In Florida this week, a criminal court selected people to serve on a very unusual jury.  The defendant had been charged with mass murder, but the jury’s task is not to determine his guilt—he has already pled guilty. In a case that is anticipated to last four months, the jury is simply expected to decide whether the defendant, who was responsible for the Parkland school shooting of 2018 in which 17 people died, shall be executed. The prosecution is seeking the death penalty for Nikolas Cruz, and Florida law says only a unanimous decision by a jury can condemn a prisoner to death. Therefore, seating a full jury is necessary in order to hand down a sentence. In the event that unanimity among the jurors cannot be reached, Cruz will receive the alternative sentence of life in prison. But even if Cruz is condemned by the jury, the jury will not get to determine his method of execution. That decision remains with Cruz. That’s because, in Florida, the default method of execution is lethal injection … unless the defendant chooses death by electric chair. No Florida prisoner has been executed in the electric chair for decades, but if recent events in Georgia and Tennessee are any indication, Cruz may die in the electric chair whether he chooses to or not.
In the Nance v. Ward Supreme Court decision handed down this past June, a five-Justice majority ruled that it is allowable for condemned prisoners to bring suit in federal courts alleging that a particular execution method violates the Eighth Amendment (which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment”).  The ruling was based on 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, a federal law that authorizes citizens to sue for the deprivation of rights. This ruling will allow Michael Nance, a death row inmate in Georgia, to continue to contest in federal courts his sentence of death by lethal injection. Following the Nance v Ward ruling, a slew of similar cases are expected to be filed against lethal injection by death row inmates across the country. Although Michael Nance is specifically requesting execution by firing squad, most inmates will be executed in the electric chair should lethal injection ever be banned by the Supreme Court.
In Tennessee, prisoners sentenced to death for capital offenses committed before 1999 can choose their method of execution, the options being either lethal injection or the electric chair. (For capital crimes committed later, the only option is lethal injection.) Since 2018, five condemned Tennessee prisoners with the right to choose picked the electric chair. Why did they choose the electric chair? Inmate advocates and their lawyers claim the Tennessee death row prisoners are choosing the electric chair “because they fear being frozen in place and feeling intense discomfort while drugs work to kill them.”  Apparently, they did not share similar fears about electrocution. Why not?
Among the 27 states where the death sentence is legal, only Tennessee is still actively using the electric chair. But several states maintain the option to use the electric chair should the Supreme Court ever deem lethal injection to be unconstitutional. (Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia currently maintain the option of using the electric chair; Arkansas and Oklahoma have existing state laws to immediately bring the electric chair back into use should lethal injection ever be declared unconstitutional.) Thus, there are numerous dormant electric chairs in American prisons ready to be redeployed at a moment’s notice.
With multiple challenges to the constitutionality of lethal injection anticipated to be working their way through the Federal court system in the wake of the Nance v. Ward decision, the prospect of an unconstitutionality ruling in the foreseeable future seems to be an increasing possibility. If such a ruling were to be handed down by the Supreme Court, the electric chair would, by default, once again become the dominant method of court-ordered execution in the United States, as it had been for over 100 years. The open question is whether a return to the electric chair would increase or decrease the suffering of the condemned. That is to say, is the electric chair even more cruel than lethal injection?
The United States is the only country in the world that uses electrocution as a method to execute condemned prisoners. To date, there have been more that 4,300 electric chair executions in America, the last one in Tennessee in 2020. When it first made the scene in 1890, the electric chair was certainly an unusual punishment, but it was not thought to be cruel. In fact, the electric chair was specifically designed not to be cruel. Death by electrocution was believed to be quick and painless. Today, after 4,300 electrocutions, death by electric chair can no longer be called an unusual punishment. But is it, in fact, cruel?
Our experience with earlier widespread use of electric chair tells us that death by electric chair isn’t always quick or painless. Unfortunately, most everything we know about the experience of death in the electric chair comes to us anecdotally and by trial and error; there have been no scientific studies of the possible pain and suffering associated with death by electric chair, although it has been assumed to be painless for a long time.
