Death By Electrocution

James S. Metcalfe

State Prison at Sing Sing, New York
State Prison at Sing Sing, New York
Wood Engraving
Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion,
November 1855

Sing Sing Prison sits on the banks of the Hudson River, some 30 miles north of New York City. Opened in 1826, it was the third prison built by New York State in the post-Revolutionary War period. Newgate Prison was the first, built in 1797 in Greenwich Village which, at the time, was outside the boundaries of New York City—then the largest city in the United States. Newgate soon outstripped its capacity and became the site of disease, riots and corruption. A second prison, Auburn, was built in 1816 in the town of Auburn, New York, some 250 miles northwest of Newgate. Auburn was a much larger prison than Newgate and attempted to correct many of the problems encountered with Newgate. One major change was instituted by the prison’s second warden, Elam Lynds. In what became known as “The Auburn System,” a strict code of silence, enforced with whips and beatings, was observed by all the prisoners, who were kept in solitary cells at night and then used as laborers during the day—the underlying principle being that prisoners had to lose their individuality before they could actually reform. Again, overcrowding became a problem and a third prison, Sing Sing, was constructed.

When it opened in 1826, Sing Sing was considered the most modern prison to date, yet it owed a heavy debt to Auburn. Elam Lynds selected the location for Sing Sing and supervised the construction of the facility, using labor supplied by Auburn prison. Lynds also became the first warden and brought the “The Auburn System” with him. Officially completed in 1828, Sing Sing was called a “model” prison, particularly because it generated enough revenue to cover its operating costs.

Prisons, however, were not just for the incarceration of those who had broken the law and were also the sites of executions, although these were often carried out in county facilities and not state prisons. The preferred method until the 1880s was death by hanging, but hanging was an inexact science at best. New York state eventually established a commission to study the issue and it was decided that executions should be handled in state prisons by trained personnel and that the electric chair would be the method by which the death sentence would be carried out. In August of 1890 at Auburn prison, William Kemmler became the first to be put to death in the electric chair.

By the time “Death By Electrocution” was published, the electric chair was in fairly widespread usage throughout the United States and Sing Sing prison, due to its proximity to New York City (the largest city in the US at the time), was one of the best known prisons in the country. Newspapers treated Sing Sing as an extension of New York City in their reporting. Sing Sing was a popular tourist destination and a portion of its income came from the fees charged those who flocked to see the prison and the convicts. And while the phrase “sent up the river” may have originated with Newgate prison, it became firmly associated with Sing Sing—further strengthening the ties between the prison and New York City.

James S. Metcalfe
Year Unknown

Exactly how this article came to be published in a British magazine is a bit of a mystery. The Royal Magazine was published by the C. Arthur Pearson, London, also the publisher of Pearson’s Magazine; a publication that had both a US and a UK editions with some shared content between the two. Most likely, the US edition of Pearson’s had editorial offices in New York and, as a wild guess, Metcalfe may have suggested the article to an editor(s) of the magazine, who then passed it on to their UK counterparts. Metcalfe later went on to have a small number of articles published in the US edition of Pearson’s. Sing Sing most likely would have been known to those in England and there would also have been an interest in life within the prison itself, considering that the English legal and prison systems differ substantially from their US counterparts. The electric chair would also have held a fascination for English readers of the time, not only due to its newness, but although we often associate beheading as the method of execution in England, it seems to have stopped being used in the late 1700s and hanging was the preferred method used by the late 1800s. It does seem odd, however, that the article appeared in the UK and not the US.

