Seeking a more humane method of execution than hanging, New York built the first electric chair in 1888 and executed William Kemmler in 1890. Soon, other states adopted this execution method. Today, electrocution is not used as the sole method of execution in any state, though some states retain it if the inmate chooses it or if lethal injection cannot be performed.
For execution by the electric chair, the person is usually shaved and strapped to a chair with belts that cross his chest, groin, legs, and arms. A metal skullcap-shaped electrode is attached to the scalp and forehead over a sponge moistened with saline. The sponge must not be too wet or the saline short-circuits the electric current, and not too dry, as it would then have a very high resistance. An additional electrode is moistened with conductive jelly (Electro-Creme) and attached to a portion of the prisoner's leg that has been shaved to reduce resistance to electricity. The prisoner is then blindfolded. (Hillman, 1992 and Weisberg, 1991)
After the execution team has withdrawn to the observation room, the warden signals the executioner, who pulls a handle to connect the power supply. A jolt of between 500 and 2000 volts, which lasts for about 30 seconds, is given. The current surges and is then turned off, at which time the body is seen to relax. The doctors wait a few seconds for the body to cool down and then check to see if the inmate's heart is still beating. If it is, another jolt is applied. This process continues until the prisoner is dead. The prisoner's hands often grip the chair and there may be violent movement of the limbs which can result in dislocation or fractures. The tissues swell. Defecation occurs. Steam or smoke rises and there is a smell of burning. (Hillman, 1992 and Weisberg, 1991)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan once offered the following description of an execution by electric chair:
...the prisoner's eyeballs sometimes pop out and rest on [his] cheeks. The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool. The body turns bright red as its temperature rises, and the prisoner's flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking. Sometimes the prisoner catches fire....Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh permeates the chamber. (Ecenbarger, 1994)
At postmortem, the body is hot enough to blister if touched, and the autopsy is delayed while the internal organs cool. There are third degree burns with blackening where the electrodes met the skin of the scalp and legs. According to Robert H. Kirschner, the deputy chief medical examiner of Cook County, "The brain appears cooked in most cases." (Weisberg, 1991)