Early on, suffocation was the means, but the more humane dropping of the body from a sufficient height to dislocate the neck or sever the spinal cord was then instituted. There was a time when stones, swords and axes were used. Then firing squads and hanging became the termination actions of choice. There were also the Scottish Maiden and the Halifax Gibbet, instruments that crushed the neck by blunt force to take off the head.
In France, there was sentiment for ending life with minimal pain, so a committee was set up, with professor of anatomy, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, credited with developing the concept of a falling triangular blade with a beveled edge. The device in 1792 became known as the guillotine in France and fallbeil (falling axe) in Germany, was universally used in Europe, and finally retired in 1977. Gas chambers were also used, but that is another story of the holocaust.
In the U.S., the gas chamber was also utilized, but the electric chair (EC) had a dreadful history and showed some bitter rivalry between Thomas Edison, an advocate of DC electricity, and George Westinghouse, who was responsible for AC currents, the eventual winner. In 1887, Edison held a public demonstration, setting up a 1,000 volt Westinghouse AC generator to execute a dozen animals on an electrified plate. The term “electrocution” was invented that day. It was gruesome, but the point was made that AC electricity was dangerous. Edison’s smear campaign did not work, but it did get the Westinghouse chair adopted for executions. In 1889, Westinghouse’s chair became law, but he refused to sell any AC generators for this purpose, and, even funded the appeals for the first so sentenced prisoners. Edison, through subterfuge, then provided the AC generators. The media referred to the process as being “Westinghoused.”
William Kemmler was the first to be executed in New York in 1890, and it wasn’t pretty. The first 17-second jolt did not kill him, so the voltage was increased, and on the second attempt, blood vessels ruptured and the body caught fire. It took eight minutes. He died. Westinghouse commented that they should have used an axe. Notable victims were Sacco and Vanzetti, Bruno Hauptman, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Ted Bundy. Nebraska is today the only state to solely use the electric chair, but the May 8, 2007 execution was stayed while the courts looked closer at the EC as cruel and unusual punishment.