The author of “Death By Electrocution,” is assumed to be James Stetson Metcalfe (1858-1927), an author and editor, who was best known for his large body of writings produced as a drama critic—beginning in 1887 for the early (pre-1936) Life Magazine and later for Judge and The Wall Street Journal. What few examples are available show that Metcalfe added the “M.A. (Yale)” after his name in the author credits only on his non-theater articles—possibly in an attempt to establish his academic credentials. For his fiction and theater pieces, he is simply credited as “James S. Metcalfe” or, at the end of his Life Magazine column, “Metcalfe.” While it may seem a bit of stretch to assume that the theater Metcalfe is the same as the author of the article at hand (and other non-theater pieces), there is no evidence to suggest otherwise, as there is no other James S. Metcalfe associated with Yale. Curiously, although Yale lists him in their records as a member of the class of 1879, his Yale biography states that he dropped out in his junior year to enter the newspaper field, and was given an honorary Master’s degree for his body of work in 1891. Metcalfe felt a fondness for Yale however, and the University offers the James S. Metcalfe Prize for “the best essay of about 3,000 words on an assigned subject dealing with the theater” due to an endowment Metcalfe made to the University in 1914.

“Death By Electrocution” originally appeared in the December, 1898 issue of The Royal Magazine and, as far as we can tell, has never before been reprinted.

Bob Gay
July, 2020
Introduction © 2020 by Bob Gay
Editor’s Note: While we ordinarily don’t like to pare down articles and stories, “Death By Electrocution” presented us with quite a quandary. The article at its beginning touts that it is “Illustrated by the most remarkable series of photographs ever taken” and, indeed that is the case. These photographs present a fascinating look into prison life in 1898 and also the conditions under which those sent to the “death house” lived. The problem, however, is that the article is about the electric chair—not about prison life in general—and, trying to present all the images from the article would mean that there would be lots and lots of pictures that would overwhelm the text (just as they did in the original).
In order to solve this problem, we have presented all the pictures that accompanied the article, and the illustration of Sing Sing in the introduction, at a reduced size in order to balance out the text. Clicking on a picture will open it in a pop-up window at a larger size. All the images can be viewed separately or, you can also scroll through all the pictures at once.
We also must add that the last three pictures deal with an actual execution, as described in the text. However, the Sing Sing museum site claims that the final picture, at least, in the series was staged.
Lastly, a big "Thank You" to Patty Sprague, who assisted in the Metcalfe research!

Original title art for Death by Electrocution
A general view of Sing Sing Prison, the chief prison of New York.
By James S. Metcalfe, M.A. (Yale).
Illustrated by the most remarkable series of photographs ever taken.

IN America there is no professional hangman, and the duty devolves upon the sheriff of the county in which the murderer is convicted.

The mistakes of these amateur hangmen, resulting often in the most revolting scenes, convinced the thinking public that hanging was a brutal and unscientific way of inflicting the extreme legal penalty. The Scriptural and civil demand of “a life for a life” was not strongly opposed, but there was a considerable popular sentiment against hanging, because it was inexact and uncertain. This belief paved the way for the choice of some other method of taking life from those whom the law decreed were not fit to live among their kind.

The authorities who dealt with criminals had learned that hanging, with all its horrible possibilities, had ceased to have a frightening effect upon the Thugs, toughs, and roughs, who were most likely to commit crimes of violence. These ruffians believed that to “die game” on the gallows was almost a heroic ending to a career which would not otherwise be noticed except in the court and prison records.

The Bakery

From the moment of his crime a murderer became a celebrity among people of his own class and in the public prints. His trial would crowd the court rooms and command columns in the newspapers. After conviction his cell would be filled with flowers by religious and emotional women, and his time would pass easily in the company of any friends and sympathetic persons who cared to visit him.

As the day of his execution approached, the newspapers would record his hours of exercise, the minutest details of his diet, and everything in his conduct and demeanour which could possibly interest a morbid public. Naturally this made him still more a hero, and the last act of the tragedy was watched with an interest which made other possible murderers almost envy his position. Then would come the execution, and the sheriffs would be fairly overwhelmed with applications to witness the sublime spectacle of a human being put to death because he was not fit to live.

The Dining Room

The newspapers would print every detail of the execution, even to the words of his last prayers. The highest encomium the reporters could print was that the murderer “died game;” which was a direct incentive to other criminals to murder and show that they, too, could “die game.”

Murders increased in number, and hanging, especially among the younger criminals of the large cities, became rather a glorious martyrdom than a punishment. This made possible the passage of the law which, in New York State, and later in some others, caused death by electricity to take the place of a punishment, which, since the days of Mordecai and Haman. has been the extreme penalty of the law.

