The death seat, as it can be seen today at the New Jersey State Police Museum in Ewing.
|Execution by hanging was a grim, hands-on business in early-20th century America. It took a strong stomach indeed to wrap a noose around the condemned man, then let him drop through a gallows trapdoor to choke and gasp and swing until he died.
Then in 1907, New Jersey first installed the electric chair, latching onto a newfangled and still somewhat scary technology that the state’s own Thomas Edison was popularizing.
At the time, reformers considered electrocution a clean, progressive and humane way of carrying out the death penalty.
It also represented a radical break from the past, when New Jersey and almost every other state executed men by the hangman's rope.
For the next 56 years, the electric chair was the last destination for murderers and gangsters in Trenton prison’s death house – most notably among them, Bruno Hauptmann, the convicted killer of the Lindbergh baby.
At the time, electrocution was considered clean, progressive and humane -- and a welcome change from the past, when New Jersey and almost every other state hanged its condemned prisoners.
Under the old code of justice, every county had its hangman, every county jail its gallows. But separate executions in each jurisdiction seemed too inefficient as government became more centralized.
As for the method, it was, well, unpleasant. Dying men thrashed about, choking and wetting themselves.
New York's legislature grew revolted by several inefficient hangings and looked for a new way to execute people. Their solution was inspired by "The Wizard of Menlo Park,” Thomas Edison – although ironically, he publicized electrocution not to promote himself, but to discredit a rival.
Edison, inventor of the light bulb and pioneer of electricity, was marketing an electric transmission system based on direct current. But another inventor, George Westinghouse, cut into Edison's business with a rival invention -- alternating current.
Both AC and DC are safe under household conditions. But Edison claimed – falsely – that Westington’s AC, with its much higher voltage, was too dangerous for anything but an electrocution..
In 1887, Edison began a series of bizarre experiments at his West Orange lab, shocking unwanted dogs, cats and even a circus elephant to death with AC to prove that the current was deadly stuff.
New York soon decided on AC electricity as its substitute for hanging. Edison, delighted, urged authorities to use the term "Westinghousing" instead of electrocuting.
But the first electrocution in history was a disaster. The condemned man, ax murderer William Kemmler, lived through the first round of shocks. His executioners at Auburn prison in upstate New York had to do it all overagain as the stink of Kemmler's burning flesh filled the death house. "They would have done better with an axe," Westinghouse commented.
Yet New York had invested too much in its electric chair to give up.
“Electricity had this strange, almost religious aura to it," said Thom Metzger, a Rochester, N.Y., author whose book, "Blood and Volts," tells the story of electrocution. "Doctors were used it to try to revive corpses. There were galvanizing belts that sent a current through your groin - a Victorian version of Viagra. With all these strange uses, it made sense to use it to put people to death, too."
New York's executioners began to perfect the combination of amperes and voltage needed to kill a man without cooking him. Slowly, other states began to replace the noose with the chair: Massachusetts in 1896, Ohio in 1898.
In 1906, the legislature of New Jersey voted to get its own electric chair and to install at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, thereby centralizing and modernizing the state’s lumbering old execution apparatus.
Thousands of people from Trenton sent petitions in protest -- not because they opposed the death penalty in principle, but because they didn't want to play host to any more murderers.
"The people do not want the scum of other counties brought here and put out of existence in the state prison in old historic Trenton," fumed the Daily State Gazette of Trenton.
On the whole, however, electrocution was seen as progress, coming at the same time a new penal code abolished striped uniforms and lockstep marches.
In the fall of 1907, New Jersey State Prison built its original death row, an annex with six cells at one end and the machinery of execution on the other.
Wires ran from outside the prison walls to an instrumentpanel blinking with a fearsome display of lights. With a spin of a rheostat dial -- not the legendary "pull of the switch" – an executioner could deliver a fatal jolt of 2,400 volts to whoever sat in the chair.
The chair itself was built by Carl F. Adams, founder of Adams Electric, which is still in business in Hamilton. It never acquired a morbid nickname like Florida's "Old Sparky;" it was just ... the chair.
