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Famous Electric Chair Executions
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William Kemmler (1890)
After Kemmler murdered his wife with an axe in 1889, he became a natural test subject for a new method of execution, ostensibly more humane than hanging or the firing squad: alternating current electricity, marketed by the inventor George Westinghouse. According to early witnesses, the gruesome execution took two tries over an eight-minute period.
On the morning of his execution, August 6, 1890, Kemmler was awakened at 5:00 a.m. He dressed quickly and put on a suit, necktie, and white shirt. After breakfast and some prayer, the top of his head was shaved. At 6:38 a.m., Kemmler entered the execution room and Warden Charles Durston presented Kemmler to the 17 witnesses in attendance. Kemmler looked at the chair and said: "Gentlemen, I wish you luck. I'm sure I'll get a good place, and I'm ready."
Witnesses remarked that Kemmler was composed at his execution; he did not scream, cry, or resist in any way. He sat down on the chair, but was ordered up by the warden so a hole could be cut in his suit through which a second electrical lead could be attached. This was done and Kemmler sat down again. He was strapped to the chair, his face was covered and the metal restraint put on his bare head, saying "Take it easy and do it properly, I'm in no hurry." Durston replied, "Goodbye, William" and ordered the switch thrown.Sketch of the execution of William Kemmler, August 6, 1890
The generator was charged with the 1,000 volts, which was assumed to be adequate to induce quick unconsciousness and cardiac arrest. The chair had already been thoroughly tested; a horse had been successfully electrocuted the day before.
Current was passed through Kemmler for 17 seconds. The power was turned off and Kemmler was declared dead by Dr. Edward Charles Spitzka.
However, witnesses noticed Kemmler was still breathing. The attending physicians, Dr. 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."
In the second attempt, Kemmler was shocked with 2,000 volts. Blood vessels under the skin ruptured and bled and some witnesses erroneously claimed his body caught fire. However, Kemmler's body did not catch fire. The New York Times reported instead that "an awful odor began to permeate the death chamber, and then, as though to cap the climax of this fearful sight, it was seen that the hair under and around the electrode on the head and the flesh under and around the electrode at the base of the spine was singeing. The stench was unbearable." Witnesses reported the smell of burning flesh and several nauseated spectators unsuccessfully tried to leave the room.
In all, the entire execution took approximately eight minutes. The competitive newspaper reporters covering the Kemmler execution jumped on the abnormalities as each newspaper source tried to outdo each other with sensational headlines and reports. A reporter who witnessed it also said it was "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging." Westinghouse later commented: "They would have done better using an axe."
Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1927)
Sacco and Vanzetti had been accused of murdering two guards while robbing a fortune from a shoe store. Italian-American immigrants and anarchists to boot, they were unpopular enemies of the first Red Scare and railroaded in a trial that completely disregarded their due process rights. Their execution in 1927 galvanized the American labor movement.
Albert Fish (1936)
Serial child molester and child murderer Albert Fish was known to have killed and cannibalized at least five victims, but he claimed to have "had" more than a hundred, and refused to specify whether he was referring to molestation or murder. His execution wasn't particularly controversial.
He was born as Hamilton Howard Fish in Washington, D.C. on May 19, 1870, to Ellen, who was Irish-born, and Randall Fish (1795–1875). He said he had been named after Hamilton Fish, a distant relative. His father was 43 years older than his mother and 75 years old at the time of his birth. Fish was the youngest child and had three living siblings: Walter, Annie, and Edwin Fish. He wished to be called "Albert" after a dead sibling, and to escape the nickname "Ham & Eggs" that he was given at an orphanage in which he spent much of his childhood.
His family had a history of mental illness: his uncle suffered from religious mania, a brother was confined in the state mental hospital, and his sister had a "mental affliction." Three other close relatives suffered from severe mental illnesses and his mother was believed to suffer frequent aural and/or visual hallucinations. His father had been a river boat captain, but by 1870 he was a fertilizer manufacturer. The elder Fish died of a heart attack at the Sixth Street Station of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1875 in Washington, D.C. Fish's mother, who was now forced to find work and not able to care for her son, put him into Saint John's orphanage in Washington where he was frequently stripped naked along with other boys who would then be whipped and beaten in front of each other by teachers. He eventually came to enjoy physical painand the communal beatings would often cause erections, for which the other orphans teased him.