The Printing Department

The present statute not only substituted the scientific process of electrocution for the uncertain methods of the hangman, but when it was adopted opportunity was given to throw about the act of legal killing many provisions calculated to terrify the criminal mind, and to rob the criminal’s death of the publicity and notoriety which alone gave it any semblance of heroism.

When a murderer is convicted now he is taken at once to a condemned cell in one of New York State’s three prisons, and from the moment he enters its door he is practically a dead man. There is a mystery thrown about even the time when he is to die. The judge, in sentencing him to death, says only that he is to be taken to the designated place, and there executed under the laws of the State at any time during the week, beginning with a certain date.

The Art Room.

The warden of the prison fixes the day and hour, and the condemned man may not know when it is to be. He may be called from his bed at early dawn, or his fate may summon him from that first slumber which is deepest and sweetest. Unless by process of the courts, or by act of the pardoning power, he never leaves the condemned cell except to take the few steps which lead him to the electric chair. His eyes never see anyone save his spiritual and legal advisers and the prison officials in immediate charge of him. until the day when he enters the death chamber, where are gathered the few persons whom the law summons to witness that its most solemn act is duly done.

Convict-made Organ

The first electrocution was naturally an experiment, none the less an experiment because its subject was a human being, and the object death. The scientific electricians felt sure of their ground, but they could take no chances of the horrors which might lie between the strength of current which would only stun or half kill, and that which would wither and blast and burn a human creature, murderer though he was.

The law limits the number of those present at an execution to twelve witnesses outside of the officials charged with the execution. It may well be believed that the little crowd gathered in Auburn prison to witness the legal killing of William Kemmler, although most of them professional and scientific men, were awed and more than anxious. Their eyes were to see what no one had ever beheld before—the intentional passage of a tremendous current of electricity through the body of a living man.

We know now what the scientific theory was, and science has shown in the something like fifty electrocutions since that of Kemmler, that its theory was absolutely correct. In Kemmler’s case an over-powerful current was used to make death absolutely certain, regardless of other result, and the drying of one of the electrical conductors at the point of contact caused a burning of the flesh with its consequent odour, but the death was instantaneous and painless. In none of the subsequent electrocutions has so powerful a current been used, and sponges soaked with salt water are placed at the ends of the two electrodes which carry the current in and out of the body.

A plan of the building where the executions take place.

The electric chair—whose fatal image is ever before the murderer’s eyes from the moment of his crime until he enters the door of the death chamber and beholds the reality—is not electric in any sense. It is a massive chair of oak, with strong back and arms, but all the electric apparatus is entirely independent of the chair itself.

The chairs at the three New York prisons are of the same design, and the accessories vary only in detail. At Sing Sing Prison, which is nearest New York City, and its large criminal population, the great majority of electrocutions have been performed, and a description of its apparatus will serve for all.

The electricity for executions comes from the great dynamos which are used for lighting the prison and its walls. These no prisoner could scale during the darkest hour of the darkest night without being seen instantly by the armed guards. The death building, which is an ordinary one-storied brick structure, is divided into two parts—the cell-room and the death-chamber proper.

The condemned man is brought directly from his trial to the former, and here is stripped, searched, and his description entered in the prison records. Then he is placed in one of the cells, and from that moment he may receive no article of any description except by the direct order of the warden.

The Condemned Cells.

The cell-room measures some 30ft. by 20ft. Lengthwise through its middle runs a partition of steel bars lined on the inside with coarse-meshed wire-netting. In the middle of the partition is a door which is kept constantly locked except for the passage of the keepers, of whom two are on watch every moment of the day and night. They sit, walk, or stand, in a narrow passage between the partition and the front of the cells proper. These are 5ft. wide by 6ft. or 7ft. deep, and are entirely open in front except for steel bars running up and down some 3in. apart. They are lighted from above, and are somewhat more comfortably furnished than ordinary cells if the prisoner shows no signs of becoming violent or attempting suicide. If it is considered safe, the warden allows the prisoners many little comforts which make their lot easier, and serve to pass the dreary hours. The cells are separated by solid partitions, but they have one peculiarity not possessed by cells used for any other purpose.

