What happens when you are executed by electrocution?

The shocking truth


Also in this week's column:

What happens when you are executed by electrocution?

Asked by Ron Talbot of Tyler, Texas

In the late 19th century, it was widely believed that a more modern method of execution was needed to replace the three most commonly used execution methods at that time (hanging, firing squad, and, in France, beheading).

The first practical electric chair was invented by Harold P Brown who worked for Thomas Edison. The first person to die in the electric chair was executed in 1890. A parallel occurrence at around the same time was the scientific discovery of the precise effects upon the body of high voltages of electricity.

For example, according to Dr T Bernstein of the Wallace-Kettering Neuroscience Institute at Wright State University, writing in Medical Instrumentation in 1975, two doctors by the name of Prevost and Battelli demonstrated in 1899 that death from electrocution was caused, not by damaging the brain, but by high voltages of electricity causing very rapid irregular contractions of the heart (ventricular fibrillation) eventuating in the heart stopping.

As for the execution itself, the prisoner must first be prepared for execution by shaving the head and the calf of one leg. This permits better contact between the skin and the electrodes which must be attached to the body. The prisoner is strapped into the electric chair at the wrists, waist, and ankles. An electrode is attached to the head and another to the leg. At least two jolts of an electrical current are applied for several minutes. An initial voltage of about 2,000 volts stops the heart and induces unconsciousness. The voltage is then lowered somewhat.

In one US state, the protocol calls for a jolt of 2,450 volts that lasts for 15 seconds. After a 15 minute wait, the prisoner is then examined by a coroner. After 20 seconds, the cycle is repeated. It is repeated three more times. The body may heat up to approximately 100°C (210°F), which causes severe damage to internal organs. Often the eyeballs melt.

Taping the eyes closed is often part of the preparation for execution by electrocution. The effects of the electricity often cause the body to twitch and gyrate uncontrollably and bodily functions may "let go". Prisoners are sometimes offered diapers.

Although death is supposedly instantaneous, some prisoners have been known to shriek and even shout while being executed in this way. There have been reports of a prisoner's head bursting into flames. There have been reports too of a prisoner being removed from an electric chair that has malfunctioned part way through the electrocution and then being placed back in the chair once it is fixed in order for the job to be finished. Some skin is burned off the prisoner. The burned off skin must then be scrapped off the seat and straps of the electric chair before it may be used again.

Interesting facts

  • In 1991, a recommendation was made by two Polish doctors that the thighs also be strapped in. Warsaw Drs L Zynda and K Skiba reported in the Chirurgia Narzadow Ruchu I Ortopedia Poska on the case of a 58-year-old executed male who whose legs were broken by the intense twitching of the legs due to the force of the deadly electric current passing through his body.
  • In 1946, an electric chair malfunctioned and failed to execute the prisoner who reported shrieked "Stop it! Let me breathe!" as he was being executed. Having survived, lawyers for the prisoners argued that, although he did not die, he had been executed as defined by the law. In 1947, in the case of Francis vs Resweber, the US Supreme Court ruled against the prisoner. He was returned to the electric chair and successfully executed later that year.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au


Other stories you might like

  • Talos names eight deadly sins in widely used industrial software
    Entire swaths of gear relies on vulnerability-laden Open Automation Software (OAS)

    A researcher at Cisco's Talos threat intelligence team found eight vulnerabilities in the Open Automation Software (OAS) platform that, if exploited, could enable a bad actor to access a device and run code on a targeted system.

    The OAS platform is widely used by a range of industrial enterprises, essentially facilitating the transfer of data within an IT environment between hardware and software and playing a central role in organizations' industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) efforts. It touches a range of devices, including PLCs and OPCs and IoT devices, as well as custom applications and APIs, databases and edge systems.

    Companies like Volvo, General Dynamics, JBT Aerotech and wind-turbine maker AES are among the users of the OAS platform.

    Continue reading
  • Despite global uncertainty, $500m hit doesn't rattle Nvidia execs
    CEO acknowledges impact of war, pandemic but says fundamentals ‘are really good’

    Nvidia is expecting a $500 million hit to its global datacenter and consumer business in the second quarter due to COVID lockdowns in China and Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Despite those and other macroeconomic concerns, executives are still optimistic about future prospects.

    "The full impact and duration of the war in Ukraine and COVID lockdowns in China is difficult to predict. However, the impact of our technology and our market opportunities remain unchanged," said Jensen Huang, Nvidia's CEO and co-founder, during the company's first-quarter earnings call.

    Those two statements might sound a little contradictory, including to some investors, particularly following the stock selloff yesterday after concerns over Russia and China prompted Nvidia to issue lower-than-expected guidance for second-quarter revenue.

    Continue reading
  • Another AI supercomputer from HPE: Champollion lands in France
    That's the second in a week following similar system in Munich also aimed at researchers

    HPE is lifting the lid on a new AI supercomputer – the second this week – aimed at building and training larger machine learning models to underpin research.

    Based at HPE's Center of Excellence in Grenoble, France, the new supercomputer is to be named Champollion after the French scholar who made advances in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs in the 19th century. It was built in partnership with Nvidia using AMD-based Apollo computer nodes fitted with Nvidia's A100 GPUs.

    Champollion brings together HPC and purpose-built AI technologies to train machine learning models at scale and unlock results faster, HPE said. HPE already provides HPC and AI resources from its Grenoble facilities for customers, and the broader research community to access, and said it plans to provide access to Champollion for scientists and engineers globally to accelerate testing of their AI models and research.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022