Old Sparky

Old Sparky
Old Sparky of Arkansas

Old Sparky is the nickname of the electric chairs in Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, New York, Texas, and Virginia. It was the nickname of the long-retired electric chair at the now-closed West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia; the electric chair is still at the prison, which is now a tourist attraction.[1] It was also the nickname of the electric chair in South Carolina that was installed in 1912 at the Central Correctional Institution (CCI) [2] until the chair was relocated to the newly built Broad River Correctional Institution, where it was most recently opted for by convicted murderer James Earl Reed as his means of execution on June 21, 2008.

"Old Sparky" is sometimes used to refer to electric chairs in general, and not one of a specific state.



Connecticut legislated lethal injection as its sole method of execution in 1995.[3] The last person executed by electrocution was Joseph "Mad Dog" Taborsky in May, 1960.[4] Connecticut's "Old Sparky" has not been tested since it was moved from Wethersfield to the Northern Correctional Institution in Somers in 1962, and prison officials claim the prison's electrical system cannot handle it.[5]


It was the sole means of execution in Florida from 1924 until 2000, when the Florida legislature, under pressure from the U.S. Supreme Court, signed lethal injection into law. Although no one has been executed in this manner since 1999, prisoners awaiting execution on Florida's death row may still be electrocuted at their request. It is currently located in Florida State Prison on the outskirts of Starke. It was notorious for frequent malfunctions in the 1990s, namely in the cases of Jesse Tafero (executed May 4, 1990), Pedro Medina (executed March 25, 1997) and Allen Lee Davis (executed July 8, 1999). Reportedly, six-inch flames shot out of Tafero's head and 12-inch flames shot out of Medina's head, raising the question whether use of the electric chair was cruel and unusual punishment. After the Medina execution, Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth commented, "People who wish to commit murder, they'd better not do it in the state of Florida because we may have a problem with the electric chair."[6]

The malfunctions probably were due to practices of the prison staff and not because of the electric chair itself. The wooden chair had been replaced in early-1999 to accommodate Davis' girth. The electrical components remained the same for the system.

To assure proper contact between the inmate's head and the electrode, a saline-soaked sponge stuffed between the two was necessary. In the Tafero incident, a natural sponge was replaced with a synthetic sponge that caught fire during the execution. In the Medina incident, prison officials apparently did not properly soak the sponge in saline and it caught fire as well. Photographs that surfaced after Davis' execution clearly showed that his nose had been severely compressed by a misfitted head strap.

Davis execution

The 1999 execution of Allen Lee Davis incited outrage after witnesses saw his white shirt rapidly turn red with blood during his execution. Prison officials later determined the blood came from an unusually profuse nosebleed most likely caused by an improperly fitted head strap. The source of the blood was not evident to witnesses during execution, because Davis' head was covered with a traditional hood. A prison inspector general took photographs of Davis's body, still bloody and strapped in the chair, shortly after execution. These photographs later became key evidence in several cases mounting yet another challenge to the constitutionality of Old Sparky. These lawsuits ultimately came to the Florida Supreme Court in the fall of 1999, when a bare majority (4 of the 7 Justices) found that the electric chair was constitutional in a case brought by death row inmate Thomas Provenzano. One of the dissenting Justices, Leander J. Shaw, Jr., took the extraordinary step of attaching to his opinion three color photographs of Davis's bloody body strapped in the chair. This publication marked the first time those photographs had surfaced on the Internet or, for that matter, anywhere outside of court and prison files.

The effect was to create an immediate and sometimes macabre international debate over capital punishment in general and Florida's adherence to electrocution in particular. The Florida Supreme Court's web servers repeatedly crashed under the demand for access to the photographs, reputed to be the first actual photographs of an American state execution in decades. The photos were used during a protest demonstration in Madrid in support of a Spaniard on Florida's death row. Some death penalty supporters in the United States viewed the photographs as a deterrent, apparently believing they had been posted on the Website as a warning to all potentially dangerous criminals.

Political response

Some Florida politicians vowed never to eliminate the electric chair despite the debate, but events rapidly changed after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from the Florida Supreme Court's split decision upholding electrocution. This action stunned some in Florida's leadership. The nation's high court had declined to review appeals after the prior two malfunctions, so observers concluded that the nation's high court now had come to view Florida's death penalty problems more dimly. Partly on the advice of Attorney General Butterworth, Florida's Governor Jeb Bush summoned the legislature into special session and in early 2000 it quickly approved lethal injection as the means of execution that must be used unless the inmate requests electrocution. The Attorney General then notified the Federal court and it agreed to dismiss the case based on the change in law.


