Review: Old Sparky

My copy of Old Sparky—The Electric Chair and the History of the Death Penalty arrived the day after a federal jury ended 14 hours of deliberation during which they concluded that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev deserved death for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon attack.

This was no accident. I requested the copy as a means of examining my feelings about the sentence, and my views on capital punishment more generally. Wrong or right? If right, then how to proceed? Is there any way to ensure that intentionally bringing about the death of another human being—wrong or right; “deserved” or not—isn’t, at core, cruel and unusual?

Old Sparky

Anthony Galvin writes with dignified detachment. He brings his reader into the modern death chamber—many death chambers—and provides a visceral experience free of judgment for or against state-sanctioned death. He lets the sentence speak for itself: the aged oak throne; the metal helmet screwed snug against skull; the wet sponge against shaved scalp; the tightened leather strap thick about the neck; the hood; the final, darkened silence.

At the touch of a button the executioner, an “electrician”, sends 1,800 volts through the convict for 30 seconds, his body convulsing against restraint, smoke wafting from the top of his head. For a minute more 250 volts course through the body. Possibly—possibly—this stops the heart. So the cycle is repeated, perhaps as many as five times, before the curtain closes on observers come to witness the final breath.

Galvin details the long history of the death penalty around the world, from “breaking on the wheel” to “running the gauntlet”, and its various means of implementation in the U.S. He then explores The Electrical Death Commission: how New York state arrived at the conclusion that death by electricity would most suit the evolving sensibilities of 19th century society. Here he describes in colorful detail the specific methods considered—but discarded—by the commission:

Beheading—In the lopping of heads, it takes as many as eight seconds for the brain to die. So “…when the executioner held the head aloft to the cheering crowd, the victim could see the faces swimming in front of him before the blood loss and oxygen starvation switched off the brain for good.” This was not for 1880s New York gentility.

Blowing from a Cannon—“The prisoner is generally tied to a gun with the upper part of the small of his back resting against the muzzle…”). Again, not for 1880s New York gentility.

Burning—Galvin gives us the stake: “If the fire was large, death normally came by way of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning long before the flames began to consume the body… but if the fire was small, the victim often died in agony of heatstroke, shock, or simply from their internal organs cooking.” But he spares us “The Brazen Bull”, a bronze bull in which victims were sealed as a fire licked the beast’s belly, the overall design transforming anguished cries into the roar of a bull. Burning—definitely not for 1880s New York gentility.

The Garrote—Such a simple device, a hand-held noose of sorts. Still, not for the genteel.

Hanging—The short drop, the long drop, a hook through the ribs. Ditto.

Poisoning—From Socrates’ death by Hemlock to our other modern sanctioned method, lethal injection. This last Galvin treats in full towards the close, the alternative of choice now that the American stomach for death by high voltage has weakened.

Shooting—Firing squads, still on the books today. But again, not for 1880s New York society.

Stoning—Still in use today, in a dozen countries: “The victim, often a woman, is buried in the ground with her head and torso (or head only) protruding, and the crowd of onlookers all throw stones at her until she is reduced to a bloody pulp.” But, ditto.

So. We have the chair. And Galvin gives it to us from every angle. Some chapters are more shocking than others: in A Cabinet of Curiosities he explores six notable and unusual executions by chair, and in Last Meals we get a lot of T-bone steak, French fries, and pie. The death penalty goes on moratorium as the nation sours on botched deaths, then returns for some refinement in the use of other means.

Capital punishment remains a legal sentence in 32 states. Galvin’s concluding exploration of the future of the death penalty in the U.S. centers on lethal injection, a careful look at the pros and cons of a seemingly “clinical” technique. He presents case studies of multiple failures, unexpected outcomes, and botched administration by medically untrained corrections officers, each of which raise serious concerns about meeting our own standard of avoiding “cruel and unusual” punishment. And with 1-in-25 death row inmates estimated to be innocent, Maimonides’ view bears thoughtful consideration: “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent man to death.”

Whatever views one holds on this question—on the question of whether Dzhokar Tsarnaev or any other resident of death row should be put down by the state—Galvin’s thoughtful, wide-ranging exploration of the topic will provide a glimpse into the final moments of the condemned should their sentences be carried out.

Old Sparky—the Electric Chair and the History of the Death Penalty
Anthony Galvin
Carrel Books, Skyhorse Publishing 2015


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