Edison & the Electric Chair

A Story of Light and Death by Mark Essig

by Claire Zulkey

19 December 2003


Shock and Awe

Erik Larson’s February 2003 book, The Devil in the White City, drew a new appreciation for nonfiction, as his thrilling, detailed account of the 1893 Columbian Exposition and the simultaneous horrific deeds of murderer H.H. Holmes blurred the lines of fantasy and reality. With material that even fiction writers can only dream of and a detailed storytelling style, Larson showed that truth can be stranger than fiction, much like Truman Capote did with his true story murder tale In Cold Blood.

It’s possible that Larson helped gain popularity for historical nonfiction authors, which would be a most welcome act. If this is the case, Mark Essig’s Edison & the Electric Chair could be one of the first to benefit. Set in the same time period as Larson’s book, Essig combines together a mini-biography of Thomas Edison, a short history of capital punishment in America, wars over electricity and the evolution of the electric chair.

cover art

Edison & the Electric Chair

Mark Essig

A Story of Light and Death

(Walker & Company)

If there was one drawback to Devil in the White City, it was that the devil stole the show from the White City. While the tale of Daniel Burnham and the execution of the fantastic World’s Fair is fascinating story fodder, the spotlight was stolen by the chilling tale of H. H Holmes, Chicago’s most notorious killer at the time, to the point where readers skimmed the pages about the fair to return to the details of Holmes’ deeds. Larson one-upped great material with even better material.

Unfortunately, Essig suffers from the same curse. There are few Americans more fascinating than Thomas Edison, who was at one point thought to be “a little addled” as a child, but who went on to invent, well, it seems everything. It would seem impossible that Edison could be overshadowed, but as Essig inches closer to recounting the first use of the electric chair on an unlucky fellow named William Kemmler, he is. In some ways, this is appropriate as Essig touches upon Edison’s involvement (or lack thereof) with the electric chair. Edison was a vocal opponent of the death penalty and purposefully distanced himself from any association with the tool of death, yet at least in the case of Essig’s book, it’s impossible for him to escape, or even overpower the importance of and fascination with the chair.

Perhaps in an attempt to keep his book reader-friendly, the text of Edison & the Electric Chair is kept at a rather pithy 294 pages. Essig could have fleshed out the book with greater detail. He has so much to work with and yet seems limited, as each topic opens up several other avenues. While his discussion of the testing and invention of the electric chair, along with the politics of capital punishment, are a fascinating and often overlooked topic of American culture, the controversy and corruption between Edison’s and George Westinghouse’s companies gets a bit muddled in between.

And, again, poor Edison takes a back seat in his own book. Essig gives us enough to interest us in Edison’s invention of the light bulb and the phonograph, as well as his personal life, but that section of the book seems perfunctory. Essig, in the beginning of the book, begins to give us a short but insightful summary of Edison’s career, but it trails off about halfway through, where, again, Edison and his electric light company replace Edison the man. The first instinct many readers may have, after Edison loses the battle for the spotlight to his supporting character, the chair, is to go check out Edison’s autobiography.

That said, Essig’s book is a, yes, electrifying account of the history of electricity, the light bulb, electric service, capital punishment and the transition into the 20th century. In an age when technology runs the gamut from being necessary to disposable, this is a good time to take a look back at a moment when something as simple as a light bulb was viewed as magical. While most people take their cell phones and Walkmans and lighting systems for granted, it is enlightening (sorry) to take a look back when it was all a novelty, especially to modern laypeople who, despite their access to the many wonders of the scientific world, probably can’t explain why and how electricity flows from sockets or how a battery works.

The harnessing of electricity lends itself to a juicy “weird science” telling that Essig does not fail to capitalize on. He describes, without much squeamishness, unpleasant electrical experiments on dogs, horrific power line accidents, and the less gory but no less fascinating origin of the word “electrocution.” If only science could be taught like this in schools, with electricity being portrayed as a sometimes grisly toy, then we may all have gotten better grades in physics. Meanwhile, his history lessons are no less fascinating, touching upon the magic of Edison’s legendary Menlo Park laboratory and the search for a more ‘humane’ method of execution beginning with the impressively named death penalty commissioners’ “catalog of death,” a listing of all methods of killing available, something which could provide fodder for its own book. Photos and illustrations of dog- killing cages, prototypes of the electric chair and hundreds of power lines darkening the sky of 19th century New York further bring together Essig’s successful combination of science and history.

Edison & the Electric Chair is Essig’s first book, and if his largest problem lies in harnessing several controversial, captivating topics, then that’s a good problem to have. It would seem like with Devil in the White City and this book, nonfiction authors are combining more austere subjects such as science and architecture with a basic human element. The results are, for lack of a better term, illuminating.

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