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Wednesday, July 12, 2023

The Electric Chair

     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 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 from Long Island, the official executioner for six states, electrocuted 387 inmates. For this he charged the state $150 an electrocution. 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 include 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), anarchists who were convicted of killing a Boston area bank guard. Robert Elliott, somewhat of a celebrity and 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, is now 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 electricity 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 person. 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 one is interested in the chair that electrocuted Ruth Snyder and Judd Grey in 1927, a replica is on display at the Sing Sing Prison Museum in Ossining, New York. Snyder had been the first women executed in the United States since 1899. After her, more would follow. The real chair is in prison storage. The chair Robert Elliott activated to electrocute Bruno Richard Hauptmann sits in the New Jersey Police Museum and Learning Center in West Trenton. They call it "Old Smokey."

     At the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum in Titusville, Florida, visitors could be photographed sitting in a replica electric chair. An Old Sparky is on display in Moundsville, West Virginia as part of a tourist attraction on the site 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 since 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. The electric chair at the Texas Prison System in Huntsville, built by an inmate, killed 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 https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/162827746513