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Thomas Edison’s Deadly Game
It changed the course of capital punishment in America
October 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 6
It was soon suggested that “electricide,” as Edison’s lawyers dubbed the results of high doses of AC current, might make a new and humane way of executing condemned prisoners. New York State had begun looking for such a method. In 1886 the state created a commission to consider a replacement for hanging, appointing Elbridge Gerry, a grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence (and the commodore of the New York Yacht Club) as its head. The Gerry commission examined the pros and cons of various methods of execution, from garroting to firing squads, and recommended was electrocution. “Perhaps the most potent agent known for the destruction of human life is electricity,” the commission wrote. “Death, as a result, is instantaneous.…at the same time its certainty is beyond a doubt.”
Edison wasn’t long in leaping on the bandwagon. “The most suitable apparatus for the purpose [of electrocution],” he wrote helpfully, “is that class of dynamo-electric machinery…known as ‘alternating machines.’” To make sure that no one missed the point, it was suggested that “as Westinghouse’s dynamo is going to be used for the purpose of executing criminals, why not give him the benefit of this fact in the minds of the public, and speak hereafter of a criminal as being ‘westinghoused,’ or of having been condemned to the westinghoused ”
While that phrase did not catch on and do for George Westinghouse, who had nothing to do with the development of capital punishment by electrocution, what the guillotine had done for Dr. Guillotin, the idea did. In 1888 New York became the first state to make “a current of electricity of sufficient intensity to cause death” a lawful means of execution. Research on exactly how to implement this method was conducted at Edison’s laboratory, and one newspaper, possibly fed the line by Edison himself, reported that “alternating current will undoubtedly drive the hangman out of business in this State.”
Westinghouse fought back, writing letters to the editor stating that AC current was perfectly safe for everyday use. Because he had a virtual monopoly on AC generators, he tried to prevent their purchase for executions, but with the help of Edison, secondhand ones were procured.
Finally, everything was ready, and on August 6, 1890, New York prepared to make William Kemmler, who had murdered his girlfriend, the first person executed by electricity. The proceedings aroused intense interest, and there was a considerable amount of political string-pulling to secure places among the 25 witnesses.
But the first execution by electricity turned into something of a fiasco. The doctors argued over how long the current should be applied and, having pronounced Kemmler dead, they then found themselves having to reverse this judgment. So the current was applied a second time. The witnesses, who had worked so hard to be present, were appalled. The reason was not the pain the condemned man suffered, for he lost consciousness nearly instantly, but the gruesome effects of a massive current on a human body. The autopsy had to be postponed for hours while the body cooled down.
Regardless, electrocution became the standard form of capital punishment in New York and a majority of other states, for better or worse, until recent years, when it was largely replaced by lethal injection. As for the war between AC and DC, Westinghouse won it hands down, and direct current ended up on the ash heap of history. In 1907 even Edison admitted--privately, to be sure—that alternating current was the future of electricity. And in 1912 the American Institute of Electrical Engineers gave George Westinghouse its highest award for “meritorious achievements in the development of the alternating current system.” The name of the award? It’s called the Edison Medal.