In 1607, Capt. George Kendall of Jamestown, Va., was accused of mutiny, allegedly plotting to betray the British to the Spanish. He was stripped of his arms, imprisoned and shot.
So began centuries of debate about capital punishment in the United States — not just about whether it was okay to kill convicted criminals, but how to kill them.
Methods were legion — and, as older ones were spurned as barbaric, new ones, often macabre, were embraced.
The breaking wheel gave way to hanging. Hanging gave way to the electric chair. The electric chair gave way to lethal injection. And, shortly before Wednesday’s drawn-out execution of murderer Joseph R. Wood III in Arizona, one judge waxed nostalgic about the guillotine. At least it was efficient.
What does capital punishment look like — and when do we decide to change it? Here’s a look back at the American killing floor.
What it looked like: The prisoner lay on his back, perhaps on sharp rocks. A wooden slab was placed on his chest. Stones were put on top of the slab until the chest was crushed.
Notable example: There’s only one documented pressing in American history. In 1692, the unfortunate Giles Cory, accused of wizardry, was pressed to death in Massachusetts in 1692 — as was John Proctor, the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”
What it looked like: The prisoner was tied to a wagon wheel and bludgeoned to death. Limbs were tied to spaces between the wheel’s spokes, then broken.
Notable examples: A slave accused of arson was burned in Massachusetts in 1681 — and, according to one account, a slave accused of rape in South Carolina was burned in 1830 — the last execution by burning in the United States.
When it was used: A lot. According to deathpenalty.procon.org, more than 9,000 people were hung in America between 1608 and 2002. The next common method, electrocution, killed only about 4,400.
Last used: In 1996, murderer Billy Bailey died by hanging in Delaware, choosing that method over lethal injection.
What it looks like: “Drop” hanging — dropping a prisoner from a proscribed height according to weight — breaks the neck or severs the head. Simply stringing up the condemned causes strangulation.
Notable examples: Many. Four people accused of conspiring to kill Abraham Lincoln were hung in 1865. A century later, so were Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, the murderers Truman Capote profiled in “In Cold Blood.”
First used: Botched hangings led to criticism of the method as a remnant of the “dark ages” as early as 1886. So, in 1888, New York built the first electric chair. The idea came from Edison Company, which began demonstrating electrocution on animals, according to PBS. People got the hint: If it could be used to kill animals, it could be used to kill people, too. In 1890, William Kemmler is said to be the first person to “ride the lightning,” as they said in “The Green Mile.”
Last used: In 2013, Robert Gleason elected to die by electrocution in Virginia.
What it looks like: The offender sits in a chair wired to an electric current. A metal cap is put on the head and an electrode and wet sponge are strapped to the leg. Another is attached to the scalp. Once activated, 2,300 volts pass through his body for eight seconds, then 1,000 volts for 22 seconds and finally 2,300 volts for eight seconds, according to the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office in Indiana.
Notable examples: Leon Frank Czolgosz, who murdered President McKinley, died in the electric chair in 1901. In 1989, so did serial killer Ted Bundy.
First used: In 1924, Gee Jon was reported to be the first prisoner to die in a gas chamber in the United States. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, this was also thought a humane alternative. In fact, Nevada wanted to pump cyanide gas into his prison cell while he was sleeping so he wouldn’t see it coming. There were apparently a few technical difficulties and a gas chamber was quickly built to do the job.
Last used: Armed robber Walter LeGrand chose lethal gas in Arizona in 1999.
What it looks like: The inmate is strapped down around his chest, waist, arms and ankles in an airtight chamber. He wears a mask. When the chamber is activated, cyanide pellets hit a sulfuric acid solution and produce the lethal gas. According to the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office: “Unconsciousness can occur within a few seconds if the prisoner takes a deep breath. However, if he or she holds their breath death can take much longer, and the prisoner usually goes into wild convulsions.” Once the inmate is dead, ammonia is pumped into the chamber to clear the air.
Notable example: Leonard Shockley is said to be the last juvenile to be executed in the gas chamber. In 1959, he was put to death in Maryland for a murder.
When it was used: Seeking yet another “humane” execution method in 1977, Oklahoma became the first state to use lethal injection, now the primary method of execution in the United States. It’s now highly scrutinized amid drug shortages, secrecy laws that allow states to conceal the drug manufacturers and recent botched executions in Ohio, Oklahoma and, now, Arizona.
What it looks like: The offender is strapped to a gurney in an execution chamber and connected to an IV in each arm. (One line is used as a backup in case there’s a malfunction in the other.) The standard method has been the three-drug injection in which the first drug acts as an anesthetic, the second paralyzes the lungs and diaphragm and the third stops the heart, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. But the scarcity of these drugs is forcing states to search for substitutes. It forced Oklahoma to use a new drug in March as the first drug in a lethal injection that reportedly left a man writhing before he died from a heart attack. The one or two-drug protocols typically call for a lethal dose of an anesthetic or sedative. The two-drug cocktail was notably used this year in Ohio and, now, Arizona.
Notable example: In 1980, John Wayne Gacy was convicted of 33 murders and sentenced to die. After 14 years of appeals, Gacy was finally executed by lethal injection in 1994. At that time, no other person had been convicted of as many murders in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
First used: George Kendall (see above)
Last used: Ronnie Lee Gardner was executed by firing squad in 2010. That was in Utah.
Notable example: Gary Gilmore, subject of Norman Mailer’s book “The Executioner’s Song.” In 1977, he chose to be executed by a Utah firing squad.
What it looks like: Traditionally, the firing squad is made up six shooters who stand opposite the prisoner, usually tied to chair or a stake, aim at the chest and fire. The head is a tougher target. The offender typically dies of hemorrhage and shock. A bucket beneath the chair catches the blood.
In a recent dissent (in a case involving the execution last night in Arizona) a federal appeals court judge praised this method — and others — as superior to lethal injection. “The guillotine is probably best but seems inconsistent with our national ethos,” Appeals Court Judge Alex Kozinski wrote. “And the electric chair, hanging and the gas chamber are each subject to occasional mishaps. The firing squad strikes me as the most promising. … There are plenty of people employed by the state who can pull the trigger and have the training to aim true.”
He had a broader point though: “The enterprise is flawed. Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful–like something any one of us might experience in our final moments. But executions are, in fact, nothing like that.”
Correction: The original version of this story was incorrect on the last uses of the electric chair and firing squad.