"...an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging." You will find that quote used many
places in reference to the well-known battle between Thomas Edison with his DC power
distribution system and Nikola Tesla with his AC power distribution system (aka
the "War of Currents"). It derives from a headline in the August 7, 1890 edition
of the New York Times that read thus: "Far Worse Than Hanging." Edison and his attack dogs did constantly
and mercilessly haunt Tesla and his underwriter, corporate magnate George Westinghouse,
with a lot of vicious quotes and actions. Most nastiness attributed to Edison is
factual. As normally misrepresented, the article is an attack directed specifically
against the horror of Tesla's AC current being used in an execution by electrocution
as opposed to the - to be inferred by the reader - more humane form of execution
by Edison's DC current. However, after scanning the entirety of the original "Far
Worse Than Hanging" article from the NYT's archives, I cannot find even a hint that
the writer meant to impugn Tesla's AC and absolve Edison's DC. The story merely
reported, in gory detail, the procedure and witnesses' thoughts on the outcome.
In fact, when Edison, who was not present, was asked to comment, his criticism was
not on the use of electricity as a means of execution, but that the doctors, "with
their knowledge of nerves and nerve centers," made a mistake in placing the electrodes
on the top of the felon's* head and at the base of the spine so that the shock would
attack the spinal column. He reflected that thirty or so people had been seen to
die instantly upon coming in contact with high voltage wires with their two hands.
Accordingly, Edison's recommended method was to insert the hands in jars of water
"with a little potash added" to increase conduction, in order to have the current
pass directly through the heart. He reasoned that the lack of water in the scalp
and the skull bone created too much resistance for a clean electrocution at the
available voltage (700-1,700 volts, which varied during the procedure). Even placing
dampened sponges between the skin and the electrodes was not very effective. High
voltage was deemed to be the solution.
BTW, George Westinghouse, upon hearing of the execution, said "They could have
done better with an axe." There are reportedly 8 states that still use the
* I use the term "felon" rather than "victim" in reference
to William Kemmler because he was a convicted murderer condemned to death in Buffalo,
New York. The person he murdered was the victim.
Nikola Tesla - Master of Lightning.
Posted July 16, 2012