Shock to the System: Famous Electrocutions

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About This Quiz

Electricity brings us light, heat and Netflix. But sometimes, when it courses through man, woman or beast, electricity brings sudden death. Which is why executioners in the early 20th century looked at power lines and had light bulbs flash over their heads.

Which execution method has supplanted electrocution in the U.S.?

Electrocution, if it's done correctly, renders the victim unconscious and then almost instantly stops the heart. Unfortunately, more than a few electrocution attempts didn't go so smoothly. As a result of these botched executions, many people petitioned for the removal of the electric chair as a form of capital punishment. Today, most states that practice capital punishment have abandoned the electric chair in favor of lethal injection, the most common -- and perhaps the most humane -- way to execute a person.

Which execution method was the most popular in the U.S. before the electric chair was introduced?

Before "The Chair" became the symbol for capital punishment, it was the hangman's knot that sent cold shivers down the spines of convicted felons. Hanging was the standard method of execution throughout the British Empire until the 1960s. The American justice system preferred hanging, as well, until Old Sparky came onto the scene.

How long does a typical electrocution take?

In a typical electrocution, current is applied for about 60 seconds. Then a physician tries to restart the victim's heart with adrenaline. If this works, more current is applied. The whole process, if done correctly, should take no more than two minutes.

When was the first official electrocution conducted in the U.S.?

The prerequisite for the electric chair was large-scale power generation. That didn't arrive in the United States until the late 19th century. First came an electrical utility industry based on DC service, followed by the more advanced AC service. This set the stage for the Electrical Execution Law in 1889 and the first such execution in 1890.

Who was the first person ever executed in the electric chair?

William Kemmler, convicted of killing his lover with an ax, has the dubious distinction of being the first electric-chair casualty. He was put to death in Buffalo, known at the time as the "Electric City of the Future."

Who was the first woman put to death in the electric chair?

In 1898, police in Brooklyn, N.Y., found 17-year-old Ida Place dead in an upstairs bedroom. They arrested Ida's stepmother, Martha Place, and a year later, she became the first woman to die in the electric chair.

How many U.S. states used electrocution at its peak of popularity?

By 1949, 25 states and the District of Columbia used electrocution to enforce the death penalty. In the 59 years between 1890 and 1949, more than 4,000 people died in the electric chair.

Which was the last U.S. state to use electrocution as the sole method of execution?

By 2001, only two states used the electric chair as the sole means of execution: Alabama and Nebraska. Nebraska was the last holdout, declaring in 2008 that electrocution was unconstitutional.

Which rock guitarist was electrocuted onstage by a microphone during a sound check at the Top Rank Ballroom in Swansea, Wales?

It was May 3, 1972, and the Scottish rock band Stone the Crows was touring behind three successful albums. Tragedy struck when lead guitarist Les Harvey touched an ungrounded microphone and died from the shock. He was just 27 years old.

This Yardbirds guitarist died in his basement after being electrocuted by an improperly grounded guitar.

The Yardbirds, an influential British band formed in the 1960s, launched the careers of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. It also ended the career of Keith Relf, who died from electrocution in his home studio in May 1976.

Who electrocuted an elephant in 1903 to discredit alternating current as a form of electricity distribution?

The Wizard of Menlo Park could have been called The Executioner of Menlo Park. Beginning in the late 1800s, the famous inventor electrocuted hundreds of cats and dogs to illustrate the dangers of alternating current -- the rival technology to his DC service. In 1903, he turned to something bigger, zapping Topsy the elephant with 6,600 volts of electricity and killing her instantly.

Someone condemned to sit in the electric chair was destined -- at least to those with a penchant for dark comedy -- to do this.

Every form of execution leads to expressions of gallows humor. For example, the French referred to the guillotine as "Madame Guillotine" or "The National Razor." In America, someone put to death in the electric chair was said to "ride the lightning."

In 2012, which world-famous animal made headlines when he died of electrocution while landing on a power pole in Iowa?

The Raptor Resource Project drew millions of fans when it streamed video of a bald eagle nest in Decorah, Iowa, on its Web site. Over two seasons, people watched as 14 eaglets were born and raised by proud parents. Unfortunately, the first eagle hatched in 2012, known as D12, was electrocuted when it landed on an uninsulated power pole in July.

What convicted killer asked for the Ohio electric chair in 2001 to prove a point about the horror of capital punishment?

Many states allow death row inmates to choose how they'd like to die -- either by electrocution or lethal injection. In 2001, John W. Byrd Jr., convicted for the 1983 murder of Monte Tewksbury, asked for the electric chair as a way to protest the death penalty. In the end, Byrd failed to make his point. He was executed by lethal injection on Feb. 19, 2002.

Who first proposed the idea of using electric current to kill a human being?

In 1881, Dr. Alfred Southwick, a dentist living in Buffalo, observed an elderly man perish, instantly and with no apparent pain, when the man accidentally touched an electrical generator. Southwick wondered if electrical current might be used more effectively than hanging to execute individuals. He passed the idea along to a state senator and then to the New York governor. Eight years later, Buffalo would be the site of the first electric chair.

This killer of the Lindbergh baby died in the electric chair.

Charles Lindbergh Jr., son of famous aviator Lucky Lindbergh, was kidnapped on March 1, 1932. A two-year manhunt turned up Bruno Hauptmann, a German immigrant who worked as a carpenter in New York City. Although he claimed his innocence to the end, Hauptmann met his final fate in Old Smokey, New Jersey's electric chair.

Two of the most infamous spies in American history died in the electric chair in 1953. Who were they?

Their crime: passing secrets about how to make an atomic bomb to the Soviets. Their punishment: death in the electric chair. Their names: Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg.

How many volts of electricity surge through a person's body during an execution by electrocution?

The electric chair sends 2,000 volts through the victim's body, but even the voltage of a typical household outlet can kill. In fact, it's not really the voltage that kills, but the amount of current. Currents between 100 and 200 milliamps are lethal.

Which notorious serial killer was put to death in Florida's electric chair in 1989?

The January 1978 photograph of the Chi Omega sorority house taken the day after Ted Bundy killed two women and assaulted two others still haunts the American psyche. But when the "Deliberate Stranger" died in the Florida electric chair in 1989, he was being punished, technically, for the murder of 12-year-old Kimberly Leach, whom Bundy killed a month after the sorority slayings.

Who wrote "The Effects of Electric Shock on Man" and then invented the ground-fault circuit interrupter to prevent such a shock from happening?

Like Edison, Charles Dalziel, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California Berkeley, was interested in the effects of electricity on animals and humans. But unlike Edison, who electrocuted animals to further his business interests, Dalziel set out to prevent unintentional electrocutions. In 1961, he invented the ground-fault circuit interrupter, or GFCI, a device installed in electrical outlets that interrupts power flow to prevent fatal shocks.

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