The Physician’s Role in Capital Punishment


The prison physician was responsible for both officiating at capital punishment and monitoring condemned inmates prior to their executions. This responsibility encompassed observing the health of prisoners in the holding cells, treating acute illnesses, and directing the electrician to flip the switch on the electric chair at the correct time. Post-mortem, the physician performed an autopsy to confirm the cause of death and analyze the efficiency of the chair itself. In this way, the physician became the primary employee involved with capital punishment, bearing both psychological and physical responsibilities.

An early electric chair, nicknamed “Old Sparky.” (1)

The first execution by electric chair was performed at Sing Sing Prison on July 7th, 1891. Prior to the introduction of the electric chair, Sing Sing hung prisoners sentenced to capital punishment. After 1914, the state of New York performed all electrocutions at Sing Sing in the electric chair. Squire monitored 39 holding cells in the new “death house,” which cost the state $268,000 to build: 24 cells were reserved for men whose fate was undecided, 6 for those who lost their appeals, 6 for those who were physically or mentally ill, and 3 for women.

The Holding Cells

Chief physician Dr. Amos O. Squire oversaw 138 executions during his employment, this experience contributing to his eventual condemnation of capital punishment. Squire faced the gruesome realities of execution on a daily basis, and gained an intimate knowledge of the execution process. Prior to the date of death, Squire made rounds in the “death house.” This building contained holding cells and an empty room with the electric chair, including space for witnesses and prison officials.

The new death house built at Sing Sing Prison in 1915. (2)
The new death house built at Sing Sing Prison in 1915. (2)

Convicts in holding cells were offered frequent medical attention, and executions were postponed if a severe illness developed. Legally, the inmate must agree to be treated for their illnesses, and certain prisoners refused. Should an inmate in the holding cells agree to undergo treatment, Squire removed them to the hospital. Because these inmates’ execution dates were postponed, their files and verdicts were reevaluated to schedule a new time; occasionally, officials decided to offer an inmate condemned to death a second trial. Some of these inmates brought to a second trial were exempt from the electric chair in favor of a prison sentence. However, certain inmates were not reevaluated, their execution dates were rescheduled, and they were sent to electrocution regardless.

One out of ten inmates sentenced to execution were reevaluated during second trials; eleven out of twelve trials resulted in an acquittal or “conviction in a lower degree of homicide.” One in three of these inmates were commuted by the governor, often sentenced to imprisonment  for “natural life”. Five in one hundred prisoners given life sentences were eventually released from prison.

Administrative and archival records of electrocuted inmates during the late nineteenth century. (3)
Administrative and archival records of electrocuted inmates during the late nineteenth century. (3)

Squire developed conversational relationships with inmates scheduled for execution during frequent medical check-ups. The physician maintained the most personal contact with prisoners of any employee at Sing Sing, holding conversations with inmates and gaining an intimate knowledge of their psyches. Despite Squire’s continued interaction with those in the death house, he was still expected to officiate the electrocution itself and perform an autopsy. Following his retirement, Squire suggested that two separate doctors monitor the inmates’ health and the actual electrocution. The emotional burden of maintaining both proved too great for Squire. 

Officiation of Execution

A prison is prepared for electrocution at Sing Sing Prison. (4)
A prison is prepared for electrocution at Sing Sing Prison. (4)

The new “death house” was isolated from the primary cellblock of the prison, containing both the holding cells and the electric chair itself. Several rooms were built to receive visitors, chaplains, and doctors. During the final hours of an inmate’s life, the prison physician and chaplain both visited the cell, followed by a bath, new clothing, a new haircut, and the opportunity to speak with certain pre-approved family members. Visitation was strictly limited in the weeks prior to execution, while the last few days allowed for frequent interaction with family and friends. Next, the physician was responsible for observing the inmate from the time he was secured in the chair until the confirmation of his death.

On the way to the “death house,” men began to panic. The older execution chamber was not insulated, allowing the hum of the electric motor to fill the holding cells. Squire was often tempted to offer the condemned a numbing agent in order to lessen their anxiety. This was strictly prohibited: according to the warden Lewis Lawes, it did not “seem quite right that an [inmate] be deprived of his full senses during his last minutes on earth.” The warden continued to argue that a man condemned to death must fully recognize the weight of his punishment in order for the punishment to serve its purpose, for capital punishment existed under the pretense that execution was a crime deterrent for criminals still at large. Squire eventually contested this idea by claiming that execution did nothing to reduce future crime and simply removed the possibility for redemption. He explains that the “insane have no fear of death…the person who kills under the sway of violent emotion is at the time indifferent to the consequences…the gangster looks upon the possibility of being executed by the state in the same way that he looks upon the possibility of being killed in the practice of his profession,” and the person planning to murder for profit believe he is too “clever to be caught and therefore does not fear the death penalty.”

An artist’s rendering of the electric chair in Scientific American Magazine. (5)
An artist’s rendering of the electric chair in Scientific American Magazine. (5)

Dr. Squire was employed during two different iterations of the execution chamber. In both methods, the electrician stood behind a booth so he was unable to see the victim, while the doctor stood in full sight of the chair. Initially, a string was tied to a ring on the electrician’s finger that connected to a ring on the doctor’s finger. Prison guards would adjust electrodes on the inmate and the doctor signaled for the electrician to flip the switch by pulling on the string. By the time Squire was chief physician, the system had changed. However, the doctor was still responsible for determining the correct time to flip the switch. Should the victim be electrocuted after breathing in, his chest collapsed and caused him to foam at the mouth. Therefore, the physician must determine when the lungs were empty in order to ensure a “humane” death. Great lengths were taken in order to prevent the witnesses from any disturbing sights or sounds. If the incorrect voltage was applied, as often occurred during the early stages of execution, the victim’s flesh would begin to burn and sear. Squire noted that the electrician bore technical responsibility for the electrocution while the doctor bore the psychological effects.

Following the signal to flip the switch, the chief physician must watch the inmate as death approached. Squire described listening to the prisoner’s heartbeat grow fainter and fainter before the electrician flipped the switch for a second time. Next, the doctor was responsible for pronouncing the inmate dead by confirming the absence of a pulse. The body was promptly removed from the chamber, at which point the doctor then performed an autopsy as required by law. Squire found fault with this system: the electrician’s mental health was given proper concern by the concealment of his victim, while the doctor was expected to maintain a relationship with the inmate, observe and signal the actual death, and perform an autopsy on the body.

Written by Kathryn Ziegner

Image Citations

  1. NYS Department of Correctional Services.
  2. Westchester Archives.
  3. T. Fred Robbins, Library of Congress (1915).
  4. George Eastman House Collection.
  5. Scientific American (1888).