The electric chair was designed in the late 1800's as an alternative to hanging. Although the stated reason for its development was that it was a more humane way of executing people, the actual reason is a bit more insidious.
At that time, electricity was ready to become the universal power source that it is today. Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse were the two major players in the struggle to control electrical utilities. Technical and economic circumstances at the time made Westinghouse's AC current superior to Edison's DC current. Edison, therefore, had to resort to some Machiavellian manipulations to insure his domination of the wired world.
Edison's strategy was to convince everyone that Westinghouse's AC current was unsafe. He hired scientists to travel around and give public demonstrations of this by electrocuting cats, dogs, and horses with AC current. His ultimate victory came with New York State's switch from hanging to the electric chair, which was, of course, powered by a Westinghouse AC generator.
There were three electric chairs in New York State- the original at Auburn and two others at Sing Sing and Dannemora (Clinton) prisons The Auburn chair was destroyed in a massive prison fire in the late 1920's, the Dannemora chair was later moved to the state prison guard training facility in Albany, New York, where it still remains today.
He could have been the last one LeMuel Smith was New York's only death row prisoner during the late 1970's. Smith was already serving a life sentence for murder when he murdered a female guard while he was in solitary confinement. This crime made him eligible for the death penalty. His death sentence was overturned in July 1985 when the New York State Supreme Court ruled the narrow death penalty law to be unconstitutional. (His story is detailed in a front cover Time magazine article on the death penalty from Jun-July 1983.) Smith actually resided in the Green Haven Death House.
After being led into the execution chamber, the prisoner is strapped into the chair with leather belts across the chest, thighs, legs, and arms. Two copper electrodes are then attached - one to the leg, a patch of which will have been shaved bare to improve conductivity, and the other contained within a helmet to the shaved head. The electrodes are either soaked in brine or treated with gel (Electro-Creme) to increase conductivity and reduce burning. A leather face mask or black face cloth is applied. The prisoner will also be wearing a diaper.
The executioner presses a button on the control panel to deliver a first shock of between 1700 and 2,400 volts, which lasts for between thirty seconds and a minute. This is automatically timed and controlled. The current must be under 6 amps to ensure the body does not cook. Smoke usually comes out of the prisoner's leg and head. A doctor then examines the prisoner who if not dead is given a further shock (In some states this is done automatically by the control gear) A third and fourth are given if necessary. (It took five jolts to kill Ethel Rosenberg)
On average the process takes 2 min 10 seconds and two shocks are given.The first shock runs for up to one minute and normally destroys the brain and central nervous system. It also causes complete paralysis due to every muscle in the body contracting and staying contracted whilst the current is flowing. This makes heartbeat and respiration impossible. The second shock continues the process to ensure the heart beat does not resume. The prisoner is supposed to be rendered unconscious in 1/240th of a second.After electrocution the body temperature rises to about 138º F and is initially too hot to touch. heating destroys the body's proteins and "bakes" the organs.
Physical reactions include heaving chest, gurgles, foaming at the mouth, bloody sweat, burning of the hair and skin, and release of faeces. The body has to be allowed to cool before an autopsy can be performed. According to Robert H. Kirschner, the deputy chief medical examiner of Cook County, Illinois, "The brain appears cooked in most cases." According to Judge Brennan the prisoner's eyeballs sometimes pop out and rest on [his] cheeks. The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool. The body turns bright red as its temperature rises, and the prisoner's flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking. Sometimes the prisoner catches on fire, particularly if he perspires excessively. Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh permeates the chamber.
There is some debate about what the electrocuted prisoner experiences before he dies, many doctors believe that he feels himself being burned to death and suffocating, since the shock causes respiratory paralysis as well as cardiac arrest. According to Harold Hillman, "It must feel very similar to the medieval trial by ordeal of being dropped in boiling oil." Because the energy of the shock paralyses the prisoner's muscles, he cannot cry out. "My mouth tasted like cold peanut butter. I felt a burning in my head and my left leg, and I jumped against the straps," Willie Francis, a 17-year-old who survived an attempted execution in 1946, is reported to have said. Francis was successfully executed a year later.