In 1881, a drunken man in Buffalo, New York, stumbled into an electrical generator and died from electrical shock. Alfred P. Southwick, a local dentist, was a witness to the incident. Southwick instantly ran to the man to assist him but found him already dead. Southwick was awestruck by the quickness of death, and deduced that the man likely died without any suffering. This experience caused Southwick to wonder whether electrocution might be the most humane way of executing condemned prisoners.
To test his idea, Southwick began electrocuting Buffalo’s stray animals and found that the animals, like the electrocuted man, seemed to die instantly, supporting his idea that electrocution was quick and painless. Being a dentist, Southwick soon got the idea that some type of electrified chair, similar to a dental chair, might be the best way to deliver the lethal current to people. Southwick then started lobbying state officials to adopt electrocution as New York’s mode of capital punishment, as an alternative to the slow and agonizing death by hanging that was usually employed. The governor thought Southwick’s idea had merit, but he wasn’t sure if it was the best option. So he decided to appoint a three-man commission (which included Southwick) to further study the matter and issue a report.
The commission investigated all of the various methods used to execute people throughout history, and judiciously weighed the pros and cons of each. (In case you’re curious, they identified 34 different methods. ) The commissioners rejected most of them because they were specifically designed to cause slow and painful deaths as part of the punishment (e.g., flogging to death and burning at the stake). The commission was looking for a humane way to execute, not an inhumane way, so anything designed to cause suffering was dropped immediately. By process of elimination, they ended up choosing electrocution as the most humane, although decapitation by guillotine was a close contender. (Lethal injection was unknown at the time.) Based largely on expert testimony from electrical scientists, the commission reasoned that, since electricity was known to travel much faster than nerve impulses, the victim’s brain and nervous system would be electrically destroyed before any pain signals could reach the brain. Thus, electrocution should be painless. 
The commission did have some serious misgivings, however, about the reliability of electrocution. The commissioners acknowledged too little was known about the mechanism by which electricity killed, and they noted that even people struck by lightning frequently didn’t die. They were concerned, given that natural lightning didn’t always kill, that “man-made lightning” might not be a reliable killer either. 
Notwithstanding these concerns, electrocution ultimately was deemed the most humane method to execute prisoners. The commission issued its report on January 17, 1888.  It recommended electrocution, specifically done with an electrified chair (i.e., Southwick’s idea), as the most humane way to carry out capital punishment. 
In short order, an electric chair was built, installed, and used for the first time at New York’s Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890 to execute William Kemmler, a produce merchant convicted of hacking his girlfriend to death with a hatchet. Kemmler’s electrocution did not go as planned. The New York Herald published a first-hand report from a journalist who was an eyewitness:
The scene of Kemmler’s execution was too horrible to picture. Men accustomed to every form of suffering grew faint as the awful spectacle was unfolded before their eyes. Those who stood in the sight were filled with awe as they saw the effects of this most potent of fluids [i.e., electricity], which is only partially understood by those who have studied it most faithfully, as it slowly, too slowly, disintegrated the fiber and tissues of the body through which it passed. The heaving of the chest which, it had been promised, would be stilled in an instant of peace as soon as the circuit was completed, the foaming of the mouth, the bloody sweat, the writhing of shoulders and all other signs of life. Horrible as these all were, they were made infinitely more horrible by the premature removal of the electrodes and the subsequent replacing of them for not seconds but minutes, until the room was filled with the odor of burning flesh and strong men fainted and fell like logs upon the floor. 
Kemmler was first shocked with 1,000 volts for 10 seconds, which was expected by the physicians to be more than sufficient to do him in. His body jerked violently and he lost consciousness. But to everyone’s surprise, when they took his body out of the chair, he seemed to gasp for breath. So, he was put back in the chair shocked a second time with 2,000 volts, for several minutes. It was during this second shocking that Kemmler’s body began to burn.
If Kemmler was in fact alive after the first jolt of 1,000 volts for 10 seconds, it might have been due to the chair’s electrical design. The chair had two electrodes, one attached to a metal skullcap on the head and the other on the lower back near the base of the spine. (The spine electrode would later be changed to a leg electrode that attached at the ankle.) The most direct route for current to flow between the two electrodes might have skirted the heart, which we now know to be the main target organ for killing by electricity. Upping both the voltage and lengthening the duration of the second shock undoubtedly raised the heating output enough to also cause the body to burn.
