Robert F. Jakubowicz: The first 'humane' execution



If Thomas Edison had conducted his experiment today of electrocuting a circus elephant named "Topsy" at Coney Island, to demonstrate what was touted as a method to humanely execute criminals convicted of capital crimes, the public would be outraged. But paradoxically there is no such widespread outrage today over Oklahoma’s botched experiment in mixing drugs in an attempt to demonstrate that it had found the right lethal combination to humanely kill a human being named Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer.

Edison’s demonstration is part of a bizarre story that has become associated with the history of executions in this country that is worthwhile recounting today. U.S. manufacturers have stopped supplying a key drug for lethal injections for political and bad public relations reasons. European suppliers have also stopped exporting such drugs to America as a humanitarian protest. This has caused states like Oklahoma, where executions still take place, to experiment with a mixture of these drugs made in secrecy by suppliers.

Because of Oklahoma’s bungled execution, other state officials in capital punishment states are now considering alternative methods of execution or returning to earlier ways like hanging. There are reports of some condemned persons living up to 30 minutes dangling from a hangman’s noose before dying, Lockett lived for 40 minutes after his lethal injection, today’s supposedly more advanced, humane method of execution, before he died of a heart attack.


Edison is said to have received a letter from a Buffalo, New York dentist suggesting that electrocution would be a humane method to execute criminals. At the time, Edison and George Westinghouse were competing over the use of their products by the public. Edison was selling direct current and Westinghouse was promoting alternating current.

Edison, as the story goes, saw the electrocution of criminals as a way to promote his product as being much safer than that of Westinghouse’s alternating current. Edison began a public campaign to demonstrate that alternating current was more dangerous for use by the public than direct current and a better use for it would be to execute criminals efficiently and quickly.

Edison reportedly used alternating current to electrocute dogs that he purchased from neighborhood boys for 25 cents each. He also used calves and horses. He put on one of these demonstrations to impress a New York state committee that was created to investigate the use of electricity in executions. Committee members were impressed and tried to purchase several alternating current dynamos from Westinghouse who refused to sell because he was irate over Edison’s tactics of trying to convince the public that alternating current would be lethal to homeowners. This rivalry was so intense, that Edison is said to have coined the word "Westinghoused" as a way to describe the execution of a criminal by the use of alternating current.

According to an article by Gilbert King in, entitled "Edison v. Westinghouse: A Shocking Rivalry," the New York state committee eventually found a prison electrician who built an electric chair which used alternating current. This chair was used for the first execution by electrocution in 1890.

William Kemmler, a convicted murderer, was strapped in that chair and after 17 seconds of being jolted by electricity, he appeared dead. The dentist who had first proposed this method of execution was a witness and he stood up at that point, according to King’s article, to declare that we now "live in a higher civilization today." But, Kemmler was still alive and it took time to start the dynamo again to build up a sufficient electric current. Kemmler remained alive for a period of time with the back of his coat on fire before he died.

Later, the doctor, according to King, who pronounced Kemmler dead, said: "There will never be another execution." Westinghouse, who had earlier contributed $100,000 to an unsuccessful challenge of the death penalty as unconstitutional "cruel and unusual punishment" on Kemmler’s behalf in the U.S. Supreme Court , later said of the execution, also according to King: "They would have done better with an ax."

In the end Westinghouse won the competition with Edison by being awarded the contract in 1893 to light the Chicago World’s Fair which provided the publicity he needed to make alternating current the standard in the electrical industry.


The public debate today in the wake of the Lockett case, should not be about trying to find an alternative method to execute criminals. It instead should be about eliminating the death penalty. There is no humane way to commit the ultimate cruelest act between humans, namely, the killing of a human in the name of the government by another human. This is government sanctioned homicide.

Additionally, the evidence is now clear that capital punishment does not deter crime. The death penalty is nothing more than punishment and keeping the public safe by permanently removing murderers from the streets. A better way to accomplish these objectives is Massachusetts’ sentence of life imprisonment without parole.

Robert "Frank" Jakubowicz is a regular contributor to The Eagle.


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