The electric chair.

Prior to 1890, most American executions were by hanging, the method that had been inherited from Britain. Many prisoners died slowly by strangulation and even occasionally, if the drop was too long, by decapitation. The administration of the death penalty was in the hands of county sheriffs who individually got very little practice at carrying out hangings.
New York state used the “jerker” method of hanging in the 19th century where the prisoner was hoisted into the air by a falling weight attached to the other end of the rope which rarely resulted in a quick or easy death. This prompted State Governor David B Hill to look for a more acceptable form of execution. He set up a legislative committee in 1886, including a dentist, Dr. Alfred Southwick, to examine other methods at a time when there was a lot of interest and experimentation with electricity and also deaths from electric shock due to people coming into contact with early poorly insulated and un-guarded high voltage devices.
The first electric chair was designed in 1888 to be a more humane method of execution. In the 1880's, electricity was a new and novel power source. Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse were the two major players in the struggle to control electrical utilities. Edison championed direct current (DC) while Westinghouse pioneered alternating current (AC). Technical and economic circumstances made alternating current superior to direct current for domestic and industrial purposes. Alternating current was soon adopted as the standard for electrical transmission worldwide. Edison had tried to convince everyone that Westinghouse's AC current was unsafe and was delighted when New York State introduced the electric chair, which required alternating current.
After New York, the next state to introduce the electric chair was Ohio in April 1897, with Massachusetts following two years later.  New Jersey changed to electrocution in December 1907, Virginia in January 1908, and North Carolina in February 1910. (Dates quoted here and below are first use rather than year of legislation).  The introduction of electrocution ended the practice of county hangings in most states and execution facilities and death rows became concentrated at state penitentiaries. Mississippi and Louisiana initially being exceptions as they each had a portable electric chair which was taken by truck to parish (county) prisons when required. Louisiana retained this arrangement until 1957 when they constructed a death chamber at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Mississippi changed to the gas chamber at the end of 1954. There was disquiet about the semi-public execution of Luther Wheeler which was witnessed by some 400 people and took place in the Forrest County courthouse on February 5th 1954.  One more man would die in Mississippi’s chair, James Johnson on November 10th 1954, but it not known how many people were allowed to witness the event.
Over time the electric chair came to be used in 26 states plus the District of Columbia, at one time or another and also by the Philippines, the only country outside the USA to use it between 1926 and 1976.  Some states moved directly to lethal injection for post Furman executions (post 1977) and did not reinstate their electric chairs, e.g. Oklahoma and Texas. 

Between August 1890 and January 2013, 4,443 people suffered death by electrocution in the USA. 58 of these took place in the 19th century (51 in New York and seven in Ohio), 4,372 in the 20th century and 13 in the 21st century. Electrocutions for Federal crimes were carried out by states and are included in the figures below.

