Saturday, January 04, 2003

There's a new book looking at the origins of the electric chair.

"Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair" by Richard Moran

Highlights from an interview in the Hampshire Gazette...

Moran, who teaches sociology at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, had chosen to witness the death as part of his long-standing interest in crime and punishment. It was while researching questions surrounding lethal injection that he came across the story behind an earlier form of execution - the electric chair.

In 1888, he discovered, a commission in New York had considered how best to execute criminals. By then, hangings were no longer conducted in public, and reformers, Moran writes, began searching for "less barbarous" methods.

The commission weighed many options, including the use of a lethal dose of morphine, a drug that had come into widespread use during the Civil War as a pain reliever. The medical community, however, wanted the syringe to be seen as a way to lessen suffering, not cause death, and so opposed the idea. Commission members also worried, according to Moran, that lethal injection would be "too painless."

Electrocution emerged as the favored choice. It would be quick, the commission decided, and it would put to use the latest scientific discoveries.

At the time, electricity was a new, promising and fearsome technology. Two men were playing key roles in bringing it into America's homes and businesses: Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.

Westinghouse was hardly eager to have his invention associated with electrocution, accidental or otherwise. But in the end it was equipment made by Westinghouse that killed William Kemmler on Aug. 6, 1890, in the first electric-chair execution.

Moran's book details Kemmler's crime - he had murdered his lover, Tillie Ziegler, with a hatchet, in full view of her young daughter. It details the ensuing legal saga over his trial and the ultimately futile 14-month struggle waged by Westinghouse to stave off the execution by supporting Kemmler's appeals.

And it describes Kemmler's death, a botched affair in which it took eight minutes for the condemned man to die.

A little Q&A...

Q: What did you make of Edison and the role he played in this drama?

A: Well, I don't think that this takes away from all his great achievements. But I do think that if I've tarnished his image, it's really because it's been polished so brightly by other historians ... This is a blemish and he was diminished by this, there's no question about it.

Q: Can you explain that - in what way was he diminished by what he did?

A: I think the image of Edison is that of a great inventor, someone above the fray, who was going to bring us into the 20th century.

And I think that here we see another part of him as a desperate businessman who is committed to keeping hold of the industry he created. He reacts very strongly to Westinghouse's sort of muscling him out of the business, or even competing with him. And it's almost like he created this industry and therefore it's his. For some guy to come up as a competitor probably was very irritating to him.

Q: What about Westinghouse?

A: I think Westinghouse in general behaved rather well. The only thing I think he did was that he wouldn't fess up until the end that he was behind Kemmler's appeals and that it was his lawyers and his money that were holding this execution up. He ended up suffering in the newspapers because of this and Edison never did.

Q: You described Kemmler as the only one who was not diminished by what happened.

A: He was elevated by it, if anything. He used his time in prison usefully. He learned to read and write, he read the Bible, and he developed the spiritual part of his life. He had a great trust in science. In the end he believed that [his death] would indeed be quick and painless. You see the dignity with which he carries himself during the execution process.

Q: Kemmler was the first to die in the electric chair. Will we soon have the last?

A: There's no question [the electric chair] is just about gone. Nebraska is the only state that has it exclusively. On Jan. 10, they [the Legislature] will go back into session to discuss changing to lethal injection.

Q: What's the significance of the changeover?

A: We'll just do lethal injection, which is more palatable to the public.

The electric chair had been brought in as new, humane, quick and painless. Now it's 110 years later, so it's old-fashioned, archaic and barbaric. All the things it was associated with have changed.

Q: You've said that politicians follow public opinion on the death penalty. Does that mean that change on this issue starts at the bottom and works its way up?

A: Oh yeah, it has to. And it seems to me that if it comes from anywhere, it will come from the religious groups.

One thing that did happen a couple of years ago is that the Catholic bishops came out against the death penalty. That does a couple of things: It does change the views of some churchgoers, and it gives cover to Catholic politicians to oppose it. It's no longer such a hot-button issue - it's probably no longer political suicide to oppose the death penalty.

Friday, January 03, 2003


Plus, a snapshot of dining in the Volunteer State....

Inmate on death row dies on New Year's Day

A 60-year-old inmate on death row who killed four people in East Tennessee over the course of 26 years died Wednesday at Metro General Hospital.

A preliminary medical report shows that David L. Smith died of natural causes, state Department of Correction spokesman Steve Hayes said.

Smith had been on death row in Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville since November 2000. He was convicted of killing two people in Bradley County, Tenn., in 1998.

He was convicted of first-degree murder in one killing and second-degree murder in the other, Hayes said. He received the death penalty for the first-degree murder sentence and 25 years for the other conviction. He was sentenced to six years for theft of property and aggravated burglary.

Smith had served time in prison for killing two people before the 1998 murders, TDOC officials said. He killed two people in Hamilton County in 1972 and was sentenced to serve 50 years and a day in prison for those slayings. However, he was paroled in December 1992.

The last person to die on Tennessee's death row was Robert Glen Coe, executed on April 19, 2000.

There are 93 men and two women serving death sentences in Tennessee.

Dateline: China

Man executed for poisoning kids...

Beijing - A kindergarten owner who mixed rat poison into salt at a rival school's kitchen was executed on Friday in southern China, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

About 70 children were hospitalized after eating contaminated porridge.

It was the second execution announced in the past three months in a series of Chinese poisoning cases blamed on business disputes.

After initially suppressing details of the cases, authorities have publicized the penalties in hopes of reassuring an anxious public that they are taking resolute action.

Huang Hu (29) was executed in Zhanjiang, a city in Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong, Xinhua said. He was convicted in mid-December after a swift prosecution.

Huang owned a failing kindergarten in the nearby city of Wuchuang and blamed a nearby school, Xinhua said. He crept into its kitchen on November 24 and put poison in salt that was used to make corn porridge.

The report didn't say how Huang was put to death.

China used to carry out most executions with a bullet to the back of the head or neck, but the use of lethal injection is spreading.

In September, at least 38 people were killed in the eastern city of Nanjing when a snack shop owner sprinkled rat poison on food from a rival shop. The poisoner was executed the following month.

Thursday, January 02, 2003


It is so nice when people try to please one another....

Iran ends execution by stoning to please EU

Iran has abolished stoning as a form of capital punishment, in an apparent bid to ease European Union human rights concerns before the possible signing of a breakthrough trade agreement.

The daily newspaper Bahar quoted Qorbanali Dorri Najafabadi, the former intelligence minister who heads the Supreme Administrative Court as saying: "The practice has been stopped for a while."

Under Iran's strict Islamic law, in place since the 1979 revolution, men and women convicted of adultery are usually sentenced to death by stoning.

The condemned are buried in a pit - men up to their waists, women their armpits - and pelted with stones.

According to the law, the stones must be big enough to injure but not kill with just a few blows. If the victims manage to dig themselves out, they are acquitted.

Officials refuse to say how often stonings are carried out, but at least two women were reported to have been stoned to death last year.

While stonings are rare, execution by hanging is common for murder, rape, drug smuggling and armed robbery.


Remember, as they said in that classic film from the '90s "Big Night"...

"To eat good food is to be close to God."

And we all need to be a little closer to the big man.