Entry #5: Methods of Execution of Women
The methods of execution regarding capital punishment have drastically changed since its first use in the United States in 1608. Although the rate of execution is drastically lower for women than men, women have been no stranger to being put to death by the State. Although most women in American history were hanged, the electric chair, lethal gas, and lethal injection have all crossed paths with condemned American women.
The first women to be executed in the United States was Jane Chapman in 1632, in which she was hanged for the crime of murder (American Female Hangings). Hanging accounts
for the majority of female executions throughout history. During the Salem witch trials, the hanging or burning of accused witches was a common occurrence, happening from 1692 to 1693. As seen in figure 1, of the 15,723 executions in the United States, a little over 9,000 of those were carried out by hanging, 505 presumed to be women, the last one being in 1937 with the hanging of Mary Holmes for murder and robbery (Gallagher). Another method used during this time, and still used today is the firing squad which has never been used to execute a women in United States history. By the turn of the century, use of the electric chair began to phase out hanging as a method of execution, and by the new death penalty era (after 1976), there would only be two states (Delaware and Washington) to keep the method of hanging in place.
First invented in 1888, the electric chair was meant to be a quick and painless death for the condemned. When a prisoner is placed in the electric chair, they are restrained by leather straps both on their wrists and ankles, their head and other necessary places, shaved wherever is necessary, (for women, it was mostly likely just the head) so the electrodes can be placed on various points of the body. A sponge is dampened and placed on top of the prisoner’s head before the “skull cap” is placed and tied under
the chin, a hood placed over the head after the last words are given. When the last go ahead is received, 20- 500 volts of electricity would be administered for 30 seconds. The administration of electric shock is repeated until the condemned is dead. Once the execution is carried out, the body must cool before an autopsy can be performed (autopsy is required for all executed prisoners). The first women to be executed by electrocution was Martha Place in Kings, New York on April 8, 1899 at Sing-sing prison for the crime of murder. Martha was accused of forcing acid down her step daughter’s throat before suffocating her with a pillow. Place was found at her home, bloodied after an altercation with her husband in which William Place claimed Martha came after him with an axe (Murderpedia). After her, twenty-five other women would follow, all for crimes relating to murder with the exception of Ethel Rosenberg who was accused of being a Russian spy and sentenced to death for espionage.
It wasn’t until the 1940s that lethal gas became a method of execution that was administered to a women. During an execution by lethal gas, the prisoner is placed in a
metal chair with holes in the seat, a bucket with a sulfuric acid tab underneath. This type of execution would take place in an airtight gas chamber and the prisoner would be checked for a heartbeat through a stethoscope taped to the chest and ran outside of the chamber. Once seated, there is virtually no preparation except for restraint of the wrists and ankles to the execution chair. Once the chamber is sealed and the final go ahead given, sodium cyanide pellets are dropped through a shoot which empties into the bucket underneath the prisoner’s chair creating a lethal chemical reaction. Like electrocution, there is a waiting period before retrieving the body from the execution chamber as the gas has to be filtered out of the chamber and the prisoner sprayed with ammonia, their hair fluffed to make sure all remnants of chemicals are gone. Hazmat suits and gloves are required in order to ensure that no fumes are ingested by staff during the autopsy. Ethel Juanita Spinelli, also known as “the Duchess”, was the first women to be executed using this method in 1941. She was
tried, convicted and sentenced to death after killing a member of her own street gang in California. After Spinelli, six more would follow making a total of seven women in United States history to be executed by means of lethal gas. The most used method of execution since 1976 is death by lethal injection in which sixteen women in the United States have received, the first being Velma Barfield on November 2, 1984 for the murder of her boyfriend (DPIC). Since 1976, sixteen women have been executed in this manner (DPIC).
Despite precautions, there will always be cases of botched executions. The lack of medical staff allowed to participate in an execution (Hippocratic oath) especially makes methods such as lethal injection in which IVs have to be placed, difficult. A botched execution can be defined as anything that delays the death process or makes it unnecessarily painful or obscene. For example, in the case of Jesse Tafero, flames shot out of his head during his electrocution, hence the name “Old Sparky”. In regards to lethal injection, a botched execution may be defined as prison staff not being able to find a good vein for the IV or having to stick a prisoner several times before getting the two IVs needed for the execution, started. For lethal gas, it would be defied as any physical signs of distress, screaming, seizing, or visible suffocation. Hanging would include the decapitation of the prisoner or having to hang them again when the first attempt did not work.
As seen in figure 2, the most commonly botched method of execution is lethal injection, followed by lethal gas, hanging, electrocution and finally, firing squad (DPIC). The only case of a botched execution of a woman is in the case of Christina Riggs in which “the execution was delayed for 18 minutes when prison staff couldn’t find a suitable vein in her elbows. Finally, Riggs agreed to the executioners’ requests to have the needles in her wrists” (DPIC). Riggs was executed on May 3, 2000 after requesting that her lawyer not prepare a defense to ensure a death sentence (DPIC).
In conclusion, although the methods of execution have changed over the decades, the only method escaped by women has been the firing squad. In the history of United States capital punishment, 587 women have been executed by the state by means of hanging, electrocution, lethal gas, or lethal injection (DPIC). It is clear that gender plays no role in regards to carrying out State executions.
American female hangings 1632 to 1937. (n.d.). In Capital Punishment UK. Retrieved from http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/amfemhang.html
Dead Woman Walking: The Duchess [photograph] (2013, February 12). In Deranged L.A. Crimes. Retrieved from http://derangedlacrimes.com/?tag=juanita-spinelli
Gallagher, Rob. FEMALE EXECUTIONS 1632 to 1962 (n.d.). In The ESPY File Before the Needles. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20080514035210/users.bestweb.net/~rg/execution/FEMALES.htm
Staff, G. (2015, February 25). Firing Squad and Gas Chambers Are Coming Back [Photograph]. In Gephardt Daily. Retrieved from http://gephardtdaily.com/special-reports/firing-squad-gas-chambers/
Martha M. Place [Photograph] (n.d.). In Murderpedia. Retrieved from http://murderpedia.org/female.P/p/place-martha.htm
Weinstein, L. (2012, February 29). American Rare Book Trade Annuals: Heritage Bookshop [Photograph]. In Book Tryst. Retrieved from http://www.booktryst.com/2012_02_01_archive.html
Wilson, C. (2015, December 16). TIME. In Every Execution in U.S. History in a Single Chart. Retrieved from http://time.com/82375/every-execution-in-u-s-history-in-a-single-chart/
Women and the Death Penalty (n.d.). In Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/women-and-death-penalty#facts