The Story of Old Sparky

Published Sept. 25, 1999|Updated Sept. 30, 2005

It has inspired late-night jokes about sizzling bacon and T-shirts declaring "Only Sissies Use Injections."

It has endured lawsuits, constant criticism and even the visual impact of gruesome photos of Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis moments after he was electrocuted in July.

And now, once again, Florida's electric chair _ one of the most colorful and notorious execution devices in U.S. history _ has survived another challenge before the Florida Supreme Court.

Robert Snyder, a professor of American Studies at the University of South Florida, credits the chair's longevity to "a kind of frontier, eye-for-an-eye mentality in Florida." Its staying power, he says, "is a testament to people who want to protect old ways."

The electric chair was born in the 1880s, an outgrowth of a marketing battle between electricity titans George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison. It had an odd coterie of pro- and anti-death-penalty supporters who saw it as a quick, more humane alternative to public hangings.

"The electric chair was seen as a technological miracle," said Craig Brandon, author of The Electric Chair. "It seemed like magic."

But there was no magic when New York became the first state to use the chair, putting William Kemmler to death on Aug. 6, 1890. Witnesses said the convicted wife-killer smoked and bled, and they reported smelling charred flesh.

"They could have done better with an axe," Westinghouse ruefully acknowledged.

Amid rising homicide rates and a growing public demand for law and order, the chair's popularity grew. Fourteen states were already using it when Florida sheriffs, tired of presiding over hangings, persuaded the Legislature to replace the noose with a chair in 1923. A death chamber was built at the prison in Raiford.

Dr. Ralph Greene Sr. of Jacksonville, a state health official, later said he devised the chair and built the head electrode like a "helmet . . . with felt, mesh wire and straps." It featured homemade accessories, such as a leg electrode made from an old Army boot and some roofing copper, and was wired by Westinghouse.

Although prison officials boasted that inmates cut down an oak tree and constructed it for free in Raiford's sawmill and carpentry shops, the Jacksonville Journal reported it was made at Cook's Cabinet Shop on Newman Street in Jacksonville.

Frank Johnson became the first to die in the new chair. On Oct. 7, 1924, the Duval County man, convicted of killing a railroad engineer for his watch and $100 cash, was electrocuted before 12 witnesses.

The chair quickly earned the names "Old Sparky" and "Old Smokey," and for the next few decades, about five inmates a year were electrocuted.

The job of pulling the switch fell to the sheriff in the county where the crime had been committed. But when Jim Williams was condemned for killing his wife in 1926, Sheriff J.C. Blith asked two deputies to do the job. Both refused.

For 10 minutes, Williams sat strapped in while Blith and a deputy argued. The sheriff finally ordered Williams back to his cell. Some years later, he was pardoned after he jumped off a prison truck and saved a woman and her baby from a mad bull.

One of the most famous people to die in the chair was Giuseppe "Joseph" Zangara. He fatally wounded Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak during an attempt to assassinate President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in Miami.

"I'm not afraid of the chair," said Zangara, who hurled invectives at "capitalists" before Dade Sheriff Dan Hardie pulled the switch on March 20, 1933. "See?"

There has always been something "eerily medieval" about electrocutions in Florida and elsewhere, author Brandon noted. As the condemned walks down a 40-foot corridor to the Florida death house, the warden and guards follow silently.

A black-hooded executioner was added in 1941, replacing the sheriffs. The Legislature authorized a fee of $150 per execution and agreed that his identity would be kept secret.

By 1945, the chair had lost its magic in at least one state, North Carolina, which switched to lethal gas. But in Florida, where vomit bags were sometimes issued to the official witnesses, some office-holders pushed to make Old Sparky more public.

Sen. Charles E. Johns of Starke proposed a portable chair, to be transported by truck with an electric generator and set up in a jail or a courthouse where the convicted was sentenced _ much as in the days of public hangings.

The proposal failed, but the chair's continuing popularity spoke to Floridians' basic fears about crime and revealed much about the South's vigilante tradition, said professor Snyder.

"There's always been a sense in Florida that if you feel you have been victimized, you have an obligation to protect your honor by avenging what has taken place," Snyder said. "A sort of bestial spirit resides deep within the heart of people in Florida. When it comes to meting out punishment, this naturally translates into continuing use of one of the more brutal, callous ways of legally executing a person."

By the early 1960s, the nation's death-penalty laws were under attack by critics who contended that capital punishment was meted out in an arbitrary way. In Florida, defense attorneys produced statistics showing that two-thirds of the 196 men executed in the chair were black, and for 15 years the Florida chair went unused.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty, ruling that it had been applied unfairly.

Florida and other states rushed to rewrite less-arbitrary laws.

When the court upheld them four years later, Oklahoma became the first state to switch to lethal injection. Texas, worried about the possibility of a televised death in the electric chair, followed suit and became the first state to use the method in 1982.

But Florida was determined to keep Old Sparky and its time-honored death rituals.

The first to die when executions resumed in Florida was John Spenkelink, a white man condemned for murdering his roommate in a Tallahassee motel.

In vain, Spenkelink's lawyers _ among them David Kendall, who later became President Clinton's private attorney _ argued that the electric chair was "unnecessarily torturous and wantonly cruel."

On May 25, 1979, Spenkelink, 30, was given two shots of whiskey, then executed in front of 32 witnesses, including 10 reporters.

It took three jolts to kill him. But because the venetian blinds separating the witness section from the death chamber were closed until Spenkelink was strapped in, witnesses did not get a good look. Spenkelink had straps drawn tightly across his mouth and was denied a final statement by prison officials.

