Electric Chair - History of Electric Chair

Electric Chair

"Old Sparky" can be used as a name for a dog, an old car, or even for the Arizona State University's mascot, but for an entire century in the United States it was a nickname for the electric chair. A dentist named Alfred P. Southwick in Buffalo, New York thought up the idea for the electric chair in 1881. After coming home late one evening, he witnessed the accidental death of a man by an electric shock. Intrigued, he consulted with his friend and fellow doctor George E. Fell to begin developing the use electricity as a potential alternative to hanging.

At the time, New York citizens were becoming upset about a number of recent gruesome hangings, and were crying out for an alternative. Southwick thought electricity might be the answer, and began researching it thoroughly. He published his findings in 1883. After Southwick's publication, the local government set up a committee to examine its potential use as a legal death penalty method. They contacted notable electricians, including Thomas Edison, for their opinion on details such as the amount of electricity that should be used, and the structure of the chair.

In 1890, the first electric chair was built by Edwin F. Davis, as a sturdy wooden structure with straps to keep the convicted person attached. It was then used for the first time in August of that year to execute William Kemmler, who was sentenced to death for the murder of his wife. Witnesses reported the event to be horrid display, taking eight full minutes. One reporter even commented that the use of the electric chair "was far worse than hanging".

Despite the dreadful first attempt, over the next few decades the electric chair was approved for use in over 20 states! However, since the mid 1980s its use has steadily declined as lethal injection became more widely accepted and viewed as a more ethical method.

Today, the electric chair is still available as an active option in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Virginia. Yet, the use of this method is infrequent, with the last electric chair execution performed in Virginia on January 16th, 2013. Although the use of "Old Sparky" may be nearly over, its history will continue to electrify the minds of students everywhere.

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