of the dying man.”

Squire began to fall apart much in the same way as Hulbert. The only man Squire exempted during his tenure at Sing Sing had to be kept in a straitjacket—and Squire sent a letter to the governor doubting the man’s sanity. By the day of the execution, however, Squire still hadn’t heard back. He panicked and boarded a train for Albany, only to find out the governor was out of town. Squire finally reached him by telephone just hours before the execution, and the governor granted a stay, but the damage was done. Squire unraveled quickly, taking a month-long sabbatical during which he lost 30 pounds. When he returned to Sing Sing, the change in him was evident. “I was oppressed by a feeling of anxiety and menace. I did not realize the trend of my subconscious thoughts until duty took me to the death chamber again and I stood on the edge of the rubber mat, within reach of the chair. On that occasion, just after I had given the signal for the current to be turned on—while the man in the chair was straining against the straps as the load of 2,200 volts shot through his body—I felt for the first time a wild desire to extend my hand and touch him.”

Executioner stress isn’t limited to just the doctors or the executioners themselves, but affects everyone in the process: from prosecuting attorneys to prison guards and wardens. The emphasis on ritual and procedure is only one way of dealing with the horror of being a participant in an execution. Like soldiers in wartime, the prison staff must constantly bury personal feelings in the name of a power that is often out of their hands. In Who Owns Death? Lifton and Mitchell describe how prison officials often invoke the power of the state and legislature that brought this prisoner before them, and the prisoner’s crimes, to allay the feelings of guilt.

“People say, ‘Well you’re right there in the execution chamber with them. I mean you’re the last person to see them draw breath. You’re the last person that gives him a cigarette and lets him smoke. Does it bother you?’ And I say no. And it doesn’t bother me. As a professional in the Department of Corrections, I know my duty. These people killed somebody. I didn’t. All I’m doing is a job that the state says I should do.”
—Asst. Superintendent Don Roper

It’s usually the last 30 or so minutes that are the most integral to adhering to procedure. Any disruptions, like the cases of Squire and Hulbert illustrate, can multiply the stress level immensely—Roper admits in Who Owns Death?, and even a last minute stay of execution causes more stress than it relieves for its wound-up participants. Even when things go according to schedule, there is still the feelings of guilt and incredible realness of the situation looming over the staff. “A few prison wardens observed ‘the terrible pain of guards who would turn their faces from you, not in shame, but because they didn’t want you to see the emotions and the pain and the burden on them.’”

It’s no wonder why executioners over years past have been loathe to talk about their work, although internalizing doesn’t seem to help much. Two New York electricians, Hulbert and Dow B. Hover, the state’s last electrician, committed suicide after they retired. States also do their best to keep the executioner’s face well hidden, literally and figuratively. Lifton and Mitchell describe the protocol for Florida’s electrician: “The man who activated the electric chair (until recently) was already wearing a hood over his head at 5AM when a state car picked him up. The hood stayed on until he was dropped off at his home after performing the act and getting paid.”

Lethal injection takes the idea of a masked executioner even further. Prison staffers are often broken up into teams during the execution process—performing limited and specific tasks that, when put together, culminate in the prisoner’s death. The aspect of efficiency is intentional, as if compartmentalizing the procedure, itself intended to remove any trace of humanity that might interfere with the process, helps cloud the staff’s perception, and relieves the burden of who actually pulled the trigger, who flipped the switch and who is responsible—much in the same way one member of a firing squad is given a blank while the other rounds are live. “Very ordinary people can be socialized into teams of amenable executioners,” Lifton and Mitchell write. “Especially when they are psychologically protected by the distancing technology—the overall robotizing of lethal injection.”

It’s the distancing technology itself that represents the cumulative burden upon all of us as a country where 38 out of 50 states perform executions—although recent court rulings may change that ratio (perhaps states will return to more “archaic” methods?). No matter how much we believe for or against the death penalty, appeal to the duality of religious claims of God’s justice on the guilty, the collective burden of state-sanctioned executions is so great that—from black hoods and mysterious figures to quite ordinary prison staff preparing IVs and lighting that final cigarette—we constantly seek to escape it. The evolution of efficacy and anonymity in the process only proves our inability to believe in it. A final (long) quote from Who Owns Death?:

The control module, in a room adjacent to the execution chamber has two separate sets of controls, marked station 1 and station 2. To arm them, one turns a key at the bottom. As the final step, two staff members press buttons that release the deadly medicine, but a built-in computer decides which of the buttons actually triggers the release, then automatically releases from its memory, which button it was…

Image Notes:

Image 1: Detail from Andy Warhol’s "Electric Chair" series. Photo taken at Sing Sing.

Image 2: Death chamber at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California. Originally built to house lethal gases, the chamber has since been modified to facilitate deaths by lethal injection.

Image 3: The first electric chair in New York. Used to execute William Kemmler in Auburn State Prison.

Image 4: Cover of log book kept by James Connaughton at Sing Sing from 1893 through 1907. Connaughton was the "Principal Keeper" at the prison and documented the names of the condemned, witnesses and dates of 58 executions.

Image 5: Detail of Connaughton’s log book. The initial entry, July 7, 1891 marks the first time in which there were multiple electrocutions. For more images go here.

Image 6: Detail from William M. Vander Weyde’s "Electric Chair At Sing Sing." Negative, gelatin on glass 6.5 x 8.5 in"

Image 7: William Vander Weyde – Strip 43. "Electric Chair At Sing Sing." Photograph taken around 1900. Negative, gelatin on glass 6.5×8.5 in"