On This Day

electric chair
Associated Press

On This Day: First Woman Executed by Electric Chair

March 20, 2011 05:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
On March 20, 1899, Martha M. Place became the first woman to be executed by electric chair after murdering her daughter.

Execution End Result of a Grisly Murder

On Feb. 7, 1898, Brooklyn, N.Y., resident Martha Place killed her 17-year-old stepdaughter by throwing acid on her and then smothering her with a pillow. Later that night, she attacked her husband with an axe, seriously injuring him.

She was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. On the night of March 20, 1899, after Gov. Theodore Roosevelt refused to grant clemency, officials at Sing Sing prison carried out the first execution of a woman by electric chair. Place’s execution was chronicled by The New York Times, which reported that she “went to her death calmly.”

It wrote: “The straps across her face were quickly buckled on, the pad drawn over the eyes, the signal given, and the current turned on. … The body scarcely moved. The prayer book in the woman’s left hand twisted across the wrist and slipped partly out when the muscles relaxed. Her thin lips merely tightened.”

Warden Sage reported to his superiors: “The execution was entirely successful. There was no revolting feature.”

Background: Death by Electrocution

Place’s execution was carried out by Edwin Davis, who nine years earlier in Auburn, N.Y., had carried out the execution of convicted murderer William Kemmler in the first ever execution by electrocution. New York adopted the method in 1888 as a “quicker and more humane alternative to hanging,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

The execution was badly botched; Kemmler survived the first wave of electricity and the executioners quickly subjected him to higher voltage. His body began convulsing and horrified witnesses, some of whom fainted, described the “odor of burning flesh.”

Despite the disastrous execution, New York retained electrocution as its preferred method and other states soon followed. At its maximum in 1949, 26 states used electrocution, though few countries outside of the U.S. adopted it. It was eventually phased out in favor of lethal injection; Nebraska was the last state to use electrocution until the state Supreme Court ruled in unconstitutional in 2008.

Opinion & Analysis: Gender and the Death Penalty

In 2004, a survey conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union on women on death row found that “women who have been sentenced to death are often subjected to harsh living conditions, including being forced to live in virtual isolation, and many are sentenced for crimes that don't result in a death sentence for men.”

Mary Atwell, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University and author of “Wretched Sisters: Examining Gender and Capital Punishment,” found in her study of the 11 women executed since the reinstitution of the death penalty in 1976 that the women put on death row are those who “failed to live up to expectations of how respectable women behave” and are “not womanly enough.”

Martha Place was described by the press as “homely, old, ill-tempered, not loved by her husband,” before her execution.

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