Virginia’s ultimate sanction was carried out for more than a century on an oak chair from Trenton, N.J., used to execute 267 people who were deemed too vile or dangerous to live among us.
Their limbs and torsos bound by straps and heads crowned with a metal helmet and brine-soaked sponge, the last moments and thoughts of some of the state’s most egregious criminals were spent in an electric chair first installed at the Virginia State Penitentiary in 1908.
If the chair was a symbol of extreme, immutable justice, it was also a tool of racial intimidation for much of its history. In modern times, a more diverse group of offenders were electrocuted or killed by injection on a gurney first used in 1995.
Now, like the fate of the Confederate statues and monuments taken down in Richmond and across the state, the question arises: What should be done with such significant, yet dark, pieces of state history?
The death penalty was abolished in Virginia last month by a law signed by Gov. Ralph Northam outside the Greensville Correctional Center, where the chair and the gurney used in lethal injections remain in the locked death house where the state’s most recent 102 executions were conducted.
“It’s state property under DOC control, but there are no plans to do anything with them yet,” said Lisa Kinney, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Corrections. “For now, they’re going to stay in place and we’re just going to close up that building.”
In some states where electric chairs have either been abandoned or replaced, the surviving chairs are on display in private museums.
Bob Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political analyst, said: “I think that it is important that the administration be thoughtful about the chair’s ultimate disposition and not simply treat and convey it as surplus property to the highest bidder.”
“Given the long history of capital punishment in Virginia and the nation, the 113-year-old electric chair is a powerfully symbolic, albeit gruesome, artifact,” said Holsworth, the former dean of Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Humanities and Sciences.
If the electric chair goes to a museum, Holsworth urges that it be used to examine the complete history of capital punishment and the thoughts of the governors whose clemency powers could stop court-ordered executions.
“I could imagine that, at some time in the future, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture might address the issue,” he said. “I don’t think it should be placed in a ‘museum of sorts’ that would display the electric chair as a piece of grisly entertainment.”
The more modern gurney for lethal injections was used to execute 81 men and one woman since inmates were first given the choice of injection or electrocution in 1995.
An electric chair, championed by none other than Thomas Edison, was first used in a somewhat botched execution by the state of New York in 1889.
Virginia was the fifth state in the country and the first in the South to start using one, installing it at the former state penitentiary in Richmond. Before then, people were executed by hanging at courthouses around the state.
The chair was ordered from the Adams Electric Co. in Trenton, N.J., which had recently built a chair successfully used in that state, according to a 2011 story about the company in GardenStateLegacy.com written by Gordon Bond, a New Jersey historian.
E.F. Morgan, then the superintendent of the Virginia State Penitentiary, ordered the chair for $3,700 from Carl F. Adams, the founder of the company.
The order called for Virginia to pay one-third of the price upfront, one-third on delivery, $500 when it was ready for operation, and the final balance after the first execution, according to records reviewed by Bond at Rutgers University’s Special Collections and University Archives at Alexander Library.
The Library of Virginia has the $2,160 check stub for the “1st & 2nd payments on Electrocution Plant” made to Adams Electric. In August 1908, Adams wrote to Morgan looking for the final payment, according to Bond.
“Kindly let me know if you can, when I may expect a check for the balance. You thought that it would not be necessary for me to wait until you had a man [executed]. I have waited for some time and as the money would be very acceptable just now,” Adams wrote in a letter to Morgan, according to Bond.
Morgan responded to Adams that he would have to wait for the first execution.
On Sept. 8, 1908, Henry Smith, 22, a Black man who pleaded not guilty, was convicted by a jury of raping a white woman in what was then Norfolk County. A judge entered the first sentence of its kind in Virginia: “It is considered by the court that said Henry Smith be electrocuted until he is dead.”
Smith was executed at 7:32 a.m. on Oct. 13, 1908. The first electrocution in the South, reported The Richmond News Leader, “was a success in every way.”
Adams was presumably paid the balance due. Soon after, the chair was used to execute Winston Green, 17, a Black man convicted of the attempted rape of a white woman in Chesterfield County.
Nine of the first 10 men electrocuted were Black, four of them convicted of rape or attempted rape. Virginia records show that until the 1970s, the chair was disproportionately used against Black men for murder and exclusively against Black men for rape, attempted rape and robbery.
According to Bond’s story, Morgan wrote to Adams in March 1909 that Virginia had encountered some problems with the chair. “[We] have five subjects for the electric chair to be executed the same day, April 30th. Please quote me price on extra helmet and leg electrode complete, and 2 extra helmet sponges.”
“I suggest that if it can be done, that the helmets be made so as to be flexible to some extent at least. Our last experience demonstrated the necessity for such an arrangement, as the current dried out the sponge on each side of the head (which was pyramidal in shape) and showed itself in sparks,” Morgan wrote.
Adams promised, at no extra charge, to make an additional helmet “of a design which will be more flexible in order to meet your special requirements in the execution of negro criminals.”
Some whites were executed — for murder only — early in the chair’s history. The 1913 executions of Floyd Allen and his son Claude Allen showed the powerful draw that death in the electric chair had on public attention and imagination.
The Allens were key players in the 1912 “Hillsville Massacre,” one of the most famous gunfights in U.S. history that broke out in a courtroom full of armed people and that made the front page of The New York Times.
