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Perfect Execution: Film and the Electric Chair

The shocking truth (and serendipitous nature) of film and its relationship to the electric chair has its origins in one man out to destroy another. Propaganda, exploitation and animal cruelty are all part of the same story. One we are all too familiar with as fans of the art form; along with the ongoing debate within horror on where we may draw the line with what is ‘executed’ onscreen.

Personally, I’ve always preferred my horror a little more ‘detached’; not just of the severed head variety but more about that good old-fashioned makeup and effects that remind us all that, ‘This shit ain’t real.’ Okay, maybe some offal from the butchers. But then… these butchered remains are only a heartbeat away from the disturbing imagery and processes employed on certain infamous work. Deodato and the turtle? Fuck him. Coppola and the carabao. No – you’re not a child anymore pulling legs off flies – it’s wrong. Inhumane. You can talk around it all you like about cultural acceptance; another nation’s traditions, etc. Captured on film, it is just troublesome and your bullshit about ‘how it reflects society, and post colonialism’ is merely exploitation dressed up as documentary.

Often these acts detract either from a genuine work of art or simply lend trash some form of commentary that is simply based on controversy and ‘shock tactics.’ These disturbing moments of execution become the only point of discussion and the only part of any theory that is given to such films. Which is the fascinating side of the argument. Are you making a piece of fiction or a factual document? That is where the boundaries begin to blur. Oh, you’re just trying to trick us, corrupt us… make us believe that you’re ‘doing the right thing’; it had nothing to do with making money. Honest. It’s all just art…

…and, alas, it’s business.

Thomas Edison looking at film stock.

This stems from Thomas Edison. His lightbulb moment wasn’t so much a bright idea that appeared overnight but more a series of experiments (based on other inventors’ work) between 1878 and 1880. The ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’, as he had come to be known, had all the resources through the first industrial research laboratory and his ruthless businessman mentality was all about cracking an idea and patent as much as possible. He was, without a doubt, a pioneer and one of the most important people of his generation; a crucial figure in the development of film technology. With his direct current (DC), the Wizard had briefly become the King. But there were new competitors, setting Edison on a course that would become a personal vendetta.

London, 1881. Having evolved from Michael Faraday’s principles and French instrument maker, Hippolyte Pixii’s first alternator in 1832, Lucien Gaulard and John Dixon Gibbs demonstrated alternating current almost half a century later. Having attracted the interest of American entrepreneur and engineer George Westinghouse, he became a core proponent of alternating current (AC), opposing Edison. This began the war of currents.

As well as a talent for invention, it is worth noting that Edison’s pragmatism as a successful manufacturer and businessman was elevated tenfold by the skilled marketing of his inventions and even his own persona. He would utilise information and spin his opponents’ inventions to damage their reputation. This could not be highlighted anymore clearly through the invention of the electric chair.

When a drunken dockworker had grabbed the dynamo of arc lighting in Buffalo, New York, it led to experimentation on the electrocution of hundreds of stray dogs to euthanize animals with electricity. It wasn’t long before this caught the attention of the New York state politicians looking for an improvement on their execution methods after a number of botched hangings. Commissioned in 1886, by New York governor David B. Hill, it was recommended in 1888 that executions be carried out by electricity using the electric chair. The exact same year the first film footage was captured on a bridge in Leeds by French artist and inventor, Louis Le Prince.

Early indications showed that this brutal new form of execution would become associated with the war of currents and through the commission of such a device, fact-finding led to hundreds of experts on law and medicine lending their insight. It also involved contacting Thomas Edison himself, in which it turned out that he was against capital punishment and wanted nothing to do with the matter. But, after further provoking, Edison responded by launching an attack on Westinghouse, in what could be considered the first spark in the war. It was the perfect propaganda to smear Westinghouse and the AC campaign; so much so that Edison termed state execution as ‘Westinghousing.’ Through a series of accusations over patents and bitter rivalry, Edison decided to become involved in designing electric chairs, if only to destroy his competitor’s reputation and give a bad name to alternating current. In an effort to sustain his reputation, Westinghouse paid a substantial amount for his own licences and US patents, building upon a crucial network of inventors who would also champion AC, such as Nikola Tesla’s US patents for a poly-phase AC induction motor. Was Edison ruthless? Of course. It went even as far as barbarity – a twisted brilliance only he was capable of – using any opportunity to convince the rest of the world that AC was the most efficient of killers. It was win-win, with Edison’s shares increasing.

William Kemmler, a drunk who murdered his wife with a hatchet, became the first man to be executed in the electric chair. Westinghouse – so desperate for his execution not to tarnish the reputation of AC current any further – hired the best attorney he could find to represent Kemmler. Obviously, the court found him guilty and on August 6th, 1890, Kemmler was led to an empty oak chair for everyone to watch. But he didn’t die immediately. Having taken four minutes but several hours to cool off, some people went on to comment, ‘An axe would have been quicker.’ The irony. Edison continued to analyse the chair lending further advice on its efficiency, ‘I think when the next man is placed in the chair to suffer the death penalty, that death will be accomplished instantly … The better way is to place the hands in jars of water, and let the current be turned on there.’ Edison obviously didn’t want to hear of any more hatchet jobs, both in terms of murders and executions. What a professional.

The war of currents wound down regardless of the Westinghouse propaganda and, surprisingly, direct current was on the losing side. Having experimented with alternative current, Edison had now become marginalised within his own company and retired from the lighting business in 1890. With his anti-AC principles no longer controlling the company, they moved forward with Edison General Electric. The war of currents came to a close with a financial merger and by 1889 Edison’s own affiliates were promoting AC power, leading to the development of AC transmission by October, 1890 with Edison Machine Works.

