In the Straight Dope classics column from 15-May-1981 Cecil states “Offhand I can’t think of anybody who was strapped in only to be taken out later…”

Knowing that the teeming millions always seek the most complete and accurate data available (being one of them myself) I thought I should introduce the following information:

U.S. Supreme Court case: Francis V. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459

In September of 1945 the petitioner Willie Francis, a 16-year-old black male, was convicted of murder (which he probably did not commit) in the state of Louisiana and sentenced to death. On May 3, 1946 the attempted electrocution failed (possibly due to mechanical malfunciton, possibly because he was connected improperly) and he was removed from the chair and returned to his prison cell. A new death warrant was issued by the governor for May 9.

Appeals were made based on the claim that this would violate due process under the 14th amendment to the constitution as well as the double jeopardy clause of the 5th amendment and the cruel and unusual punishment provision of the 8th amendment and the execution was stayed pending the outcome of the appeals.

The case was argued on November 18, 1946 and decided on January 13, 1947 bya 5-4 decision that proceeding with his execution would not violate his Constitutional rights.

The governor of Louisiana refused to commute the sentence and the execution was then carried out on June 7, 1947.

Link to article:
What physically happens to someone electrocuted in the electric chair?

“persons who are assholes, such as yourself”

Pretty Harsh, eh?

Yeah, I thought it was a rather harsh comment as well, for what is probably one of the less macabre questions put to him.

Is 22 years too long ago for an apology?

I’d like to agree that the “asshole” comment was a little rough. The question seemed to be that morbidly-obsessed kind of thing you get when you’re really scared of something. I remember when I was a kid, the thought of UFOs terrified me. So, of course, I read about them almost constantly. Maybe that’s an insufficiently grisly example to use as a parallel, but I remember what it felt like to be afraid of something and simultaneously curious about it.

But even Homer nods (is that the right saying?), so I guess it’s possible for Unca Cecil to have a mean day.

Well, the “please try to be as detailed as possible” could reasonably be regarded as kind of assholey. And at the time, to ask a question was to invite abuse – it was part of the game. Cecil’s mellowed quite a bit over the years.

Well, there was the railroad employee who was sentenced to death for pushing a passenger off of a train. He was unsuccessfully electrocuted several times before the authorities put him before a firing squad.

Doctors concluded that the fellow was in fact a very poor conductor.

Oh, good lord, did I actually post that? I’m sorry.

To partially atone, I’ll pass on the observations of two electricians I once lived with. One of them claimed that a really big shock itself isn’t painful; the pain comes from surviving the shock and experiencing the resultant soft-tissue damage and long recovery process. In other words he was arguing that electrocution isn’t all that bad so long as you don’t live through it. The other guy I lived with claimed just the opposite–that electrocution is very painful, but like many other kinds of traumatic events, the victim often doesn’t retain a recollection of the actual incident, only the recovery process.

I’m not sure who was more correct, but you should have seen those two guys try to “prove” their arguments to one another after a few beers.

It was a legitimate question. If electrocution is grisly a guy should know all about it, so he can rightfully argue for or against it. If someone doesn’t want to think about it, but it’s going on anyway, they’re more likely to impose a death sentence. Or, be paralyzed by indecision.
My question is, aren’t relatives of the condemned allowed to witness?

Gee, I dunno Sofa King, though the joke is in rather bad taste, it does present a chuckle effect with the word play. One thing that is rather interesting about Cecils answer is that electrocution was seen as being more humane than hanging.

It seems to me that there would be less pain involved with having one’s neck snapped and severing the spinal cord at the end of the drop than cooking in chair for several minutes.

Whatever the form of execution though, the “guest of honor” has to endure through the waiting after knowing their execution is pretty much assured. Perhaps that is the part that should be considered not humane.

In the column, Cecil mentioned the case of a California man who received a reprieve after he had already died in the gas chamber. The best I’ve been able to find through Google is that a man named Burton Abbott was executed for the abduction and murder of a 14-year-old girl in 1957, and that the California Committee on Reprieves called the prison to delay the execution two minutes after gas was administered. Does anyone have any more information on this case, particularly the details surrounding the reprieve?

I can’t believe so many of y’all are shocked by Cecil’s use of “asshole” in reference to the question-asker.

When I read the “asshole” comment, I laughed out loud. I loved-- and miss-- the grizzly Cecil of yore.

What a badass.


Google-ize it!



Somewhat different from the specific subject matter, ie electric chair. We use lethal injection.

I recently served on a Grand Jury in the State of Oregon. As part of my duty I took a tour of the State Penitentiary including “death row”. No one has been executed since I think the mid 90s so we did not witness an execution, just got a tour.

I asked one of the guards about tours and yes, at least in Oregon, tours can be had with prior arrangement with prison officials. The prison has an official website with I would assume info on tours. I do not know if the tour would include death row. As a member of the grand jury and I think since it was that time of year, we got the tour. I think grand jury tours are required once a year for all facilities. I had the luck of the draw.

Oregon uses injection so, like I said, this is not specific to the electric chair but I thought it might be of interest to describe what the execution room looks like, at least in Oregon.

