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Death by electric chair

Electrocution is death or severe injury caused by electric shock from electric current passing through the body. The word is derived from "electro" and "execution", but it is also used for accidental death.[1][2]

The term "electrocution" was coined in 1889 in the US just before the first use of the electric chair and originally referred to only electrical execution and not other electrical deaths. However, since no English word was available for non-judicial deaths due to electric shock, the word "electrocution" eventually took over as a description of all circumstances of electrical death from the new commercial electricity.


In the Netherlands in 1746 Pieter van Musschenbroek's lab assistant, Andreas Cuneus, received an extreme shock while working with a leyden jar, the first recorded injury from human-made electricity.[3][4] By the mid-19th century high-voltage electrical systems came into use to power arc lighting for theatrical stage lighting and lighthouses leading to the first recorded accidental death in 1879 when a stage carpenter in Lyon, France, touched a 250-volt wire.[5]

The spread of arc light–based street lighting systems (which at the time ran at a voltage above 3,000 volts) after 1880 led to many people dying from coming in contact with these high-voltage lines, a strange new phenomenon which seemed to kill instantaneously without leaving a mark on the victim.[6][7] This would lead to execution by electricity in the electric chair in the early 1890s as an official method of capital punishment in the U.S. state of New York, thought to be a more humane alternative to hanging. After an 1881 death in Buffalo, New York, caused by a high-voltage arc lighting system, Alfred P. Southwick sought to develop this phenomenon into a way to execute condemned criminals. Southwick, a dentist, based his device on the dental chair.[8]

The next nine years saw a promotion by Southwick, the New York state Gerry commission (which included Southwick) recommending execution by electricity, a June 4, 1888 law making it the state form of execution on January 2, 1889, and a further state committee of doctors and lawyers to finalize the details of the method used.[9]

The adoption of the electric chair became mixed up in the "war of currents" between Thomas Edison's direct current system and industrialist George Westinghouse's alternating current system in 1889 when noted anti-AC activist Harold P. Brown became a consultant to the committee. Brown pushed, with the assistance and sometimes collusion of Edison Electric and Westinghouse's chief AC rival, the Thomson-Houston Electric Company, for the successful adoption of alternating current to power the chair, an attempt to portray AC as a public menace and the "executioners' current".[10]


William Kemmler

In May 1889 the state of New York sentenced its first criminal, a street merchant named William Kemmler, to be executed in their new form of capital punishment. Tabloid newspapers, trying to describe this new form of electrical execution, started settling on "electrocution," a portmanteau word derived from "electro" and "execution".[11]

It was not the only choice of word people were considering. The New York Times editorial column noted words such as "Westinghoused" (after the Westinghouse Electric alternating current equipment that was to be used), "Gerrycide" (after Elbridge Thomas Gerry, who headed the New York death penalty commission that suggested adopting the electric chair), and "Browned" (after anti-AC activist Harold P. Brown).[12] Thomas Edison preferred the words dynamort, ampermort and electromort.[12] The New York Times hated the word electrocution, describing it as being pushed forward by "pretentious ignoramuses".[11]

Medical aspects[edit]

Fish & Geddes state: "Contact with 20 mA of current can be fatal".[13]

The health hazard of an electric current flowing through the body depends on the amount of current and the length of time for which it flows, not merely on the voltage. However, a high voltage is required to produce a high current through the body. This is due to the relatively high resistance of skin when dry, requiring a high voltage to pass through.[13] The severity of a shock also depends on whether the path of the current includes a vital organ.

Death can occur from any shock that carries enough sustained current to stop the heart. Low currents (70–700 mA) usually trigger fibrillation in the heart, which is reversible via defibrillator but is nearly always fatal without help. Currents as low as 30 mA AC or 300–500 mA DC applied to the body surface can cause fibrillation. Large currents (> 1 A) cause permanent damage via burns and cellular damage.


  1. ^ "Electrocute" from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of the English Language, 2009
  2. ^ "electrocute". Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on January 9, 2013. Retrieved 2015-08-22.
  3. ^ awesomestories.com, THE LEYDEN JAR
  4. ^ Zongcheng Yang, Chinese Burn Surgery, Springer -, 2015, page 12
  5. ^ Lee, R.C.; Rudall, D. (1992). "Injury mechanisms and therapeutic advances in the study of electrical shock". Proceedings of the Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. Vol. 7. pp. 2825–2827. doi:10.1109/IEMBS.1992.5761711. ISBN 0-7803-0785-2. S2CID 37264673.
  6. ^ Randall E. Stross, The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World, Crown/Archetype - 2007, page 171-173
  7. ^ Brandon (2009), pp. 14–24.
  8. ^ Brandon (2009), p. 24.
  9. ^ Moran (2007), pp. 102–104.
  10. ^ Mark Essig, Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death, Bloomsbury Publishing USA - 2009, pages 152-155
  11. ^ a b Moran (2007), p. xxii.
  12. ^ a b Moran (2007), pp. xxi–xxii.
  13. ^ a b Fish, R. M.; Geddes, L. A. (2009). "Conduction of electrical current to and through the human body: A review". ePlasty. 9: e44. PMC 2763825. PMID 19907637.


  • Brandon, Craig (2009). The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History. McFarland. ISBN 978-0786444939.
  • Moran, Richard (2007). Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-37572-446-6.

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