Heavy leather straps lashed each leg at the ankle. Two straps secured the arms, and straps on the waist, head and chest took care of the rest of the body.
A metal cap fitted above the seated man's head. The headpiece, together with an electrode strapped to the right leg, served as conductors for the fatal jolt of electricity.
Strangely enough, the State Gazette also reported that the chair was designed with comfort in mind:
"The chair is also adjustable, permitting the arm rest to' be raised, the back rest to be shoved further back and the head rest to be straightened forward, thus giving the man at least a comfortable seat in which to die."
All that was left that fall of '07 was to actually execute a criminal - and Somerset County delivered one.
He was Saverio DiGiovanni, 34, an Italian immigrant and wool mill worker in Raritan who spoke little English. That September, he fatally shot a fellow Italian, Joseph Sansome, for reasons that were never established – perhaps jealousy over a woman or rage over an unpaid debt.
Under modern-day sentencing guidelines, DiGiovanni's hotheaded act would almost certainly
have meant prison time without the death penalty. But these were less forgiving times, and after a two-day trial, a jury took just 15 minutes to pronounce him guilty of first-degree murder.
The judge, James Bergen, then became the first judicial officer in New Jersey ever to sentence a man to be shocked until dead.
"At first, there was no reaction," said Jessie Havens, a Raritan historian. "It wasn't until the death sentence was read to him a second time, through an interpreter, that he became highly emotional and had to be subdued."
Newspapers describedDiGiovanni as a 5-foot-5, bullnecked man an with gashes all over his body from a life of fighting. In prison, he went through various mood charges. One moment, he was boasting that the chair couldn't kill him. The next, he was bemoaning his fate and weeping for his wife and baby left behind in Italy.
DiGiovanni spent all of one month on death row. Gov. Edward Stokes rejected his appeal for clemency, and the execution date was set for Dec. 11.
The doomed man had no last meal. He was led out of his cell barefoot, a slit cut down the right leg of his pants to make room for the chair 's electrode. A pair of prison assistants showed thedoomed man into his seat and put the helmet and straps in place.
Quietly sobbing and praying, DiGiovanni offered no resistance as a hood was draped over his eyes.
At 5:57 a.m., the assistants stepped back and motioned to the executioner, Edwin Davis.
A jolt of 2,400 volts surged through DiGiovanni's body for a full minute, throwing his strapped form forward against the restraints. After a few seconds had passed, the second jolt was delivered.
By electric chair standards, DiGiovanni's death was quick and efficient. Most witnesses agreed he had probably been killed instantly. "The burning of the flesh ... did not attend this execution," the Trenton True American reported.
There was no autopsy, and DiGiovanni's corpse was buried in an unmarked grave at Our Lady of Lourdes Cemetery in Hamilton.
A total of 159 other men -- and no women -- would go on to die in the Trenton death chair. Hauptmann paid the ultimate penalty for the Lindbergh kidnapping on April 3, 1936, a day which also saw mobs of newsmen scurrying after the hearse that carried his corpse away from the prison.
On two occasions -- July 15, 1924 and Nov. 18, 1927 -- the chair was used to put four men to death on the same day.
The last execution took place in 1963. New Jersey abolished the death penalty shortly thereafter. By then, electrocution, one-time scientific wonder that promised a humane death, seemed like the relic of a barbarous age; the lawmakers substituted lethal injection as the preferred method of execution.
Today, 13 men await the deadly needle in a new, two-tiered death row. None has been executed and the appeals process means that more than a decade will elapse between sentencing and execution -- not the monthlong wait of DiGiovanni's era.
In 1980, thelong-dormant death chair was moved from storage into a new prison museum at the Department of Correction on Stuyvesant Avenue in Ewing. Lately it’s been on display at State Police Headquarters, part of its popular exhibit on the 1932 Lindbergh case.
Its leather restraints are completely worn away, and the power’s long been turned off, but the heavy oak seat is certainly the most gawked-at item in the whole place.
Prison guard union rep John Cunningham says it’s a worthy item for display, considering the huge part it’s played in carrying out Jersey justice. "Hey, it's not pretty, but it is history," Cunningham said.
|1907: 'A comfortable seat in which to die'|
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|