"Old Sparky," the decommissioned electric chair in which 361 prisoners were executed from 1924 to 1964. Photographer: Fanny Carrier/AFP/Getty Images
"Old Sparky," the decommissioned electric chair in which 361 prisoners were executed from 1924 to 1964. Photographer: Fanny Carrier/AFP/Getty Images

Most Americans who favor capital punishment want executions to be efficient, clinical and, above all, invisible. There is understandable unease, if not revulsion, when the condemned are subjected to long and painful agony, as was the case with the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma last week. “Deeply disturbing” is how President Barack Obama put it this weekend, as he ordered the Department of Justice to review the application of the death penalty.

Americans have long tried to walk a tightrope between wanting to exact vengeance for heinous crimes and recoiling from the reality of putting a human being to death. For two centuries, reformers have sought to reconcile these conflicting impulses by making executions more humane and more “modern.” Yet this notion has repeatedly foundered on the messy and unpleasant reality of the death chamber.

Ambivalence about capital punishment arose in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when reformers expressed dismay about the raucous, drunken crowds that turned out to revel at public executions. Thanks to their entreaties, executions moved behind closed doors, becoming private affairs that were seen only by a few witnesses.

While this made capital punishment less visible, to many reformers, execution still seemed a bit too “cruel and unusual.” Worse, the customary method -- hanging -- often went terribly awry.

For example, when Charles Dilger was hanged in a Louisville, Kentucky, prison yard in the 1880s, he remained very much alive. According to Elbridge T. Gerry, a proponent of death penalty reform, Dilger dangled from the rope, making a “noise sharp and rasping -- so peculiar as to render it impossible of description.” After some time, prison officials cut him loose, and hanged him again. He still wouldn’t die. It was only “after twenty-four minutes during which the body writhed and twisted Dilger was pronounced dead!”

Such grisly stories of hangings gone wrong stirred reformers to advocate for a method that would be both more painless and predictable. In 1885, New York Governor David Hall appointed a commission to come up with such a plan. Three men ultimately ran the commission: dentist Alfred P. Southwick, a lawyer named Matthew Hale and, most important of all, Elbridge T. Gerry.

As the founder of both the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Gerry was a natural choice. His quest for a method of execution that wasn’t cruel led him to the most up-to-date technological innovation: electricity.

This choice made sense, according to scholars such as Jürgen Martschukat and Richard Moran. Electricity was a symbol of the age: modern, scientific and, as the growing number of accidental deaths by electrocution attested, lethal.

Gerry and his colleagues on the “death commission” took the obvious first step by asking Thomas Edison for advice. He demurred, claiming to oppose capital punishment.

He then changed his mind, as he realized he was being presented with a remarkable business opportunity.

At the time, Edison was promoting direct-current electricity for street lighting, fighting for market share with his rival George Westinghouse, who was pushing alternating current.

Writing to Southwick, he acknowledged that, yes, electricity could be substituted for the noose. “The most suitable apparatus for this purpose,” wrote Edison, were “alternating machines, manufactured principally in this country by Geo. Westinghouse.” Edison hoped that the deadly use of alternating current would make direct current seem safe by comparison.

Westinghouse sued, trying to foil Edison’s machinations. His protests were in vain. Southwick, working with an amateur electrician, created the first electric chair, which bore a suspicious resemblance to the kind of seat that was found in a dentist’s office. In 1890, a convicted murderer, William Kemmler, was the first person to be sentenced to die in the contraption. As the execution date approached, there was much solemn editorializing about how science and progress had finally “civilized” capital punishment.

When the executioner pulled the lever on Aug. 5, 1890, the first shock -- 17 seconds’ worth of electricity -- appeared to have done its work. The presiding doctor declared Kemmler dead, and witnesses crowded around for a closer look. “Then something occurred,” reported the National Police Gazette, “that almost froze the blood in the spectators’ veins.”

Kemmler was alive. “The supposed lifeless chest began to move up and down in deep-strained breathing.” Foam dribbled from the condemned's clenched teeth, spattering his clothes. Witnesses screamed; one man nearly fainted. After much fumbling, the executioner switched the current back on and off for some time, from three to four minutes, as the now-lifeless Kemmler quivered and shook. Smoke rose from his body, and some witnesses claimed that the scent of “burning flesh” filled the air.

This should have been a public-relations disaster. But the proponents of this “humane” method of dispatch were undeterred. In the future, they assured skeptics, electrocution would come off without a hitch. Kemmler’s execution, declared Southwick, was “the greatest success of the age.” A year later, a newspaper confidently declared that “death by electricity is certain, instantaneous, and painless.”

There was plenty of evidence to the contrary: Prisoners who died in the embrace of the electric chair rarely expired immediately, and they often needed multiple shocks. They also caught on fire, causing their flesh to smolder and their eyeballs to burst.

As early as 1896, the New York Times was arguing for a replacement to the electric chair, proposing the use of lethal gas instead. “No doubt,” it opined, “the gas chamber will be at once more effective, cheaper, and less repugnant to the gentler sentiments than the electric chair.” Gas, the Los Angeles Times assured readers in 1901, offered a “painless death.”

And so the gas chamber became the latest uniquely “humane” way to kill prisoners. That is, until it, too, sparked the outrage that gave us what was billed as the latest, painless, most foolproof method of killing otherwise healthy human beings: lethal injection.

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen Mihm at mihmstep@yahoo.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.