Execution of Czolgosz with panorama of Auburn prison (1901)

It is worth noting that despite Thomas Edison’s interest in film technology of the time, he played no direct part in the making of his studios’ films, beyond being the owner. In 1899, another pioneer in early cinema, Edwin S. Porter, had joined the Edison Manufacturing Company (1894–1911). Shortly after, he took charge of motion picture production at Edison’s New York studios, operating the camera, directing the actors, and assembling the final prints. Throughout 1901, the Edison Manufacturing Company had produced and released a number of films about the assassination of U.S. President, William McKinley, due to the growth of media and demand from the public. For the final film in the series, Execution of Czolgosz with panorama of Auburn prison (1901), Porter sought permission to film the actual execution of the guilty party, Leon Frank Czołgosz, but was denied access. Instead, they filmed outside the prison the day of the execution – the external shot of the film – then recreated the execution on a set, faithfully documented from the description of an eye witness. This use of internal and external shot is an early example of Porter’s new techniques of transitionary shots involving early forms of continuity editing. This revolutionary technique was most notably brought to prominence with his use of exterior to interior cuts in his milestone films, Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery (considered the first ever western) both shot and released in 1903. But it was a more infamous film, shot at the beginning of that same year, where Edison’s more infamous reputation and association grew.

Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)

Luna Park, Coney Island, Sunday, January 4th, 1903. Topsy the elephant is fed poison, strangled and electrocuted in front of over 100 spectators. The latter act is filmed by the Edison Manufacturing Company, titled Electrocuting an Elephant (also known as Electrocution of an Elephant) and is considered the first filmed death of an animal in history. Although credited to Thomas Edison on IMDb the film was believed to have been shot by Edwin S. Porter or Jacob Blair Smith, which would make more sense based on Porter’s position in the company at the time.

Luna Park owners, Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy were personally responsible for the killing of Topsy – an animal they could no longer control or even sell on to other attractions; circuses or zoos – to them, the act was no different to the ‘euthanized’ dogs on the streets of Buffalo and therefore considered more humane than hanging the huge animal. However, over the years, acknowledgment of Topsy’s death has been more closely attributed to Thomas Edison, not only because it was his company that captured the animal’s execution, but also often claimed that it was another Edison propaganda message that would top the electric chair campaign. But, as we know through this article, the event happened over ten years after the war of currents with Edison himself concerning himself more with iron ore than the awe of Topsy’s demise.

These events more than highlight how film and exploitation have existed together since the moment they appeared. The medium exploits all manner of information, all of the time; whether it is studios milking the latest franchise or cheaper forms of cinema squeezing every dollar out of whatever is popular at a given moment. Mondo films, giallo, slasher, rape and revenge, sexploitation, blaxploitation, cannibal and splatter movies, biker films and spaghetti westerns are just a few examples of the varying sub-categories; all of which have their own degree of the good, bad and ugly taste. Fantasy violence onscreen is one thing but filming cruelty to animals for the sake of art is something else entirely. The killing of elephants, turtles and water buffalo, no matter what context you apply, is dodgy ground to say the least and becomes even more disturbing once it permeates popular culture.

Andy Warhol, Big Electric Chair, (1967)

As part of his Death and Disaster pop art series, Andy Warhol’s Big Electric Chair, (1967) is a screen print that took seemingly mundane objects (and dead celebrities) a stage further; questioning how tragic events may become the same discarded information as a soup tin. Based on a press photograph from January 13th, 1953, the image has more potency based on the fact that American citizens, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed that year for passing information about the atomic bomb to Russia during World War II. The chair sits in the centre of the canvas, the texture of the screen print emphasising the nature of the potent image. It is alone and silent (a sign reflects this); without occupancy. It bears a high-backed frame, leather straps at its feet while the longer straps and buckles rest at its sides. The electric cable runs out from underneath and, behind, a small wooden table stands against the back wall.

Warhol’s reproductions of the same image in the early 1970s placed the chair more prominently in the frame; screen printed with brighter monochromatic colours. It had become more garish, louder and through its reproduction tested his theory that, ‘When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it doesn’t really have an effect.’ It is interesting that he juxtaposes his earlier piece, Car Crash (1963) – a body lying twisted within a mangled wreckage – with Electric Chair, devoid of all human presence. For Warhol and the rest of us looking at it, it makes for a rather sombre and sobering experience. His process didn’t just attempt to undermine art and its criticism but also raise questions once again on how an artist may exploit death… and disaster.

The history of film highlights some troublesome events yet helps us to understand what is acceptable within the art of film vs. what is acceptable as documentation. The further back we look, these boundaries seem more blurred. There is no doubt that the electric chair was developed through strange means via a combination of vendetta and euthanasia that resulted in a new-fangled death penalty. It will always carry an odd ‘undercurrent’ knowing that one of the forefathers behind the invention of the moving image was involved, and exploited such a vile contraption. But – human and beast alike – from Edwin S. Porter’s semi-documentary to the Faces of Death (1978-1975), film has continued to both seduce and fool the most adamant horror fan when melding fact and fiction. ‘Seeing the same gruesome picture over and over again…’ is all part of the dark magic of this genre yet, in hindsight, will always provide interesting commentary on why such cruelty is carried out in the first place.

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Rich Johnson

Rich Johnson's baptism with celluloid was during the Golden Age of VHS. He is a lecturer in film studies and graphic design, hosts @filmandpodcast and is one half of @mondomoviehouse. Writing credits include: Little White Lies, Hotdog, Network, Rebeller Media, Shots and Fangoria along with up-and-coming film commentary and boutique label essays. His Devil’s Advocates book on Bone Tomahawk is due out late 2020.

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