Old Sparky, Georgia's First Electric Chair
Old Sparky, Georgia’s first electric chair, was well used between 1924 and 1980, putting 418 people to death. The chair ended more than 100 years of death by hanging (except for one death by burning and another by firing squad). In turn, its successor chair met its demise when ruled unconstitutional in 2001 and was replaced by lethal injections. Today, Old Sparky is on display at Georgia State Prison in Reidsville. The second chair is in a prison closet.
Old Sparky, Georgia’s first electric chair, was a workhorse. It sent 417 men and one woman to their deaths from 1924 to 1980, averaging seven executions per year. It even had its own generator to ensure a hasty dispatch.
The first person in Georgia to die by electrocution was Howard Henson, an African-American man convicted of robbery and rape. He was executed on Sept. 13, 1924.
The last to die in the electric chair was David Loomis Cargill, 38, a white man who died June 10, 1998, after being convicted of killing the parents of four young children during an armed robbery.
In between was one of Old Sparky’s most famous victims, Lena Baker.
Baker was the only woman put to death by electrocution in Georgia and the one of only two people in Georgia posthumously pardoned. (The other was Leo Frank whose conviction was expected to be appealed when he was lynched in 1915. He was pardoned in 1986, according to research by University of Colorado professor Stephen Greenspan.)
Baker was an African-American maid and mother of three in Cuthbert, Ga., who was convicted of killing her white employer, Ernest Knight. She was sentenced to death in 1944 after a four-hour trial in which no defense was presented on Baker’s behalf, according to NPR. She was executed on March 5, 1945, at age 44.
At the time of the trial, a local newspaper reported that Baker was held as a “slave woman” by Knight, and that she shot him in self defense during a struggle. In 2005, 60 years after her execution, the state of Georgia granted Baker a full and unconditional pardon. A biography was published about Baker in 2001, and it was adapted for the feature film, “The Lena Baker Story,” in 2008, which was shown at Cannes Film Festival.
Old Sparky was replaced by a new chair in 1980, but over 18 years, that chair executed only 23 people, one of them badly.
DID YOU KNOW?
On Dec. 12, 1984, it took convicted murderer Alpha Otis Stephens two jolts and more than six minutes to die.
“The first charge of electricity … failed to kill him, and he struggled to breathe for eight minutes before a second charge carried out his death sentence,” according to an account in the New York Times.
After the first two-minute power surge, executioners waited six minutes for his body to cool before physicians could examine him and declare that another jolt was needed. During that six-minute interval, Stephens took 23 breaths. A Georgia prison official said, “Stephens was just not a conductor” of electricity.
The last execution by electrocution in Georgia was in 1998. Three years later, the chair was deemed unconstitutional by the Georgia Supreme Court.
In a 4-3 decision in 2001 the court said that death by electrocution “inflicts purposeless physical violence and needless mutilation that makes no measurable contribution to accepted goals of punishment. … Electrocution, with its specter of excruciating pain and its certainty of cooked brains and blistered bodies, violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”
Since the chairs were retired, 47 have died in Georgia by lethal injection. Georgia set a state record in 2016 when it executed nine people.