After the execution, rumors spread that a fighting, shouting Spenkelink had been dragged to the chair, gagged and beaten, so officials decided to leave the blinds open the next time. And after Spenkelink's body was exhumed for an autopsy, the state decided to perform autopsies on all executed inmates, a job that fell to William Hamilton, the Gainesville-area medical examiner.

Hamilton's reports on electrocuted inmates gave ammunition to critics of the chair. Though he has consistently maintained that the jolt of electricity causes nearly instant and painless death, his autopsy photographs depicting burned inmates have been used by scientists as evidence of the mutilating effects of electricity.

What's more, new research into the way the human brain processes pain began to accumulate. It suggested that because the skull insulates the brain from an electric current, some inmates might experience a slow motion death of boiling body parts, paralyzing muscle contractions and intense pain.

By 1986, 19 capital-punishment states had switched to lethal injection. Florida's chair, meantime, became the nation's busiest instrument of death, with the most prisoners in line for execution.

In an age of guns, gore and drugs, office-seekers hoping to prove they were tough on crime used images of Old Sparky in political ads. Sometimes, they invoked the name of Ted Bundy, the serial killer who abducted, raped and murdered women in a cross-country carnage.

During his campaign for governor in 1986, for example, Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez vowed that if he was elected, "Florida's electric bill will go up." Two years after he was sworn in, he signed Bundy's warrant, and on Jan. 24, 1989, Bundy went to his death.

In the years that followed, executions increasingly took on entertainment value as David Letterman and Jay Leno cracked jokes about the chair. Time magazine listed it as a big winner of the 1994 elections.

Seventeen months after Bundy's execution, witness accounts of flames shooting from the head of convicted cop killer Jesse Tafero made headlines around the world. For four minutes, Tafero, 43, clenched his fists, convulsed and appeared to breathe deeply as smoke and sparks shot out of his death mask.

State-hired experts blamed a sponge in his headpiece that didn't properly conduct electricity. But a former maker of electric chairs said the chair's aging electrodes caused Tafero to be burned alive.

Two federal judges ruled that Tafero's death wasn't unconstitutionally cruel. But after a botched execution in Virginia in 1993, three U.S. Supreme Court justices hinted that old court decisions might no longer apply in light of modern evidence of electrocution's effect on the body.

The debate over Old Sparky stalled Florida's execution engine. In 1996, the Office of Capital Collateral Representative, which represents death row inmates, turned up the pressure by filing a court motion to have the execution of John Bush videotaped.

When the court refused, chair opponents began collecting autopsy data and amassing affidavits from anti-chair scientists.

Then, on March 25, 1997, flames leaped from the death cap of Pedro Medina. Again, a sponge was blamed.

Medina's execution led to the fiercest battle yet about the old killer. The Florida Supreme Court put executions on hold as courts held new hearings.

Ultimately, the court cleared the chair in a 4-3 decision, but dissenting justices likened it to a time capsule from another age and electrocution to a contemporary burning at the stake, a Frankenstein-like spectacle.

The justices and an independent commission again urged lawmakers to switch to lethal injection. But again, the Legislature voted to retain the chair, 36-0 in the Senate and 103-6 in the House.

The decision came despite two 1997 polls suggesting Floridians were ready to banish Old Sparky, and last year, the Legislature passed a bill authorizing lethal injection _ but only if the courts were to retire the chair.

Lawton Chiles presided over 17 executions during his two terms as governor in the 1990s, including that of Judi Buenoano, 54, the only woman ever electrocuted in Florida (she poisoned her husbands), and Leo Jones, 47, who challenged the constitutionality of the chair and convinced many observers that he might have been innocent.

With each death came more controversy, more court briefs.

Kentucky and Tennessee switched to lethal injection, making Old Sparky a true rarity. Only three other states _ Georgia, Alabama and Nebraska, which has a moratorium on capital punishment pending a review _ still relied solely on electrocution by the end of 1998.

Earlier this year, corrections officials decided that Old Sparky, whose wood was cracking, needed to be replaced. They worried it might break under the strain of Allen Davis' 344-pound frame.

They paid $706.40 for the red oak lumber to build a new chair, which has an adjustable headrest and a higher seat that prison officials said would be "more accommodating" to bigger inmates. But the electrical components, dating back to 1961, remained the same.

During Davis' execution on July 8, some witnesses gasped as blood flowed from under his death mask and soaked his white shirt. Gov. Jeb Bush attributed it to a minor nosebleed, and legislative leaders vowed to continue using the chair. But the Florida Supreme Court postponed the execution of Thomas Provenzano the next day and ordered another hearing.

Later that month, scientists faced off in an Orlando courtroom to debate whether Davis, 54, condemned for murdering a Jacksonville woman and her two daughters, had suffered pain.

Key to the debate were photographs of Davis taken moments after his death. In the pictures, the first ever released of an electrocution, Davis' face is contorted and purple. His nose appears to be crushed by the leather chin and mouthstraps that tied him to the chair.

Retired Circuit Judge Clarence Johnson ruled that the thick brown mouthstrap might have caused Davis some discomfort but that the chair's electrical circuitry functioned as intended.

Later, however, when the seven Supreme Court justices looked at the pictures, some were stunned.

"Can you hold that picture up to the people of the state and say this is what we want to do?" Justice Harry Lee Anstead asked Richard Martell, Florida's chief lawyer for death-penalty appeals.

On Friday, Anstead was in the minority as once again the court upheld the constitutionality of the chair.

And at Florida State Prison, officials continued making preparations for the executions next month of two more inmates.

_ Times researchers Mary Mellstrom and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.