Note: I had to sit through a 45 minute electrocution lecture courtesy of a teacher I asked about the history of electrocution. See how I love you?
Anyway, sure thing! I was going to just give you a paragraph on writing it, but then one thing led to another, and I decided to go ahead and write a small guide on electrocution and electric shock, as I couldn’t find a tumblr based one myself. (If all you really care about is writing it, just scroll down to the end of the post.)
Let’s start out with what electrocution is and basic information about it.
Know the difference between electrocution and electric shock. (I’m bringing this up because people often confuse electrocution and electric shock.) The basic difference is that one kills you, and the other doesn’t.
- Electrocution - “death caused by electric shock, either accidental or deliberate. The word is derived from “electro” and “execution”, but it is also used for accidental death.”
- Electric shock - “a sudden discharge of electricity through a part of the body.” (non-deadly)
Current is what kills in electrocution. The current level is determined by the applied voltage and the resistance of the material (i.e., your body) that the current is flowing through. Depending on the individual, the resistance of dry skin is usually between 1,000 -100,000 W.
(image courtesy of my digital electronics teacher)
POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING?: If you’re interested, take a look at this post. It shows a dead body after electrocution.
Most electrocutions are done accidentally. It’s actually rather rare that you are electrocuted on purpose. In fact, electrocution in general isn’t all that commonplace. One count that I found expressed electrocution with a lifetime odd of 1-in-5,000 for Americans. (I’m almost sure that the website was referring to a high current electric shock, but I’ll let it slide.) I don’t know what sort of situation your character is in, but keep this in mind when writing.
An electric shock is usually painful. A small shock from static electricity may contain thousands of volts but has very little current behind it due to high internal resistance.
Their danger levels depend on:
- The amount of current flowing through the body.
- The path of the current through the body.
- The length of time the body is in the circuit.
- The voltage.
- The presence of moisture.
- The phase of the heart cycle when the electric shock occurs.
- The health of the person before the occurance.
Shock effects include:
Fun fact: electric shocks are used in electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). General anesthesia and a muscle relaxant ensured that the patient doesn’t feel a thing, even though enough electricity to light a room for one second passes through their brain. Patients do, however, experience (typically) temporary memory loss. ECT is known to be used on severely depressed patients or patients with boipolar disorder. (x)
Alright, so I’ll start off with some early history on the electric chair, because who doesn’t love background information?
New York built the first electric chair in 1888 (figures). (William Kemmler was the first to be executed in 1890.) Others began to adopt this method, though it is not the sole method of execution in any state today as it was then. (The electric chair remained the only method in Nebraska until February of 2008.)
(1890, used to kill Kemmler)
What happens in the process, you ask?
Well, the person is usually shaved and strapped to a chair with belts. The belts cross the prisoner’s chest, groin, arms, and legs. A metal electrode is attached to the scalp and forehead, over a sponge that has been moistened with saline (it can’t be too wet or too dry). An additional electrode is moistened with Electro-Crème and attached to a part of the prisoner’s leg. The prisoner is blindfolded, and the execution team leaves the room. The warden tells the executioner when to pull the handle to connect the power supply. A current jolt of 500 to 2000 volts for about 30 seconds is given, but this varies from case to case. (Robert Gleason Jr. received 1,800 volts at 7.5 amps at TWO 90-second cycles.) The body relaxes when the current is turned off. The doctors wait momentarily, and then go check to see if the heart is still beating; if it is, another jolt of electricity is given, and this continues until the doctors can officially proclaim that the heart is not beating. (Multiple physicians check this.)
Give me gross specifics on what goes on, maybe?
The prisoner’s hands usually grip the chair. They may violently move their limbs, causing dislocation or fractures. Their tissues swell. Defecation occurs. Steam/smoke rises, and the smell of burning is in the air. At postmortem, the body is hot enough to blister if it is touched. An autopsy has to be delayed so that the internal organs can cool. Third degree burns with blackening are present where the electrodes met the scalp and legs.
Quotes! I want quotes on what happened, I command you to give me quotes!
U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan had this to say about execution by electric chair: “…the prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes pop out and rest on [his] cheeks. The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool. The body turns bright red as its temperature rises, and the prisoner’s flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking. Sometimes the prisoner catches fire….Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound like bacon frying, and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh permeates the chamber.”
I wanted to talk a bit about botched executions as well.
- William Vandiver- He was still breathing after an initial surge of 2,300 volts. The execution took a total of 17 minutes and five jolts of electricity.
- Wilbert Lee Evans - When hit with the first jolt, blood spewed from the right side of the mask on his face, covering his shirt with blood and a sizzling sound could be heard as blood dripped from his lips. Evans moaned continuously until a second jolt of electricity was applied.
- Pedro Medina - Foot-high flames shot from the headpiece during the execution. The execution chamber was filled with a stench of thick smoke. It gagged the two dozen official witnesses. An official flipped a switch to cut off the power to end (early) the two-minute cycle of 2,000 volts. Medina’s chest continued to heave until he died after the flames went out.
- How do you apply all of this in your writing?
Take the information I have given you in stride. Understand what electrocution and electric shock are. Know your character. Some people are scared of death, some aren’t. Know how your character would react in such a situation when they’re face to face with the person who, with the pull of a switch, will send a lethal amount of current running through their body.
On an ending note, I highly recommend you READ THIS ESSAY. Not only does it send goosebumps down my arm every time I read it, it will help you understand the psychological aspect of electrocution as well.