Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Executed in the USA

By Jeff Sparrow - posted Monday, 28 April 2008

You’ll be pleased to learn that there’s nothing cruel about strapping a man down onto a gurney, jabbing a needle into his vein and running poison through his body until he dies - and there’s nothing unusual about it, either.

For months, capital punishment in the US has been on hold while the Supreme Court deliberated. The decision in favour of executions has to be seen in context.

Since the late 19th century, America has consistently chased the "humane execution".


In 1885, David Hill, the New York governor, appointed a commission to investigate modern alternatives to the old outdoor hangings. Hill’s investigators - two lawyers and a dentist - assiduously investigated every execution method they could find, from crucifixion to blowing from cannons. They settled on electrocution.

The development of the electric chair - a quintessentially American invention - paralleled the electrification of US cities. Thomas Edison, trying to sell America on his direct current, recognised an opportunity to associate the alternating current sold by his great rival George Westinghouse with death. AC was, Edison said, ideal for painless killing - and he famously electrocuted Topsy the elephant in order to prove it.

Despite the raptures with which many liberals greeted the chair ("So enlightened! So humane!"), the first man electrocuted, a 28-year-old fruit peddler named William Kemmler executed in 1889, was basically cooked alive.

After the first 30 years or so of botched electrocutions, a certain D.A. Turner, inspired by the efficacy with which poisonous chemicals despatched soldiers during World War 1, engineered the first gas chamber. The rationale was the same: a compassionate version of the supreme punishment.

If anything, the chamber proved even uglier. In 1992, Donald Harding died from lethal gas choking so horribly that, afterwards, one of the witnessing journalists couldn’t stop crying, the attorney general vomited and the prison warden threatened to resign rather than use the chamber again.

Again the call for a civilised method; again, the resort to a new technology.


Lethal injection made its appearance in the 1970s. Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, lent his imprimatur with a folksy recollection of humanely putting sick horses to sleep.

Horses usually didn’t have collapsed veins. But the people on death row often do. Since the American Medical Association wouldn’t allow doctors to participate, it was left to untrained guards to probe for arteries with pen-knives. During the 1997 execution of Michael Elkins - whose liver disease had swollen his body - the staff took nearly an hour to get the catheter in place. Elkins eventually had to assist, asking, "Should I lean my head down a little bit?" while the executioners worked on him.

The real innovation with lethal injection was the use of a paralytic agent so that the prisoner died on the gurney without visible gagging or choking.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. All

First published in on April 18, 2008.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

5 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland and the author of, most recently, Communism: A Love Story (Melbourne University Press, 2007).

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Jeff Sparrow

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Article Tools
Comment 5 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy