Edison & The Electric Chair by Mark Essig

Edison & The Electric Chair

Edison & The Electric Chair:
A Story of Light and Death was one of the more interesting books that I have read in a very long time. And, it was highly pertinent to the current debate over the death penalty (in the US).

Amazingly, this is Mark Essig’s first title. I would expect a book with 46 pages of endnotes to be dry and scholarly instead of alive and riveting. I wouldn’t have expected a discussion about the nature of electricity to have been simple to understand, yet it was. I also would not have expected a discussion about death and the death penalty to be handled so clearly, concisely and competently. Such a discussion could have delved into excessive details or it could have been superficial. Essig did a great job of navigating the pitfalls while providing the necessary details to make the point.

Don’t assume that this book was dry and academic. Hardly. If anything, it was to lively considering the subject….

For those of you unfamiliar with Edison’s influence on the choice to use an electric chair for execution, let me give you the highlights. Edison backed direct current (DC) while Westinghouse chose alternating current (AC). Both are different approaches to delivering electrical current for use. Both have strengths and weaknesses. When Edison was queried about using electricity for execution, he originally declined the question as he was opposed to capital punishment. When pressed, he argued for the use of AC generators with the idea that their use would scare people away from AC into the arms of his DC. Unethical? Certainly. But, as Essig points out, Westinghouse was worse. Edison gets a bad rap today for trying to smear Westinghouse, but Westinghouse disregarded the public’s welfare and bribed plenty of legislatures/judges to bypass Edison. Neither was a saint…. Anyway, the debate was only part of the point of the book. The real purpose of this book is to look at execution.

Essig begins with a discussion of the history of electricity and the history of capital punishment in the US. Capital punishment (i.e. hanging) was designed as a ceremony to educate the public about the wages of sin. That attempt flopped. By the early 1800’s, execution was a festival or a carnival. People came to the execution the same way that they go to see the latest summer blockbuster films. This distressed the leaders who worked to prevent this occurrence. In fact, the migration of the execution to the prison yard was to prevent this carnival atmosphere.

Concurrently with this shift in execution came the introduction of pain killers. This revolutionized the way people approached life. Prior to pain killers, pain and death were a part of life. Not only were they expected, but no one thought about them. Once they could be avoided though, that attitude changed. Now, it became the mission of people like the newly formed SPCA to prevent pain in all animals (humans were included as Darwinian thought was developing strongly).

Mix both developments throughout the mid-1800s and shake. What comes about? A new approach to execution that seeks to prohibit cruel and unusual punishment. When deciding on how to execute someone via electricity, there were some interesting discussions. Should the person stand? There is dignity in that but, they might fall away from the contacts. What about laying down? That was too clinical and undignified; to much like having experimentation on the condemned. (At this time, the idea of experimentation on people was more frightening then the death penalty itself.) So a chair was decided as a compromise to practicality and dignity.

Was electricity to cruel a manner for execution? If I had to guess, I would have said no. Then again, I suspect that most people should die in the same manner they killed others, but that’s me. I would never have guessed that electrocution would have been botched as often as it was. I would never have guessed that EVERY form of execution has been botched countless times. But so it is.

Still the fact remains: execution is commanded by God and is the duty of the state. However it is done, and a civilized manner like lethal injection is best, execution should still be done. Today, using the same arguments that the anti-death penalty advocates put forth in the 1880’s and 1890’s, lethal injection is currently being debated in our courts as excessively cruel. I find this intriguing. Mix another hundred years of pain killers, Darwinian thought, and the belief that man can be trained like an animal and shake it up. Now, the most painless death we can develop is still too painful. Or at least it has the possibility of extreme pain.

So we should do away with the death penalty because it could be painful? What about restitution to the families of the victims? Of those murdered? Should we put these killers in a penitentiary forever? Does the penitentiary actually develop penitence? So what should be done?

Essig doesn’t preach and give us the answers. He lays out the facts and leaves the decision to you. But I would recommend that you read this book in light of the current debates. Personally, I have moderated my views on execution somewhat as a result of this book. I am not in favor of using public punishment as a method to educate the masses. Its been tried and failed in a more religious America to boot. No, I am not in favor of brutal punishments. History has shown that both of these tend to develop an appreciation for violence and we have plenty of that now. No, I am in favor of the death penalty, but done humanely and quickly.



