The Big Shock: Electrocution’s use to save lives – or end them

Kill or cure?

The words “electroshock therapy” tend to conjure images of darkened rooms in insane asylums where inmates are mercilessly tortured via electrocution. But this is largely an unfair construction of Hollywood movies and television shows, out to scare their viewers. The reality is that for some people, electroconvulsive therapy (or ECT) is a lifesaver.

In the 1940s, American psychiatric hospitals were being overrun by patients that doctors were at a complete loss to treat, let alone cure. While lobotomies would make an inmate (it’s hard to call these poor people patients!) more passive and controllable, it was a permanent procedure, and considered a method of last resort. A more temporary, less drastic solution needed to be found in order to calm violent inmates.

In the late 1930s, Italian psychiatrists, who already knew that seizures appeared to cause some sort of ‘reset’ in the brain, had been triggering them with a chemical that had unfortunate mental side-effects, filling their patients with a sense of terror. They wondered if they could trigger the seizures with electrocution instead, and if this would eliminate the side-effects.

Italian neurologist Ugo Cerletti was visiting a local butcher shop when he saw the butcher electrocute a pig to stun it before slaughtering it. Cerletti wondered if he could obtain the same effect with a human, and if it would be as effective as chemically-induced seizures. In 1938, he treated his first human patient, a schizophrenic, and it was a success.

Their experiments of using electricity instead of chemicals may have proved fruitful – but the procedure was still somewhat unpleasant, with some patients being injured due to the physical effects of the seizure, or suffering pain from the electricity. As such, some patients were not encouraged to participate, and had to be forcefully restrained – this is largely where the haunting images the general public sees when they think of ECT come from.

It also didn’t help that ECT was used to attempt to “treat” conditions that we no longer consider to be “illnesses”, such as homosexuality. Although the psychiatrists sincerely believed they were trying to help these people, their patients often didn’t feel that way!

And so ECT’s reputation was largely soiled by the late 20th century, despite the fact that it likely helped more people than not. Antidepressants and other pharmaceuticals became the solution-du-jour. However, since the 1980s many of those that medications did not help have turned to ECT (with consent) to help them recover from severe depression. Today, thousands get ECT treatments. Some swear by it.

But this is not without consequences: memory loss appears to be a common side-effect, the extent of which varies from patient to patient. However, to many, this is an acceptable price to pay in order to live a fulfilling life. Psychiatrists hope that over time, ECT’s bad reputation will fade, and more will turn to it to get the help they need.

However, while electrocution can often save lives – not merely through ECT but also defibrillationit can also take them, and not just accidentally.

For centuries, the typical method of capital punishment had been by hanging. Traditional hanging had simply put a noose around the condemned person’s neck and hung them, eventually killing them through strangulation.  In the mid-1850s a drop was introduced in order to break their necks which was seen to be more humane. But even “long-drop” hanging had frequent complications: sometimes the condemned person’s neck didn’t break and they would be left to suffocate, as before. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, they could be decapitated! Quelle horreur!

In 1881 a Buffalo, New York, dentist named Alfred Southwick got the idea that, since the newfangled ‘electricity’ used in contemporary arc street lighting could kill people accidentally due to its high voltages (3000-6000 volts), maybe it could be done on purpose, in the place of hanging. However, it couldn’t just be done willy-nilly – the point of this was to be more humane, not less! And so, Southwick got together with a local physician and the head of the local dog pound and began electrocuting stray dogs. They electrocuted them in water, out of water, using various electrode types and placements (poor doggies!) and eventually they came up with a repeatable method that did the job quickly and cleanly.

A series of botched hangings provided an opportune time for Southwick to promote his method for the execution of humans. He modified a dental chair to restrain the victim, as they were an obviously unwilling participant! A commission was formed to study Southwick’s proposal and others, and Southwick’s proposal won out. Three prisons in New York State were to be outfitted with electric chairs: Auburn, Clinton and the infamous Sing Sing prison.

The first person to be executed (left) was William Kemmler, convicted of murdering his wive with a hatchet. His appeal against his sentence, based on ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment, had failed, and on August 6th, 1890, he was strapped into the chair. But the first shock wasn’t enough to kill him, and a second attempt, while successful, was gruesome, causing his blood vessels to burst!

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