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.