All The Earth A Grave by Caroll Capps

And All The Earth A Grave by Caroll Capps

There’s nothing wrong with dying – it just hasn’t ever had the proper sales pitch!

So begins this amusing short story (reads in 16 minutes). At least I thought it was amusing, but my wife says that I have a dark sense of humor…. It’s really short; grab a link at the end and read it (or listen) and let me know what you think. Capps caught me off guard with this story about the power of marketing.

Essentially, due to a computer error, a marketing boss for a casket company sees an opportunity to increase Christmas sales.

Published in 1963, I think that this would have been around the height of the sales movement and the beginning of the marketing trends. The difference is subtle but important. With a sales focus, an organization will do anything to sell another unit. In marketing, the company looks to see what the customer wants and then fulfills the need. Or as in this case, the marketer creates a need to be fulfilled.

Sorry, I listened to this twice and just couldn’t help laughing at the absurdity of the idea. Would have made a great Twighlight Zone under Rod Serling. (In case you were wondering, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone might have been the greatest TV show of all time.)

Its been a busy week, so I chose this short story instead of a full review on one of two other books. Maybe next week, I’ll have my review of Edison and the Electric Chair which studies the death penalty in the US. Intriguing….

Anyway, I would love to know if you enjoyed this story and your opinions and/or impressions. Also, what do you make of the ending? As a Christian, on one level I take offense; on another level, I think the author was poking fun at humanity and not attempting anything blasphemous.

Read it here
Listen to it here Note: excellent reader as well

The Kestrel, By Lloyd Alexander

The Kestrel

Book two in the Westmark trilogy; the plot continues. Only there wasn’t a plot to start out with, just a bunch of character studies, so, on with the character studies! To shake things up a little, some of the village idiots we met earlier are given main character status, and any main characters who stay in the plot have to develop new personalities to keep things coherent. So… I’m not sure where any of this is quite entirely related to the last book, except in the most bare boned of extenuating circumstances.

Florian: Master thief/traitor/conspirator/person-who-is-supposed-to-be-a-very-clever-and wise-hippie-den-father-persona. He wants to restore “democracy” (which means mob rule) to the kingdom of Westmark, Karl Marx style; everybody gets an equal share of everything, except the monarchy, who will be stripped of everything. Along with Cabbarus, and the nobility (whose job, in this book, is to stand around telling their princess she’s wrong while proving she is right), the monarchy is basically going to be massacred if Florian gets his way. The thing is, the country just got peace with the return of the princess in book one, so Florian’s grand-standing and brutal, near-terroristic tactics are only justified once the country is invaded by foreign troops.

Theo: Still an orphan by his own volition (having turned down a job, a mentor, a place at court, and a potential girl, in that order, because gutter scum is a such a good thing to be), he wants Florian’s approval, thus spends most of this intermediary plot line trying to win his favor by being more brutal in his tactics than the other guerrilla fighters (who claim to be fighting for the freedom of their country from the invaders, but they abuse the country-folk just as badly or worse, so their definition of free is up for debate).

The Monkey: Florian’s only criminal with experience in the underworld prior to working for Florian. This somehow makes him a gritty character, though his main occupation is to save food from being burned down with the villages at random intervals and share it with his friends. Executed after he escapes capture by the enemy, since someone so clever, brave, and experienced would only be able to escape capture by changing sides. Theo is of said one friends, and the other…

Justin: is a background village idiot from book one. Florian likes him. Thus, he is given command of the guerrilla fighters in various places, and is unquestioned in his leadership skills. His main intellectual accomplishment is justifying shooting Monkey in the back. Being the intelligent persona that Theo is, he idolizes Justin and tries to save his life at peril of their entire mission. Justin continues to hate Theo because he hasn’t been with Florian long enough (when that excuse runs out, he starts hating Theo because, in aforementioned life-saving effort, Justin gets a scar on his face. Sheesh, most movie stars sit still for hours every day to get their facial scars to look as ‘cool’ as his sounds).

