The electric chair was conceived by a dentist in 1881 in Buffalo, New York, after testing differing devices with and without water on stray dogs and later horses. And its use as a form of capital punishment evolved, at least in part, out of the “war of currents” debate between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse—in which Westinghouse argued in favor of the use of Alternating Current (AC) while Edison argued in favor of Direct Current (DC) for differing purposes.
After a series of botched hangings, the Gerry Commission—“The Commission to Investigate and Report the Most Humane and Practical Method of Carrying into Effect the Sentence of Death in Capital Cases”—was formed in 1887-88 in New York State to debate the issue of capital punishment. Thirty-four ways to kill people were detailed and discussed.
While the use of death by morphine, for example, was proposed, the Commission argued that the electric chair (despite its heavy cost and use of energy) should be used as a form of capital punishment, instead of the more commonly used death by hanging. The commission also opposed the hanging of women, in the belief (without clear evidence) that the public would support other methods of executing women for capital offenses. Only a few members of the Commission considered banning the death penalty altogether. It was Thomas Edison, the “oracle,” who apparently swayed the vote in favor of the electric chair1.
At that time, many reformers considered electrocution to be a “clean,” “progressive” and “civilized” way of carrying out the death penalty. Yet after the electric chair’s first use on William Kemmler in 1890, the New York Times reported that a doctor observing the electrocution considered it ten times worse than hanging2. Nevertheless, the electric chair became officially approved after some so-called improvements and has remained in business in a number of American states until now. Other methods of execution used in as many as 29 American states include hanging, the firing squad, lethal gas, and lethal injection.
Ironically, the guillotine, which had been invented for many of the same reasons, was probably much more “humane”― if not “ecological”― due to its surgical rapidity ―than the electric chair. But the Commission had ruled it out, as the bloody nature of decapitation could “generate of love of bloodshed among those who witness [the executions]” and as “death does not ensue instantly 3.” (The guillotine was last used in 1977 in France just before the French finally had the wisdom to abolish capital punishment in 1981. As to be discussed in the case of Iraq, France also forbids the removal of French citizens, accused of capital crimes, to countries where they could face the death penalty.)
In the US, the electric chair, among other forms of execution, has never been ruled by the US Supreme Court to be a violation of the 8th amendment of the US Constitution that outlaws “cruel and unusual punishment.” This is true as if execution or killing in any form―whether by the state itself or by individuals who are acting against the state or against other individuals—is not “cruel” or “unusual.”
Since the mid-1980s, it looked as if the use of the electric chair in the United States as one form of public execution might be discontinued given the general belief that lethal injection was more “humane.” Yet the electric chair was nevertheless brought back in December 2018 when a prisoner, who had been condemned to death in Tennessee, chose to die by electrocution instead of by lethal injection.
Much as was the case for death by hanging throughout history, many lethal injections have been botched, leading the prisoner to suffer miserably. There have also been shortages of the drugs needed to administer the horrific procedure, making it difficult to find appropriate (or effective) substitute drugs. Lethal injections technically need to be administered by trained medical personnel which has not always been the case. And many medical personnel consider the process of killing for the state to be a violation of medical ethics.
In effect, lethal injections are not at all “humane,” but a form of torture that results in excruciating pain. Yet as the suffering is largely internal, and not clearly visible to external observers, the use of lethal injection represents an effort to absolve the moral consciences of those who order, carry out, or watch executions.
The death penalty does not deter killing or other crimes and execution and does not bring back those who might have been killed. And many of the latter, even if convicted in a trial, may be innocent, as proven by DNA testing of victims4. Some 165 former inmates in 28 American states have been exonerated from death row since 1973, in part due to DNA testing. Even if procedures are properly followed, courts can make major errors that convict innocent people. As many as 15 people may have been innocent out of the 1,470 people executed in the USA since 19765. The possibility that a person could be innocent should be sufficient for the US Supreme Court to ban the death penalty, but that has not yet proved to be the case.
The fact that death row in the United States is filled primarily by the poor and by ethnic minorities additionally indicates that socio-economic conditions, discrimination, prejudice, or even the politics of the condemned, may represent the real roots of whatever crime may allegedly have been committed. This is generally true even if the horrific actions of deranged serial killers may not be entirely in response to their social and economic environment.
