The story of the electric chair is complicated, improbable, and obscure.? Very few Americans know that a dentist spearheaded the drive to make electrocution of condemned criminals the law in New York, and that two titans of late 19th Century industry battled fiercely over the electrical system that was to be used.? William Kemmler, the first man to be executed in the electric chair, has passed quietly into history, as has the crime for which he was condemned.? To most, the electric chair is merely a fact of life, a means to an end only notable to the extent to which it enters into ones opinion on capital punishment.? But its entrance into American justice and culture was notable, indeed.? Intrigue, treachery, murder, politics, progress, famethe story of the electric chair has it all.
Over its history, Americas attitudes regarding execution have evolved.? From colonial times into the nations early youth, its punishments were harsh: those found guilty of more severe crimes were executed publicly, usually by hanging, though burning, beheading, and pressing were not unknown.? Other criminals faced such unpleasantness as branding, whipping, or nostril slitting.? Even those convicted of minor crimes found their sentences both physically painful and publicly humiliating.? For missing church one might find oneself confined in the stocks in the center of town for a few days.? A woman who nagged her husband might have her tongue pierced with a piece of iron, or be forced to wear the branks, a metal head cage which featured a bit to prevent speech.? To modern sensibilities this type of justice seems almost unimaginably brutal.