Here are 10 Unsettling Things You Don’t Know About the Electric Chair and its Victims through History

Here are 10 Unsettling Things You Don’t Know About the Electric Chair and its Victims through History

Patrick Lynch - February 27, 2018

At the time of writing, 31 American states have the death penalty, and the United States is the only ‘Western’ nation to still utilize capital punishment. There was a brief lapse in executions in the country between 1967 and 1977 when no death sentences were carried out. However, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed capital punishment’s legality in the Gregg vs. Georgia case of 1976, and since then, approximately 7,800 people have received the death sentence; over 1,400 of these prisoners have died.

The most commonly used execution methods are lethal injection and electrocution. However, a handful of states use alternative methods. Ronnie Lee Gardner was shot by firing squad in Utah in 2010, William Bailey was hanged in Delaware in 1996, and Walter LaGrand died via lethal gas in Arizona in 1999.

The electric chair is the most storied form of the death penalty, and there have been numerous horrific tales about this execution method over the years. William Kemmler was the first man to die via the electric chair, in 1890, and ‘famous’ deaths include Ted Bundy, Leon Czolgosz, and Sacco & Vanzetti. While there aren’t many electric chair executions these days, it is still occasionally used with the potential to be a gruesome spectacle. Here are ten facts about the famous electric chair.

Here are 10 Unsettling Things You Don’t Know About the Electric Chair and its Victims through History
Electric Chair – Public Domain Pictures

1 – Some People Burst into Flames

Statistics from March 2016 outlined the fact that only nine of the last 744 people executed in the United States died in the electric chair. Controversy over lethal injection drugs means there are called for electrocution to be used more often. However, proponents of the chair must recall the various horrors associated with this form of execution. Bear in mind that electrocution was initially introduced in the 1880s as a means of killing cattle, stray animals, and lame horses.

Thomas Edison was a staunch advocate of electrocution and believed it was superior to hanging. However, it is a relatively inefficient method at best and downright cruel at worst. Obviously, many people will state that the likes of Albert Fish and Ted Bundy deserve all the pain they receive. When electrocution goes wrong, the results are absolutely horrific.

In 1982, Frank J. Coppola sat on the chair in Virginia, but things didn’t go according to plan. He was fried for approximately 55 seconds, and during that period, witnesses heard the unmistakable sounds of sizzling human flesh as the prisoner’s head and leg caught fire. The death chamber quickly filled with smoke and it became extremely difficult to see the writhing of Coppola who was clearly going through what must have felt like a form of medieval torture. Incidentally, Coppola got the death penalty for the brutal murder of Muriel Hatchell during a robbery in 1978.

Another case of a malfunctioning electric chair occurred during the March 1996 execution of Pedro Medina in Florida State Prison. General Bob Butterworth, the State Attorney at the time, said the awful death of Molina would make other people think twice about murdering someone in the state of Florida. Butterworth also said: “People who wish to commit murder, they better not do it in the State of Florida, because we may have a problem with our electric chair.” In other words, he was saying, ‘I know there is a problem, I don’t care, and you better not end up in it because I can’t guarantee a quick and easy death.’

Michael Minerva was a witness to Medina’s death, and he described the terrible spectacle. Medina fainted as he got strapped to the three-legged chair, which had been in use since 1922. 2,000 volts shot through his body and within a few seconds, Minerva saw wisps of white smoke coming from Medina’s body. Suddenly, a huge burst of flame covered Medina’s entire head and lasted around 10 seconds. Doctors on the scene believed Medina died before the flames engulfed him.

He received the death penalty for the murder of Dorothy James, a woman who had become his friend. Medina was denied an appeal even when it was found that the prosecution had hidden strong evidence which implicated James’ ex-boyfriend. If Medina didn’t commit the crime, he wouldn’t have been the first innocent man to die on the chair.

Here are 10 Unsettling Things You Don’t Know About the Electric Chair and its Victims through History
Jesse Tafaro – Ranker

2 – Not Every Person Who Died in the Chair Was Guilty

One of the most compelling arguments against the death penalty is the potential execution of innocent individuals. William Blackstone, an English jurist, famously said: “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Capital punishment proponents unsurprisingly take the opposite view and assert that the occasional death of an innocent person is a small price to pay for executing heinous criminals such as John Wayne Gacy. The Death Penalty Information Center website admits that there is no way of knowing how many innocent people have been executed in the United States.