The law decrees not only that the condemned man may not see, nor be seen, by any outsider, but also that he may not see nor be seen by his fellow-prisoners awaiting electrocution. To avoid this the front of each cell is equipped with an iron shutter constructed on the same principle as the cover of a roll-top desk.

When it is necessary to bring in a new prisoner on the day when one is being taken to the death chamber—in fact when anything occurs which might expose the condemned men to view, a keeper is placed in each occupied cell with its prisoner, and the shutter pulled down. At other times the keepers command a view of every inch of the cells from their posts in the passage, and are able to note the slightest suspicious action.

The Death Watch.

The death-chamber is reached from the cell-room by a narrow passage between two of the cells. Its door opens directly opposite the fatal chair, and it is from here that the man about to die gains his first view of the mysterious and deadly apparatus which has been so long and so constantly before the eyes of his thoughts.

The chamber is a well-lighted room of about the same size as the cell-room. It has three doors—the one just mentioned; a door into the prison yard, by which the witnesses enter; and a third, at the side and back of the chair, opening into the autopsy room.

The chair stands 6ft. or 7ft. from the end wall, and directly in front of a little square wooden booth, to which there is no view or entrance from the chamber. It is entered by a door from the autopsy room, so that its occupant comes in and goes out without his identity becoming known to those present at the electrocution. It is he who actually releases the current of electricity to speed on its errand of death.

The Death Chamber.

As one enters this booth from the autopsy room, one sees nothing but carefully insulated wires passing through its walls, and directly in front of the door, fastened to the front wall, a massive brass switch, with an ebony handle. Through a tiny hole in the right side of the booth passes a wire, on each end of which, one in the booth and one in the death-chamber, is a brass finger ring. At the time of the execution the mysterious man in the booth puts one ring on his finger and the prison electrician, standing beside the booth on the outside puts the other on his. At the signal from the warden the electrician pulls the wire taut.

The man inside on feeling the pressure on his own finger pulls down the lever with his other hand, and permits the current to pass. When the pressure is released the current is instantly shut off, and this is repeated once or twice, until there is no doubt that the electricitv has done its work. There is no doubt that the first shock kills, and the subsequent ones are administered only to remove any possible question.

The death toilet must be described to make clear the action of the electricity. Just before the execution one of the keepers shaves, on the back and top of the prisoner’s head, a spot about two inches in diameter. Then his right trouser leg is ripped from the knee down. There must be nothing except the moistened sponges on the ends of the electrodes to come between them and the actual flesh, as even the slightest obstacle might interfere with the direct and instantaneous passage of the current into and out of the body of its victim.

The Death Chair.

The death-chamber, with the exception of the chair itself and a semi-circle of stools for the use of the witnesses, is absolutely unfurnished. It is high-ceiled and, except for the gruesome object at one end, might pass for a country schoolroom. In the front of the booth are attached rows of electric light bulbs used for testing the strength of the current, and to make sure that it is passing without obstruction.

From the front of the booth come the insulated wires which go to the cap which is placed over the condemned man’s head and into the cuff which is attached to his right leg. The interior of these leather appliances is also insulated, and the flat ends of the electrodes come into immediate contact with the wet sponges.

The current passes in at the head and out from the side of the leg. What its action is science has not yet discovered, but the autopsies show that it entirely changes the character of all the blood in the system.

After death ensues the law provides that an autopsy must be performed at once bv the official physicians, and a certificate of death with its cause filed in the prison records. Then, if the relatives desire, the bodv is delivered to them for quiet burial under the control of prison officials. If there are no relatives, or if they have deserted the murderer, the body is directed to be covered with quicklime in a grave in the prison cemetery.

∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
The Procession to the Death Chair.

Arthur Mathew, a burly negro, and two or three others of his race one night waylaid in the suburbs of New York City an old man for the purposes of robbery. Their victim resisted, and was killed at one blow. His associates escaped, but Mayhew was caught almost red-handed. He had a long trial, and bis case was carried to the highest courts, but his sentence to death was confirmed, and the governor refused to interfere.