Georgia's electric chair, known as "Old Sparky", located at Reidsville State Prison was installed in 1924 following the state's abolition of hanging and was the sole method of execution in Georgia until October 25, 2001. The original chair, which was painted white, was replaced in 1980 and sent from the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center back to Reidsville, while a squat, varnished replacement was constructed to replace it. Between 1924 to 1998, Georgia electrocuted 441 prisoners. Today the original chair is on public display at the Reidsville State Prison, while its replacement is situated in a closet near the death chamber at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center.[7] It was famously used in the 1945 execution of Lena Baker.[8] In 1996, Georgia State Representative Doug Teper unsuccessfully sponsored a bill to replace the state's electric chair with a guillotine in order to facilitate the use of the condemned prisoners' remains in organ donation.[9]


A gray stone, castle-like building
The Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville houses Kentucky's Old Sparky

Kentucky's electric chair which would be known as "Old Sparky" is located at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville, Kentucky. It was first used on July 8, 1911; the first inmate to die in the chair was James Buckner, convicted of killing a police officer several weeks earlier.[10] On July 13, 1928, Kentucky set a record by electrocuting eight men in its chair, each immediately after the other, more than any other state has electrocuted in a single day. The state has decommissioned the electric chair except for those whose capital crimes were committed prior to March 31, 1998 and choose death by electrocution rather than death by lethal injection. Prior to this legislated date, 163 deaths had occurred in Kentucky's electric chair. The last such execution by electric chair occurred on July 1, 1997, when convicted murderer Harold McQueen was executed in it.


Ohio stopped using the electric chair in 2001, and now exclusively utilizes lethal injection in executions.


Old Sparky, the electric chair formerly used at Huntsville Unit prison

The Texas electric chair to which the name "Old Sparky" is applied was in use from 1924 to 1964. During that time, it saw the deaths of 361 prisoners sentenced to die by judicial electrocution. It was built by incarcerated craftsmen in 1924.[11] Following its decommissioning, it was originally relegated to a prison dump before being rescued. Today, it is on public display as part of a replica death chamber at the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville, Texas [12] along with tubing and straps used in Texas' first execution by lethal injection.[13]

In 1971, the Greater Dallas Crime Commission, a business organization, circulated a petition to recommission Texas' "Old Sparky". The petition received 10,620 endorsements.[14]

West Virginia

The now-decommissioned electric chair known as "Old Sparky" at the now-closed West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia was installed in a facility originally used for hanging. It was in use from 1951 until 1959, during which time nine condemned prisoners were executed in the chair. The chair was bolted to a low platform which covered what had previously been the trapdoor of the gallows used in the state's judicial hangings. Its control apparatus was designed in such a way that three push-button switches were to be simultaneously pressed by three members of the execution team; only one of these switches actually completed the circuit, allowing each member of the execution team to reassure himself that perhaps he had not been the one who had actually initiated the death of the condemned.[1]

References to Old Sparky

  • The Green Mile by Stephen King and its film adaptation use Old Sparky as the official method of execution. This causes an anachronism in the film, since its story is set in Louisiana in the year 1935 (but not for the book, which is set in Georgia), the electric chair (nicknamed Gruesome Gertie) did not replace hanging as the primary execution until 1940.
  • In an episode of King of the Hill, Dale Gribble, excited about being on the executioner list as a new employee of a local prison, asks the prison warden where Old Sparky is. The warden explains that Old Sparky is no longer, replaced by lethal injection. Dale then asks where Old Squirty is, a variation on the original title.
  • The American heavy metal band Metallica has a photo of "Old Sparky" on their album cover of their 1984 studio album "Ride the Lightning." The album also has a song of the same name which the electric chair is the main focus. The electric chair in the cover has a similarity to the Sing Sing prison chair.
  • In the Showtime series Dexter and in the related novels, serial killer Dexter Morgan frequently cites "Old Sparky" as the consequence of his being caught.
  • Steve Earle references "Old Sparky" in the song "Ellis Unit One", which was written for the film Dead Man Walking.
  • In the 2005 horror suspense film Constantine, Club owner and neutral angel Papa Midnite, and John Constantine make use of the Old Sparky chair from Sing Sing prison to help John locate the Spear of Destiny.
  • Old Sparky also appeared in the 2002 film, Ted Bundy directed by Matthew Bright which dramatizes the serial killings of Ted Bundy portrayed by Michael Reilly Burke. His execution is also depicted in the film but it is carried out inaccurately
  • The closing lines of the song Down By Law by The LK make reference to "Old Sparky": "Back from Florida alive/They put me in the chair and I survived"

See also


  1. ^ a b West Virginia Penitentiary
  2. ^ State of South Carolina: Central Correctional Institution Timeline
  3. ^ http://www.cga.ct.gov/2005/rpt/2005-R-0136.htm
  4. ^ http://www.nhregister.com/articles/2010/10/18/news/doc4cbbd3b030403738863502.txt?viewmode=fullstory
  5. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/1987/06/27/nyregion/execution-would-be-the-first-since-1960.html
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ The New Georgia Encyclopedia: Old Sparky
  8. ^ The New Georgia Encyclopedia: Lena Baker Case
  9. ^ Georgia House of Representatives: HB1274 - Death penalty; guillotine provisions summary fulltext
  10. ^ Electric Chair Used in Kentucky The New York Times, July 9, 1911
  11. ^ Roadside America: Texas Prison Museum
  12. ^ Texas electric chair gets permanent museum home USA Today, November 19, 2002
  13. ^ Texas Prison Museum
  14. ^ Bring Back "Old Sparky" Time, March 15, 1971

External links

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