became so intense that Edison electrocuted an elephant to demonstrate the danger of AC, even filming the macabre event and distributing it to movie houses all over the U.S. The circus elephant, Topsy, had killed a trainer and was deemed a danger to people.
Because of Westinghouse's involvement with Dr. Southwick, Edison publicly scorned Westinghouse and referred to electrocutions of death row inmates as being "Westinghoused," a moniker that lasted for decades.
Dr. Southwick talked up his belief and experiments with one of his patients, a state senator, who in turn relayed the information to several prominent public
William Kemmler was the first person executed using an electric chair on August 6, 1890, at Auburn Prison in New York.
officials, including Gov. David Hill, who had just succeeded Gov. Grover Cleveland after Cleveland's election to the U.S. presidency. Hill, also mortified by the growing public outrage over bungled hangings, created a three-member commission to study the question of alternatives to hanging. Dr. Southwick was appointed one of its members.
The commission issued its report the same year. The report, a well-written, historic treatise on executions dating back to ancient times, reported that "all primitive forms of capital punishment ... [were] ... characterized by cruelty ... all expressing ... an intense desire to wreak vengeance ... a desire to inflict physical pain and suffering, even the utmost agony possible." By the mid-1800s, according to the report, civilization had advanced to a point where executions had evolved to be "speedier and more merciful" than ancient times. The next logical step would be electrocution an instantaneous and merciful method of execution. In 1888, as part of the report, the commission surveyed 36 nations' modes of execution, finding that 10 used the guillotine, 19 used a sword, three used gallows (hanging), two used firing squads, one used an
cleft palates, and in 1877 his achievement was recognized by the New York Dental Association.
Around 1880, the inventive Dr. Southwick became interested in low-voltage electricity as a possible pain numbing agent during dental treatment. In 1881, a drunken dockworker attempting to shut down a light and power plant dynamo in Buffalo was electrocuted. The event was widely reported and caught the dentist's attention -- thinking it might be a more "humane" method for capital punishment
executions. According to some reports, since Dr. Southwick was accustomed to performing procedures on his patients in a dental chair, he came up with the idea of using an electric chair for executions.
Personally, Southwick was a proponent of capital punishment but was troubled by universal reports of bungled hangings. The nation's newspapers reported widespread problems with hangings, using descriptive words and phrases such as "writhing and suffering," "convulsions," "throes," "contortions," "fractures," and even "heads being ripped off of victims' bodies." Death penalty advocates were fearful that the U. S. Supreme Court would eventually abolish hanging as "cruel and unusual punishment," and with it the death penalty altogether.
Dr. Southwick, along with a physician friend, began experimenting by electrocuting animals. They were having difficulty in determining the right amount of voltage, so they contacted Thomas Edison for his help. Edison was opposed to the death penalty and advised Dr. Southwick to contact George Westinghouse.
Many believe Edison used the debate as a ploy to gain influence against Westinghouse's alternating current (AC) system, which was in direct competition to Edison's own patented direct current (DC) system. Edison, ever the grandstander and promoter, claimed Westinghouse's AC was too dangerous to be used to transport electricity to residences and businesses. The so-called "current wars"
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Dr. Alfred Southwick and his legacy of the electric chair
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New York abandoned the chair in 1963 when state courts ruled it as "cruel and unusual punishment."