Even more to the point, the crimes of white-collar executives―which have led to the injuries and deaths of hundreds and thousands of individuals, whether directly or indirectly—often go unpunished. Rarely is the death penalty imposed on the rich and powerful. As the lyrics of Phil Och’s powerful protest song, Iron Lady (one of the many nicknames of the electric chair) pointed out, a rich man has “never died upon the Chair6.” Life imprisonment or other forms of punishment—as opposed to the death penalty―shows that a state and a society will not use the “terror” of the death penalty in a failed effort to deter murder and other criminal actions. Alternatives to the death penalty show that a state and society values life over death and that a state and society will do all that it can to safeguard and preserve life—even for those who so horribly desecrate human life or who defile the natural world which sustains life itself.
In discussing the individual and society’s ostensible need to revenge itself upon those who have committed murder and other injustices, English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) had strongly opposed private revenge—as a “kind of wild justice; which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out”―and yet Bacon also argued that “Public revenges are for the most part fortunate7.”
Yet Bacon’s perspective on public revenge is not entirely justified. Neither public nor private revenge by killing the perpetrators of violence, whether by legal or extra-judicial means, helps to resolve the complex problems faced by a society after it has suffered under the hands of criminals and mass murderers, whether those be mafias, corporate elites, or government officials. While executing a corrupt and murderous leader may bring with it a brief euphoria and relief that the oppressor has been vanquished, the legal or extra-legal execution of war criminals, mafias, corporate elites, or others who have committed murder and injustices, does not bring a true sense of justice or true social satisfaction in the long term. And in many cases, the murderous leadership may be replaced with another.
One example is extra-judicial killing against presumed drug dealers which has been permitted in the Philippines under the leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte—and which has led to a dangerous condition of lawlessness that negatively impacts the whole society8. It will take Philippine society a long time to heal after the Duterte period.
Other examples include the execution without a full trial of Saddam Hussein and the assassination of Muhammar Gaddafi. The latter revenge killings have done nothing to help resolve complex social, economic and political disputes, conflicts and acts of “terrorism” in Iraq and Libya. In fact, the rapid execution of these leaders, thereby refusing their right, and that of their opponents, to testify, has helped to serve the interests of the victors. Without full transparency, the whole truth and the crimes committed by all sides will not be known.
These rapid executions have, to a large extent, worked to hide the truth of serious crimes committed by other actors, including the crimes of the US and Allied victors, when, for example, the US backed Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds and Iranian-backed forces during the Iran-Iraq war9. The assassination of Muhammar Gaddafi has worked to cover over allegations of Libyan financial support for French President Sarkozy’s presidential campaign, for example―acts of corruption which may also represent one of the causes, among many, of the French-UK-NATO-Arab Gulf state military intervention in Libya that overthrew the Gaddafi regime in 201110. Moreover, the US and Allied military interventions in both Iraq and Libya that led to the overthrow and killing of the leaders of both countries have resulted in the further spread of acts of “terrorism” throughout the region, including the rise of the Islamic State, among other violent actors. From this perspective, contrary to the views of Francis Bacon, public revenge in the form of regime change leading to execution of the leadership in highly unstable states, for example, can often lead to even greater conflict and violence.
Once again, the death penalty does not bring back the dead, nor does it do anything to resolve complex social and political problems. Nevertheless, it looks like the debates over the death penalty of the late 19th century have begun to repeat themselves in new forms in the early 21st century, at least in the not-so-united United States.
Yet instead of repeating the arguments in favour of alternative and falsely “humane” ways, such as the use of lethal injection or other possible means, to execute those convicted of crimes, perhaps it is finally time for all 50 American states, to ban the death penalty? Perhaps it is also time for the countries of China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt, the Philippines, among others, to follow the leadership of the European Union—and ban the death penalty, as have both Russia and Turkey?
There are some positive signs that American states have not imposed the death penalty as often as they did in the past; yet the number of inmates on death row continues to mount in states such as California, for example. Twenty-nine states still possess the death penalty, even though three of the latter have recently suspended its use. New Hampshire recently became the 21st state to outlaw capital punishment. In general, liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans tend to oppose the government’s use of capital punishment11. Yet hard-line Republicans, like Donald Trump, and some Democrats, continue to support capital punishment to show that they support the victims and their families, and that they are “tough” on murderers and other criminal acts, such as drug dealing, that can kill.
