Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair

By Richard Moran

Knopf. 271 pp. $25 In the early months of 1885, New York Gov. David Bennett Hill created a special commission to recommend a "more humane and practical manner" of putting a man to death. "The present mode of executing criminals by hanging has come down to us from the dark ages," Hill told the state assembly, "and it may well be questioned whether the science of the present day cannot provide a means for taking the life of such as are condemned to die in a less barbarous manner."

After nearly three years of deliberation, the commission issued a report that touched upon 34 potential modes of execution. These included beheading, boiling, flaying alive, running the gantlet, live burial, defenestration (in which the condemned would be thrown from a window) and exposure to wild beasts. These techniques, and several others, were quickly discarded as impractical.

The garrote, while offering "celerity and certainty," was judged to be unreliable. The firing squad was rejected for lack of "competent executioners," and the guillotine, with its display of "the raw neck, the spouting blood," was set aside as "needlessly shocking."

At length, mindful of emphasis on modern thinking, the commission turned its attention to electricity, the latest marvel of science. At a time when the general public had only a dim understanding of electricity, along with a healthy fear of its destructive power, the very notion of "judicial lightning" was both controversial and highly problematic.

Nonetheless, after rejecting all other options, Hill's commission endorsed the creation of a machine that would produce a "painless extinction of all the faculties" by means of a specially electrified chair. In support of this recommendation, the commission appealed to no less an authority than Thomas Edison, America's most celebrated inventor and the man widely held to be the world's foremost electrical expert.

As author Richard Moran demonstrates in "Executioner's Current," Edison's motives for entering the debate were far from pure. Although he professed to be an opponent of capital punishment, he readily acknowledged that electricity afforded the "most humane method available."

Having said this much, Edison went on to recommend a particular piece of "dynamo-electric machinery" to accomplish the unsavory task. Edison knew full well that this machinery, and especially the electricity that flowed through it, would become notorious in the eyes of the public. To his way of thinking, this presented an opportunity. At the time, Edison's control of the emerging American electrical industry was facing a strong challenge from George Westinghouse, whose system of alternating current, or AC, for the transmission of electricity offered many advantages over Edison's direct current. It comes as no surprise, then, that the apparatus Edison recommended for producing instantaneous death -- "even by the slightest contacts" -- was the one produced by Westinghouse.

Moran, whose previous book was "Knowing Right From Wrong: The Insanity Defense of Daniel McNaughtan," has chosen another fascinating and provocative topic for his new book. Moran skillfully uses the story of the creation of the electric chair to illustrate the brutal clash between Edison and Westinghouse, which would eventually pass into history as the "Battle of the Currents." At the same time, Moran gives a careful history of the debate over capital punishment in the United States, and emphasizes the manner in which the deliberations became entwined with the interests of big business. "By unmasking the 'story behind the story,' I aim to demonstrate how our most cherished social values can be manipulated to serve pecuniary interests," writes Moran in his introduction. "Far from representing an enlightened humanitarian concern for the welfare of the condemned, the electric chair was invented so that one major electric company (Edison) could maintain its competitive advantage over another (Westinghouse)."

Moran puts a human face on the drama by tracking the fate of William Kemmler, the first man to be executed in the electric chair, whose trial became a staging area for the battle between Edison and Westinghouse. An illiterate peddler with a taste for alcohol, Kemmler had been convicted of murdering his common-law wife with a hatchet -- "delivering twenty-six blows to her head, neck and chest."

As he rushed from the scene, Kemmler declared: "I have killed her, and I expect to hang for it." Instead, on Aug. 6, 1890, Kemmler was strapped into the newly constructed electric chair at the state prison in Auburn, N.Y. -- "as self-possessed," said one witness, "as though about to sit in a barber's chair."

George Westinghouse had been desperate to avoid the stigma of supplying the so-called "executioner's current" and had fought a determined battle to prevent the use of his equipment, even underwriting some of the condemned man's legal expenses in the hope of derailing the process. The degree to which he succeeded may be judged from a headline that appeared the following day. It read simply: "Kemmler Westinghoused."

Jonathan Yardley is on vacation.