State

First used mm/dd/yr

Last used mm/dd/yr

Pre 1967

Post 1977

Grand total

Female

Alabama

04/08/1927

05/10/2002

154

24

178

4

Arkansas

09/05/1913

06/18/1990

169

1

170

0

Connecticut

02/10/1937

05/17/1960

18

0

18

0

District of Columbia

05/29/1928

04/26/1957

50

0

50

0

Florida

01/04/1924

07/08/1999

197

44

241

1

Georgia

09/13/1924

06/10/1998

417

23

440

1

Illinois

12/15/1928

08/24/1962

98

0

98

1

Indiana

02/20/1914

12/07/1994

61

3

64

0

Kentucky

07/08/1911

07/01/1997

162

1

163

0

Louisiana

09/11/1941

07/22/1991

67

20

87

1

Massachusetts

12/17/1901

05/09/1947

65

0

65

0

Mississippi

01/11/1940

11/10/1954

63

0

63

1

Nebraska

12/20/1920

12/02/1997

12

3

15

0

New Jersey

12/11/1907

01/22/1963

160

0

160

0

New Mexico

07/21/1933

02/12/1956

7

0

7

0

New York

08/06/1890

08/15/1963

695

0

695

9

North Carolina

03/18/1910

04/29/1938

165

0

165

0

Ohio

04/21/1897

03/15/1963

315

0

315

3

Oklahoma

12/10/1915

08/10/1966

82

0

82

0

Pennsylvania

02/23/1915

04/02/1962

350

0

350

2

South Carolina

08/06/1912

06/20/2008

240

7

247

2

South Dakota

04/08/1947

04/08/1947

1

0

1

0

Tennessee

07/13/1916

09/12/2007

125

1

126

0

Texas

02/08/1924

07/30/1964

361

0

361

0

Vermont

07/12/1919

12/08/1954

5

0

5

0

Virginia

01/13/1908

01/16/2013

237

31

268

2

West Virginia

03/26/1951

04/03/1959

9

0

9

0

 

 

Totals

4285

158

4443

26

Notes : 26 females are included in the grand totals.  Mississippi, North Carolina and New Mexico used both the electric chair and the gas chamber at different times in the 20th century.

New York state - the birth place of the electric chair.
On June 4th, 1888, the New York Legislature passed Chapter 489 of Laws of New York of 1888, providing for the execution by "a current of electricity of sufficient intensity to cause death" for offences committed after January 1st, 1889.
There was one small problem - New York did not possess the means to do this and had to commission Harold Brown, an electrician, to build three electric chairs, one for each of the prisons where executions were to take place - Auburn, Sing Sing and Clinton, Auburn received the first one in December 1888. Brown favored Westinghouse's alternating current for the purpose which made him most unpopular with George Westinghouse who was trying to promote it as a safe form of domestic energy. Westinghouse refused to supply Brown with the necessary generators and he was forced to buy secondhand units.
Three chairs seemed a very generous provision for an average of eight executions per annum statewide.  The chairs were solid constructions made from oak and each had two electrodes, one for the head and one for the lower back. A grand total of 695 people died in them up to 1963. Of these 55 were executed at Auburn prison between 1891 and 1916, and 26 at Clinton prison between 1895 and 1913. From 1916 all executions took place at Sing Sing prison at Ossining on the Hudson River which had a new Death House constructed at the huge cost of $268,000.  This could accommodate 24 male and three female inmates and had its own kitchen, hospital and autopsy room and was separate from the main prison.  It also had its own generator facility to provide the power for executions. 614 men and women were executed here, including such famous cases as the “Lonely Hearts” killers Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, Albert Fish and the Rosenbergs. Harris A. Smiler became the first to die in Sing Sing’s electric chair on July 7th, 1891, one of four men that day. 

New York’s first electrocution - William Kemmler, August 6th, 1890.
William Kemmler was convicted of the ax murder of his lover, Matilda “Tillie” Ziegler, and became the first man to be sentenced to death under the new law.
Kemmler's lawyers appealed citing the 8th and 14th amendments to the American Constitution which prohibit "cruel and unusual punishment." The final appeal was turned down on October 9th, 1889 and the execution date was fixed for August 6th, 1890. It was a strangely casual affair carried out in the presence of 25 witnesses, 14 of them doctors. Kemmler was led into the execution chamber in the basement of Auburn prison and was introduced to the witnesses before taking off his coat and sitting himself into the chair.
The head and spinal electrodes each consisted of a 4-inch diameter wooden cup containing a 3 inch diameter metal plate faced with a layer of sponge which was soaked in brine to improve conductivity.
Kemmler was strapped into the chair by leather straps around his arms, legs and waist. The head electrode in a leather harness was applied and a black cloth was pulled over his face. The warden, Charles Durston, gave the signal to Edwin Davis, the executioner, to throw the switch which caused Kemmler to go completely rigid as some 700 volts flowed through his body.
He remained in this condition for 17 seconds until the current was turned off and then his whole body appeared to relax. He was certified dead but after half a minute, there were a series of spasmodic movements of the chest accompanied by moaning sounds, indicating that he was not in fact dead, and the warden ordered a second charge of electricity which lasted about 70 seconds until vapor and later smoke could be seen rising from the spinal electrode accompanied by the smell of burning flesh.
At this point, the current was again switched off and the body carefully examined. There were no signs of life and Kemmler was dead. Not everyone was impressed by the "humanity" of the new method and an expert interviewed for the New York Times said that the execution was "an awful botch, Kemmler was literally roasted to death". George Westinghouse remarked that they (the executioners) could “have done better with an ax!”

