This article is reprinted with permission from the January 3, 2003 edition of the New York Law Journal. © 2003 ALM Properties Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. New York Law Journal Volume 229 Copyright 2003 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved.
Executioner’s Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair
By Richard Moran
Reviewed by David Wrobel
In 1889, William Kemmler, convicted of the brutal hatchet murder of his paramour, became the first person ever sentenced to death by electrocution. What followed was a process now familiar in death penalty cases: a series of appeals and legal maneuvers aimed at staying the sentence, extending all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. Appearing on Mr. Kemmler’s behalf was W. Bourke Cockran, Esq., one the most highly regarded (and expensive) lawyers of his time.
What brought Cockran to Kemmler’s defense? Was it, as Cockran professed, “his love of humanity and his desire to prevent an inhumane execution” from the still-untested electric chair? Perhaps. But, as Richard Moran explains in this uneven but sometimes fascinating new book, it is quite likely that Cockran’s altruism was spurred on by the fact that his considerable fees were being paid by none other than George Westinghouse, who was determined on avoiding having his Alternating Current (AC) Westinghouse dynamos becoming known as the “executioner’s current” and synonymous with death.
This is a book about a remarkable confluence of events in the 1880’s. At the same time that progressive legislators were looking for an alternative to public hangings, the modern marvel of electricity was being harnessed. Where the perceived public good met private greed, the electric chair was born.
As Moran explains, by the late Nineteenth Century, well meaning lawmakers were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the method by which capital punishment was being executed. Hangings were “large and lavish spectacles of suffering,” attracting huge crowds of spectators, many of whom were drunk and disorderly. Imagine a modern-day rock concert and you get the picture.
For centuries this bloodthirsty revelry was not discouraged by authorities as a threat to public order. To the contrary, it was encouraged for its social benefits. If nothing else, the “theater of death” was intended to have a deterrent effect on would-be wrongdoers, and the public was encouraged to cruelly jeer at the condemned man on the gallows. But by the 1880’s this all seemed a tad barbaric for a “modern” society. Furthermore, it didn’t always work. Sometimes the condemned man didn’t publicly show remorse for his sins and used the public hanging gallows a pulpit for anti-establishment rantings. And often the hanging was botched.
Although there was no consensus of opinion to abolish the death penalty altogether, there arose a common view that the process of capital punishment should be more “civilized.” Accordingly, New York’s Governor did what civilized men do best: he appointed a commission to study the problem at hand.
Just as that commission was meeting, remarkable events were occurring daily in the fields of science and technology. The 1880’s witnessed the birth of “the age of electricity” and, significantly, the Edison General Electric Company (a predecessor to today’s General Electric) was engaged in a fierce battle for market share with the Westinghouse Electric Company. The stakes were enormous as Thomas Edison was promoting Direct Current (DC) as safer than the less-expensive and increasingly popular AC current being utilized by Westinghouse.
Although Edison had a lifelong record as an opponent of the death penalty, that position was quickly abandoned when he saw the public relations bonanza before him. He became a leading proponent of death by electrocution provided that Westinghouse AC generators supplied the juice. Although it would be at least a century before General Electric would claim that it “brought good things to life,” Thomas Edison was clearly a man ahead of his time. Directly and through his surrogates he spread the word that Westinghouse and his AC current could bring bad people to death. Given his immense public stature as a living legend, Edison’s opinions were quite influential, if not decisive, in the decision of New York State to adopt the use of an AC powered electric chair.
At its best, “Executioner’s Current” reads like a good work of fiction. It seems like pulp fiction as Moran presents a detailed account of Kemmler’s crime of passion, his subsequent trial and his botched electrocution. The book continues to entertain as Moran describes the various morbid individuals who, like Nineteenth century Dr. Kevorkians, seemed obsessed with perfecting death by electricity, experimenting on dogs and horses.
Likewise, the book is commendable for its account of the corporate battles between Edison and Westinghouse, which, although they occurred over a century ago, seem so familiar. It is particularly remarkable to have the legendary Thomas Edison reduced before our eyes into nothing but a greedy corporate hack, like many a modern CEO who followed him. (He really was ahead of his time!)
By the end, Moran’s narrative loses steam as he rather tediously recites every single legal and factual argument presented to every court that heard Kemmler’s lawyer’s arguments against execution. By the end, it appears that the book is meant to be an argument against capital punishment, as Moran states his opinion that no method of execution, no matter how painless, can ever be considered “humane.”
The fact that Moran takes on so much in the course of this one book is, ultimately, a shame. It appears to the reader that Moran, a death penalty opponent, felt obliged to prevent his book from being too much fun to read for fear that serious capital punishment opponents would accuse him of writing a book that is not sober enough. That is too bad, because he has a great story to tell. Good history need not be dull.