The three doctors on the scene at Kemmler’s electrocution tried to downplay the apparent horror of it. One of the doctors pronounced, “The man was killed instantly, I think. Those were only muscle contractions, and the fellow never suffered any pain. That’s one sure thing about it.” The doctor might have been correct, a body doesn’t have to be alive to be jolted into movement by electricity. Kemmler was probably stunned insensible, and likely rendered brain dead, by the first shock to his head.  But we will never know for sure.
Nevertheless, the doctors present at Kemmler’s electrocution were heavily criticized for bungling the execution. They had prescribed the electrical parameters for the electrocution without any scientific understanding of how electricity kills, and their decision to put Kemmler back in the chair and shock him again seemed to prove their ignorance, particularly since they later claimed he had been killed by the first shock. The Buffalo Evening News condemned the doctors for overseeing an electrical execution of a human being, even though they had virtually no understanding of electricity’s effects on the human body.  The Auburn Daily Advertiser similarly condemned the doctors, saying that “they could only have guessed at how long the current should have remained on.” 
Thomas Edison also attacked the doctors for their ignorance of even a basic understanding of electricity.  He said that although attaching an electrode to the skull to target the brain sounds like a good idea, it has major practical limitations. In particular, he claimed the bones of the skull impeded the flow of electricity because of its high electrical resistance. He further contended the blood-filled hands and arms, in contrast, were good conductors of electricity because of the low electrical resistance of blood. Edison pointed out that current accidentally entering the body through the hands is frequently lethal, likely because the current passes through the heart as it flows from one arm to the other. He suggested, therefore, that it was only common sense that the best way to electrocute a prisoner was through his hands. The doctors countered that Edison didn’t understand the purpose of the head electrode was to instantaneously render the brain insensible to pain. To the physicians, the head electrode was indispensable.
Despite the debacle, prison officials declared the Kemmler electrocution a success. They claimed that a few glitches were to be expected on the first run, but that future electrocutions, with a few modifications, should go flawlessly. Still, the issue of head versus hands electrode placement persisted. The doctors couldn’t summarily dismiss the criticisms of Edison, widely regarded as the most knowledgeable electrical expert in the country, without experimental evidence.
When Dr. Carlos F. MacDonald was later put in charge of an electrocution, he took the opportunity to test Edison’s hand-to-hand idea. He had special electric chair constructed. This chair differed from previous electric chairs in that the prisoner’s upper arms were strapped to sloping arm rests, with the hands dangling over the edge. This allowed each hand to be immersed in a glass jar of salt solution, with each jar containing an electrode. The salt solution served as an electrolyte to maximize the electrical contact with the hands. But the chair also was equipped with the standard skullcap and leg electrode similar to that of other electric chairs. Thus, either pair of electrodes could be used for an electrocution.
The first victim of this new chair was Charles McElvaine, a 19-year-old boy who had stabbed to death a grocery store proprietor during a robbery. He was led into the execution room and strapped to the new chair. His face had the look of terror. He was muttering prayers to Jesus and clutching a crucifix in his left hand. McElvaine was to be electrocuted with the hand-to-hand electrodes. As his right hand was immersed in the jar of salt water, the crucifix was removed from his left. And once his left hand had likewise been immersed in its jar, the switch was flipped.
McElvaine’s torso arched and strained against the straps as his body muscles violently contracted and his facial muscles contorted. The current was allowed to flow for 50 seconds and then turned off. An attending physician put his hand into one of the jars to feel for a pulse. Remarkably, McElvaine still had a pulse. At this point MacDonald quickly ordered the skull and leg electrodes to be attached, and McElvaine was then jolted again, this time from head to leg. Again, his body went into extreme contortions and a hissing sound came from his leg. After 36 seconds the current was stopped. This time, he was dead. 
Apparently, Edison had been wrong, and now MacDonald had the actual data to prove it, since the electrical parameters had been recorded. The hand electrodes had produced a current of 2 to 3.1 amps, driven by 1,600 volts, and left McElvaine alive. While the skull and leg electrodes that killed him delivered 7 amps, driven by 1,500 volts. The data suggested skull and leg electrodes had only half the resistance of hand-to-hand electrodes, completely refuting Edison’s contention that the skull’s electrical resistance greatly impeded current flow. In a statement obviously designed to throw Edison’s words back in his face, MacDonald quipped to the press, “Edison probably reasoned all right from his standpoint as an electrician, but all wrong from the standpoint of a physician.”  Henceforth, all future criminal electrocutions in the United States would use skullcap and leg electrodes.
