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Electric Chair: Topics in Chronicling America

In the late 19th century, death by electric chair was adopted as an alternative to hanging. This guide provides access to materials related to the "Electric Chair" in the Chronicling America digital collection of historic newspapers.

Introduction

"The execution room." August 7, 1890. Los Angeles Herald (Los Angeles, CA), Image 1. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

Thought to have been more humane than hanging, death by electric chair was first adopted by New York State in 1899 as a means for death penalty prisoners “to die as pleasantly as possible.” More and more states would follow suit several years later, even as botched electrocutions took place. Perceived as a technological marvel and an advance of civilization, it would be the choice method of capital punishment in the United States for nearly a century. Read more about it!

The information in this guide focuses on primary source materials found in the digitized historic newspapers from the digital collection Chronicling America.

The timeline below highlights important dates related to this topic and a section of this guide provides some suggested search strategies for further research in the collection.

Timeline

Early 1880s Dentist Alfred P. Southwick develops the idea of using electricity to carry out the death penalty as early as 1881.
January 1, 1889 New York is the first to adopt the newest method in capital punishment, death by electric chair.
August 6, 1890 Murderer William Kemmler is the first to be electrocuted; second shock is needed when he returned to consciousness after the initial shock.
1894 Serial killer Lizzie Halliday is the first woman sentenced to death by electricity; sentence is later changed to life in prison after being declared insane.
March 20, 1899 Martha M. Place is the first woman to be electrocuted after murdering her step-daughter.
October 29, 1901 Leon Czolgosz, convicted of assassinating President McKinley, is put to death at Auburn Prison.
October 1, 1903 Three members of the Van Wormer family are electrocuted.
August 11, 1912 Nine chair victims in one day are scheduled, the most in Sing Sing Prison history.
July 30, 1915 First police officer to be electrocuted, Charles Becker meets the chair for killing casino owner Herman Rosenthal.