However, the site goes on to mention a few examples of people who, on the weight of evidence, probably didn’t commit the crime they died for. Leo Jones met his maker in Old Sparky in 1998 for the murder of a police officer in Jacksonville, Florida. While Jones signed a confession within hours of his arrest, there is a distinct possibility that he was coerced into doing so. A few years later, the man who arrested Jones was kicked off the police force for ethical violations.

A fellow officer later admitted that this policeman was known as a brutal enforcer who tortured suspects. Furthermore, several people came forward and pointed to another suspect in the case. Jones had allegedly killed a police officer with a sniper rifle in 1981. During the lengthy period between his arrest and execution, the main witness against Jones had recanted, it was deemed likely that the confession was beaten out of Jones, and at least a dozen people implicated another shooter. Yet incredibly, his appeals were rejected, and he was electrocuted in 1998.

Jesse Tafero was executed in 1990 for the 1976 murders of Donald Irwin and Phillip Black, two members of the Florida Highway Patrol. The two officers performed a routine check on a car that was parked at a rest stop. Tafero, Sonia Jacobs (his partner), and Walter Rhodes were asleep inside. Rhodes claimed it was Tafero who shot the men and when the trio was arrested, the gun was found in Tafero’s waistband.

At the trial, Rhodes continued to protest his innocence and claimed Tafero and Jacobs were the culprits. While Rhodes received three life sentences, he was released in 1994. Jacobs was sentenced to death, but it was later commuted to life imprisonment. Tafero was not so lucky and died in the electric chair. To make matters worse, there was a malfunction, so the execution took 13 minutes to complete. Rhodes confessed to the murders after Tafero’s death in what was a final, cruel twist.

Here are 10 Unsettling Things You Don’t Know About the Electric Chair and its Victims through History
Willie Francis – NY Daily News

3 – It Doesn’t Always Work the First Time

For all the problems associated with the chair, at least it eventually does the job, right? Not always, as the unfortunate Willie Francis discovered in May 1946. Francis was an African-American juvenile offender who received the death sentence despite being just 16 years of age. He was arrested for the murder of a pharmacist named Andrew Thomas in Louisiana. Thomas died in 1944, but his murder remained unsolved for nine months. In August 1945, Francis was picked up on another charge, and Thomas’ wallet was found in his pocket.

There has always been an element of doubt about his guilt. Although he confessed to the murder amidst suggestions that Thomas molested him, Francis admitted to the murder with no counsel present. The trial lasted slightly more than a day, and there was hardly any evidence barring the wallet and his possibly coerced confession. Worse still, Francis’ court-appointed attorneys didn’t bother mounting a defense and called no witnesses.

The jury, comprised of 12 white men, took just 15 minutes to find Francis guilty. It was later revealed that a deputy sheriff in the area had threatened to kill Thomas. His gun was found near the scene but it, along with the bullets, vanished from police evidence before the trial. On May 3, 1946, Francis was strapped to the electric chair, and the switch was thrown. However, the chair did not do its job, and Francis reportedly screamed “I am not dying” and begged for the prison officers to take off the leather hood. As it transpired, the chair, nicknamed ‘Gruesome Gertie’, was incorrectly set up by a drunk prison guard in Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Sheriff E. L. Resweber showed no sympathy and said: “This boy really got a shock when they turned that machine on.” After the failed execution, Bertrand DeBlanc, a young attorney, decided to take on Francis’ case because he believed the young man should not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment once again. Despite DeBlanc’s spirited defense, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal and Francis sat in the chair for a second time on May 9, 1947. On this occasion, the execution went according to plan, and the 18-year old Francis died; for a crime, he probably didn’t commit.

Here are 10 Unsettling Things You Don’t Know About the Electric Chair and its Victims through History
Albert Fish’s Execution – YouTube

4 – Those Who Sit in the Electric Chair Lose Control of Their Bodily Functions

In a movie about notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, who cried uncontrollably as he was being led to Old Sparky, the prison officers rammed cotton up his backside to ensure he wouldn’t defecate all over himself and the chair. As nasty as it sounds, there is logic to the process as you will lose control of your bodily functions while being electrocuted. If you were dumb enough to stick a fork into an electrical socket and were shocked for your stupidity, there is a fair chance that your pants would be a complete mess.

