Planet Earth

The Long, Fraught History of Human Execution Techniques

Attempts over the past few centuries to carry out "humane" capital punishment methods have often failed to alleviate suffering.

By Emilie Le Beau LucchesiFeb 25, 2022 7:40 PM
electric chair Auburn State Prison
A 1908 photo of an electric chair in Auburn State Prison. (Credit: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

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Church bells rang on a November morning in 1617 in Nuremberg to announce an execution. The condemned man had counterfeited coins, and authorities sentenced him to burn to death.   

It all began with a mile-long walk from the town hall to the execution site. The prisoner begged the chaplain to convert his punishment from burning to beheading, a faster and seemingly less painful method reserved for the upper class. But the chaplain refused, and the doomed man cried the entire mile.  

The executioner, Frantz Schmidt, forced the prisoner to sit in a chair while he bound him with chains and placed a hood over his head. Schmidt kept a professional diary, and he noted his attempts to mercifully end prisoners’ lives. For live burnings, he subtly wrapped a cord around the prisoner’s throat and hid a small packet of gunpowder. As he dropped the lit torch onto the straw encircling the chair, his assistant yanked the cord and strangled the prisoner before they felt the agony of the flames. If the cord failed, the gunpowder was meant to ignite and quickly end the suffering. All the while, the witnesses assumed the prisoner had slowly and painfully burned to death.  

Schmidt lit the fire and his assistant pulled the cord. However, the strangulation did not succeed. The gunpowder also failed. The dying man wailed in anguish, and the chaplain later expressed regret in his journal for the torturous demise.  

Executioners like Schmidt, and then eventually scientists, have long tried to make capital punishment more humane. But each new approach has come with mishaps that have led to agonizing ends. Overall, the debate surrounding how precisely to kill has lasted hundreds of years and persists today.  

The Dance of Death 

The U.S., unlike many European governments, built penitentiaries and halted executions for petty crimes in the 18th century. In the following decades, executions moved behind prison walls, and authorities considered quicker and kinder methods.  

Hanging was the most common technique, and it often went wrong. When a victim's neck did not break, they seem to have slowly asphyxiated for dozens of minutes. Their flailing body made unnatural movements that people coined “the dance of death.” When witnesses could bear it no more, one executioner would pull on victims' legs to expedite their demise.  

By the 1860s, authorities in the U.K. learned of the long-drop technique, which was meant to deliver 1,000 pounds of force. The executioner divided the person’s weight in pounds by 2,240. The resulting number was the ideal length of rope (in feet).  

When the long-drop technique went successfully, the spinal cord broke instantly and the cervical vertebrae dislocated. But it rarely worked, and one physician estimated that only one in 20 hangings had the desired effect. The rest were slow strangulations.  

Drawing Out Death 

By the 1880s, scientists like Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse were testing new ways to kill with electricity. Those methods, however, could also go awry.   

The idea behind the electric chair was that high voltages could kill a person before the brain had time to process the pain. But the first execution in Westinghouse’s electric chair showed the finicky machine could lead to a drawn-out death. The condemned, a vegetable peddler convicted for axing his girlfriend to death, received a 1,300-volt shock for 17 seconds before prison officials realized one of the generators had a loose belt. The unconscious prisoner began to stir, and he received a second jolt lasting four minutes. Witnesses were horrified by the charred body and smell of burning flesh.  

Despite its concerning start, the electric chair replaced hanging as the primary method of execution. From then on, errors in the preparation process often led to gruesome deaths because it left room for mistakes.

First, the prisoner’s head and right calf were shaved. Multiple sea sponges were soaked in saline and placed on the bare head and leg. A lead electrode was attached to the prisoner’s leg, and a brass electrode to the head. But when the saline sponges were not adequately soaked, they caught fire and witnesses saw flames escaping from underneath the leather death hood. These executions took up to seven minutes, and one witness claimed it was like watching someone burn to death. In other instances, the saline sponges were too wet and the electrodes short-circuited.  

In recent years, inmates have sued South Carolina and Tennessee, claiming the electric chair is cruel and unusual punishment. Most states moved toward lethal injection (in some cases, firing squads serve as a backup method), and only eight currently allow the electric chair as an authorized method.  

A ‘Tranquil’ Method? 

With the electric chair deemed barbaric, states looked to a more tranquil approach. Texas was the first to use lethal injection in 1982, and it is now the primary method used by nearly all of the 27 U.S. states that perform capital punishment, as well as the federal government and U.S. military. 

Lethal injection begins with a saline drip in the prisoner’s arm, followed by a dose of sodium thiopental, then pancuronium bromide, and finally potassium chloride.  

The ideal scenario: the sedated prisoner is unaware of the drugs that paralyze them and stop their hearts. Proponents have claimed the technique is humane, while opponents worry such a tranquil procedure might not deter would-be murderers.  

Because physicians are barred from participating, technicians or untrained prison staff are tasked with starting the intravenous line. Such personnel have struggled to find suitable veins in prisoners who were overweight or former drug users, and the process has taken as long as 35 minutes.   

Other research argues the process does not happen as intended. In 2020, an investigation into autopsy reports of prisoners executed by lethal injections found that 84 percent had pulmonary edema. The risk is that inmates who weren’t properly sedated may have experienced a drowning sensation.  

In recent years, pharmaceutical companies have stopped producing the barbiturates used in lethal injection or refused to distribute them to US prisons. The resulting shortage has once again sparked the debate on how precisely to execute condemned inmates.

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