Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair
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Enron and Worldcom executives take heart: this grim account of the origins of execution by electrocution proves that business-based sleaze can go a lot further than accounting fraud.

As Moran (Sociology/Mount Holyoke Coll.) shows, the Edison Electric Co., with Thomas A. himself at the helm, relentlessly lobbied the State of New York in 1890 to establish electrocution as the preferred “humane” disposal of those given the death penalty. What actually motivated Edison, despite his professed opposition to capital punishment, was his rivalry with the Westinghouse Company for the vast US market for electrical lighting and power. Edison equipment generated only direct current (DC), but the tide was turning towards the Westinghouse alternative, AC power. Each side claimed that the other had serious safety deficiencies. By persuading authorities to adopt alternating current for the death chair, Edison and his minions hoped to foster a public image of AC as the truly “lethal” form of electricity. Moran spares readers no details of the gruesomely botched first electrocution at Auburn Prison in August 1890, during which convicted murderer William Kemmler was seen by some witnesses to “suffer horribly,” as current from the Westinghouse dynamo (purchased under false pretenses) was shut off twice while attending doctors pondered the presence of respiration and heartbeat, then switched on again. Its proponents, however, continued to endorse electrocution as a best-case method (absent the bungling at Auburn) while the debate continued over decades. The author points out that we still don’t know exactly how electricity kills a human being (cardiac arrest being the prime suspect), and survivors of serious accidental shocks do report varieties of excruciating pain. In the final analysis, Moran contends, focusing on the relative merits of available modalities, whether gun, noose, or lethal injection, tends often to provide a way of avoiding the central issue: Can execution ever be considered humane?

Morbidly fascinating.

Pub Date: Oct. 24th, 2002
ISBN: 0-375-41059-7
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2002


NonfictionTESLA by Richard Munson
by Richard Munson