Over the subsequent decades, the electric chair, with some further refinements, became a well-established and routine means of execution for capital crimes in the United States. Electrocution had been institutionalized to the point where there became a new prison professional who was specifically responsible for executing prisoners: the state electrocutioner. It’s noteworthy the state electrocutioner was chosen entirely based on his expertise with electricity, not for any medical or electrophysiology knowledge. Doctors still attend electrocutions, but their function is simply to pronounce the time of death and to conduct a subsequent autopsy. They have no control over the electrical parameters of the lethal shock.
Robert G. Elliott became New York’s official state electrocutioner in 1926. He was the state’s third, but ultimately became its most well-known. During his career, he electrocuted 387 death row prisoners, some of them nationally notorious, including Bruno Hauptmann, who was found guilty of kidnapping and killing the baby son of the famous aviator Charles A. Lindbergh. Prison officials admired Elliott’s no-nonsense approach to his work, and he ended up also being regularly hired as a freelance electrocutioner by the neighboring states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Vermont.
Elliott kept detailed records of all the executions he performed, and as he approached his own death, he used his collection of notes as an original source to dictate his autobiography, finishing it while on his deathbed. The autobiography was entitled: Agent of Death: The Memoirs of an Executioner.  It went to press in 1939, just days after Elliott died. The book was widely read due to the fascination people had for this shadowy figure and the gruesome job he performed so well. But many readers were surprised at the take-home message of Elliott’s book: the death penalty should be abolished. The man who had executed so many was, in fact, opposed to capital punishment!
In his book, Elliott tells a highly detailed and seemingly credible story about exactly what he did, how he did it, and why he did it. He did not relish his work, but he saw it as a job that needed to be done with technical expertise as well as a lot of compassion. He didn’t feel personally responsible for any of the 387 deaths: “My job is to see that this is done as humanely as possible. Outside of that, my responsibility for this individual’s untimely death is no greater than that of any other member of society that endorses or condones capital punishment.” 
Elliott started out as an ordinary small-town electrician, who ended up becoming the head electrician for Dannemora State Prison in New York. As such, he was assigned to assist the traveling state electrocutioner whenever he came to the prison to perform an execution. The state electrocutioner at the time was Edwin Davis, the very man who had electrocuted Kemmler. He was credited with the design of the electric chairs that followed Kemmler’s chair, in which the lower back electrode was replaced with an electrode affixed to the lower leg. He had incrementally perfected his technique by trial and error over many electrocutions, and he had actually patented the head and leg electrodes he designed, using his patent rights to keep out any competitors for his job.
When Elliott ultimately took over as state electrocutioner,  he added his own refinements to the electrocution procedure. He began to specifically focus his attention on the amperage—a measure of current flow—that the body experienced during an execution. The average was about 11 amps, but amperage could vary as much as two-fold, which Elliott found hard to explain. He soon realized that a body’s inherent electrical resistance level was the main determinant of the amperage. If a body’s resistance was low, current could get to levels as high as 16 amps. When body resistance was high, however, the current could be as low as 7 amps. Elliott was surprised, however, that there seemed to be no correlation between body size or muscle mass with the body’s electrical resistance.
Elliott also reported that the amount of heat produced in the body by electrocution can be very high. He recorded post-electrocution core body temperatures and found an average body had a temperature of 138 degrees F (59 degrees C).  (Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees F, or 37 degrees C.) But tissues in the vicinity of the electrodes could be much hotter. On one occasion, a copper electrode attached to a leg actually melted. On another occasion, a guard severely burned his hand, requiring him to seek medical attention, when he barehandedly grabbed a female victim’s lifeless body to remove it from the chair. 
