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The Business of America

Thomas Edison’s Deadly Game

April 2021
5min read

It changed the course of capital punishment in America

Capitalism sometimes operates in unexpected ways and turns up in unexpected places. It can even be involved in what has been, legally, a monopoly of the state since the time of King Henry II—capital punishment.

Capital punishment has been much in the news lately. Its use has been increasing rapidly in this country in recent years. The number of people on death row, more than 3,500 currently, has been climbing steadily. Several states that abolished the death penalty in earlier years have reinstituted it.

But, in fact, from the perspective of a longer time frame, capital punishment has been waning for centuries around the world. In the early seventeenth century, for instance, an Englishman traveling from Dresden to Prague, a distance of only 75 miles, counted “above seven score gallowses and wheels, where thieves were hanged, some fresh and some half rotten, and the carcases of murderers broken limb after limb on the wheels.”

Since those grisly days, the number of crimes that are considered capital has been drastically reduced. England, which had dozens of capital crimes in the eighteenth century, lowered the number to 15 in 1834 and to 4 in 1861. Many countries have abolished the death penalty altogether, as have many states in this country, beginning with Michigan in 1846.

Likewise, the methods used for execution, once often specifically designed for maximum torment, have been increasingly engineered to provide a swift, painless death instead. It was this somewhat oxymoronic goal of the humane execution that lay behind the invention of the guillotine in the late eighteenth century. The guillotine, it was thought, would provide with certainty the single, sudden, decisive stroke that the axman all too often failed to deliver.

Even the hangman’s noose, the very symbol of old-fashioned justice, was introduced early in the nineteenth century for humane purposes. Properly placed under the chin, it breaks the neck and spinal cord, causing instant unconsciousness and rapid death.

Because hanging was the usual means of execution in England, it was the nearly universal means of execution in the American colonies from the earliest days. Indeed, our first hanging took place in 1630, when the Plymouth Colony executed John Billington for the murder of John Newcomen.


But hanging could easily go awry. Then the condemned suffered a terrible death by slow strangulation. Ever reform-minded, Victorian Americans looked about for another method. Because they were Americans, it is not surprising that they turned to cuttingedge technology for a solution to the problem. And they were helped along in this direction by an entrepreneur named Thomas Edison, who hoped to discredit a competitor in the process.

Thomas Edison is not usually thought of as an entrepreneur at all. But he was always keenly interested (both intellectually and financially) in the commercial applications to which his inventions might be put. His rival in this instance was George Westinghouse. Born only four months before Edison, Westinghouse was no mean inventor himself, with more than 400 patents in his lifetime. When he was only 22, he invented his most famous device, the air brake. By allowing railroad trains to stop quickly, the air brake permitted them to operate safely at much higher speeds than had been possible before. Higher speeds meant higher profits, and use of the air brake spread quickly through the industry.

Like Edison, Westinghouse soon interested himself in the new technology of electricity. Edison had done much work in the development of what is called direct current, in which the flow of electrons is constant in one direction. Edison was deeply committed emotionally and financially to this technology. But Westinghouse was interested in a different method, developed in Europe, called alternating current. With AC, the flow of electrons reverses many times a second (60 in the United States, 50 in most of Europe).

Alternating current has many advantages over direct current. Because it can utilize transformers, it can easily be stepped up or down in voltage. At very high voltages it can be transmitted efficiently and cheaply over long distances, allowing vast economies of scale. Direct current can be transmitted for only a mile or so, necessitating a large number of small power plants. The one big disadvantage of alternating current is that it is more likely to be lethal at any given voltage if it is carelessly handled.

Leaping on the electrocution bandwagon, Edison suggested that people “speak…of a criminal as being ‘westinghoused.’ ”

In the 188Os, when electricity was in its infancy, which system would win out was by no means clear. Edison had wired portions of several cities, beginning with New York on September 4, 1882, when the Pearl Street power station of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company opened for business. Westinghouse was not far behind. In 1887 a company using his alternating-current technology opened in New York and began competing with Edison for customers there and elsewhere.

Edison promptly began waging a propaganda campaign, claiming that alternating current was dangerous. He invited reporters out to his laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, where he demonstrated on numerous wretched animals ranging in size from cats to horses the lethal effects of a 1,000-volt AC current passing through their bodies.

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.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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