It was a solemn little body of men that gathered in the warden’s private office in Sing Sing Prison one grey morning in March last year. It consisted of physicians and a few pressmen, who were for the occasion officials of the State. They had come in answer to the warden’s summons to witness that Arthur Mayhew had been legally put to death.

What little conversation passed between them was in subdued tones. As they arrived the warden was several times hastily summoned to the cell-room. He afterwards told the writer that Mayhew. who had passed the night in prayer, a priest in the corridor of the cell-room aiding him in his devotions, had announced that he would never leave his cell alive, a threat which had some appearance of reason, considering the negro’s tremendous strength and the narrowness of the door through which he would have to he dragged. But prison experience had provided for such an emergency.

Near the cell was placed a two-quart bottle of strong ammonia, and if he had resisted it would have been dropped on the floor; then, when overcome by its fumes, he would have been lifted out and carried to the chamber. But Warden Sage, although in charge of more than a thousand criminals, is a gentle man, and had shown Mayhew many kindnesses, so that when the final moment came the murderer listened to persuasion, and left his cell without resistance.

“It is time, gentleman,” said the warden, and the party of witnesses filed slowly and silently through the prison yard and into the death chamber. Seated on the stools, we watched the tests being made by the electrician, the bulbs alternately lightening and darkening as the current was turned on and off.

Strapping the Victim into the Death Chair.

Facing us was the chair with its five broad straps, one each for the chest and limbs, and each fitted with an easily fastened buckle. For each strap and each electrode there was a keeper thoroughly trained in his duty.

The tests finished, the electrician took his stand by the booth, with the signal ring on his finger, and near him stood the prison physician with his stop watch in hand. Near the closed door to the cell room were grouped four of the strongest keepers in their blue uniforms. In electrocution there is no desire to gain impressiveness by delay, and everything that follows occured in such a brief space of time that it seemed almost instantaneous.

A muffled sound behind the door told us the dreadful moment had arrived. It opened, and the warden, with a handkerchief in his left hand, quickly stepped to the right of the chair, and took his place next the physician, and where the handkerchief was in easy view of the electrician. In the doorway appeared the negro holding a crucifix, his burly frame leaving scant room for the priest, on whose arm he leant. Behind them could be seen two or three keepers.

Now happened what, with the exception of the burning of Kemmler’s flesh, is the only incident which has ever added a horror to those insuperable from the execution of a human being. Mayhew’s eyes had been fixed on the crucifix, and his lips were rapidly moving in prayer. As he entered the room he lifted his eyes, and, when he beheld the chair, he threw himself back in terror, his black skin turned to the ashiness peculiar to the negro terror, and he began to talk rapidly in an almost shrinking tone.

The Actual Execution.

“God have mercy!” he yelled. “Don’t—don’t kill me—don’t, for God’s sake!—I’m innocent—I never done it—Oh. Mr. Warden, don’t push that button—for God’s sake!—Lord have mercy!—I never killed him!”

The emergency had been foreseen, and the moment Mayhew held back, he was immediately pushed forward by the keepers behind him, seized by them at the door, and quickly forced into the chair. In an instant he was securely strapped, and the electrodes secured in place, the cap covering his eyes but leaving the lower part of the face exposed to view.

The keepers fell back, the warden stepped forward a pace, and a quick glance showed that all was ready.

A quick lifting of the handkerchief in the warden’s hand—a movement of the electrician’s finger—and then absolute silence like that of the grave. There was a quick distension of the man’s great muscles, a slight froth appeared on his lips, and he was dead.

A few seconds—it seemed hours—a word from the physician, a movement of the electrician and the tension left the muscles, and what in the chair had been a living man was now a limp and lifeless corpse.

A pause, another word from the physician, and again the distension of the muscles and straining against the straps. Another signal, the same relaxation, and it was all over.

The doctors advanced and applied the usual tests of death. As they opened the clothing to apply the stethoscopes the magnificent chest and great muscular arch of the neck were revealed, causing one to marvel at the force which could so instantly reduce to the impotence of death such a perfect living organism.

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