By 1880, his mother had a government job and was able to look after him. In 1882, at age 12, he began a relationship with a telegraph boy. The youth introduced Fish to such practices as drinking urine and eating feces. Fish began visiting public baths where he could watch other boys undress, and spent a great portion of his weekends on these visits. Throughout his life he was also a profligate and compulsive writer of obscene letters to women whose names he acquired from classified advertisements and matrimonial agencies.
By 1890, Fish had arrived in New York City, and he said he became a male prostitute. He also said he began raping young boys, a crime he kept committing even after his mother arranged a marriage. In 1898, Fish was married to a woman nine years his junior. They had six children: Albert, Anna, Gertrude, Eugene, John, and Henry FishGrace Budd murder Grace Budd (1918–1928)
On May 25, 1928, Edward Budd put a classified ad in the Sunday edition of the New York World that read: "Young man, 18, wishes position in country. Edward Budd, 406 West 15th Street." On May 28, 1928, Fish, then 58 years old, visited the Budd family in Manhattan, New York City under the pretense of hiring Edward. He introduced himself as Frank Howard, a farmer from Farmingdale, New York. When he arrived, Fish met Budd's younger sister, 10-year-old Grace. Fish promised to hire Budd and said he would send for him in a few days. However, he failed to show up but sent a telegraph to the Budd family apologizing and set a later date. He returned for a second visit and said he would take Edward to work on his farm. However, he claimed he would have to return later to pick him up as he had to attend his niece's birthday party. He convinced the parents, Delia Flanagan and Albert Budd I, to let Grace accompany him to the party that evening at his sister's home. The elder Albert Budd was a porter for the United States Equitable Life Assurance Society. Grace had a sister, Beatrice; and two other brothers, Albert Budd II; and George Budd. Grace left with Fish that day, but never returned home.
Bruno Hauptmann (1936)
Hauptmann, accused of kidnapping and murdering the infant child of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wasn't a particularly controversial execution victim either--but irregularities in his trial cast doubt on his guilt to this day. We may never know for sure who murdered the Lindbergh baby, but we know who was executed for the crime. Background
Hauptmann was born in Kamenz in the German Empire, the youngest of five children. He had three brothers and a sister. At age 11, he joined the Boy Scouts (Pfadfinderbundes).Hauptmann attended public school (Realschule), but quit at the age of 14. He then worked during the day while attending trade school (Gewerbeschule) at night, studying carpentry for the first year, then switching to machine building (Maschinenschlosser) for the next two years.
In 1917, Hauptmann's father died. The same year, Hauptmann learned his brother Herman had been killed fighting in France in World War I. Not long after that, he was informed that his brother Max was now dead too, having fallen in Russia. Shortly thereafter, Hauptmann was conscripted and assigned to the artillery.
Upon receiving his orders, he was sent to Bautzen, but was transferred to the 103rd Infantry Replacement Regiment upon his arrival. In 1918, Hauptmann was assigned to the 12th Machine Gun Company at Königsbrück. Hauptmann would claim that he was deployed to Western France with the 177th Regiment of Machine Gunners in either August or September 1918 then fought in the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. Hauptmann would also say he was gassed in either September or October 1918. He also claimed that while his position was being shelled, he was hit in the helmet with a piece of metal. According to him, this knocked him out for "hours" and he was left for dead. When he came to, he crawled back to safety and was back to the "machine guns" that evening. After the war, Hauptmann and a friend robbed two women wheeling baby carriages they were using to transport food on the road between Wiesa and Nebelschutz. The friend wielded Hauptmann's army pistol during the commission of this crime. Hauptmann's other charges include burglarizing a mayor's house (using a ladder). Released after three years in prison, he was arrested three months later on suspicion of further burglaries.