Simply put, your body twitches and gyrates uncontrollably which means involuntary defecation and urination is common. It is normal for prisoners to be offered diapers to spare them the indignity of fouling themselves in their final moments. It is one thing to die in the electric chair; it is another thing entirely to have witnesses see you mess yourself as you writhe in agony in your final moments.

When it is time to die, the prison warden gives a signal to the executioner who pulls the handle to connect the power supply. The prisoner’s body is struck with between 500 and 2,000 volts which course through them for up to 30 seconds. The executioner turns off the current, and the prisoner’s body relaxes. The doctors have to wait for a few seconds to let the body cool down before checking to see if the person’s heart is still beating. If it is, the executioner applies another surge of electricity. The process continues until the condemned is pronounced dead. As you have seen in the previous pages, it is not always straightforward.

Also, during the process, the flesh of the inmate swells because of the swelling of the tissues. In fact, if one of the doctors touches the skin too soon after the electrocution, parts of it will fall off. There have been some truly gruesome accounts of the eyeballs of prisoners popping out and even resting on their cheeks. If the condemned person is ‘lucky,’ they will die after the first jolt. If not, things can get very painful indeed as in the cases of Tafero and Francis where multiple shocks were required. There have been many reports of prisoners screaming and shouting during the execution.

Here are 10 Unsettling Things You Don’t Know About the Electric Chair and its Victims through History
Electric Chair in Tennessee – The Tennessean

5 – It Only Takes A Little Electricity to Kill You, the Electric Chairs Delivers a Lot

In the modern era, we desperately depend on electricity for multiple facets of our daily life. Whether you want to use the Internet, watch TV, reheat something in a microwave or enjoy a power shower, electricity is your friend. When you think about it for a minute; how chaotic does your life become when you experience a power outage? Despite its many benefits, electricity is potentially lethal, and it doesn’t take much of it to kill.

Our skin acts as natural resistance to electricity because our organs and tissues are a lot more vulnerable. As you probably know, wet skin is up to 100 times more susceptible to electricity than dry skin. This is why inmates have their heads shaved, and a moistened sponge is applied to the tops of their heads. When you receive an electric shock, the current overloads the nervous system and prevents crucial functions such as heartbeat and reflexes. A strong enough electric shock sends the heart into fibrillation, where it flutters instead of beats and is unable to pump blood through the body effectively.

The level at which electricity is dangerous depends on a variety of factors. In some cases, just 50 volts has been enough to cause fibrillation. For the record, some tasers reach 50,000 volts. Volts carry the electric current through the body, and it is measured in amps. According to the Ohio State Physics Department, 0.01 amps, or 10 milliamps, is enough to cause a painful shock, and anything above that amount causes tetanus. A current of just 100 milliamps is enough to kill you.

Moreover, it takes just 7 milliamps to reach your heart for three seconds to kill you. When it comes to the electric chair then, the authorities adopt a ‘more is better’ approach. There is at least one state that requires an initial voltage of 2,450 volts to be used. It lasts for 15 seconds and a total of 6 amps, or 6,000 milliamps, is delivered by the electric chair in total. This process can cause the body to heat up to over 200 degrees Fahrenheit which results in terrible internal organ damage and occasionally, some pretty awful things happen such as melting eyeballs and skin going on fire. The prison officers have to scrape skin off the chair before it can be used again. Even amidst all this horror, there is a handful of non-prison staff who witness it.

Here are 10 Unsettling Things You Don’t Know About the Electric Chair and its Victims through History
Ted Bundy in court – New Yorker

6 – People Volunteer to Watch Executions

While it is normal for the family of a murder victim to attend the execution and see justice being served, there are usually a number of other witnesses in the room. In death penalty states such as Virginia, it is a legal necessity to have witnessed with no connection to the crime. According to Robert Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center, these witnesses attend executions in the place of the general public. As such, there have to be volunteers, and one has to wonder: What kind of person holds their hand up and says they want to watch someone die, occasionally in an excruciating fashion?

