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Auburn, NY uses electric chair first

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One-hundred and twenty-four years ago, on August 6, 1890, the electric chair was used for the first time to execute a convicted murderer at Auburn State Prison in Auburn, New York.

The passage of current through his body lasted 17 seconds and caused unconsciousness. But it did not stop his heart or breathing. A doctor confirmed he was still alive and said, "Have the current turned on again, quick, no delay."

William Kemmler was then shocked with about 2,000 volts. The blood vessels under his skin ruptured and bled, and the areas around the electrodes were singed. The execution took eight minutes. George Westinghouse said "they would have done better using an axe,” and one reporter claimed it was "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging."

In 1881, New York State had established a committee to determine a more humane method of execution to replace hanging. Alfred Southwick developed the idea of passing electric current through a condemned person.

He was a dentist used to performing procedures on his patients in chairs, so his device appeared in the form of a chair in order to restrain an inmate while he was electrocuted. The first electric chair was made by two employees of Thomas Edison, who was hired to research electrocution.

Development of the electric chair is often wrongly credited to Edison. His employees intended to use alternating current (AC), a potent rival to direct current (DC), which was more advanced in commercial development. The decision to use AC was partly driven by Edison's claim that it was more lethal than direct current.

Electrocution had its intended effects, and the committee adopted the AC electric chair in 1889. It was used by Ohio in 1897, Massachusetts in 1900, New Jersey in 1906, and Virginia in 1908, and soon replaced hanging as the most common method of execution in the United States. The first woman to be executed in the electric chair was Martha Place at Sing Sing in New York in 1899.

The electric chair became a symbol of the death penalty, but its use went into decline with the rise of lethal injection, believed to be more humane. Today, it is only maintained as a secondary method over lethal injection at the request of a prisoner. In 2010, electrocution was an optional form of execution in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia.

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