Hauptmann illegally entered the US by stowing away on a liner. Landing in New York in September 1923, the 24-year-old Hauptmann was taken in by a member of the established German community and worked as a carpenter. He married a German waitress in 1925 and became a father eight years later.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1953)
The Rosenbergs, accused of spying for the Soviet Union during the first Red Scare, are a symbol of love and fidelity. Either could have escaped execution by implicating the other. Both refused. Later evidence would reveal that much of the testimony against the Rosenbergs was falsified, and that while Julius may well have been a low-level spy, he could not have sold nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union--the charge that led to his execution, as well as that of his wife.
Allen Lee Davis (1999)
Davis was a monstrous figure--having murdered a pregnant woman and then her two children, aged 5 and 9--but his execution called into question the usefulness of the electric chair as a humane method of execution. Specifically, he bled from the nose, was burned more severely than most executed in the electric chair, may have been partially asphyxiated by his mask, and may have screamed. An inquiry by the State of Florida determined that the execution was humane, but it continued to raise questions.
Davis' execution drew nationwide media attention after he had a nose bleed in the electric chairand suffered burns to his head, leg, and groin area during the course of his electrocution. AFlorida Supreme Court justice published some photos of the aftermath of the incident.
- John W. Moser, Capital Collateral Regional Counsel for the Middle Region, testified that between the time Davis was strapped into the chair and the time the electrical current was applied to Davis, he heard what he described as two screams from Davis. He also said that upon application of the current, Davis' body tensed and arched backward, and seconds later, blood appeared on Davis's chest. Moser approximated that around three minutes after Davis's body tensed, at a point when Davis was no longer tensed, he saw Davis's chest move in and out several times.
- Mark Lazarus, Victim Assistance Administrator for the Florida Department of Corrections, testified that after the head piece was placed on Davis' head, he heard Davis make two one-syllable sounds that he also described as a "yell[ing] out." He corroborated Moser's observations of Davis' body clenching and blood began dripping onto Davis from behind the mask. Lazarus also saw Davis's chest move, but described it as like a muscle spasm.
- Sheila McAllister, Correctional Probation Officer at Wakulla Correctional Institution, testified that, though Davis's face was red before being executed, it was redder than an apple in the photographs of Davis taken after the execution had taken place. She said, like Moser and Lazarus, that Davis stiffened as the electrical current passed through him, and added that his hands clenched. She also heard Davis make noise, which she described as moaning sounds. She corroborated that Davis had blood on his chest that appeared to be coming from behind the mask, and that Davis's chest moved like muscle spasms. She added that they occurred three or four times and that they were spaced apart with two or three seconds in between.
- William R. Dotson, Inspector Supervisor for the Gainesville Field Office with the Department of Corrections' Inspector General's Office, testified that he and "Mr. Geibig" took some of the pictures of Davis's body after the execution, and that he had felt it necessary to document the event.
- Michael R. Collins, a nurse for the Florida State Prison testified that he heard Davis make one "loud maybe two, three-second high-pitched murmur" before the current was applied. He corroborated the characterization of Davis's body as stiffened or rigid when the current was applied, and said that Davis's fingernails turned bright red. After the current was stopped and Davis was examined, Collins said that he saw blood on Davis's shirt, on his chest and on the upper right side by the collar, and blood dripping from the mask for a short time during the examination.
- Steve Wellhausen, employee of Florida State Prison assigned to escort the official witnesses to the execution of Allen Lee Davis, corroborated reports of noise coming from Davis (which he described as a low muffled moan), Davis's stiffening body and tightening hands, and blood coming from beneath the mask and movement of Davis's chest after the current ceased, though Wellhausen stated that it did not look like breathing to him. He also said that it was not uncommon for these chest movements to occur after execution by electric chair.
- Robert K. Thomas, John H. "Jack" McNeill, and William Muse established that Davis made a noise after the placing of the mouthpiece into his mouth but before the current was applied. McNeil stated that he heard two noises, once when he put the waist strap on Davis, and again when Thomas tightened the chin strap for the head piece. Thomas testified that he heard Davis moan one time while the strap for the mouthpiece was being tightened, but did not do anything about it. Thomas also stated that he saw two bubbles of blood in Davis's left nostril even before the current had been applied to Davis, but did nothing at that time either.
