By Crime Historian Laura James, Esquire (c) 2005-14 WELCOME to my study of historic true crime, a literary blog where the chairs rest at the intersection of history, journalism, law, and murder, and the shelves are filled with the finest true crime literature. STEAL FROM THIS LIBRARY AND IT'S PISTOLS AT DAWN.
Electricity. Whenever you sit down to count your blessings, count it among them. Who knows how many lives have not been lost to house fires thanks to the regulation of this phenomenon.
When electricity first came into widespread use, it was hailed as a cure-all -- useful to eliminate darkness, treat frigidity and impotence and all manner of disease, and, -- let's get to it, execute murderers.
One of the first electrical executions, witnessed by Thomas Edison himself, was not of a human but of an elephant. Apparently the elephant had killed a man who'd fed it a lit cigar. The execution was pretty awful per the account I heard -- the unfortunate animal "made a whole lot of smoke." (I heard this story from my husband; Mr. James is a walking encyclopedia of Edison lore; he insisted that we give our first child the middle name Edison; I told him that it was awful to think about killing an elephant this way, and it sounded to me as though the elephant was guilty of manslaughter at most, and the story disturbed me; he rolled his eyes and said something sarcastic about my taste in true tales.)
But the development of state-sponsored death by electrocution was seen as a vast improvement over the method that preceded it, death by hanging. Botched executions resulted from misjudgment of the required counterweight, strength of rope, specific knot, or length of drop, and any number of people were accidentally beheaded or slowly choked to death when their necks failed to break. In the state of New York, prison officials were so upset when they witnessed the execution of one woman who took fifteen minutes to die that they resolved to find a better way. Electrocution promised to be a neat and tidy and hands-off way of ending life that would keep the body intact for Christian burial.
Executions by electricity came into regular use in the 1890s; on this date, March 20, in 1899, the first woman was put to death in an electric chair in Sing Sing prison in New York State.
Her name was Martha Place. She had very little to recommend her; she was described in the newspapers as "homely, old, ill-tempered, not loved by her husband." The crime that sent her to the chair was the murder by smothering of her stepdaughter Ida. She begrudged the young girl the attentions of her father, William Place. "It was a murder so shocking," said one journalist, "that nothing worse could be thought of -- that is to say, only one thing worse could be thought of, and that was the electric killing of the old woman."
New York is a liberal state and the death sentence imposed on the woman was not supported by public sentiment, and there was loud clamor for a reprieve. No woman had been executed in New York for many years because the governors who ruled there wouldn't allow it.
But when it came time to make good on the sentence for Mrs. Place, the conservative Teddy Roosevelt occupied the governor's office, and he refused to be swayed by what he called "mawkish sentimentality."
There are particulars about her death that are interesting, aside from the new method. She was not informed of the exact time; instead, a few days before the event, she was told that all hope of pardon was lost and she was to prepare herself to go at any moment. She spent the last several days of her life eating at the warden's table and exhibiting a calm demeanor. The actual execution seems to have gone alright, as these things go. She died very quickly.
It was, per the prison doctor at Sing Sing, "the best execution that has ever occurred here."
For more interesting reading along these lines, see The Penalty is Death: U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Women's Executions by Marlin Shipman.
NewspaperArchive My most very favorite site on the internet. Millions of digitized, text-searchable newspapers from across the U.S. and the world. If my computer somehow froze up and I had access to only one website, this would be it.
Paper of Record Another pay-to-play website that features searchable historic newspapers. Canada is particularly well represented in its collection.