A Shocking Collectible Theme: The Death House Electric Chair
An electric chair dating from the 1930s was up for sale on the 1stdibs.com website with a price tag of $5,200. The listing is no longer active.
When Dr. Alfred Southwick of the New York State Legislature’s death penalty commission called Thomas Edison in 1887, his purpose was to get Edison’s advice regarding electrocution as a means of execution.
Edison was appalled by the call; he was, after all, an opponent of the death penalty. But as the conversation went on, Edison realized that deliberately killing a human by electrocution could be the capstone of his public relations war with his primary rival, Nikola Tesla. Edison and his investor J.P. Morgan were locked in a battle for the future of electricity with Tesla and his backer George Westinghouse. Edison advocated using DC (direct current) power, while Tesla was a proponent of AC (alternating current).
Edison, who had been publicly electrocuting animals for some time in order to demonstrate the dangers of Tesla’s AC electricity, jumped at the chance to prove beyond a doubt that AC was fatal to humans. He told Dr. Southwick that the best way to kill a man instantaneously with minimal suffering was with an appliance using AC current.
Edison was brutally off the mark in his first iteration of an electric chair. But in accepting the contract to produce a chair for New York’s Auburn prison Edison stained his, Morgan’s, and Westinghouse’s reputations for years to come.
In the late 19th century, electricity was poised to replace kerosene as the fuel that lit America. The first company to market electricity in the United States was Edison’s company Edison Electric. With Morgan’s financial backing, Edison was able to electrify all of New York City using DC current. But DC current had limited range and voltage; it required many closely-spaced generators to keep homes and businesses lit.
A postcard from Sing-Sing prison’s death chair, known as “Old Sparky.” It brought $10.50 on eBay.
In an effort to boost the power of his generators and cover a greater area, Edison hired Italian engineer Nikola Tesla. Edison promised Tesla a $50,000 bonus if he could re-design Edison’s generators to reach the required output. Tesla solved Edison’s problem by creating AC generators, which could transmit electricity more efficiently over long distances and required fewer generating stations. Edison saw the benefits of AC immediately, but Morgan already had a substantial investment in DC infrastructure and wasn’t about to give it all up and start over. Edison reneged on his promise of a bonus, forcing Tesla to quit. Tesla started his own company with the financial backing of George Westinghouse.
Under pressure from Morgan, Edison went on the offensive against AC electricity by attempting to discredit Tesla and Westinghouse.
Edison’s strategy was to demonstrate that AC current was deadly and unsafe for consumer use. DC current is relatively benign; it may burn or give a shock but will rarely kill (household batteries operate on direct current). AC uses much higher voltages, so to prove his point Edison began a series of public electrocutions using stray dogs, cats, horses, and in one case an elephant. Edison’s first victim was a dog named Dash. Initially, 1,000 volts of DC current was passed through Dash, and he lived. Next, 300 volts of AC current was used on the dog, and he died. The animal electrocutions provided showmanship, but a human execution would set Edison’s point. He agreed to produce an electric chair for Auburn.
The New York legislature approved the use of electrocutions for executions beginning in 1889, operating on the belief that it would be painless and quick. The first man to be executed by electrocution was William Kemmler, who was convicted of killing his wife with an axe. The execution was performed in the death house at Auburn State Prison. The device was Edison’s chair powered by Tesla’s AC current. The chair had conductors attached to the condemned man’s head and feet.
This Andy Warhol screen print-on-cardboard image of an electric chair, which measures three feet tall and four feet across, can be had for $2,900 on 1stdibs.com.
You can buy a 1:12 scale miniature of “Old Sparky” on Etsy for $39.
With Kemmler strapped into the chair, the first jolt of 1,300 volts for 17 seconds rendered him unconscious but did not kill him. A second charge of 2,000 volts was left on for four minutes, causing Kemmler’s flesh to smoke and burn before he was pronounced dead. One of the reporters witnessing the execution got sick and was forced to leave the room. The next day’s newspaper headlines proclaimed: “Far Worse Than Hanging! Kemmler’s Death Proves an Awful Spectacle!”
One-hundred and 25 years later, execution by electric chair is still adamantly opposed by many. Most states have discontinued the electric chair as their primary form of execution, preferring to use lethal injection instead. However, even lethal injection has its opponents, so some states have chosen to keep electrocution as an alternate execution method. As alternate methods are adopted, prisons will sell their electric chairs (by law, unused state property is auctioned in most states).
For collectors of “crime and punishment” and macabre memorabilia, an electric chair is a real find. Few are currently available, but one is now offered on 1stdibs.com for $5,200, and another is offered on Etsy for $1,900. Collectors with smaller budgets may find vintage photographs of “Old Sparky” and other chairs from time to time on eBay for less than $20.
Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.
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