Historically, public executions, especially the executions of women, were always a draw (Gatrell 1994). During the late 1800s and early 1900s the day of an execution was considered a time for social gathering. Flyers were posted, invitations sent out, and discussions held about how to accommodate a multitude of dignitaries. It was considered fashionable to attend an execution, and often the time of an individual’s ultimate demise was determined by what was convenient for the greatest number of people. On at least one occasion we know an execution was postponed until the next day because a train with invited guests was late (O’Shea 1999, 5). As time passed, due to changing laws and what those involved in the business call “more sophisticated methods” (O’Shea 1999, 218) of execution, these events were moved from the public arena. Individual states now set the time when executions will take place and decide how many people can be accommodated at each event. State officials also allow victims’ families and the person being executed to invite a limited number of people.
Despite increased restrictions, members of the press have always been among execution witnesses and have sought creative ways to inform and, darkly, to entertain the absent public (Shipman 2002,4-5). On 12 January 1928 a man named Judd Gray and a woman named Ruth Snyder were both executed in the electric chair at Sing-Sing prison in Ossining, New York. Cameras had been banned from the execution chamber but Thomas Howard, a reporter from the New York Daily News, had a small one strapped to his leg when he entered the witness room. As the switch was pulled and the first bolt of electricity surged through Ruth’s body, Howard took a picture (O’Shea 1998,251). It remains the only photograph ever taken of a woman being executed. The picture, which has recently resurfaced on the Internet, shows bolts of electricity forming an outline of Ruth’s body against a dark background.
In 1998 audiotapes recorded by the Georgia Department of Corrections at twenty-two state executions were subpoenaed in a lawsuit by criminal defence lawyer Mike Mears. Mears was in the process of challenging the state’s use of the electric chair. Later, these tapes were acquired by Sound Portraits1 of National Public Radio (NPR) and produced on the radio as The Execution Tapes.2 The broadcast, hosted by Ray Suarez, marked the first time an audience was able to hear what takes place during an execution. One particularly gruelling recording has the audio portion of an electrocution that had to be done twice.3 The inmate in question was still alive after the first surge of electricity, which lasted two minutes. On the tapes the order to electrocute him again can be clearly heard. Today, prisons routinely videotape executions for their own files, and last year a judge in Florida ordered that pictures of a man executed in Florida’s electric chair be posted on the Internet. He felt the public should see exactly what happens.4
The debate about whether executions should be open to the public or even broadcast on tv continues. This debate is fuelled partly by prisoners’ requests to have their final moments witnessed by the world and partly by anti-death penalty activists who feel public opinion would surely change if people were forced to view the brutality of an execution.