Despite all this gruesomeness, Elliott felt confident his victims felt no pain. He related that “medical experts” had determined that unconsciousness occurs in less than 1/240th of a second after the switch is flipped.  Too quickly, he reasoned, for them to feel anything even if their heart remained beating, or they showed other apparent signs of life, like muscle contractions. 1/240th of a second is a very precise number, suggesting it came from a highly sophisticated study, but Elliott didn’t cite his source for this information.
If there were legitimate medical scientists studying the underlying physiology of electric chair executions, that research must have been happening elsewhere, because Elliott was never involved. He claimed that, other than one time when an electrocardiograph was used on a condemned prisoner, there was no other medical research into the electrophysiology of prisoner electrocutions during his tenure.
For the most part, Elliott received no outside guidance and largely relied on his own intuition about how best to electrocute a human. He empirically modified his procedure based on his observations and his own unverified medical theories: “Lowering the current slowly following the final shock is my own idea. I believe that it effectively weakens the heart and stops the action. Perhaps this is fallacy, but once or twice when I have not done it, the heart has continued to beat after the current was turned off.” 
After performing 387 electrocutions and witnessing all their various outcomes, he remained convinced the electric chair was “efficient and quick.” If you were going to kill someone, Elliott believed electrocution was the most humane way to do it.  Yet, he also believed its killing effectiveness could be improved. Elliott only was permitted to modify the voltage, current, and duration of the electrocutions, not the placement of the electrodes. Since McElaine’s electrocution, all states mandated a skull electrode and a lower leg electrode be used. Which leg typically depended upon the specific state—right leg in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut; left leg in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Vermont.  To stop the problem of the heart continuing to beat, a persistent issue that often necessitated a second jolt, Elliott recommended the leg electrode be dropped and rather “that an electrode be placed over the prisoner’s heart, thus stopping the action of this vital organ almost as soon as the electricity is applied.” 
Elliott ended up having some very strong opinions about capital punishment carried out by electrocution or any other means. He thought the death penalty should be abolished. He saw no good that came come from it. It wasn’t an effective deterrent to crime and simply amounted to societal revenge. He even had a suggestion on how to get rid of it: “So long as capital punishment exists … witnessing an electrocution [should] be made a civic duty, just as jury service has been. Thus would the repugnant horror of, and responsibility in, legal slaying be impressed on the average person. I venture to predict that if this were done, the abolishment of the death penalty would soon follow.”  At the end of the day, that was the lifelong take of a man who had carried out court ordered electric chair executions 387 times.
Tennessee’s electric chair has been getting a lot of use lately. Within a recent period of 16 months, five murderers have been electrocuted. Edmund Zagurski, who had been convicted of a double murder, was electrocuted on November 1, 2018. Zagurski chose the electric chair over lethal injection, saying he chose the chair because he believed electrocution to be quick and painless. Despite Elliott’s 80-year-old recommendation that an electrode be placed over the heart, the electrodes were attached to Zagurski’s head and his lower leg in the traditional manner that’s been in use for over a century. He was shocked with 1,750 volts of electricity for 20 seconds, then jolted with the same voltage for another 15—an electrocution regimen virtually unchanged from what Elliot used in the 1930s. Zagurski slumped in his chair between jolts, and after the last jolt, he was declared dead. Witnesses saw no signs of pain or struggle, and there was no apparent smoke or burning flesh. All had gone well. On December 6, 2018—one month later—Zagurski’s fellow death row inmate David Earl Miller took his seat. He too had opted for the electric chair, and he too died without incident.  As of this writing, the last inmate to die in the Tennessee electric chair was Nicholas Todd Sutton, who was executed on February 20, 2020, giving no explanation as to why he had chosen electrocution as his means of death.
The electric chair certainly was never intended to be cruel. But the original committee that selected electrocution as a humane form of execution based their decision on theoretical grounds, supported by the experimental killing of large animals, and their choice relied heavily on presumed knowledge about the mechanism by which electricity kills people. In truth, their understanding of electricity and how it kills was woefully lacking, as evidenced by the botched first electrocution. Improvements in electric chair execution techniques came slowly and exclusively through trial-and-error electrocutions of hundreds of condemned prisoners over many decades. By today’s standards these empirically driven “experiments” on human beings would be completely unethical; nevertheless, we continue to rely on this historic data to inform today’s electrocution procedures—data collected largely in the memoir of a single electrician, Richard Elliott, who had no medical training.