New York’s executioners.
In most states the identity of the executioner and other members of the execution team were and remain shrouded in secrecy, but not so in New York.  The first electrician, as the executioner was officially known, was Edwin Davis who held the post from 1891 to 1914 and as mentioned above carried out the first electrocution in the USA.  John Hilbert replaced Davis and executed 140 people before resigning in 1926.  He was succeeded by Robert G. Elliot who electrocuted 387 people in six states between 1926 up until his death in 1939, including Nicola Sacco, Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Ruth Snyder, Henry Judd Gray, and Bruno Richard Hauptmann. Elliot was the US’s most prolific executioner.  Davis, Hilbert and Elliot worked not just in New York but also in adjacent states. A number of women applied for the job but Elliot was succeeded by another man, Joseph P. Francel, who remained in office for 14 years before resigning in August 1954.  Francel executed 134 men and three women at Sing Sing and over 100 in other states.  His most famous executions being husband and wife, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, on June 19th, 1953 who were electrocuted under Federal authority for espionage. 
Dow B. Hoover took over the position in 1953 and was New York’s last executioner, putting 38 men to death at Sing Sing, Eddie Lee Mays being the last on August 15th, 1963.

Juveniles in the chair.
58 juveniles, including one girl, Virginia Christian (Virginia 1912) were electrocuted in the USA between 1897 when Willie Haas was executed in Ohio and 1956 when Roye Norman was put to death in New York.  The majority of these were 17 at the time, twelve were 16 but the youngest was George Junius Stinney Jr. who was just 14 when he was put to death in South Carolina’s electric chair on June 16th 1944.  He was convicted of murdering two girls, Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 8.  He was executed just 81 days after the murder and his case is widely considered to be a miscarriage of justice.  Stinney was brought into the execution room around noon. He was a rather small child, 5” 1” and 98 lbs. so the straps on the chair didn't fit and he had to be tied to the chair.  When the current started he shook violently causing the face mask to fall off.

Women in the chair.
Twenty five women have been electrocuted in America in the 20th century and one in the 21st century. Click here for list.
Martha Place became the first woman to die in the electric chair when she was executed on March 20th, 1899 at New York's Sing Sing prison for the murder of her stepdaughter, Ida, in February of the same year.  An account of the execution in the National Police Gazette said she was guided into the death chamber, clutching a Bible. "Her eyes were closed, she was dressed in a black gown with a few fancy frills at the bosom. She wore russet slippers." A spot had been clipped near the crown of her head to make room for the electrode. Another electrode was fastened to her leg. Edwin Davis threw the switch that sent a current of 1,760 volts went through her body in an execution that was "successful in every way." The physician who pronounced her dead was also a woman.
Ruth Snyder who was executed at Sing Sing at 11pm on January 12th, 1928, aged 33, became the subject of a very famous photograph taken at the moment of her death by New York Daily News photographer, Tom Howard, using a hidden 16-millimeter one-shot camera strapped to his ankle, with the shutter release controlled from his pocket. She and her boyfriend, Henry Judd Gray, had been convicted of murdering her husband. Gray followed her to the chair a few minutes later at 11.14pm.  Both executions went without incident.

