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Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair
In this amazing story of high stakes competition between two titans, Richard Moran shows how the electric chair developed not out of the desire to be more humane but through an effort by one nineteenth-century electric company to discredit the other.
In 1882, Thomas Edison ushered in the “age of electricity” when he illuminated Manhattan’s Pearl Street with his direct current (DC) system. Six years later, George Westinghouse lit up Buffalo with his less expensive alternating current (AC). The two men quickly became locked in a fierce rivalry, made all the more complicated by a novel new application for their product: the electric chair. When Edison set out to persuade the state of New York to use Westinghouse’s current to execute condemned criminals, Westinghouse fought back in court, attempting to stop the first electrocution and keep AC from becoming the “executioner’s current.” In this meticulously researched account of the ensuing legal battle and the horribly botched first execution, Moran raises disturbing questions not only about electrocution, but about about our society’s tendency to rely on new technologies to answer moral questions.
This account opens at New York's Auburn Penitentiary, in 1890, with a bloody, scorched body strapped in the electric chair. The first electrocution concluded a courtroom drama involving a humanitarian dentist, an ambitious attorney, an illiterate murderer and the great American inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison. Edison joined the debate over electrocution in an effort to discredit his rival, George Westinghouse, whose system of alternating current, or AC, was rapidly outpacing Edison's direct current, or DC, in the race to electrify America. Playing upon concerns about public safety and eager to brand Westinghouse electricity the "executioner's current," Edison advised legislators that a shock of AC killed most efficiently and, disregarding his own professed opposition to capital punishment, suggested a design for the chair. Meanwhile, Westinghouse surreptitiously underwrote the appeals of the condemned man, William Kemmler, challenging the constitutionality of electrocution. Withholding his personal opposition to the death penalty until the book's final sentence, Moran (Knowing Right from Wrong: The Insanity Defense of Daniel McNaughton), a sociologist at Mount Holyoke College, marshals his sources-committee reports, legislative hearings, court decisions-to argue that the search for a humane method of execution does not resolve the moral dilemma, but instead leaves capital punishment in the hands of alleged experts who are too often guided by self-interest. For all his careful documentation and apparent impartiality, Moran freely borrows from sensational newspaper stories, many based on second-hand accounts, to accentuate the horrors of electrocution and portray the condemned as victims. With Edison's name in the title and macabre execution scenes in the opening pages, this book should attract browsers as well as politically engaged readers. 22 b&w illus. (Oct. 24) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved