The deadly power of electricity continued to loom large in the public imagination throughout the 19th century. In New York, where overhead cables were the norm (despite laws requiring underground wiring), cases of accidental electrocution began to emerge. Even while provoking consternation, such accidents provided for ghoulish fascination. John Munro’s 1893 book The Romance of Electricity devoted a dozen pages to graphic descriptions of well-known deaths by electrocution and included several illustrations of injuries to bodies and burnt clothing.
The 1890s also saw a development that many came to regard as the most sinister example of electricity’s deadly potential: the electric chair. In response to a growing sentiment in the US that hanging was a barbaric form of capital punishment, electric current was eventually sanctioned as a humane – yet still fearsome – alternative.
According to the author of the Execution Bill, “Criminals would infinitely more dread a silent going away – to be deliberately killed by a terrible but silent force to them unknown.” Park Benjamin, a prominent writer on electricity, agreed, explaining that “the instant extinction of life in a strong man by an agency which it is impossible to see, which is unknown, may create in the ignorant mind feelings of the deepest awe and horror, and prove the most formidable of all means for preventing crime”.