Edison & the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death by Mark Essig

Claire Zulkey

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.

Edison & the Electric Chair

Publisher: Walker & Company
Length: 358
Subtitle: A Story of Light and Death
Price: $26
Author: Mark Essig
US publication date: 2003-09

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.

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.