In 1908, Virginia legislators patted themselves on the back for “progressive” law #398, introduced by Henrico Delegate Throckmorton, titled “An Act to establish a permanent place in the State penitentiary at Richmond Virginia for the execution of felons upon whom the death penalty is to be imposed, and to change the mode of execution so that the death sentence shall be by electricity,” and passed March 16 of that year.
The new law modernized capital punishment in the Commonwealth. By eliminating the barbaric spectacles of hangings, and installing an electric chair in the basement of the State Penitentiary on Spring Street, death sentences would forever after be carried out in secret, seen only by a handful of handpicked witnesses. There would be no photography or filming, and no media coverage.
Prior to #398, criminals from across Virginia were sometimes transported to Richmond to be “hanged from the neck until dead, dead, dead” or put to death in their own localities or where the crime occurred. To the dismay of prison officials, huge crowds sometimes flocked to the gallows to witness these public performances. One of those hanged in 1787 was a slave named Clem, who had been convicted of two murders. Clem was 12 years old.
Those convicted of grand larceny in the 1700s, however, were not killed; they were released after having their hands doused with coal oil and horribly burned. While the hangings did not upset the crowds, the burnings certainly did, and citizens successfully petitioned the courts for solitary confinement for these convictions instead of “torture” by burning.
Hanging was unreliable. In two instances in 1902 and 1905 the drop failed to break the prisoners’ necks, and instead they strangled to death, pitching and kicking. One took 14 minutes to die.
While in 1908 the electric chair was considered progressive; in 2016 it is a medieval torture device, best relegated to the museums. Instead, it has found new life in the 2016 General Assembly with House Bill 815, a bill to change the default method of execution back to the chair if lethal injection drugs are not available. This Bill just passed the House February 10 on a vote of 62-33.
Virginia’s chair currently at Greenville Correctional in Jarratt is the same straight-back oak armchair built by penitentiary inmates in the summer of 1908, and wired by the Adams Electric Company of Trenton New Jersey at an appropriated cost of $1,000. Although its original wiring has been upgraded, the brutality of its killing is unchanged.
On August 10, 1982, it took two 55-second jolts of electricity to kill Frank J. Coppola. The second jolt set his head and legs on fire, filling the death chamber from floor to ceiling with rancid smoke.
On October 17, 1990, when Wilbert Lee Evans was hit with the first burst of electricity, blood spewed from the right side of the mask on his face, drenching his shirt. Evans continued to moan before a second jolt of electricity was required to kill him. The autopsy concluded that the voltage surge elevated his high blood pressure.
Two cycles of electricity, applied four minutes apart failed to kill Derick Lynn Peterson on August 22, 1991. Prison physician Dr. David Barnes inspected Peterson with a stethoscope, announcing each time “He has not expired.” Seven minutes after the first attempt to kill Peterson, a second cycle of electricity had to be applied.
It is perplexing that Virginia considers herself progressive in so many areas yet wishes to apply the death penalty the same way she did 108 years ago. We may as well step back just one more year, to 1907, and strip away the veils of secrecy behind electrocutions and make them public again. Allow all three news channels to cover the execution in all its violent, lurching glory and put the event on prime time. Stream it live online so that everyone gets a taste of what is going on down in Jarratt. Pack a sandwich. If we are going to do it, we need to do it right.
And, as for live witnesses to the executions, I suggest the 62 House members who voted yes on HB 815.
Dale Brumfield is an author and Digital Archaeologist from Doswell, Virginia.