15 "Shocking" Facts About Dying By Electric Chair

Face it, we might be the first to preach a philosophy of non-violence but when a deplorable monster lurking in our society is caught, tried, and finally condemned to die, the righteousness in us manages to heave a sigh of grateful relief.

For us mere observers, it’s not the trial or the tribulations of the victim or the sheer depravity of these monsters that matter too much, just a feeling of justice being served. And for most Americans, execution by electric chair was considered to be the de facto way of ridding society of its monsters. Now though, the lethal injection is on the rise simply because it is considered a more humane method of execution, in comparison to the electric chair. Basically, the electric chair came to be when a series of botched hangings made the general public view the noose with malevolent eyes and we needed a new way to dispose of the prisoners deemed unfit to live even within the confines of prison.

The first person executed by the electric chair was William Kemmler, a gentleman of dubious morals who was convicted of murdering his wife...with a hatchet! While Kemmler appealed that the use of electricity as a means of execution was “cruel and unusual punishment” and against the constitution, it fell on deaf ears and he was put in the chair and strapped in. Unfortunately, for Kemmler that is, it took some two jolts of electricity and a total of eight minutes for him to die. The warden later remarked that killing him with an ax would have been kinder. A reporter witnessing it dubbed it “an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.” Nonetheless, from 1889 well into the 2000s, the devil in many was sent back to hell via the electric chair.

So here are 15 "shocking" facts about dying by the electric chair that you may not have known or even imagined – enough to satisfy even the most morbid of appetites.


15 There’s Plenty Of Preparation Involved Before The Switch Is Thrown

To execute someone by electric chair does not mean that the condemned is dragged in and thrown down into the chair, though sometimes reluctant inmates do have to be manhandled into position. When on death row, resistance is futile!

The death row inmate, whose day has finally dawned, is shaved and strapped to a chair with belts that go across the chest, groin, legs, and arms. This, of course, is after he has had his last meal the night before. A metal skullcap-shaped electrode is attached to the scalp and forehead over a sponge moistened with salt water to allow better conductivity. But the sponge should be just damp, not wet or else there’s a short circuit. One more electrode is moistened with conductive jelly (aka Electro-Crème) and attached to a portion of the prisoner's leg, also shaved to reduce any resistance to electricity. The prisoner is then blindfolded and it’s go time.

14 One Jolt Does Not An Execution Make


So now that it is all done and the poor soul to be fried is securely strapped in and properly attached to all the leads, the execution team leaves the room for the execution to begin safely and securely. The warden, who by now is on the clock, then signals the executioner at the right second who pulls a handle to start the current. A jolt of between 500 and 2000 volts is given and it lasts for about 30 seconds. The standby doctor waits a bit for the body to cool a tad because touching a sizzling body can burn. The doctor will then check to see if the inmate's heart is still beating. If it isn’t, he’ll double check and announce the time of death.

If the heart is still beating, which is not so very unusual, another jolt is applied. This rather painful process, for both the witnesses and the condemned, continues until the prisoner is finally and truly dead.

13 The Sizzle Of The Chair Can Smell Appetizing

We all know that electricity can cook – it causes burns, fire, and basically raises the internal heat of the “recipient” to a degree that the insides end up being cooked. A typical example of this is when lightning strikes a tree and it catches fire; the electric current to energy changes into thermal energy and whoomp, then there was fire! We also know that pigs and humans share alarmingly similar characteristics, the secrets of which are buried deep in the DNA. This is the reason why pig skin tissues and heart valves can be used to make us feel all better. Now combine heat energy with pig and what do you get? Or rather, smell? Bacon, that’s what!

And this concludes this rather gory fact: witnesses have stated that when a person is executed by electric chair, the smell is akin to that of frying or burning bacon. Now excuse me while I turn vegan…

12 The Executed Kind Of End Up In A Sticky Situation


So, ever grilled chicken? Or meat? Or even sausages for that matter? Sure you have. And even if you personally are vegetarian or even vegan, you must have seen meat being grilled. We live in a "humans eat everything" world after all… So once you have grilled or pan fried or roasted or skewered or otherwise broiled, fried, or cooked any kind of meat, and eaten it, then comes the hard part. No, not the digesting. The cleaning!

Even the best of cooks end up with burned meat sticking to the grill, pan, or griddle. The hard part is the scraping off those burnt pieces before you can cook on that apparatus again. So yep, the same thing happens to the electric chair. Once a person has been executed on it, the skin ends up burning off and sticking to the chair. So before anyone else can be executed on it, the burnt bits have to be scraped off and the chair has to be cleaned. Baking soda and vinegar might just do the trick here as well!