Concurrently, the leaderships of other countries, that are often politically and economically instable, argue for capital punishment in that their societies cannot afford the costs of life imprisonment.
In pursuing its revenge against the Islamic State (IS), and citing the high costs of life imprisonment, the Iraqi leadership has, for example, sentenced French citizens to death, as the latter have been accused of working with Islamist terrorist groups such as IS―an action protested by France which has banned the death penalty12. Whether Iraq and France can resolve their significant dispute remains to be seen, as the French are also not ready to bring citizens accused of assisting the Islamic State back to France.
Capital punishment, as symbolic of public revenge, does relatively nothing to curb acts of violence and counter-violence. In fact, public executions can help provoke a violent backlash and acts of terrorism particularly if the individuals who are executed by the state are regarded as wrongly or unjustly punished, or else if they are believed to be “martyrs” to a particular cause.
In sum, cycles of vengeance can be much more costly than life imprisonment in overall political, social and economic terms. For this reason, the abolishment of the death penalty—and thus unilaterally eliminating one tactic of state terrorism13―represents one significant step in which a state leadership can symbolically take in order to eventually resolve social and political disputes and conflicts that involve acts of revenge and counter-revenge, terror and counter-terror.
All is so serene
before the massive
upon the azure horizon…
I grit my teeth and await:
Yahweh or Allah's bolt of wrath—
Zeus or Thor's bolt of whimsy—
Zen Buddhist Enlightenment—
Hannibal’s grace of Ba’al—
The kisses of ‘Venus electrificata’―
Benjamin Franklin's key and kite—
Linemen grasping the poles of a dynamo―
Stray dogs howling upon zinc plates—
Southwick’s dental chair—
Edison and Westinghouse’s “war of currents”
Kemmler's Electric City of the Future—
Nicola Tesla's high voltage ray gun—
Lenin's "Socialism: It's the Soviets plus electricity"—
The toggles of Milgram's $4.50/ hour "teachers"—
Phil Och's “Iron Lady”—
The leather straps of Warhol's vacant hot seat—
In the thunder gust,
Ol' Sparky smelts
my pink warts
my body burned
at the stake
by gun powder blast
by the flickering flames
of a Yellow Press…
As “Birds kill'd in this Manner
eat uncommonly tender,”
the executioner licks his chops.
His tongue clicks… clicks… clicks…
as it reverberates through
the hollow of his thick throat:
Alternating Current Is Definitely
More Civilized Than Direct!!!
1 Mark Essig, Edison and the Electric Chair (Walker Publishing, 2003), The Death Penalty Commission, Chapter 8.
2 “Far Worse Than Hanging”, New York Times (August 7, 1890).
3 Mark Essig, Chapter 8, op. cit.
4 The Innocence Project, DNA’s Revolutionary Role in Freeing the Innocent (April 18, 2018).
5 Executed but Possibly Innocent Death Penalty Information Center.
6 Phil Ochs, Iron Lady.
78 Human Rights Watch, The Philippines World Report 2019. Events of 2018.
9 Shane Harris and Matthew M. Aid, Foreign Policy (August 26, 2013), Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran.
10 Joe Penney, Why Did the U.S. and Its Allies Bomb Libya? Corruption Case Against Sarkozy Sheds New Light on Ousting of Gaddafi The Intercept (August 28, 2018); Alexander Seale, Former French leader Nicolas Sarkozy haunted by Gaddafi’s spy TRT World (February 25, 2019).
11 Madeleine Carlisle, GOP Lawmakers Are Quietly Turning Against the Death Penalty The Atlantic (June 7, 2019).
12 Ben Taub, Dave Davies, Terry Gross, Following the Defeat of ISIS, Iraq Pursues a Campaign of Revenge Pulitzer Center, NPR Fresh Air (December 21, 2018); Iraq sentences two more Frenchmen to death for IS membership France 24 (June 3, 2019).
13 Hall Gardner, American Global Strategy and the “War on Terrorism” (Ashgate, 2007).