America’s love affair with the death penalty centers around the electric chair — a story that’s as much about capitalism as about capital punishment.
Its deployment came at a time when electricity stood on the verge of becoming the universal source of power. The two titans battling for control of the industry were Thomas Edison, representing direct current (DC) and George Westinghouse, promoting alternating current (AC). Edison’s strategy was to convince the world that Westinghouse’s AC current was unsafe.
After having electrocuted scores of cats, dogs, and horses by AC, Edison convinced the state of New York to switch its instrument of capital punishment from hanging to the electric chair, powered by a Westinghouse AC generator. Its first occupant was one William Kemler on August 6, 1891.
The finality of it all derives from the Latin caput, “head.” That’s how people tallied corpses during the bubonic plague — by the head — making for the German kaputt, “done or fallen to pieces” and our first capital sentence (1483) in the form of a beheading.
Capitalism deals with the accumulation of money, the principal “heading” up its activity. What made the electric chair kaput.