11 The Guy In The Chair Often Ends As One Hot Bod

Like with cooking, and the entire principle of electric energy being converted into thermal energy, once the condemned has been jolted enough to make the heart cease to function and the life to escape, the body cannot be immediately scooped off the chair. Why? Because the electricity has superheated the body, its organs, and the skin to the extent that anyone who touches the body can easily get second degree burns.

Even after a few minutes have passed, the body is hot enough to blister. The autopsy has to wait till the body cools down and the internal organs reach a “handleable” temperature. In the executed person, the part of the skin where the electrodes are in contact, are blackened with third-degree burns and the brain, mostly always, appears cooked! Basically, it’s not a pretty sight and the autopsy is more of habit considering an electrocuted person is kind of well done, inside out.

10 It’s Not A Pretty Sight, Sound, Smell Or Anything


Other than the sound of the prisoner losing it at the very sight of the instrument that would take them to their maker, the sight of a person dying is not a good or a forgettable one. Most prisoners get an execution pep talk by a minister or a religious figure, who advises them not to resist but to go to God and beg forgiveness at the Holy altar and all that. Even then, there are some of the condemned who have balked at the sight of the killer chairs, despite all the gruesome crimes that they may have committed. So they have to be drugged and sedated or simply manhandled and bum rushed into the chair by a team of men specially hired to do just that – force a man, or woman, to face his or her death as decreed by law.

While the eyes are covered, the mouths are free to talk and there have been all sorts of last words from the condemned – from tearful pleas of forgiveness, to grim silence to the worst stream of expletives one could have ever heard. And then there are those who are reduced to babbling cries of terror, mercy, and sheer, unadulterated horror.

9 The Prisoner Being Executed Has Strange Bodily Reactions

The human body is a strange thing of beauty and mystery, even in death. Each prisoner condemned to die on the electric chair has had different reactions to the same shocks. For some, the first jolt is enough to leave this world for their, well, not-so-heavenly abode. For others, it's two jolts. On October 16, 1985, a murderer named William E. Vandiver was given the first administration of 2,300 volts, but remained alive and breathing. The jolt was given again, and he was still breathing. The execution finally took some 17 minutes and a total of five jolts of electricity – meaning Vandiver got a taste of hell right here on Earth. After the execution, the Department of Corrections admitted the execution "did not go according to plan." Duh!

Common bodily reactions of the executed are pretty similar. The prisoner's hands often grip the chair and there may be violent movement or seizures of the limbs. Despite the strapping down, this can result in dislocation or fractures. The tissues swell and the bowels and the bladder relax. Overall grossness...


8 Some Of The Executed End Up Catching Fire


The electric chair is still not a science and simple human error can and has caused many a botched execution. There have been cases of the prisoner actually catching fire after the first jolt but still being alive amidst the excruciating agony. While hardcore fans of capital punishment may shrug this off as just results, the US constitution states that executions need to be humane.

On March 25, 1997, an inmate named Pedro Madina’s day of reckoning had come in Florida. When the lever was pulled to start the execution, witnesses saw a crown of flames shoot a foot above his head. The stench was unbearable and left two dozen witnesses gagging. If the scene seems similar, it is – remember the Green Mile? If the saline-dipped sponge in the skullcap electrode is too wet, the inmate is the one who suffers the short circuit. And the hellfire!

7 Eyeballing Becomes A Whole New Thing In The Execution Chamber

So, considering that an electric execution means that the insides of the condemned are being cooked, the soft tissues of the body tend to swell. And the soft tissues that we are talking about, as you may have guessed from the headline, are eyeballs. (You are welcome.)

Being electrocuted can cause the body to swell up so much that the eyeballs tend to pop out of the head and just hang around for a rather terrifying sight. Another fun thing that the extreme temperatures of the electric chair can do to the eyeballs is cause them to melt. To protect the sensitivities of the witnesses, the condemned prisoners often have their eyes taped shut before they are executed. No one wants to see body parts popping out and then hanging around, or melting down into a gory, ghastly mess.

6 The Man Who Had To Be Executed Twice


In 1945, 16-year-old Willie Francis was charged with murder of a drugstore owner in St. Martinville, Louisiana. This murder had happened nine months prior and it’s only when Francis was arrested for another crime that he confessed to it and even directed the police to where he’d disposed of the evidence. When the trial was set, Francis pleaded not guilty, despite two written confessions. Two days later he was convicted of murder and was sentenced to death by the electric chair. On May 3, 1946, it was Francis’ turn to face the chair. During the execution, witnesses reported hearing the teenager scream “Take it off! Take it off! Let me breathe!” while others heard, “I’m n-not dying!” The portable electric chair improperly set up by a drunk prison guard did not kill Francis.

After this botched execution, Francis appealed to the Supreme Court but the appeal was rejected. Willie Francis was executed on May 9, 1947, a year after his first execution. The second time, though, did not prove lucky for Francis.