An armed Floyd Allen had just been sentenced to a year in jail in the Carroll County Courthouse when gunfire erupted, claiming the lives of the judge, a prosecutor, the sheriff, a juror and a spectator, and wounding half a dozen other people.
Floyd and Claude Allen were executed minutes apart on March 28, 1913. A Richmond Times-Dispatch account of their executions reported that as many as 15,000 people stood in line to view the electrocuted bodies at a Richmond funeral home.
The newspaper report said “the scene was one of the most astounding that can be conceived, revealing an extent of morbidity difficult to comprehend.”
Electric chairs have figured prominently in American popular culture.
“Angels With Dirty Faces,” an Academy Award-winning film in 1938 starring Jimmy Cagney as gangster Rocky Sullivan and Pat O’Brien as Father Jerry Connolly, featured Sullivan feigning a cowardly death in the electric chair at the priest’s request. “The Green Mile,” a 1999 fantasy film, featured an electric chair in Louisiana.
As bizarre as anything found in fiction, one real-life Virginia execution was delayed by a lightning strike. Albert M. Jackson Jr., 24, who was sentenced to death for rape, was set to be executed on June 30, 1952, but an electrical storm three days earlier destroyed the power line entering the prison.
The warden reported that they could not quickly obtain the material needed for repair in time for Jackson’s scheduled execution. Repairs made, Jackson was electrocuted on Aug. 25, 1952.
The chair and its electrical system and controls were repaired and/or upgraded several times over its life.
By July 31, 1962, 54 years after Virginia bought the chair, 235 men and one woman — Virginia Christian, a 17-year-old Black woman — had died in it.
A story that appeared in that day’s editions of The Times-Dispatch noted: “The chair is well worn; its varnish is gone in many places. The rivets in the leather belts are rusty and tarnished; the more than half century the state’s electric chair has been in use shows all too well.”
The General Assembly appropriated $15,000 in 1963 for a major upgrade. The most recent major improvements were made when it was moved from its first home at the since-demolished Virginia State Penitentiary to the Greensville Correctional Center in 1991.
The state approved lethal injections as alternative means of execution — the inmate made the decision — and the first one was conducted in the death chamber in Greensville in 1995.
With armrests extending from each side to strap down the inmates’ arms, the gurney has a form not unlike a crucifix. One inmate, Kenneth Manuel Stewart Jr., told The Times-Dispatch shortly before he was executed in 1998 that it was why he opted to die in the electric chair.
“Two thousand years ago, they put my Lord and Savior to death on a cross,” he said. “This gurney back here is the exact same thing. It’s just a cross laid down, your arms outstretched and they don’t have the nails no more, but they have the steel needles that pierces your skin.”
Kinney said the gurney now in storage at Greensville is the same one first used there in 1995.
In modern times, the electrocution protocol used by the Virginia Department of Corrections called for two 90-second cycles of electricity. Each cycle starts with about 1,800 volts at 7.5 amps for 30 seconds and then 60 seconds of about 240 volts at 1.5 amps.
Electricity was carried through the body via a brine-soaked sponge under a metal helmet secured to the head and a second sponge attached to a leg.
Lethal injections used a three-drug protocol. The first drug rendered the inmate unconscious, the second caused paralysis, and the third drug stopped the heart.
Increasing difficulty in obtaining the drugs required for executions in recent years forced states, including Virginia, to start making more of the execution procedure secret, including the source of the drugs as well as hiding more of the preparations from the view of citizen and media witnesses.
In February, when the Virginia Senate narrowly voted to abolish the death penalty, Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said: “I think at the end of the day, we look back 50 years from now — the electric chair, the lethal injection table — they’re going to be sitting in a museum, they’re going to be sitting next to the stocks from Jamestown and Williamsburg. They’re going to be sitting next to the slave auctioneer block.”
“People are going to look back and wonder how it was we ever used these things,” said Surovell, urging passage of the bill.
Electric chairs once used in other states have found their way into museums. The chair built by Adams for New Jersey, a state that also has ended the death penalty, is now on display at the New Jersey State Police Museum.
Texas stopped using its electric chair in 1964 after 361 executions and now uses lethal injection only. Its electric chair is on display at the nonprofit Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, Texas.
David Stacks, the museum’s director, said that prior to COVID-19 restrictions, the museum got as many as 34,000 visitors a year. There is a replica of the Texas death chamber and the actual chair itself.
“Our purpose is to educate the public; it’s not to take a stance. We do not take a stance on anything,” Stacks said. “We just tell the story. We believe it’s important for people to understand the facts, and they view the facts as they choose to view them.”
West Virginia abolished capital punishment in 1965. Its electric chair is on display at the former West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, W.Va., now a museum operated by a nonprofit company that offers historical tours, as well as “paranormal tours” and “ghost hunts.”
In New York, almost 700 people were executed in electric chairs at three prisons. The chairs at the Auburn and Clinton correctional facilities were taken out of use in the early 1900s, said a spokesperson for the New York Department of Corrections in an email.
“Sing Sing’s electric chair is currently stored at the department’s Training Academy, Auburn’s electric chair was destroyed in a fire, and it is unknown what became of Clinton’s electric chair, though a replica is included in a historical display at the Training Academy,” the department said.