I have lately been curious about works of art inspired by the electric chair, and especially the first electric chair which made its debut in 1889 at the penitentiary in Auburn, N.Y. You wouldn’t think the electric chair was much of a muse, but it has in fact provided the creative spark for some unusual artworks, from the mundane to the ethereal.
I begin with an artist who, in spite of what you might read elsewhere, had nothing to do with the design of the electric chair. Gustav Stickley was the creator of iconic Arts & Crafts and Mission-style furniture, work that has assured his lasting fame. Early in his career, around 1888, he managed the chair shop at the Auburn Penitentiary, teaching and supervising the inmates who were making furniture. The men who were designing the first electric chair had to begin with a chair from somewhere. It has been surmised that they began with a wooden chair produced by the prison shop, and in this way Stickley’s name became erroneously linked with the chair’s design. It may indeed have been a chair he saw in passing, but not one he designed or made.
:: 1889 ::
The earliest artworks of the electric chair were descriptive in nature. C. Bunnell was a sketch artist whose work, converted to woodcuts, appeared frequently in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, published in New York City. The image above, “Execution by Electricity – The Chair and Apparatus Used in Producing Death,” appeared in 1889.
Louis Poyet (1846-1913) was a French engraver who specialized in illustrations of machinery; this illustration was entitled “The Electric Chair in the 1890s.”
:: 1901 ::
The backstory on the next piece literally fills volumes, but I will try to keep it short and nasty. Thomas Alva Edison built his empire on the use of DC (direct current), and his chief competitor, George Westinghouse, was using AC (alternating current). Early on, Edison saw that AC was superior, but since he’d already invested in DC and was an unprincipled reptile, he mounted a campaign to destroy Westinghouse by portraying AC as deadly. And in a master stroke of evil, he lobbied successfully to have New York State’s new electric chair run on AC; he even worked to replace the word “electrocution” with “Westinghousing.”
The New York State committee that chose AC was chaired by Dr. Fred Peterson of Columbia University, who was on Thomas Edison’s payroll. In 1888, Edison added Harold P. Brown to his electric chair team. Working at Edison’s laboratory, with Peterson as his assistant, Brown designed an electric chair. At Columbia U., they demonstrated the chair for officials and reporters, applying AC and DC current to dogs. While DC brought only agony, AC brought death. Their first victim was a Newfoundland. In the next several weeks, they made their point with more than 20 dogs. Edison himself offered a bounty of 25 cents for every animal caught and delivered for the experiments. In December, they electrocuted two calves and a horse to show that size was not an issue.
On a statewide tour, animals were recruited in all the major population centers and Brown flipped the switch. An orangutan was electrocuted in the state capital, Albany, where the audience was treated to the spectacle of the ape’s hair bursting into flame.
Edwin R. Davis, an Auburn Prison electrician who worked as Brown’s assistant, also claimed credit for the construction and testing of the Auburn chair. Carlos McDonald and A. P. Rockwell were credited with drawing the first detailed plans. The patent was registered by Davis, who called himself “The Father of the Electric Chair” and used it to kill more than 300 prisoners.
One of these was Leon Czolgosz, the condemned assassin of President William McKinley. In 1901, as a part of his long-running campaign, Edison sent men to Auburn, N.Y., to film Czolgosz’s electrocution. Prison officials refused to admit the crew, so they filmed the prison walls, and then returned home and recreated the execution with actors. The result, Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison (1901) by Edwin S. Porter and James White, played in theaters and can be seen today on YouTube. It’s not exactly Star Wars, but it worked for Edison.
(In 1903, Edison arranged for and filmed the electrocution of Topsy, an elephant who had killed his trainer after the trainer fed Topsy a lit cigarette. The execution was held on January 4, 1903, and Edison released the film under the title Electrocuting an Elephant.)
:: 1908 ::
This is an unknown artist’s rendering of Chester Gillette being executed in the electric chair at Auburn Prison on March 30, 1908. It looks more like a lodge meeting to me, but probably didn’t to Chester. He was the cad of all time, a creep who was about to trade up to a woman with more money, when he discovered his present girlfriend was pregnant and expected him to do the right thing. So he killed her.
The murder and trial, if not the electric chair, inspired Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy (1925), which in turn inspired the Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor film A Place in the Sun (1951).
The same year Gillette was executed, Hamilton’s Drugstore in Auburn published this postcard, captioned, “Waiting.”
