The Surprising Reason The Electric Chair Was Invented

On August 6, 1890, humanity ushered in a new way to kill each other when we carried out the world's first execution by means of the infamous electric chair. And as notes, it was not a pretty sight. Although it was proposed as a more humane way to end a person's life than methods such as hanging, that first electric chair execution was anything but quick and painless. William Kemmler experienced 700 volts course through his body for about 17 seconds before the current cut out. Witnesses said they could smell burnt clothing and flesh after this first round of voltage, but he wasn't dead yet. After another couple minutes of over a thousand volts, Kemmler's head was smoking and he was quite clearly dead.

The man responsible for the invention of the electric chair was a dentist named Dr. Albert Southwick. He came up with the idea after hearing a coroner's report on the death of a 30-year-old drunken dockworker named George Smith in Buffalo, New York, nine years before that fateful first electric execution. Smith's unwitting demise would go on to revolutionize how the United States carried out the death penalty in the age of electricity. 

The unfortunate accident that led to the invention of the electric chair

Author Craig Brandon recounts Smith's unfortunate interaction with this newfangled thing called electricity in his 1999 book "The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History." Just after 10 p.m. on the night of August 7, 1881, a tipsy Smith decided to have a little fun at the Brush Electric Light Company. Buffalo was one of the first cities in the world to light up its night skies with high voltage arc streetlights, and the Brush plant proudly displayed a 4,800-pound generator just inside the front door of its lobby. People had found that if they held the railing around the generator and then joined hands, they could feel the electric current running through their bodies. Technicians at Brush obviously discouraged such activity, so people had to do it while they weren't looking.

Smith snuck into the plant and tried to have a little fun, but was run off at first. He managed to make it back in and place a hand on the generator. He didn't feel anything. Then he put his other hand on it and his body went rigid. Technicians tried to pull him off the generator, but his hands were stuck to it. They had to turn it off before they could pull him free. Dr. Southwick got the idea of execution by electricity when he heard the coroner state that Smith had died painlessly, and the United States has executed over 4,000 people using the electric chair since.