- Thomas Varnes, Warden at Wakulla Correctional Institution, corroborrated some previous testimony, and said that he thought the nose bleed may have something to do with the high blood pressure that Davis was reported to have. Varnes, too, had high blood pressure and nose bleeds, but testified that he does not have pain with his nose bleeds.
- Aubrey D. Thornton, Assistant Warden at Florida State Prison, corroborrated some previous testimony, and added that the mouth strap, as it appeared in a photograph presented as evidence, was not in the same position that it was in when Thornton positioned it on him prior to the execution. He said that the mouth strap was higher and closer to Davis' nose. He stated that Davis appeared redder after the mouth strap was applied, but that he did not appear to have trouble breathing.
- William F. Mathews, P.A., physician's assistant for Florida State Prison, corroborrated that Davis could not have had trouble breathing. Matthews took Davis's pulse for two minutes after the electrical current ceased and did not feel anything. He also checked for heart and lung sounds and did not hear any. He said that he saw Davis's chest slump but that Davis did not show any sign of life when this occurred.
- Robert Kirschner, M.D., forensic pathologist from Illinois, performed an autopsy on Davis and testified that the nose bleed Davis experienced appeared to come from septal area of the left nostril. According to his observations during the autopsy, Kirschner testified that he believed that the mouthpiece partially asphyxiated Davis and that the cause of death was electrocution and association of partial asphyxiation which occurred before the electrocution, and that he believed that Davis was suffering from conscious pain during the period of asphyxiation.
- Kris Sperry, M.D., Chief Medical Examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, testified that the application of ten amps of current to brain tissue causes instant loss of consciousness, including cessation of the experience of pain, and that a person can indeed bleed while dead. Sperry disagreed with Kirschner's opinion regarding the mouthpiece, but thought that the nose bleed occurred from some sort of increased pressure in Davis' upper torso or head region.
- William Hamilton, M.D., Medical Examiner for the Eighth Judicial Circuit, who performed an autopsy on Davis, was deposed, stating that Davis had burns on his scalp and forehead, on his suprapubic and right upper medial thigh region, and behind the right knee. He believed the burns on the inmates executed in the previous five or six years were smaller than those on inmates executed before that time. He corroborrated earlier testimony in addition.
The state of Florida controversially found that Davis had died a "painless death" and was not asphyxiated.
Brandon Wayne Hedrick (2006)
Brandon Wayne Hedrick, executed for the rape and murder of a young woman in Virginia, may go down in history as the last person executed by electric chair in the United States. In February 2008, the State of Nebraska ruled that electric chair executions--already on the decline--constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Due to the possibility of a successful court challenge based on the Nebraska reasoning, states in which the electric chair is still technically permitted may be disinclined to allow it as an option. Execution
Under Virginia law since January 1, 1995, condemned prisoners have been able to choose between the electric chair and lethal injection as their execution method. Hedrick's lawyers have indicated that he chose the electric chair because he feared complications related to the drugs used in the lethal injection.
"In May of 1998, Brandon Wayne Hedrick was found guilty of capital murder in the commission of robbery, abduction, forcible sodomy, rape, and use of a firearm in the murder of Lisa Crider, a young mother. In a separate sentencing proceeding, the jury recommended that Hedrick be sentenced to death on the capital murder conviction, and this recommendation was adopted by the trial judge. The trial, verdict, and sentence have been reviewed in detail by various state and federal courts, including the Supreme Court of Virginia and the Supreme Court of the United States."
"Having carefully reviewed the Petition for Clemency and judicial opinions regarding this case, I find no reason to doubt Mr. Hedrick’s guilt or to set aside the sentence that was recommended by the jury and then imposed and affirmed by the courts."
"Accordingly, I decline to intervene."
Hedrick's final words were:
"I pray for everybody that believes in Jesus Christ in heaven, and I pray for the people that are unsaved that they will accept Christ because they know not what they do and will accept Christ one day. I’m ready to go and be free."