Judias (Judi) Buenoano was the first woman to have been electrocuted since the resumption of executions in 1977. She went to the electric chair in Florida's Starke prison on March 30th, 1998 for four murders, her execution taking 12 minutes to carry out. She was dubbed the "Black Widow" by the press.
Lynda Lyon Block became the last woman to electrocuted, in Alabama on May 10th, 2002 for the murder of a policeman in Opelika on October 4th, 1993. Her execution was described thus : Wearing a white prison outfit with her shaved head covered by a black hood and wearing light makeup, with mascara and a light shade of pink lipstick she was led into the execution room at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Alabama. Witnesses said she appeared to pray with her eyes closed about 11:52 p.m. She made no final statement. An initial 2,050-volt, 20-second shock caused Block to clench her fists, her body tensed and steam came from the sponge on her head and the electrode on her left leg. She then received 250 volts for 100 seconds. The whole execution took just two minutes.

Multiple (consecutive) electrocutions.
Kentucky and New York hold the record for the most electrocutions on a single day with seven men each.  Multiple electrocutions were not uncommon in either state.  In Kentucky four white and three black murderers were put to death at the State Penitentiary at Eddyville on July 13th, 1928. On August 12th, 1912 seven white males were electrocuted in New York’s Sing Sing prison by Edwin Davis.  The next highest number in a single day occurred in the District of Columbia when six men were executed for espionage and spying on August 8th, 1942.

Post Furman electrocutions.
John Arthur Spenkelink had the dubious distinction of becoming the first person to be electrocuted in the post Furman era.  He was executed at Florida’s Starke Penitentiary on May 25th, 1979. 144 men and one woman have been electrocuted in the U.S.A. between 1977 and the end of 1999 after the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment.  44 of these executions took place in Florida including those of serial killers Ted Bundy and Judi Buenoano. 

Three juveniles, all aged 17 at the time of the offense have been executed in the electric chair between 1977 and 1999.  They were :James Terry Roach in South Carolina on January 10th, 1986 for his part in a double murder. Dalton Prejean who was electrocuted in Louisiana on May 18th, 1990 for the murder of a police officer and Christopher Burger was put to death in Georgia on July 12th, 1993 for the robbery murder of cab driver Roger Honeycutt in 1987.

The electric chair in the 21st century.
Electrocution remains a legal method in nine states as at 2013.  Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. All of these states permit the inmate the choice of lethal injection.  Illinois and Oklahoma would only permit electrocution if their current method of lethal injection were to be declared unconstitutional.
On April 26th, 2002, the then state Governor of Alabama, Don Siegelman, signed a law making lethal injection the primary method of execution from July 1st, 2002, unless the inmate chooses the electric chair.
On January 6th, 2000, the Florida Senate passed a bill by a vote of 102-5 to give death row inmates the option of lethal injection rather than the electric chair. They have all elected lethal injection.
Georgia's highest court struck down the state's use of the electric chair on October 5th, 2001 on the basis that death by electrocution "inflicts purposeless physical violence and needless mutilation that makes no measurable contribution to accepted goals of punishment.''
Kentucky permits electrocution for inmates sentenced before July 1998 and retains facilities for both methods at the State Penitentiary at Eddyville.
Ohio moved solely to lethal injection in November 2001.
Nebraska abolished the electric chair in early 2008 and has adopted a lethal injection protocol in 2010.
South Carolina permits inmates sentenced on or after June 8, 1995 the choice between electrocution and injection but if they make no choice, death is by lethal injection.  In 1988, a new Capital Punishment Facility was constructed at the Broad River Correctional Institution which has facilities for both execution methods.
Tennessee permits inmates sentenced before December 31, 1998 to choose electrocution but only one inmate has done so (Daryl Holton, see below
).
Virginia permits all condemned inmates the choice but if they decline to chose, lethal injection is the default method.

Twelve men and one woman have been electrocuted in the 21st century and in seven cases they elected to die this way. They were :

Date

State

Name

Age

7th January 2000

Alabama

David Ray Duren

37

3rd March 2000

Alabama

Freddie Lee Wright

48

14th April 2000

Alabama

Robert Tarver

52

2nd June 2000

Alabama

Pernell Ford

35

6th July 2000

Virginia

Michael Clagett (c)

39

10th May 2002

Alabama

Lynda Lyon Block (f)

54

28th May 2004

South Carolina

James Neil Tucker

47

20th July 2006

Virginia

Brandon Hedrick (c)

27

12th Sept 2007

Tennessee

Daryl Holton (c)

45

20th June 2008

South Carolina

James Earl Reed (c)

49

17 November 2009

Virginia

Larry Bill Elliott (c)

60

18 March 2010

Virginia

Paul Warner Powell (c)

31

16th January 2013

Virginia

Robert Gleason (c)

42

(c) denotes inmate chose electrocution. Electrocution was not used at all in 2001, 2005, 2011 and 2012.