Mickle: She bests the generals at battle plans, her mother at ruling, the enemy at negotiating, spies at spying, and a prince at fighting. Just another day in the life of an ordinary princess. Oh, and she’s no longer the very proud, I-can-do-this person, no; now she is the sweetly rebellious daughter whose only desire is for the good of everyone else, so that’s why she tells everybody what to do in this “charming” way that makes them agree with her almost immediately. Mickle also gets several sub-plot characters involved, including a pair of siblings who make Theo look smart, the writer of a humor column, the ever-whining doctor, the queen (who’s shed the whining, and is now the resident worrywart), and a foreign prince who has been raised his entire life by lying, pompous, weak, evil, gluttonous people yet is honest, humble, strong willed, good, and handsomely trim. Whew. The only thing she isn’t great at? Choosing a suitor (the foreign chap is clearly the most intelligent and honorable guy in the running, despite his pitiful fighting skills). Otherwise, she gets her way the entire book.

Overall: Not worth reading. Why did I keep reading onto the second book of an author who is clearly not my type? I actually read this one first, for one thing. Also, I had forgotten my journal and there were still four hours left in the car when I finished “The Kestrel”. Finally, in the spirit of fairness, I assumed that my reasons for disliking this book could have to do with not understanding the background plot (never assume). The style is gripping, but in an obvious fish-hook sense, not engrossing. For a fantasy-adventure with character studies AND a plot, read “The Three Musketeers” and its sequels.

By Right of Conquest by G. A. Henty

By Right of Conquest

Plot: The book begins by introducing us to our main characters, Roger, his cousins and aunt and uncle. Rogers father, Reuben, is captain of the uncle’s ship, the Swan. Reuben proposes to the uncle that he and other businessman take a voyage to the unknown regions, currently under Spanish control, yet still undiscovered. After much careful thought, the uncle agrees and a few weeks later Roger and Reuben set sail. They have been sailing for some months, stopping in at islands to trade for supplies, when they have a small run in with six Spanish ships. They escape with no damage to their vessel and leave the Spanish ships far behind. A few days later they run in to a storm, which lasts for several days, much to our dismay, the ship is wrecked with Roger as the only survivor.

He walks to a village and stays there for several months, the villagers think him a god, since he has white skin and not dark like theirs. While there, he befriends a slave girl, who teaches him her native tongue. A time comes when traders arrive to barter with the natives; eventually Roger agrees to go with the traders to their own land. After many days of travel they arrive at the island next to the capital of Mexico. Roger is warmly welcomed by the reigning king, his wife and his lovely daughter. Our hero has many days with his new friends, and many discussions, before the King of Mexico discovers that he is there. The king of Mexico, Montezuma, requests a meeting with Roger, which he agrees to. After the meeting, Roger returns to the other palace. We find that the ambassadors from our good king are having a hard time convincing the king of Mexico that Roger is not a threat. The greater majority of the priests want to sacrifice Roger, and Montezuma listens a lot to these priests.

Eventually Spaniards land on the coast and cause great excitement. Montezuma wants them to leave, but they don’t wish to; Montezuma is scared by the Spaniards because they are thought to be gods. For several chapters, the author focuses on the Spanish and their progress through Mexico, making their way to the capital. Roger is told that Montezuma is going to arrest him and have him sacrificed. The other king helps him escape and Roger is ultimately able to join the Spanish. Through many battles the Spanish make it to the capital. Montezuma keeps the peace for some time, but in the end the priests voices win out. An attack is made on the house where the Spaniards are staying; there is a great battle with much slaughter. At this point both sides are hostile to each other. The Spaniards see the danger, and General Cortez, leads them from the city. They are attacked on every side by the Aztecs, the latter being furious at the humiliation they endured and the ruin brought to their temples.

Positive: Our hero is a Christian; he abhors the human sacrifices and openly tells his pagan friends that their gods are false. Our hero risks much to save his friends, he stays loyal and true to the Spaniards, and even when they appear to be losing. Many of the Mexican people help our hero escape, even when it risks their lives and livelihood.

Negative: There are human sacrifices near the end of the book, being Aztecs; they believe it is what their god requires of them. We find that many thousands of captives are slain every year to the pagan gods of the Aztecs. There are battles where many die and several are wounded. A woman is wounded and becomes sick, though she does get better. There is a massacre, which occurs in cold blood.

Overall: I was directed to this book by my sister. She and I both enjoy G.A. Henty books. This one was rather long, but completely worth the time invested. I enjoy historical fiction immensely and I highly recommend this book.