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Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Electric Chair: Now Mostly a Museum Exhibit

     Quite often, the centerpiece of a police or crime museum is an electric chair. To some, "Old Sparky" is a symbol of a bygone era when convicted murderers got what was coming to them swiftly and electronically. Others believe the electric chair represents government brutality and cruel and unusual punishment. Still others are drawn to these old "hot seats" by morbid curiosity. Currently, only four states--Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia--have operational electric chairs. In these states a death row inmate can choose between lethal injection and electrocution. Over the past years, prisoners faced with this dark dilemma, have chosen the needle over the voltage. Since 1890, about 4,000 inmates have been electrocuted in the United States. It would be wishful thinking to believe that all of them were guilty of the crimes charged.

The Agent of Death

     In the 1920s and 30s, Robert G. Elliott, an electrician (of course) from Long Island, the official executioner for six states, electrocuted 387 inmates. For this he charged the state $150 a pop. When he threw the switch (or turned the wheel) on two or more at one setting (so to speak), he discounted his fee. Some of Elliot's most infamous clients included Bruno Richard Hauptmann (1936), the killer of the Lindbergh baby; Ruth Snyder and Judd Grey (1928), the murderers of Ruth's husband Albert; and Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (1927), the Italian anacrchists convicted of killing a Boston area bank guard. Elliott, somewhat of a celebrity, and obviously proud of his singular contribution to the American system of criminal justice, wrote a memoir called Angel of Death that came out in 1940 less than a year after his own demise. His book, long out of print and written by a co-author, has become a collector's item.

Never Too Big to Fry

     In 1981, Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis murdered a pregnant woman and her two children during a home invasion robbery in Jacksonville, Florida. A year later a jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to death. In 1998, as Davis' execution date approached, the 54-year-old death row inmate's attorney argued that his 355 pound client was too heavy for the state's broken-down 76-year-old electric chair. Since it was built in 1923, the Florida State Prison's electric chair had dispatched 200 prisoners, and was worn out. Witnesses to the chair's performance in 1997 saw, when the juice was applied, a flame from the condemned man's head shoot a foot into the air. So, in 1998, following this unpleasant tableau, the prison, with Allen "Tiny" Davis in mind, oversaw the construction of a new, heavy-duty electric chair, one that could accommodate a 355 pound guest. On July 8, 1999, the executioner ran 2,300 volts through the metal cap on Davis's head for two minutes. It wasn't pretty, there was some blood and a lot of groaning, but the new chair did its job.

Museum Pieces

     If you're interested in the electric chair that sent Ruth Snyder and Judd Grey to hell in 1927, you can see a replica of it at the Sing Sing Prison Museum in Ossining, New York. Snyder was the first women executed in the United States since 1899. After her, more would follow. The real chair is in prison storage. The hot seat Robert Elliott activated to electrocute Bruno Richard Hauptmann sits in the New Jersey Police Museum and Learning Center in West Trenton. In that state they call it "Old Smokey."

     At the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum in Titusville, Florida, visitors can be photographed sitting in a replica electric chair. One tourist, dressed like Santa Claus, sat in the chair with a kid on his knee. (Just kidding.) An Old Sparky is on display in Moundsville, West Virgina as part of a tourist attraction that used to be part of the West Virginia State Penitentiary. The chair had been constructed in 1950 by an inmate who had to be moved to another prison when the other inmates got wind of his project. Before 1950, death sentence inmates in West Virginia were hanged--85 of them since 1866. The state has abolished the death penalty.

     In Springer, New Mexico, at the Sante Fe Trail Museum, a female mannequin sits in the state's first and only electric chair. (I'm not a museum curator, but this seems like an odd choice.) The electric chair at the Texas Prison System in Huntsville, built by an inmate, fried 361 prisoners from 1924 to 1964.

     The centerpiece of an exhibit at the Ohio Historical Center in Columbus, featured an electric chair that put 312 men and one woman to death between 1887 and 1963. The exhibit, in a state that has kept the death penalty, created some controversy.


  1. A few errors, Florida's original Electric Chair executed 239. Allen Lee Davis was the first in the brand new chair, which is an exact duplicate of the original. Ohio's chair executed 312 men and 3 women, for a total of 315.

  2. This is very helpful post. More interesting word you say more traffic you will get from your comment.

  3. I managed to get a copy of Agent Of Death about 5 years ago for about £80 UK pounds, and worth every penny. A fascinating read.

  4. "Currently, only four states--Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia--have operational electric chairs."

    Great pun, even if unintended.

  5. Agent of Death - the ultra-rare autobiography of Robert Elliott is now available on ebay