Alabama carried out the first electrocution of the new millennium when it put David Ray Duren to death on January 7th, 2000 in the state’s “Yellow Momma” as its chair was known, for the robbery and murder of a young girl named Kathleen Bedsole.

Virginia electrocuted 61 year old Earl Conrad Bramblett on April 9th, 2003. Bramblett, who had been convicted of the murders of a family of four, had elected to die this way as a protest against the death penalty. He was strapped into the oak chair and given an initial burst of 1,800 volts for 30 seconds. Bramblett's body tensed against the leather and nylon straps, his hands were clenched into white knuckled fists, his knees slowly opened and his skin turned bright red around the leather face mask. The first jolt was followed by 240 volts for 60 seconds, and then the entire cycle was repeated. A small stream of smoke wafted up from his right leg during the second cycle. He was certified dead 5 minutes later.

James Neil Tucker elected to die by electrocution in South Carolina on May 29th, 2004 for a double murder committed in 1994. The execution appears to have gone smoothly.

Brandon Wayne Hedrick was put to death in Virginia on July 20th, 2006. He apparently preferred electrocution to lethal injection.  The execution commenced at 9.00 pm when Hedrick was led from the holding cell to the death chamber and strapped into the chair. The leg electrode was applied followed by the leather face mask and the head helmet which is a hinged metal device containing the saline soaked sponge to make good contact with the skull.  At 9:02 p.m., witnesses observed Hedrick's body straining against the straps, his fists clenched. A small amount of smoke briefly rose from his leg. His body briefly relaxed between the two 90 second cycles of electricity. Each cycle starts with about 1,800 volts at 7.5 amps for 30 seconds and then 60 seconds of about 240 volts at 1.5 amps. His body jumped and leg smoked at the start of the second cycle. A doctor entered, put a stethoscope to Hedrick's chest and pronounced him dead at 9.12 pm.

On September 12th, 2007, Daryl Holton was executed in Tennessee’s electric chair for the murder of his four children in 1997.  He had elected to die in this manner and it appears that the execution went smoothly. He received an initial shock of 1,750 volts for 20 seconds, followed by a second shock of the same voltage for 15 seconds.

James Earl Reed chose death in South Carolina’s electric chair and was executed at the Broad River Correctional Institute just after 11.30 p.m. on Friday, June 20th, 2008. Reed died for the shooting murder of a former girlfriend’s parents.

Larry Bill Elliott, at 60, the oldest man on Death Row in Virginia, was electrocuted on Tuesday, November 17th, 2009 at Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia for a double murder.  The procedure commenced at 9 pm and he was certified dead at 9.08 after two surges of electricity over a three minute period.  An officer in a side room pushed the "execute button", starting an automated cycle that sent 1,800 volts through Elliott's body for 30 seconds, followed by 240 volts for 60 seconds.  This was repeated after a short wait.  Elliott had elected to die by electrocution.

Paul Warner Powell similarly elected to die in Virginia’s electric chair on Thursday, March 18th, 2010 for the murder of 16 year old Stacie Reed and the rape of her 14 year old sister Kristie in 1999. Kristie witnessed the execution. The execution was described by a media witness as follows : “There was a thump as Powell’s body jerked back into the chair. His hands clenched into tight fists and veins swelled as his arms turned red. Smoke rose from his leg.  Officials said 1,800 volts at 7.5 amps (13,500 watts), flowed through his body for 30 seconds. That was followed by 240 volts at 1 amp for 60 seconds.

