1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Electrocution

ELECTROCUTION (an anomalous derivative from “electro-execution”; syn. “electrothanasia”), the popular name, invented in America, for the infliction of the death penalty on criminals (see Capital Punishment) by passing through the body of the condemned a sufficient current of electricity to cause death. The method was first adopted by the state of New York, a law making this method obligatory having been passed and approved by the governor on the 4th of June 1888. The law provides that there shall be present, in addition to the warden, two physicians, twelve reputable citizens of full age, seven deputy sheriffs, and such ministers, priests or clergymen, not exceeding two, as the criminal may request. A post-mortem examination of the body of the convict is required, and the body, unless claimed by relatives, is interred in the prison cemetery with a sufficient quantity of quicklime to consume it. The law became effective in New York on the 1st of January 1889. The first criminal to be executed by electricity was William Kemmler, on the 6th of August 1890, at Auburn prison. The validity of the New York law had previously been attacked in regard to this case (Re Kemmler, 1889; 136 U.S. 436), as providing “a cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore being contrary to the Constitution; but it was sustained in the state courts and finally in the Federal courts. By 1906 about one hundred and fifteen murderers had been successfully executed by electricity in New York state in Sing Sing, Auburn and Dannemora prisons. The method has also been adopted by the states of Ohio (1896), Massachusetts (1898), New Jersey (1906), Virginia (1908) and North Carolina (1910).

The apparatus consists of a stationary engine, an alternating dynamo capable of generating a current at a pressure of 2000 volts, a “death-chair” with adjustable head-rest, binding straps and adjustable electrodes devised by E. F. Davis, the state electrician of New York. The voltmeter, ammeter and switch-board controlling the current are located in the execution-room; the dynamo-room is communicated with by electric signals. Before each execution the entire apparatus is thoroughly tested. When everything is in readiness the criminal is brought in and seats himself in the death-chair. His head, chest, arms and legs are secured by broad straps; one electrode thoroughly moistened with salt-solution is affixed to the head, and another to the calf of one leg, both electrodes being moulded so as to secure good contact. The application of the current is usually as follows: the contact is made with a high voltage (1700–1800 volts) for 5 to 7 seconds, reduced to 200 volts until a half-minute has elapsed; raised to high voltage for 3 to 5 seconds, again reduced to low voltage for 3 to 5 seconds, again reduced to a low voltage until one minute has elapsed, when it is again raised to the high voltage for a few seconds and the contact broken. The ammeter usually shows that from 7 to 10 amperes pass through the criminal’s body. A second or even a third brief contact is sometimes made, partly as a precautionary measure, but rather the more completely to abolish reflexes in the dead body. Calculations have shown that by this method of execution from 7 to 10 h. p. of energy are liberated in the criminal’s body. The time consumed by the strapping-in process is usually about 45 seconds, and the first contact is made about 70 seconds after the criminal has entered the death-chamber.

When properly performed the effect is painless and instantaneous death. The mechanism of life, circulation and respiration cease with the first contact. Consciousness is blotted out instantly, and the prolonged application of the current ensures permanent derangement of the vital functions beyond recovery. Occasionally the drying of the sponges through undue generation of heat causes desquamation or superficial blistering of the skin at the site of the electrodes. Post-mortem discoloration, or post-mortem lividity, often appears during the first contact. The pupils of the eyes dilate instantly and remain dilated after death.

The post-mortem examination of “electrocuted” criminals reveals a number of interesting phenomena. The temperature of the body rises promptly after death to a very high point. At the site of the leg electrode a temperature of over 128° F. was registered within fifteen minutes in many cases. After the removal of the brain the temperature recorded in the spinal canal was often over 120° F. The development of this high temperature is to be regarded as resulting from the active metabolism of tissues not (somatically) dead within a body where all vital mechanisms have been abolished, there being no circulation to carry off the generated heat. The heart, at first flaccid when exposed soon after death, gradually contracts and assumes a tetanized condition; it empties itself of all blood and takes the form of a heart in systole. The lungs are usually devoid of blood and weigh only 7 or 8 ounces (avoird.) each. The blood is profoundly altered biochemically; it is of a very dark colour and it rarely coagulates.  (E. A. S.*)