Saturday, December 31, 2011

Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light & Death, by Mark Essig

2011 brought two major storms to the northeastern United States, and thousands of homes were without electricity, some for nearly two weeks. These events give us all pause as we look around and give thanks for the current that feeds our heating and cooling, computers and other gadgets, appliances, and of course our lights. Here in Malaysia, life without my refrigerator and ceiling fans would be wretched. Thank you very much, Thomas Alva Edison.

Sheila Terry, Science Photo Library
Engraving of Wm. Kemmler in Electric Chair

And thank you, Mark Essig, for taking us back to the beginning of commercial electricity and reminding us how astonished people were to see electric lights.The gas lighting they were using was exceedingly dirty and caused thousands of fatal fires. Electricity, though, can also be deadly if mishandled. Edison knew this and feared that accidental deaths would discourage people from adopting the new technology. He insisted that all his cables be run underground. His competitors, however, had no such scruples, and regulations were not in place. A few deaths from fallen overhead wires caused public furor. One of Edison's greatest competitors was George Westinghouse, who initially supported alternating current (Edison backed direct current) and who did not share Edison's belief in burying cables.

Thomas Edison was morally opposed to capital punishment, yet he energetically promoted electrocution as a more humane, "civilised" form of execution than any other. Why? Essig posits that the commercial competition between Edison and Westinghouse was the motivation: Edison wanted the public to associate his rival's alternating current with death, and his own direct current with light. Westinghouse fought in court to block the adoption of this scheme, but he failed. It was a Westinghouse dynamo that powered New York's first electric chairs, including the one that killed William Kemmler, the first convict to die by this means.

Edison himself sounds like an early 20th-century admixture of Steve Jobs and P. T. Barnum -- an almost manically driven inventor, highly intuitive, with innate business sense. He seems an unlikely man to sway Supreme Court justices debating legality and ethics.
"Teachers told us to keep him in the streets, for he would never make a scholar," Edison's father reported. "Some folks thought he was a little addled." Edison's mother taught him to read at home... When reporters flocked to Menlo Park to interview the creator of this marvelous machine, they were surprised to encounter not a solemn man of science but a beaming, boyish inventor. Pants baggy and unpressed, vest flying open, coat stained with grease, hands discolored by acid, Edison "looked like nothing so much as a country store keeper hurrying to fill an order of prunes." ... Newspapers described a man who rarely slept and who appeared to subsist entirely on pie, coffee, chewing tobacco, and cigars.

The story of electric light is interesting in its own right, but the tale of the electric chair illuminates (pardon the pun) the culture's changing attitudes toward capital punishment and indeed pain and suffering in general, and the power of commerce to sway the American legal system. Essig begins with the early days when convicts were hanged in the public square. The hanging was meant to be a morality lesson: The convicted man would proceed through the streets and deliver from the gallows a speech of apology and remorse, acknowledging his sin against God and his fellow man.
The crime of murder destroyed families, sowed distrust among neighbors, and ripped communities apart; the execution ceremony brought them together again. A public hanging was intended to serve as a civic ritual of retribution and reconciliation.
As the decades passed, however, the gap between rich and poor Americans widened, and it didn't take long for the have-nots to realise that they more often dangled at end of a noose than the haves. Public hangings became rebellious, indecorous, drunken riots, so the authorities gradually shifted gallows to the more secure yards of county jails.

At the end of the 19th century, Essig notes that a trend toward compassion began to grow in the US. Before this, life was brutish and short for everyone, so the thought of limiting pain rarely came up. Suffering was ubiquitous, the status quo.
Those who did not succumb to violence fell victim to accident and disease: Women died during childbirth; illness routinely felled infants and children; men were maimed and killed in warfare and farm accidents; plague and famine killed indiscriminately. Pain provided the texture of everyday life, and people accepted it as inevitable. Christians saw it as punishment for sin, or even as on opportunity to draw closer to the divine by sharing the suffering of Christ. Physical suffering was routine, and compassion was a precious resource, easily exhausted and grudgingly dispensed.
In the late 1800s America, however, humane societies began to speak out in animals' defense. Medical anesthetics showed people that pain could be alleviated or eliminated altogether. Compassion was coming into vogue, being considered an element of modernity, of civilisation.
By the end of the nineteenth century the situation had changed. William James, the great psychologist and brother to Henry, noted in 1901 that in the past century a "moral transformation" had "swept over our Western world. We no longer think that we are called on to face physical pain with equanimity." Compassion was now extended to all of humanity, and cruelty became the worst of sins. An 1891 advertisement for a laxative expressed the new mood in rhyme: "What higher aim can man attain than conquest over human pain?"
As electricity began to illuminate New York City, law-makers started to question whether it might also provide a more sophisticated and merciful way to execute criminals. Essig details the progression from the initial question to legislative hearings and numerous legal appeals reaching the US Supreme Court. New York was the first state to adopt electrocution (the word a combination of 'electricity' and 'execution') in favour of hanging, although at the time they passed the law, no one knew precisely how to kill a man with electricity. Ghastly numbers of experiments followed with dogs, calves and horses before convicted murderer William Kemmler was strapped into the chair in Auburn Prison. There were technical glitches, and it took two attempts before he finally died. Witnesses fainted and vomited. The supporters reported to the press that it was a success, that he died instantly and painlessly. Edison continued to promote electrocution as a very humane form of death, rarely failing to mention that his competitor's dynamo was the fatal tool. (When the public was reaching for a term for this new execution method, some Edison employees recommended turning their rival's name into a verb, as in "The convict was westinghoused.")

The electric chair has killed over 4,000 men and women in the US, but it's fallen very short of dealing instant, painless death. (No state uses electrocution as its sole execution method today, but a number of the southern states continue to offer it as an option.)
The controversy surrounding electrocution never disappeared. There was evidence that, in some cases, electrocution killed fairly quickly But throughout the century electrocutions often went horribly wrong, causing prisoners to suffer the extreme pain that accompanies cardiac arrest, tetanic muscle contraction, asphyxiation, boiling body fluids, and severe burns.

In the end, Edison's obsession with commercial electrical safety paid off:  all electrical companies were required to bury their cables. He later conceded that alternating current had its uses and adopted it for some of his own applications. And finally, thanks to commercial rivalry and misdirected compassion, Edison helped to perpetuate an atrocious method of execution.
The opposition to electrocution never got a fair hearing, because any objections could be dismissed out of hand as the cynical machinations of George Westinghouse. Few appeared troubled that Thomas Edison's motives for defending electrocution were equally suspect...  No one exemplified this engineering mentality better than Thomas Edison, the opponent of capital punishment who helped invent a killing machine. Like many death penalty foes, Edison believed that making killing more humane was a sign of progress, a step down the road to complete abolition. The strategy backfired. By making executions appear painless, Edison helped the death penalty survive. The electric chair—and the later scientific methods it inspired—masked the barbarity of killing in the civilization of the machine.

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