Death row is housed in the maximum security section of the prison. We were not allowed to see the specific death row inmates but we did get taken to the execution room.

The execution room is essentially a mini prison with one cell, a separate secured toilet room about 4x4, a witness room(behind curtains so we could not see) and of course the execution room and control room. The lighting in all rooms was rather subdued. The place is built like a brick s’house, all steel plate and bars and heavy glass.

The prisoner’s cell is roughly 6x10 feet with a sink and cot and I think a table attached to the wall. The prisoner is brought to his cell the week prior to his date and kept there until his appointment. A 24 hr guard is placed outside the prisoner’s cell. If he needs to use the John, he has to get permission from the guard and is let out of his cell and put into the heavily locked toilet room.

There is a small “waiting” room between the cell and the execution room, no walls just open floor space separated by a glass partition from the execution room. I would estimate the “waiting room” to be about 10 feet on a side and of irregular shape.

The execution room is very small, maybe 8 feet wide and just a little longer. Just room enough for the gurney and for about 5 jurors and a guard to stand around in. At the head of the room is a window and some holes in the wall to the controller’s/technician room. The drug IVs are fed thru the holes and controlled by a technician in the control room.

The execution room is better lighted and the gurney is a sturdy hospital type bed but with leather padding and two arm boards out to the side to hold the inmate’s arms out for access(I guess). There are extremely thick heavy duty leather straps for the arms and legs and the chest of the inmate. The leather is well polished and appears to be at least 1/4 thick and at least 10" wide with big metal buckles. No one is leaving once they strap you down.

The guard told us the prisoners are usually walked the maybe 10 feet from his cell to the gurney, but when the time comes they have several strong guards handy to assist if needed.

All jurors found the tour very interesting and well worth the time. We we in with the general population and there are very few guards and you are definitely toast if someone doesn’t like you since no one could get to you soon enough to help. I guess that is why the Prison instructions said you were out of luck if things went bad.

I would recommend a tour if you really want to see what things look like. If is a very strange feeling but very educational.

From one who has been in the “Big House”

Jim Henderson

At least in certain circumstances, relatives of the victims of persons on death row are allowed to witness the execution–this probably varies from state to state. My father, who was also a witness in the case, was asked if he wanted to sit in on the execution of Randy Kraft, as my second cousin was one of his victims.

Thanks, omni-not. I guess I should spell the guy’s name right when Googling if I really want to learn anything about him. :smack:

I agree. The old, caustic Cecil was a lot of fun. I assume he’s mellowed over time, but I miss his attitude and wit.

I wonder how realistic the dreadful death scene in The Green Mile is?

The guard deliberately does not wet the conducting sponge that goes on the prisoner’s head under the electrode, making his death long and horrible

True, death from a well-done hanging is nearly instantaneous, as compared to a a few minutes for electrocution.

But note the well-done hanging. Many were not well-done. And a poorly done hanging is very unpleasant, to both the prisoner and the witnesses. (It was the uproar over a botched hanging that led to the outlawing of the death penalty here in Minnesota.)

One of the major variables is the weight of the victim and the length of the rope and the “drop” involved. Too short and the neck is not broken, instead the victim just slowly strangles*. Too long and the whole head pops off the body.

The size & pliability** of the rope enters into this too, along with the amount of musculature in the victim’s neck. And of course, it’s the knot in the noose that actually causes the vertebre to break and sever the spinal cord, so the positioning of that knot is critical.

All of these variables make planning a good hanging rather tricky. You need a fair amount of experience to do it right. And, nowadays, states don’t do this often enough to have experienced hangmen available (except maybe in Texas). Electrocution, on the other hand, can be done by unskilled guards just by following the directions.

*It is said that medeavil hangman, who were ranked on how well they did their job, hid assistants under the gallows, who would jump up and grab the victims legs as he dropped thru the trap, thus adding their weight to make the hanging look good. Supposedly, this is the origin of the phrase “pulling my leg”.

**New ropes are stiff, and not as flexible as used ones. Thus a new rope used in a hanging is more likely to lead to a prolonged death than a used one. This is said to be the origin of the phrase “he’d complain if he was hanged with a brand new rope”.

The case Cecil meant was probably Caryl Chessman.

Brief history: Chessman was a serial rapist, known as the Red Light Bandit. He was sentenced to death on a phony kidnapping charge. Rape was not a capital crime, kidnapping was, and the prosecutor wanted a death penalty. Nobody ever accused him of murder, BTW. The specific crime for which he was eventually executed was a legal fiction.

While on Death Row, Chessman wrote four books, three non-fiction accounts of life on death row, and one novel. The prison authorities tried to stop him writing, but he managed to do it in secret, and smuggle the manuscripts out of prison.

Eight times, a date for his execution was set, and then a reprieve granted. Twice, the reprieve was at the last minute, when he was in the death cell.

The ninth and final time, Chessman was actually executed. Another stay had been granted, but the message did not get through because of a fault in the telephone.

The case has been the subject of several books, and a movie “Kill Me if You Can” with Alan Alda as Chessman.