After all: old Sparky

E&T finds itself darkly fascinated with the most macabre invention from the world of electrical engineering.

"What is the difference between democracy and 'socialist democracy'? It is like the difference between a normal chair and an electric chair." An old Soviet joke.

Out of all the ground-breaking inventions in the field of electrical engineering, I've always been darkly fascinated with one - a contraption more readily associated with digging the ground than breaking it.

I am talking about the electric chair, or 'Old Sparky', as it is often referred to in the States.

A bit of history. In 1887, New York State established a committee to determine a new, more humane, system of execution to replace hanging. Neither Edison nor Tesla as part of the 'War of Currents' wanted their electrical system to be chosen because they feared that consumers would not want the type of electricity used to kill criminals in their homes.

In order to prove that AC electricity was dangerous and better for executions, Brown and Edison, who promoted DC electricity, publicly killed many animals with AC for the press to ensure that alternating current was associated with electrical death. The term "electrocution" was coined.

The demonstrations had their intended effects, and the AC electric chair was adopted by the committee in 1889.

The first person to be executed via the electric chair was William Kemmler in New York's Auburn Prison on 7 July, 1890; the 'state electrician' was Edwin Davis. The first 17-second passage of current through Kemmler caused unconsciousness, but failed to stop his heart and breathing. The attending physicians, Dr Edward Charles Spitzka and Dr Charles F Macdonald, came forward to examine the prisoner. After confirming he was still alive, Spitzka reportedly called out: "Have the current turned on again, quick - no delay."

In the second attempt, Kemmler was shocked with 2kV. Blood vessels under the skin ruptured and bled, and his body caught fire.

The entire execution took approximately eight minutes. A reporter who witnessed it said it was "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging".

The first woman to be executed in the electric chair was Martha M Place at Sing Sing Prison on 20 March 1899.

Sing singing in the rain

"There is something unmistakably American about the prison system we have created," assures the latest edition of the multi-volume 'Encyclopaedia of American Prisons'. If so, Sing Sing Correctional Facility, the country's oldest and most notorious penitentiary, where 614 inmates were put to death on the electric chair between 1891 and 1963, could be called an archetypal American institution. The famous Sing Sing 'sparky' was constructed in 1891 by the inmates themselves.

It was this prison that I decided to visit while in New York State some time ago.

"How do I get to Sing Sing?" I asked a solitary lady waiting for a taxi at Ossining station.

"You have just escaped from it," she smiled and explained that all trains from New York passed through the 'facility'.

The woman pointed to an oblong grim bulk of a building overlooking the Hudson, about a mile away. Through morning mist and rain, I could discern the blurred silhouettes of watch-towers. "But don't even try to get inside: due to some disturbances this morning, the inmates are all confined to their cells, and all visits have been cancelled."

To deter curious onlookers from visiting the prison, a special 'exhibit' was operating inside the Ossining Community Centre. It was a mini-Sing Sing, complete with three authentic prison cells, sound-effects, the smell of burnt prison gruel (they had a kitchen for senior citizens in the Community Centre basement), and a life-size replica of the electric chair, "made by the Building Maintenance Vocational Class in Sing Sing prison in 1992", according to a plate on the wall.

Although the original 'Old Sparky' was moved to Greenhaven penitentiary in 1971, I couldn't tear my gaze from this yellow wooden chair with a high back and arm rests.

At first glance it seems innocuous, and if it were not for the leather bracelets with which the hands and feet of the condemned are tied, it could very well stand in some grand family home. A grandfather might sit in it to read his newspapers. But an instant later the chair appeared repellent. Especially depressing were its polished arm rests. Better not to think about those who had polished them with their elbows.

The inmates of the Sing Sing Building Maintenance Vocational Class did a good job replicating the chair, for I could see my own puzzled reflection in its cold, sinisterly polished arm rests.

The death penalty was abolished in the State of New York in 1968, only to be voted back into law in 1995. I wouldn't be surprised if one day the hard-working old sparky returned to Sing Sing's dreaded 'Death House', which so far has been converted to a Vocational Education Centre for the inmates. 

 In a last desperate attempt to get inside Sing Sing, I dialled the prison's switchboard. For 20 minutes or so, I had to listen to snippets of 'Moonlight Sonata' as my phone call was bouncing off thick prison walls like a squash ball in one of Sing Sing's exercise yards. I was eventually put through to a Lieutenant Gibson, who staunchly refused to let me see the prison because, as he put it, all Sing Sing executives were "very occupied". The report of "disturbances" inside the prison appeared to be true.

Just as I was about to hang up, Lieutenant Gibson said he would leave something for me at the front entrance to Sing Sing, so I jumped into a cab.

The parcel was left at the front entrance fenced off by a grille as large as a lion cage and guarded by three policemen, each of whom weighed no less that 200lb - not of fat but of pure muscle. It contained a brochure on the colourful history of Sing Sing, put together by prison staff with the help of several "inmate assistants".

The flimsy and badly printed booklet ended with the following statement: "This document is one of the many prides the employees of Sing Sing (that are ever so giving) hold close to their heart, Thank You. May our paths cross many times again!"

I sincerely hoped this heart-felt wish of the "ever so giving" Sing Sing employees would never come true. 

Vitali Vitaliev's two new books: 'Vitali's Ireland' and 'Passport to Enclavia' - are published by Gill & Macmillan and Reportage Press

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