Both the electric chairs and the electrical procedures used for criminal executions today are virtually unchanged from what was done 100 years ago. If Elliott were to return from the grave, he would be amazed at the advances in electrical technology that have happened since the days he was a practicing electrician. But he would likely be very disappointed to see that the electric chair being used in Tennessee is little different from the chairs he used back in the 1930s. And he’d be disappointed that no one ever followed up on his recommendation to move the electrode from the ankle to over the heart to speed death. Indeed, he would likely be disappointed that the electric chair had advanced so little, but he would certainly be appalled that we are still electrocuting people at all.
The practical and unintended consequence of a future Supreme Court ruling that lethal injection is a cruel and unusual punishment would be the return of the electric chair as the dominant method of execution in the United States. And it would likely mean that Nikolas Cruz will be executed in Florida in a vintage electric chair that dates back to Robert Elliott’s day. (The wooden seat of the Florida chair was refurbished in 1999, but the other components of the chair remain unchanged since 1923.) It would also mean a step back in time to the world of Robert Elliott, the “Agent of Death,” which is a place even Elliott himself wouldn’t want to go back to.
If the Supreme Court is going to consider future cases regarding the constitutionality of execution by lethal injection, they should revisit the constitutionality execution by the electric chair at the same time, because a person would be hard pressed to differentiate one execution method over the other as being inherently more humane. And the quickest way to reach a combined ruling on these execution methods would be for the Justices to witness one execution by lethal injection and another by electrocution, just as Elliott has recommended for electrocution over 80 years ago, before they hand down their ruling about which of the two is “cruel and unusual.” If this were to happen, Elliott’s prediction would likely come to pass, and total “abolishment of the death penalty would soon follow.” Such a ruling cannot come too soon.
Timothy J. Jorgensen is professor of radiation medicine and director of the Health Physics Graduate Program at Georgetown University. He is the author of the award-winning book Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation (Princeton). He lives in Rockville, Maryland. Twitter @Tim_Jorgensen
 Lethal injection was not known yet, and is not among the 34 methods the commission reviewed. Lethal injection with toxic doses of morphine was first proposed in 1888 by Julius Mount Beyer, a New York physician, after the commission had issued its final report. But the medical profession was largely opposed to lethal injection. The modern hypodermic needle, a medical instrument invented by Francis Rynd in 1844, was seen as a medical breakthrough. Physicians didn’t want to taint the image of the hypodermic needle, which was frightening enough to some patients, by having it associated with killing people.
 Galvin A. Old Sparky, 15-41.
 Moran R. Executioner’s Current, 81.
 Capital punishment gets its name from the Latin word capitalis, meaning “of the head.” So, the term capital punishment literally refers to a punishment of the head, because the death sentence was typically delivered by decapitation.
 Galvin A. Old Sparky, 63.
 “Brain dead” is the irreversible loss of the functions of the brain, including the brainstem. A patient determined to be brain dead is legally and clinically dead even if her heart has not yet stopped beating.
 Buffalo Evening News. “Never Mind the Intentions.”
 Auburn Daily Advertiser. “Kemmler.”
 Moran R. Executioner’s Current, 34.
 The events surrounding McElvaine’s electrocution as described here are summarized from a description in: Moran R. Executioner’s Current, 215–217. The original source of that information is the newspaper article: New York Times. “Two Shocks Were Needed.”
 New York Times. “Two Shocks Were Needed.”
 Elliott R.G. Agent of Death.
 Elliott R.G. Agent of Death, 14–15.
 Elliott did not immediately succeed Davis as state executioner. Davis retired in 1914 and was succeeded by John Hulbert, and then Elliott took over when Hulbert retired in 1926.
 Elliott R.G. Agent of Death, 150.
 Elliott R.G. Agent of Death, 211.
 Elliott R.G. Agent of Death, 149–150.
 Elliott R.G. Agent of Death, 147.
 This was before lethal injection was introduced in the United States; the first execution by lethal injection occurred in Texas in 1982.
 Elliott R.G. Agent of Death, 141.
 Elliott R.G. Agent of Death, 150.
 Elliott R.G. Agent of Death, 309.