Today in 1901: President McKinley’s assassin gets the electric chair

October 29, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryIt was 109 years ago today that Leon Czolgosz, a 28-year-old steelworker and aspiring anarchist, was strapped into the electric chair at New York’s Auburn Prison and executed for the murder of President William McKinley.

Just eight weeks earlier, Czolgosz had walked up to McKinley with gun in hand – wrapped in a white handkerchief to look like a bandage – and shot him twice in the abdomen.

Czolgosz was the 50th convict in New York to die in the electric chair. New York was the first state to employ the electric chair, and it began using this new form of capital punishment in 1890, in the same prison where Czolgosz met his fate.

first electric chair, Auburn Prison, New YorkAmerica’s first electric chair (shown here) was devised by a Buffalo dentist who witnessed a drunken man accidentally electrocute himself and die with no apparent pain. (Of course, alcohol may have played a role in the “no pain” part.) Some speculate that the dentist selected a chair, rather than a gurney or some other apparatus, because of his familiarity with his own dental examination chair.

Electrocution was embraced as a more humane alternative to hanging, which was frequently botched by inexperienced hangmen.

However, the nation’s very first electric-chair execution, which took place at Auburn Prison, didn’t go so smoothly, either. The process took several minutes, finally coming to a gruesome end when the convict’s body erupted in flames. (George Westinghouse later commented that “they would have done better using an axe.”)

Even so, other states soon adopted the electric chair, and at the height of its popularity half of all U.S. states employed it. But despite its popularity here, the chair never caught on outside the United States, and the Philippines is the only other nation to ever use it. (Interesting side note: During World War II, Winston Churchill proposed that when Adolf Hitler was eventually captured,he should die in an electric chair – to be brought over from the United States.)

In 1946, the chair was used unsuccessfully on a black Louisiana teenager named Willie Francis; as the current surged through his body, witnesses heard him scream, “Take it off! Let me breathe!” After the botched execution and a temporary reprieve from the governor, Francis’s case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459 (1947) that another stab at execution would not constitute double jeopardy or cruel and unusual punishment. But while Francis was eventually electrocuted (again), his case marked the beginning of the end for the electric chair.

Today, nearly all death-penalty states have moved to lethal injection. However, nine states continue to keep the chair on hand – mainly as an option for death-row convicts who wish to depart in a more dramatic manner.
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