Teresa Clark has volunteered to witness three executions in Virginia, and while she had to hold the hand of her husband, Larry, on the first occasion, it has become significantly easier since. On the day of the execution, volunteers such as Teresa travel to the jail where the execution will take place via the prison bus. They briefly stop to speak with reporters and are eventually led to a small room from where they will see the person die. According to Teresa, prisoners look directly at the witnesses just before they die.

It isn’t always easy to find volunteers as the state of Arkansas found out a few years ago. The director of the state’s corrections department, Wendy Kelley, had to appeal for volunteers at a community meeting because there weren’t enough witnesses available. To be fair, Arkansas was preparing to kill seven inmates in 11 days. In the state, it is a legal requirement to have at least six ‘respectable’ citizens at each execution to ensure it is conducted properly.

Of course, not every electric chair execution is carried out solemnly. While it is common for executions to feature hundreds of protestors complaining about the barbarity of the death penalty, there are rare occasions when entire communities come together to celebrate the death of a truly evil individual. One of the most memorable occasions of a festive atmosphere occurred before and after the death of Ted Bundy. He is widely regarded as one of the worst serial killers in U.S. history, so when it was his turn to meet Old Sparky in January 1989, few people protested.

In fact, there were hundreds of people outside of Florida State Prison celebrating and selling memorabilia while Bundy was being executed inside. They chanted “Burn, Bundy, Burn” and set off fireworks. One policeman in attendance said that he wished he was the person pulling the switch. On this occasion, even those who were against capital punishment in principle had no qualms about the electrocution of Ted Bundy.

Here are 10 Unsettling Things You Don’t Know About the Electric Chair and its Victims through History
George Westinghouse – Digital History Project

7 – The Electric Chair Was Partly Born Because of a Feud Between Thomas Edison & George Westinghouse

It could be said that the invention of the electric chair was something of an accident. In the 1880s, the popularity of arc lighting, a powerful form of outdoor street lighting, flourished. Arc lighting needed extremely high voltages between 3,000 and 6,000 volts, and it was responsible for dozens of deaths at the outset of its creation. The fatal accident that changed history occurred in Buffalo, New York, on August 7, 1881. A drunk dock worker broke into the arc lighting powerhouse of the Brush Electric Company, grabbed a large electric dynamo’s brush and ground, and was killed instantly. He was seeking the glorious tingling sensation he had felt before.

Alfred B. Southwick was a dentist and a member of a local scientific society, and he believed the bizarre new phenomenon whereby people died immediately with no marks on their body, could prove useful. With the help of a doctor named George E. Fell and the head of the local ASPCA, Southwick began experimenting by electrocuting hundreds of stray animals. He soon advocated electrocution as a better mode of execution. It was a burning issue in the United States at the time because of the increasing number of botched hangings.

At that time, Thomas Edison was in a fierce battle with George Westinghouse in what became known as the War of Currents. Southwick began correspondence with Edison and asked the inventor for his opinion about using electricity to kill convicts. Initially, Edison said it was barbaric, but in December 1887, he wrote to Southwick and said that alternating current voltage (AC) was the best choice for executions. AC was developed by his rival Westinghouse, and Edison believed if he could convince the public that AC was a fast and effective killer, his direct-current voltage (DC) would be deemed safer so his market share would increase.

The next couple of years were spent trying to prove that AC was a better way to kill criminals than DC. Edison proudly appeared at staged press conferences and would use AC to kill stray dogs and cats. One of the most famous experiments happened at West Orange on December 5, 1888. Edison was in attendance when Harold P. Brown used AC on a lame horse and four calves. He wanted to ensure the animal victims were all larger than a human and used 750 volts. The Medico-Legal Society recommended using between 1,000 and 1,500 volts based on the results of the test. The state of New York decided to proceed with electrocution as a death sentence, and the first chair was built by Edwin P. Davis. He was to act as the state’s executioner and didn’t have to wait long to try out the new invention.

