What happens when you are executed by electrocution?

The shocking truth

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What happens when you are executed by electrocution?

Asked by Ron Talbot of Tyler, Texas

In the late 19th century, it was widely believed that a more modern method of execution was needed to replace the three most commonly used execution methods at that time (hanging, firing squad, and, in France, beheading).

The first practical electric chair was invented by Harold P Brown who worked for Thomas Edison. The first person to die in the electric chair was executed in 1890. A parallel occurrence at around the same time was the scientific discovery of the precise effects upon the body of high voltages of electricity.

For example, according to Dr T Bernstein of the Wallace-Kettering Neuroscience Institute at Wright State University, writing in Medical Instrumentation in 1975, two doctors by the name of Prevost and Battelli demonstrated in 1899 that death from electrocution was caused, not by damaging the brain, but by high voltages of electricity causing very rapid irregular contractions of the heart (ventricular fibrillation) eventuating in the heart stopping.

As for the execution itself, the prisoner must first be prepared for execution by shaving the head and the calf of one leg. This permits better contact between the skin and the electrodes which must be attached to the body. The prisoner is strapped into the electric chair at the wrists, waist, and ankles. An electrode is attached to the head and another to the leg. At least two jolts of an electrical current are applied for several minutes. An initial voltage of about 2,000 volts stops the heart and induces unconsciousness. The voltage is then lowered somewhat.

In one US state, the protocol calls for a jolt of 2,450 volts that lasts for 15 seconds. After a 15 minute wait, the prisoner is then examined by a coroner. After 20 seconds, the cycle is repeated. It is repeated three more times. The body may heat up to approximately 100°C (210°F), which causes severe damage to internal organs. Often the eyeballs melt.

Taping the eyes closed is often part of the preparation for execution by electrocution. The effects of the electricity often cause the body to twitch and gyrate uncontrollably and bodily functions may "let go". Prisoners are sometimes offered diapers.

Although death is supposedly instantaneous, some prisoners have been known to shriek and even shout while being executed in this way. There have been reports of a prisoner's head bursting into flames. There have been reports too of a prisoner being removed from an electric chair that has malfunctioned part way through the electrocution and then being placed back in the chair once it is fixed in order for the job to be finished. Some skin is burned off the prisoner. The burned off skin must then be scrapped off the seat and straps of the electric chair before it may be used again.

Interesting facts

  • In 1991, a recommendation was made by two Polish doctors that the thighs also be strapped in. Warsaw Drs L Zynda and K Skiba reported in the Chirurgia Narzadow Ruchu I Ortopedia Poska on the case of a 58-year-old executed male who whose legs were broken by the intense twitching of the legs due to the force of the deadly electric current passing through his body.
  • In 1946, an electric chair malfunctioned and failed to execute the prisoner who reported shrieked "Stop it! Let me breathe!" as he was being executed. Having survived, lawyers for the prisoners argued that, although he did not die, he had been executed as defined by the law. In 1947, in the case of Francis vs Resweber, the US Supreme Court ruled against the prisoner. He was returned to the electric chair and successfully executed later that year.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

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