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Topics in Chronicling America - Death by Electric Chair

Thought to have been more humane than hanging, death by electric chair was first adopted by New York State in 1899 as a means for death penalty prisoners “to die as pleasantly as possible.” More and more states would follow suit several years later, even as botched electrocutions took place. Perceived as a technological marvel and an advance of civilization, it would be the choice method of capital punishment in the United States for nearly a century. Read more about it!

The information and sample article links below provide access to a sampling of articles from historic newspapers that can be found in the Chronicling America: American Historic Newspapers digital collection (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/). Use the Suggested Search Terms and Dates to explore this topic further in Chronicling America.


Picture of the electric chair.

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Important Dates:

  • Early 1880s. Dentist Alfred P. Southwick develops the idea of using electricity to carry out the death penalty as early as 1881.
  • January 1, 1889. New York is the first to adopt the newest method in capital punishment, death by electric chair.
  • August 6, 1890. Murderer William Kemmler is the first to be electrocuted. A second shock was needed after he returned to consciousness following the initial shock.
  • 1894. Serial killer Lizzie Halliday is the first woman sentenced to death by electricity. Her sentence was later changed to life in prison after being declared insane.
  • March 20, 1899. Martha M. Place is the first woman to be electrocuted after murdering her step-daughter.
  • October 29, 1901. Leon Czolgosz, convicted of assassinating President McKinley, is put to death at Auburn Prison.
  • October 1, 1903. Three members of the Van Wormer family are electrocuted.
  • August 11, 1912. Nine chair victims in one day are scheduled, the most in Sing Sing Prison history.
  • July 30, 1915. First police officer to be electrocuted, Charles Becker meets the chair for killing casino owner Herman Rosenthal.
  • March 5, 1916. The account of a man who was electrocuted and brought back to life is published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
  • August 3, 1919. Published in the New York Sun, Sing Sing guards give their accounts of famous murderers’ last days.

Suggested Search Strategies:

  • [Try the following terms in combination, proximity, or as phrases using Search Pages in Chronicling America.] electric chair, electrocution, murder, capital punishment, Sing Sing, death chair
  • It is important to use a specific date range, add the state the electrocution took place, or the persons electrocuted if looking for articles for a particular event in order to narrow your results.

Sample Articles from Chronicling America:

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  July 25, 2017
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