Here are 10 Unsettling Things You Don’t Know About the Electric Chair and its Victims through History
Depiction of William Kemmler’s execution – Death Penalty Information Center

8 – William Kemmler Was the First Man to Die in the Electric Chair in 1890, It Didn’t go Well

Joseph Chapleau was supposed to be the first man to die via electrocution in the United States. He was convicted of the brutal murder of Erwin Tabor in 1889 and was initially sentenced to death. However, he avoided a terrible fate when his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. By all accounts, Chapleau was remarkably well treated and lived in two adjacent cells which were well furnished and carpeted. Not only that, he was allowed to wear civilian clothes, played in the jail’s band, and was given the nickname ‘professor.’

William Kemmler was not so fortunate when he was convicted of murdering his wife with a hatchet. The murder occurred on March 29, 1889, and he was tried and convicted within six weeks. Kemmler received the death penalty on May 13, just over four months after the state of New York had introduced death by electrocution. George Westinghouse, furious about Edison’s attempts to slur AC, hired a lawyer to help Kemmler win his appeal against the sentence. The appeal failed on October 9, but the condemned man had to wait another ten months for the sentence to be carried out.

On August 6, 1890, Kemmler woke up at 5 am on what would be his final day on earth. He made sure he was dressed for the occasion and put on a suit and a pair of polished shoes. After breakfast, his head was shaved, and he entered the death chamber at approximately 6:38 am in front of 17 witnesses. Unlike many killers in the future who completely broke down at this point, Kemmler remained calm and said: “Gentlemen, I wish you all good luck. I believe I am going to a good place, and I am ready to go.”

The warden made sure that Kemmler was strapped in. Then, he attached electrodes to Kemmler’s head and said: “Goodbye, William.” The warden signaled for the switch to be pulled and history was made. After 17 seconds, two doctors examined the inmate and declared him dead. It appeared as if everything had gone according to plan when suddenly, someone shouted: “Great God, he is alive!” Kemmler’s heart was beating, and he was noticeably breathing. It was an utter disaster, and the current had to be switched on again. It took four minutes to complete the job, and Kemmler’s body was warm for hours afterward.

The brutal nature of his death elicited sympathy from the media who referred to him as a “poor wretch.” George Westinghouse was also appalled and famously said: “They could have done a better job on him with an ax.” Edison was less angry and said he was confident that the next execution would be accomplished immediately. Presumably, Edison was not one of the witnesses, as some of them were so horrified that they tried to leave the room during the execution. It was later claimed that Kemmler’s body was set on fire. Over the years, there have been increasing calls for the retirement of the electric chair. However, it is still used occasionally in the United States.

Here are 10 Unsettling Things You Don’t Know About the Electric Chair and its Victims through History
Yellow Mama in Alabama – Montgomery Advertiser

9 – It Could See a Revival

From the death of Kemmler in 1890, until the execution of James French in 1966, over 1,000 people were electrocuted in the United States. The brief moratorium on capital punishment meant there were no further electric chair deaths until John Spenkelink in 1979. Since then, there have been around 150 more electrocutions, but it has fallen out of favor in recent times. Opponents say it is an outdated form of execution because it is often ineffective. While the first jolt is supposed to render the condemned unconscious, and the second jolt kills them, it is not always so easy.

Since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, lethal injection has been the preferred way to carry out a sentence of capital punishment. The increasing number of horror stories surrounding the electric chair has not helped its case. Ironically, it was introduced because the previously favored method, hanging, was roundly criticized. However, there is a chance that the chair will return to prominence, primarily due to the difficulties of finding enough drugs to conduct lethal injections.

While over 50 countries have the death penalty as an option, few use it, and America is the only nation to use the electric chair. In fact, aside from the U.S., only the Philippines has ever used it with the last death occurring in 1976. At the time of writing, only six states reserve it as an option although there are provisions for its use in Oklahoma and Arkansas if lethal injection is ever ruled unconstitutional. Robert Gleason is the most recent inmate to choose electrocution over lethal injection, and he was executed in Virginia on January 16, 2013.

Despite the horror stories, there are still proponents of the chair as a form of execution. In Alabama, where it is nicknamed ‘Yellow Mama,’ there was a debate over whether it should be reintroduced in 2015. This is in spite of the notorious problems with electrocution in the state. In 1983, it took three separate attempts and 14 minutes to kill John Louis Evans. Witnesses say flames were shooting out from beneath his hood. In 1989, Horace Dunkins, an inmate with an IQ of 69, was executed but a blunder with the voltage meant it took him 19 minutes to die.

