So, what exactly did kill Eduard Delacroix in the Green Mile

…when his execution is botched up? The lack of a brine-soaked sponge fails to do what exactly? But looking at the very NSFW clip (and rather graphic so be warned), he seems to be in great pain and then set on fire and alive throughout, until he dramatically falls flat. I thought that little current is (as little as 0.015 A) is sufficient to cause fatal arrhythmias so the whole sponge should be superfluous. If there is not sufficient current, then he should not die, people have been tortured with electricity and lived, even if injured.

Sorry for the gruesome question.
Its a factual question, so I think this is the right forum.

The electric chair uses high voltage, presumably to propel a lot of current through the body so as to reliably shut down the brain and screw up your heart and other internal organs. The brine-soaked sponge, in theory, should lower the contact resistance between the electrode and skin, reducing ohmic heating, and allowing fatal (and unconsciousness-inducing) levels of current to flow without causing burns. Without the brine, contact resistance is high, and so a lot of heat gets developed in that area. Plenty of current will still flow, eventually causing death - but not before the convict is severely burned, suffering along the way due to still being conscious.

That’s a fair explanation of what I think the movie is trying to portray. Whether it would actually play out that way in real life, I dunno. I think if you’re passing enough current to cause skin burns, and you’re moving that current through the brain and heart, you’ll be unconscious/dead right quick.

Edison notwithstanding, even the electric chair done right(?) is not a guarantee of death. There have been plenty of instances of electrocution executions failing including, I recall reading, one instance where that head sponge did burst into flame. Isn’t it standard procedure to give it three tries if necessary?

There are basically two ways that electricity kills you.

The first is that it can screw up your heartbeat. As you noted, this takes very little current. Most safety standards are built around under 5mA being the “safe” current level. Once you get up around 50 mA the risk becomes pretty significant. The thing is, even at its best, this is kinda hit and miss. The heart is more sensitive at certain times during its rhythm than others to disruption, so when the shock hits relative to the heart’s rhythm matters. This type of shock tends to throw your heart into fibrillation, and your heart has kind of a funny design in that this fibrillation state is stable, meaning that the heart will happily stay in fibrillation until something else gets it out of this state. Since your heart is just kinda shaking and isn’t really pumping, you pass out fairly quickly and then die from lack of blood flow.

It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but as you increase the current, at some point the risk of death actually drops significantly. What happens is that instead of going into fibrillation, the heart muscles just clamp. At that point the heart isn’t pumping blood, so if the source of electricity isn’t removed you’ll still die. But, unlike in fibrillation, if you do remove the current the heart that was clamped will usually go back into a normal rhythm.

Above that level of current though, you start to get into the second way that electricity kills you. It quite literally cooks you to death. Electricity through pretty much anything other than a superconductor creates heat. Electricity flowing through your body will create heat and will cook your brain and internal organs. This is how an electric chair kills you, and unlike the fibrillation method, this one is much more reliable and isn’t so hit and miss. People don’t tend to survive the electric chair so it’s difficult to confirm this, but the theory is that the first jolt fries your brain to the point where you are no longer conscious. You then aren’t aware of your body being cooked to death by the electricity. At some point your heart gets so badly damaged from all the heat that it stops beating, and you are declared dead. Theoretically, your brain was toasted long before that.

By using a dry sponge, there wasn’t a good connection for the electricity, so the amount of current flowing through the body was greatly reduced. Now, it’s not so certain that brain was toasted by the first jolt, and he may have been conscious for at least part of the execution. If he was conscious, it would have been extremely painful, and possibly not fatal if the electricity had been removed at some point. As it was, he died a slow, painful death where his body was slowly cooked to death. It would have been nice if his heart went into fibrillation as that would have rendered him unconscious in about ten seconds or so, but fibrillation isn’t guaranteed even under those circumstances. It’s also not guaranteed that his heart muscles would have clamped from the electricity, which would have similarly rendered him unconscious due to lack of blood flow.

While he likely wouldn’t have stayed conscious for the entire thing, it would have been absolutely horrific for the spectators, as they would have smelled burning flesh from the bad connections, and the entire execution would have taken significantly longer than usual. Even though he wasn’t conscious, the body would likely still have been twitching and thrashing, which again is more horrifying for the spectators than the victim since the victim probably wouldn’t be conscious for most of that.

I don’t know about three tries, but if it’s done right, the electric chair is pretty much guaranteed to kill. When you have things like sponges that burst into flame, then it wasn’t done right.

Electric chairs use a couple of thousand volts (somewhere around 2,000 to 4,000 for most of the ones I’ve seen specs for) with enough current behind them to reliably cook a human body. As long as you make a decent electrical connection to the human body, no one is going to survive that.

Of course, that doesn’t always mean things were done right, and there have been plenty of botched electric chair executions, as you note.

For anyone interested in the history of electrocution and other modern methods of execution, the Errol Morris documentary, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., is an excellent excursion into the ugly underbelly of execution. Leuchter is a phenomenal creep (he ends up becoming a celebrity in the Holocaust denial culture after doing some worthless “analysis” of residual toxins found at Auschwitz), and the film goes into the ways that the execution industry has to skirt around legal and ethical issues involved in performing executions.


A dry sponge would act as an insulator so the electricity had to arc through it to complete the circuitry. A wet sponge becomes a conductor instead.

The electricity in the video just stops the heart. It doesn’t stop the brain unless the brine headsponge is in place. So thats why the detail of the head sponge is so important.

Without that, he was going to be alive and even conscious until his brain ran out of oxygen… the 2 to 4 minutes… After a 5 - 10 minutes without oxygenated blood flow he rapidly becomes brain dead in that the cells are poisoned with no known antidote .

That post by engineer_comp_geek was really instructive. It certainly taught me a few things about the process that I didn’t know (which was probably about all of it now I come to think of it!)

And that’s how a defibrillator works, isn’t it?

Eh, basically. A modern defibrillator monitors the heart’s rhythm and determines exactly when to give the shock, and gives two smaller shocks (each in reverse polarity to the other) instead of one big shock like the older ones used to do. From what I’ve read, this more reliably gets the heart out of fibrillation and does less damage to the heart muscle as well.

If the heart is stopped right away, blood flow through the brain is likewise stopped immediately, and he’d be rendered unconsciousness within a few seconds of that, not a few minutes.

I once saw a video of surgeons working on a conscious heart patient, and deliberately triggering ventricular fibrillation (not the much more common and less deadly A-fib) with electrodes near the patient’s heart. There’s the beep indicating the electrodes have fired, and then just a few seconds later the patient is glassy-eyed and unresponsive; they quickly administer a second shock (somehow different from the first), normal heart rhythm is restored, and the patient returns to consciousness, a little bewildered but otherwise fine.

TL,DR: if you suppose that his heart stopped immediately after throwing the switch, then he was unconscious very soon after.

Hey, I have a book about the same guy, The Execution Protocol. I read it about 20 years ago and was bewildered when I got to the Holocaust denial parts. Fortunately, there were a number of web sites even back then that detailed why Leuchter’s claims were totally spurious.