The cycle repeated. With the high voltage shock, smoke and sparks emanated from Powell’s right leg. His knee appeared to swell and turn purple. His knuckles went white.  At 9:03, the electricity stopped. Everyone waited in silence for five minutes. At 9:08, a guard walked up to Powell and opened his shirt. A doctor emerged from a door on the left side of the room and placed a stethoscope on Powell’s chest in search of a heartbeat.”  He was declared dead at 9:09 p.m.

Robert Gleason chose the electric chair for his execution at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia on January 13th 2013 for the murder of two fellow inmates.  He had concerns about suffering severe pain if given a lethal injection and about dying lying down.  With the last push from a button from behind a one-way window, the first cycle of electricity was activated, sending approximately 1,800 volts at 7.5 amps for 30 seconds before it was decreased to 250 volts at 1.5 amps for the next 60 seconds. The cycle was repeated and then after five minutes, a physician checked his heartbeat with a stethoscope. He was certified dead at 9.07 pm, the execution having begun at 9.00 pm.

Typical execution protocol.
Exact electrocution protocols vary from state to state but the following is an overview of the typical process.
Prior to execution, the inmate’s head and leg is shaved
. They are led into the execution chamber and strapped into the chair by the tie down team with leather or webbing straps across the chest, thighs, legs, and arms. A metal or leather helmet is placed on the inmate’s head which contains one or two copper electrodes in direct contact with a brine soaked sponge to improve the contact with the prisoners skull.  Natural sea sponge is used and soaking it in brine improves electrical conductivity.  This sponge fills the gap between the electrodes and the inmate’s head when the chin strap holding the head piece in place is tightened.  Heads are not a regular shape and the sponge takes up the “lumps and bumps” well.  The leg electrode which typically forms part of the chair may be coated with gel (Electro-Creme), again to increase conductivity and reduce burning.  The back of the inmate’s leg is securely strapped to this.  In Virginia, the leg electrode is not part of the chair and is a separate hinged spring loaded metal clamp lined with saline soaked sponge like the head piece.
A leather face mask or black face cloth is applied. The prisoner will also be wearing a diaper.  The helmet or head piece is connected to the wiring and at the signal from the Warden, the executioner presses a button on the control panel to deliver the first shock of between 1,700 and 2,400 volts at 7.5 amps, which lasts for between 20 – 30 seconds followed by a 240 volts at 1.5 amps for 30 – 60 seconds. This is automatically timed and controlled. After a short interval, the process is repeated and then the body allowed to remain in the chair with the electricity off for five minutes before being examined by the doctor and pronounced dead.  If any heart beat is still found, a further shock cycle can be administered. Smoke frequently emanates from the inmate's leg and head whilst the current is flowing. Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh may permeate the chamber.

How electrocution kills.
The first high voltage shock is designed to destroy the brain and central nervous system functions. The inmate is thought to be rendered unconscious in 1/240th of a second which is less time than they can feel pain.  Electrocution causes complete paralysis due to every muscle in the body contracting and staying contracted whilst the current is flowing. This makes heartbeat and respiration impossible. The second shock cycle is administered to ensure heartbeat does not resume. Due to the electrical resistance of the body, its temperature rises to about 138oF and is initially too hot to touch. This heating destroys the body's proteins and "bakes" the organs. According to Robert H. Kirschner, the deputy chief medical examiner of Cook County, Illinois, "The brain appears cooked in most cases."
Physical reactions to electrocution may include burning of the scalp and calf, heaving chest, gurgles, foaming at the mouth, bloody sweat, burning of the skin, shattering of the eye lens and release of urine and/or feces. After electrocution, the body typically turns a bright red color.

There is some debate about what the electrocuted inmate experiences before he dies, some doctors believe that they feel themselves being burned to death and suffocating, since the shock causes respiratory paralysis as well as cardiac arrest, while others believe the shock instantly “scrambles” the brain and nerve functions.
Willie Francis, a 17-year-old who is the only person to have survived electrocution (in 1946) due to Louisiana’s portable electric chair being incorrectly set up.  Francis is reported to have said, "My mouth tasted like cold peanut butter. I felt a burning in my head and my left leg, and I jumped against the straps," He was successfully executed a year later.