Even so, Lynn Greer sponsored a bill to bring back the electric chair which had not been used in Alabama since the execution of Lynda Lyon Block in 2002. According to Greer the system was “not working for the victims.” Another legislator said that the state has “done enough to protect the people on death row.” At present, a number of state courts have ruled that the chair is a violation of the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Time will tell whether or not Yellow Mama, Old Sparky, and others will be used more often.

Here are 10 Unsettling Things You Don’t Know About the Electric Chair and its Victims through History
Robert Gleason – NY Daily News

10 – The Condemned Act Very Differently

A couple of pages ago, I mentioned the fact that William Kemmler remained cool, calm and collected when it was time to die. Indeed, some inmates fight to get the death penalty, and when the moment arrives, they are the picture of serenity. When Robert Gleason was sentenced to death for the 2009 murder of a fellow inmate, Harvey Watson Jr., he said that “the death part doesn’t bother me. This has been a long time coming. It’s called Karma.” He specifically asked for the death penalty to keep a promise to a loved one that he would not kill again.

Not everyone is as relaxed as Kemmler and Gleason however. It has become increasingly common for inmates to receive anti-anxiety drugs before their executions to help them cope. A review by the Associated Press in 2006 found that condemned prisoners on death row in 11 states had received anti-anxiety drugs or sedatives before their executions in the previous 12 years. When David Brewer was executed in 2003, he was given an anti-anxiety drug called Ativan three times in the day before his death and again some four hours before he faced the needle.

Of course, not everyone goes to their death with a smile on their lips and a song in their heart. One of the most famous examples of a condemned person falling apart mentally and emotionally involves none other than Ted Bundy. Throughout his trial, Bundy reveled in the attention and was decidedly arrogant. Yet when the moment of his death approached, the vile serial killer was suddenly overwhelmed.

On the night before the execution, a religious broadcaster named James Dobson interviewed Bundy and admitted that the serial killer broke down crying on several occasions. The following morning, Bundy was led into the death chamber and bowed his head as he sat on the chair. His voice quavered as he said his final words: “Jim and Fred, I’d like you to give my love to my family and friends.” Moments later, the switch was pulled, and the monster was dead. Although justice had been served, Bundy still had a better end than his victims.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources

“Death Penalty Fast Facts.” CNN Library, October 2017.

“Condemned Man Catches on Fire in Electric Chair.” Helen Kennedy, New York Daily News. March 1997.

“Questions of Innocence.” Steve Mills, Chicago Tribune. December 2000.

“Executed but Possibly Innocent.” Death Penalty Information Center. February 2018.

“The Shocking Truth About the Electric Chair.” Daniel Allott, Washington Examiner. March 2016.

“The Two Executions of Willie Francis.” Gilbert King, Washington Post. July 2006

“Death Row-USA: A history of the death penalty in America”. Clive Stafford Smith. Aljazeera. Apr 2021

“Breaking Point: What’s the Strongest Electric Shock Humans Can Handle?” Ali Venosa, Medical Daily. May 2016.

“What Happens When You Are Executed by Electrocution? The Shocking Truth”. Dr. Stephen Juan, The Register UK. October 2006.

“Thomas Edison, the electric chair and a botched execution: A Death Penalty Primer.” Michael S. Rosenwald, The Hamilton Spectator. April 2017.

“People v. J. Chapleau – 1889”. Altina Waller, Correction History. 1986.

“The Americans Volunteering to Watch Executions.” Gareth Evans, BBC News. April 2017

“The Day a Serial Killer Died, A Morbidly Festive Atmosphere Reigned.” Cheryl Eddy, Gizmodo. June 2015.

“Bundy Electrocuted After Night of Weeping, Praying: 500 Cheer Death of Murderer”. Barry Bearak, Los Angeles Times. January 1989.

“States Give Sedatives To Inmates Before Execution.” Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Independent Record. May 2006.

“Virginia Death Row Inmate Unapologetic Moments Before Electric Chair Death.” Fox News. January 2013.