5 That Moving Feeling In The Execution Chamber

Apparently, when you're at the receiving end of an electrical shock, the buzz you feel is the sensation of your own electrons moving. The “current” that you feel is your own electrons bashing into each other, setting up a domino effect.

And frankly, if you didn’t have your skin on, the human heart can be effectively stopped with just 7 milliamps of electricity, applied for a short duration of three seconds. 7 milliamps is what a AAA battery generates. So why don’t we commonly pop off while changing batteries in something as mundane as the remote or toys? Our skin resists electricity, so a much stronger current is needed to break through this natural protective barrier. This resistance creates heat and causes the skin to burn after a rather virulent electric shock – and this is why those who are to die on the electric chair often end up with burns or worse, have their body parts burst into flames. The electric chair thus delivers six amps of electricity, factoring in said resistance.

4 The Electric Chair Was Actually Invented By a Dentist. Gulp!


So the next time you go to the dentist for a cleaning session or to that new hottiedentist  in town for capping, remember that the reasons why dentist’s chair scares us so much is perhaps because the electric chair was conjured up by a tooth doctor as well…

Alfred Southwick was a dentist by profession but with a background in mechanics. Once while reading about a town drunk who sort of sizzled himself to death by breaking into a building and touching a live transformer, Southwick began to get ideas. He proposed his “electric chair” idea to execute inmates and so it came to fruition. Of course, why just fry up human beings on the chair? Before it was used on inmates, Southwick went on to propose a similar “chair” to euthanize animals who weren’t being adopted quick enough. Namely, the un-adopted strays or abandoned pets at the Buffalo SPCA. RIP poor pooches…

3 The One To Die Is Often Diapered Up Before The Deed

When 500-2000V of electricity is sent surging through a person’s body, strange things begin to happen, to the person’s body that is. Like with many deaths, at the moment of passing, the bowels and the bladder relax their muscles and basically just let go. It’s an involuntary post mortem reaction, and has got nothing to do with how terrified or not a person is of his impending death. This results in the inmate releasing their bowels, bladder, and even vomiting blood during the process. To make cleanup easier, for themselves, guards often offer the inmate a diaper prior to their final walk, and sometimes inmates are also given enemas to prevent any bodily substances from escaping.

However, considering the prison penchant for crap sculptures, sandwiches, wall art, or even non-exploding missiles, we don’t know if the prisoners deign to use the diapers or revel in the fact that their deaths may create a little more mess for the guards to clean. A parting gift, if you may…

2 No One Really Knows How Electricity Actually Kills


The paradox about death is simply that one cannot truly know it unless one experiences it and after the experience, the knowledge is immaterial, considering you cannot really relate your experience, can you?

So, the exact way the electric chair or electricity kills a person is still debated within the scientific community. Most medical people will tell you about heart fibrillation – since the heart is essentially governed by electrical impulses, a sudden influx makes it go flip flop and then stop. Another way that electricity zaps you dead is by turning the brain into mush and stopping all bodily process. It affects the brain either by causing a paralysis in the brain’s respiratory centers or basically by cooking it such that the burn to the brain causes it to stop functioning. So it's like the chicken and egg story – no one knows if the brain asks the heart to stop, or whether the heart goes rogue and causes the brain to finally pop as well.

1 The Chairs Have Been Named Affectionately By The Prison Guards

So if you overhear a big guy talking about giving the Yellow Mama a ride, you’d probably think he was talking about a flashy car, a boat, or, well, a heavyset woman with a penchant for yellow! Not if the guy was a prison guard at the Kilby Prison in Montgomery, Alabama though. 'Cause then he’d be talking about the famous electric chair that was built by an inmate named Ed Mason and executed 135 prisoners alone between 1930 and 1976. If you think Yellow Mama was bad, try Louisiana’s electric chair – it was dubbed Gruesome Gertie, and this was the chair that failed to execute Willie Francis on its first try. Old Smokey was the name given to Pennsylvania and New Jersey’s electric chair – though most other states just called their electric chairs Old Sparky!

Electric chairs have been used since 1890 but now, after plenty of botched procedures and horror stories, the lethal injection is considered to be a more humane way of execution. The hot debate over the chair took almost a century in making but action was finally taken when mass murderer Allen Lee Davis was executed by electric chair in 1999. Davis was no baby face either, and had been convicted of killing a pregnant woman and her two minor daughters, age 10 and 5. He was on death row for some 16 years, well fed enough that his weight ballooned to some 300+ pounds. While on the electric chair, he began to bleed so much so that the blood on the pristine white shirt on his chest spread to about the size of a dinner plate. A fellow death row inmate appealed against the electric chair as “cruel and unusual” punishment and so the lethal injection came to the forefront.

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