Historically, once the person was attached to the chair, various cycles (differing in voltage and duration) of alternating current would be passed through the condemned's body, in order to fatally damage the internal organs (including the brain). The first jolt of electrical current was designed to cause immediate unconsciousness and brain death; the second one was designed to cause fatal damage to the vital organs. Death was frequently caused by electrical overstimulation of the heart.
The electric chair was first used in 1890. It was used by more than 25 states throughout the 20th century, acquiring nicknames such as Sizzlin' Sally, Old Smokey, Old Sparky, Yellow Mama, and Gruesome Gertie. From 1924 to 1976, the electric chair was used as method of capital punishment in the Philippines. In the late 20th century, the electric chair was removed as a form of execution in many U.S. states, and its use in the 21st century is very infrequent.
Electrocution is currently an optional form of execution in the U.S. states of Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia, though they allow the prisoner to choose lethal injection as an alternative method. In the states of Kentucky and Tennessee, the electric chair has been retired except for those whose capital crimes were committed prior to legislated dates in 1998 [Kentucky March 31, 1998, Tennessee December 31, 1998] and who choose electrocution. In both states, inmates who do not choose electrocution or inmates who committed their crimes after the designated date are put to death by lethal injection. The electric chair is an alternate form of execution approved for potential use in Illinois and Oklahoma if other forms of execution are found unconstitutional in the state at the time of execution. In Florida, the condemned may choose death by electrocution, but the default is lethal injection.
On February 8, 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court determined that execution via the electric chair was "cruel and unusual punishment" under the State's constitution. This brought executions of this type to an end in Nebraska, the only remaining state to retain it as its sole method of execution.
Alfred P. Southwick developed the idea of using electric current as a method of execution when he saw an intoxicated man die after touching an exposed terminal on a live generator. As Southwick was a dentist accustomed to performing procedures on subjects in chairs, his electrical device appeared in the form of a chair.
In 1887, after a particularly gruesome and bloody hanging was reported, New York State established a committee to determine a new, more humane system of execution to replace hanging. Neither Thomas Edison nor Nikola Tesla—as part of the War of Currents—wanted their electrical system to be chosen because they feared that consumers would not want in their homes the same ("dangerous") type of electricity used to kill criminals.
The first electric chair was made by Harold P. Brown. Brown was an employee of Thomas Edison, hired for the purpose of researching electrocution and for the development of the electric chair. Since Brown worked for Edison, and Edison promoted Brown's work, the development of the electric chair is often erroneously credited to Edison himself. Brown's design was based on use of Nikola Tesla's alternating current (AC), which was marketed by George Westinghouse and was then just emerging as the rival to Edison's less transport-efficient direct current (DC), which was further along in commercial development. The decision to use AC was partly driven by Edison's claims that AC was more lethal than DC. However, at the very high currents used for the device, which could be as high as ten amperes, the difference in lethality between the two types of currents was approximately a factor of two, which was marginal.
In order to prove that AC electricity was dangerous and therefore better for executions, Brown and Edison, who promoted DC electricity, publicly killed many animals with AC for the press in order to ensure that alternating current was associated with electrical death. It was at these events that the term "electrocution" was coined. The term "electrocution" originally referred only to electrical execution (from which it is a portmanteau word), and not to accidental electrical deaths. However, since no English word was available for the latter process, with the new rise of commercial electricity, the word "electrocution" eventually took over as a description of all circumstances of electrical death. Edison tried to introduce the verb "to Westinghouse" for denoting the art of executing persons with AC current. Most of their experiments were conducted at Edison's West Orange, New Jersey, laboratory in 1888.
The demonstrations on electrocution apparently had their intended effects, and the AC electric chair was adopted by the committee in 1889.
When it came to building the actual state execution device, the Westinghouse company refused to sell an AC generator for the purpose, so Edison and Brown used subterfuge in order to acquire the AC generator. They pretended that the Westinghouse AC generator was for use in a university, and had it dropshipped to New York through a country in South America.
The first person to be executed via the electric chair was William Kemmler in New York's Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890; the 'state electrician' was Edwin Davis. The first 17-second passage of current through Kemmler caused unconsciousness, but failed to stop his heart and breathing. The attending physicians, Dr. Edward Charles Spitzka and Dr. Charles F. Macdonald, came forward to examine Kemmler. After confirming Kemmler was still alive, Spitzka reportedly called out, "Have the current turned on again, quick — no delay."
The generator needed time to re-charge, however. In the second attempt, Kemmler was shocked with 2,000 volts. Blood vessels under the skin ruptured and bled and his body caught fire.
In all, the entire execution took approximately eight minutes. Westinghouse later commented: "They would have done better using an axe." A reporter who witnessed it also said it was "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging."
The first woman to be executed in the electric chair was Martha M. Place, executed at Sing Sing Prison on March 20, 1899. It was adopted by Ohio (1897), Massachusetts (1900), New Jersey (1906) and Virginia (1908), and soon became the prevalent method of execution in the U.S., replacing hanging (although it saw very little use in the Western states, with the gas chamber the more popular alternative to hanging there). It remained so until the mid-1980s, when lethal injection became widely accepted as an easier method for conducting judicial executions.