:: 1919 ::
The Leighton & Valentine Co, N.Y. City, emblazoned every postcard with “Quality Famous Throughout the World” and how could we doubt them when they were producing this hand-tinted postcard of the Execution Chamber in Auburn?
:: 1925 ::
Paul Colin (1892-1985) was one of France’s greatest graphic artists and produced more than 1,400 posters in his long career. This poster, from 1925, advertises a play at the Ambigu Theatre in Paris. One account notes that the play, “Le Rapide de Minuit” (“The Midnight Express”) is about a jury foreman haunted by the decision to sentence a woman to the electric chair.
:: 1927 ::
In 1927, Bessie Smith recorded “Electric Chair Blues,” also known as “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair.” The lyrics have yet to be surpassed; they go, in part:
Judge your honor, hear my plea, before you open up your court,
I don’t want no sympathy–I just cut my good man’s throat,
Found him with a travelin’ Jane–I warned her before,
I had my knife, and, well, it’s plain, the rest you ought to know
Judge, judge, good kind judge,
You can send me to the ‘lectric chair,
Judge, judge, hear my plea,
You can fry me ’cause I don’t care.
I cut him with my Barlow,
Stabbed him in the side,
Stood there watchin’ over him,
While he wobbled ’round and died,
Don’t want no bonded man to go my bail,
Don’t wanna spend no 99 years in jail,
Judge, judge, good kind judge, Send me to the ‘lectric chair.
The song has been recorded many times, but most notably by Dinah Washington (1958) and Hoyt Axton (1965). And David Bromberg does a fine live version.
:: 1928 ::
To capture a photo of Ruth Snyder’s execution at Sing Sing prison on January 12, 1928, the New York Daily News resorted to subterfuge. They brought in Tom Howard, a Chicago Tribune journalist, who was not known in the New York area. He gained admission to the execution and took a front row seat. Before entering the chamber, he had strapped a small camera to his left ankle, with a shutter release running up under his clothes. A few moments before the current was turned on, Howard slowly lifted his pant leg and when the first jolt hit the murderess, he snapped the picture.
:: 1944 ::
Louis “Lepke” Buchalter was a gangster in the 1930s. At one time, he led a private army of over 250 thugs, known in the press as “Murder Incorporated,” who killed scores of people on his orders. In 1943, while in prison as a conscientious objector, the poet Robert Lowell met the convicted murderer. Lowell later wrote a poem about him, citing the chair:
“…no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections….”
Louis “Lepke” Buchalter was electrocuted at New York’s Sing Sing prison on March 4, 1944. Lowell wrote about him from a comfortable distance of time, looking out the window of his home in Boston. “Memories of West Street and Lepke” was published in Life Studies (1959).
:: 1960s – ‘70s ::
In 1963, Andy Warhol began using the image of the electric chair for a series of paintings and prints, including a 1971 portfolio of 10 screen-prints that was printed in Switzerland. Shown above a painting, Electric Chair (1965).
:: 1984 ::
In the far-flung galaxy of rock tunes, one cannot overlook Iggy Pop’s “Little Electric Chair” or Nick Cave’s “Mercy Seat” (“And the mercy seat is burning/And I think my head is glowing”), but the standard-bearer for rock’s electric chair songs is surely Metallica’s “Ride the Lightning” (1984), if only for the title. However, the heavy metal anthem features some memorable lyrical moments as well:
Death in the air
Strapped in the electric chair
This can’t be happening to me
Followed by the catchy refrain:
Flash before my eyes
Now it’s time to die
Burning in my brain
I can feel the flame
All credit to James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Cliff Burton and Dave Mustaine. The song has been covered by other rock bands, and even recorded in bluegrass and string quartet versions.
:: 1990s ::
This one raised eyebrows at the Science Fair. Whilst a student, Miss “Jessyratfink” of Louisville, Kentucky, made an electric chair for her Barbie doll to demonstrate how currents and conductivity work. In her words, the project “completely disgusted the entire female staff of Benton Middle.”
First prize, Jessy.
:: 1999 ::
Our flying tour ends in Auburn, N.Y., where it began. For many years there, Swaby’s Kangaroo Court generated atmosphere for its patrons with genuine penitentiary memorabilia, including an electric chair. Along those lines, in 1999, owner Mike Dwyer commissioned artist Scott Ouderkirk to create a tap handle for a similarly themed beer.
Ouderkirk’s creation, shown here, was capped by an LED in the inmate’s helmet that lit up when the barkeep pulled the tap handle. Shocking, refreshing, brilliant.