When things go wrong.
Though all methods of execution can be botched, when electrocutions go wrong they tend to do so dramatically. At least five have gone awry since 1983. A particularly appalling instance of this took place on May 4th, 1990, in the case of Jesse Joseph Tafero in Florida. According to witnesses, when the executioner flipped the switch, flames and smoke came out of Tafero's head, which was covered by a mask and cap. Twelve-inch blue and orange flames sprouted from both sides of the mask. The power was stopped, and Tafero took several deep breaths. The superintendent ordered the executioner to halt the current, then try it again. And again!
Apparently a synthetic sponge, soaked in brine, had been substituted for a natural one. This reduced the flow of electricity to as little as 100 volts, and ended up torturing the prisoner to death. According to the state prison medical director, Frank Kligo, who attended, it was "less than aesthetically attractive."
Another electrocution in Florida went seriously wrong in 1997 when Pedro Medina was executed on the 25th of March. Witnesses saw a blue and orange flame shoot 6-10 inches out of the helmet covering Medina's head. It burned for about 10 seconds, filling the chamber with acrid smoke and the smell of burning flesh.
An investigation by prison officials blamed the flare-up on a corroded brass screen used in the helmet.
Michael Morse and Jay Wiechart, both experienced in electric chair design and operation, blamed the malfunction on a dry sponge used in conjunction with a wet sponge in the helmet.
Electrocution was challenged through the Florida courts, by death row inmate Leo Jones as a "cruel and unusual" punishment, something which is banned under the American constitution.
However, a Florida Supreme Court hearing ruled by 3 to 1 on October 21st, 1997, that its use did not constitute cruel or unusual punishment.
Yet another electrocution in Florida had problems when Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis was executed for murder on July 9th, 1999. Blood appeared to ooze from Davis' nose and mouth as he was hit with 2,300
volts at 7:10 a.m. But the governor's office said it was simply a nosebleed. The official photographs of the execution seem to bear this out. (These photographs were able to be viewed on the Florida Supreme Court website.)  By the time Davis was pronounced dead 5 minutes later, there was blood on the collar of his white shirt, and the blood on his chest had spread to about the size of a dinner plate, even oozing through the buckle holes on the leather chest strap holding him to the chair. "Nothing went wrong," said Cory Tilley, a spokesman for Gov. Jeb Bush. "The chair functioned as it was designed to function and we're comfortable that it worked." Tilley said that despite how things seemed to witnesses of the execution, there was no blood from the mouth or chest.
"The only source of blood was from the nose. He had a nosebleed." Tilley said there was some speculation the nosebleed was caused by Davis' high blood pressure.
The photographs of the execution showed "distinct signs of pain," according to Dr. Donald Price, a neurophysiologist who was commenting upon Davis' half-shut eyes, scrunched-up nose and bruises on his face.
A physicist who specializes in the effects of electricity testified that it was possible for an inmate to remain conscious 15 to 30 seconds into the execution.
"It's my opinion that death is not instantaneous and make take several minutes," said Dr. John Wikswo of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
The autopsy report said Davis had "several predisposing risk factors" for nosebleeds, including hypertension and arthritis that required him to take blood-thinners.

Florida had a new oak chair built in 1998 to replace the original one built in 1923 (see picture). Attorneys acting for Allen Lee Davis claimed that state Department of Corrections documents show the chair may be operating with "obsolete breakers" and outdated electrical components that it was proposed to replace in April 1999. Florida decided not to install the new parts, including leg and head electrodes, apparently due to the $265,000 cost.

The electric chair seems to possess an especially gruesome fascination and has been the subject of many films.

Back to Contents page Nicholas Ingram Toni Jo Henry Judias (Judi) Buenoano

For a listing of all electrocutions between 1890 and 1966 Click here  For photos of many state’s electric chairs Click here