In 1900, Charles Justice was a prison inmate at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus. While performing cleaning detail duties in the death chamber, he devised an idea to improve the efficiency of the restraints on the electric chair. Justice designed metal clamps to replace the leather straps, thus allowing for the inmate to be secured more tautly and minimize the problem of burnt flesh. Justice's improvements were implemented and he was subsequently paroled from prison. The ironically-named convict's fortunes took a turn for the worse eleven years later, when he was convicted in a robbery/murder and returned to prison under a death sentence. On November 9, 1911, he died in the same electric chair that he had helped to improve.
A record was set on July 13, 1928 when seven men were executed, one after another, in the electric chair at Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville. In 1942, six Germans convicted of espionage in the Quirin Case were put to death in one day in the District of Columbia jail electric chair.
Notable deaths by electric chair include Leon Czolgosz, Giuseppe Zangara, Sacco and Vanzetti, Hans Schmidt, Bruno Hauptmann, Lepke Buchalter, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Charles Starkweather, and (post-'Furman') Ted Bundy.
The electrocution of housewife Ruth Snyder at Sing Sing on January 12, 1928, for the murder of her husband was made famous when a newspaper reporter smuggled a hidden camera into the death chamber and photographed her in the electric chair as the current was turned on. The photograph was a front-page sensation the following morning, and remains one of the most famous newspaper photos of all time.
After 1966 electrocutions ceased for a time in the USA, but the method continued in the Philippines. A well-publicized triple execution took place in May 1972, when Jaime Jose, Basilio Pineda and Edgardo Aquino were electrocuted for the 1967 abduction and gang-rape of the young actress Maggie dela Riva.
On May 25, 1979, John Arthur Spenkelink became the first electrocuted person after the Gregg v. Georgia decision by the Supreme Court of the United States in U.S. in 1976. He was the first person to be executed in the USA in this manner since 1966. However, the last person to be involuntarily executed via the electric chair was Lynda Lyon Block on May 10, 2002 in Alabama.
A number of states still allow the condemned person to choose between electrocution and lethal injection. In all, nine inmates nationwide, four in Virginia, three in South Carolina and one in both Arkansas and Tennessee have been executed having opted for electrocution over lethal injection. The last use of the chair was on June 20, 2008, when James Earl Reed was electrocuted in South Carolina. He elected this method. Before that, it had not been used since September 12, 2007, when Daryl Holton was electrocuted in Tennessee. He also elected for execution by electric chair.
Other countries appear to have contemplated using the method, sometimes for special reasons. Minutes of the British War Cabinet released in 2006 show that in December 1942, Winston Churchill proposed that Adolf Hitler — if caught — should be summarily executed in an electric chair, obtained from the USA. 'This man is the mainspring of evil. Instrument — electric chair, for gangsters, no doubt available on lease-lend'.
Skin is inevitably burned and prison workers have to separate the burnt skin from the electrodes. The initial flow of electric current may cause the person to lose control over many bodily functions, including muscle movement, urination and defecation. To mitigate this, alterations to modern electric chairs include padding and an inertia style retractable seat belt.
The use of the electric chair has declined as legislators sought what they believed to be more humane methods of execution. Lethal injection became the most popular method, helped by newspaper accounts of botched electrocutions in the early 1980s.
The electric chair has also been criticized because of several instances in which the subjects were not instantly killed, but had to be subjected to multiple electric shocks. This led to a call for ending of the practice because many see it as cruel and unusual punishment Trying to address such concerns, Nebraska introduced a new electrocution protocol in 2004, which called for administration of a 15-second-long application of 2,450 volts of electricity; after a 15-minute wait, an official then checks for signs of life. New concerns raised regarding the 2004 protocol resulted, in April 2007, in the ushering in of the current Nebraska protocol, calling for a 20-second-long application of 2,450 volts of electricity. (Prior to the 2004 protocol change, an initial eight-second application of 2,450 volts was administered, followed by a one-second pause, then a 22-second application at 480 volts. After a 20-second break, the cycle was repeated three more times.)
There have been incidents of a person's head on fire; or burning transformers, and of a chair breaking down after the initial application and letting the condemned wait in pain on the floor of the execution room while the chair was fixed. In 1946, the electric chair failed to execute Willie Francis, who reportedly shrieked "Stop it! Let me breathe!" as he was being executed. It turned out that the portable electric chair had been improperly set up by an intoxicated trustee. A case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court (Francis v. Resweber), with lawyers for the condemned arguing that although Francis did not die, he had, in fact, been executed. The argument was rejected on the basis that re-execution did not violate the double jeopardy clause of the 5th Amendment of the US Constitution, and Francis was returned to the electric chair and successfully executed in 1947.
As of 2008, the only places in the world which still reserve the electric chair as an option for execution are the U.S. states of Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. (Oklahoma and Illinois laws provide for its use should lethal injection ever be held to be unconstitutional.) Inmates in the other states must select it or lethal injection. In the state of Florida, on July 8, 1999, Allen Lee Davis convicted of murder was executed in the Florida electric chair "Old Sparky". Davis' face was bloodied and photographs taken, which were later posted on the internet. The 1997 execution of Pedro Medina created controversy when flames burst from the inmate's head. Lethal injection is now, as of 2008, the primary method of execution in the state of Florida. On February 15, 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court declared execution by electrocution to be "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the Nebraska Constitution.
In 1996, Georgia state legislator Doug Teper proposed the guillotine as a replacement for the electric chair as the state's method of execution to enable convicts to act as organ donors. The proposal was not adopted.