“Old Sparky.” The words instantly call to mind the electric chair, a method of execution that’s fallen from favor but for a while was the United States’ main method of carrying out death sentences for criminals. It remains an option for execution in a handful of states, all southern: Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina, Florida, and Alabama. It’s a practice with a storied and often gruesome past. Here are 20 of the men and women put to death in the most notorious method of the 20th century, the electric chair:
1. Ted Bundy (January 24, 1989)
One of the most notorious serial killers in American history, Ted Bundy is estimated to have killed 35 people in the late 1970s. He escaped from prison twice before his final apprehension, and was sentenced to death for his brutal crimes. As his appeals were exhausted and execution drew close, he confessed to more and more killings. He was strapped into the electric chair at Florida State Prison on the morning January 24, 1989, and his final words before being killed by electrocution were: “I’d like you to give my love to my family and friends.”
2. Ruth Snyder (January 12, 1928)
Queens resident Ruth Snyder began plotting her husband’s murder shortly after she began having an affair with a corset salesman. She even tried several times to kill him and collect on a forged insurance policy before she and her lover killed her husband and attempted to make it look like he’d been killed in a robbery. She and her lover were both sentenced to death, but Snyder’s execution in the chair became one of the most famous to date when newspaper photographer captured an image of her at the moment of execution using a hidden camera he’d smuggled into the viewing chamber. The picture made front-page news.
3-4. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (June 19, 1953)
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the first American citizens ever executed for committing espionage. They were convicted of passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union, but in years since, the levels of Ethel’s involvement have come into question. The dual execution, in New York State’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility, was a controversial one, and eyewitness accounts of the electrocutionssaid that though Julius died quickly, it took three rounds of electrocutions to finally stop Ethel’s heart. Witnesses say smoke rose from her head.
5. Leon Czolgosz (October 29, 1901)
The name might not be remembered much today, but Leon Czolgosz is in the small, disturbed group of men who’ve killed a president. Czolgosz, a recluse interested in anarchism, assassinated President William McKinley on September 6, 1901. He was quickly tried and convicted, and he was killed by three rounds of electrocution at 1,800 volts each at Auburn Prison in Auburn, New York. His haunting final words: “I am not sorry for my crime.”
6. Giuseppe Zangara (March 20, 1933)
Giuseppe Zangara attempted to kill President Franklin Roosevelt in February of 1933, but his shots went wild and he wound up striking and killing Anton Cermak, mayor of Chicago. Interestingly, Zangara was convicted of first-degree murder solely for having intent to kill, even though his victim wasn’t his intended target. He was quicklytried and convicted, spending only 10 days on death row before being put to death in the electric chair. His last words were, “Viva Italia! Goodbye to all poor peoples everywhere! Push the button!”
7-8. Sacco and Vanzetti (August 23, 1927)
Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a pair of Italian immigrants, were tried and convicted of a double-murder that took place during an armed robbery in 1920. The highly politicized case has long been regarded as controversial by historians, who maintain that the men were denied basic civil liberties at several key points throughout the legal process. They were executed by the electric chair in August 1927.
9. Hans Schmidt (February 8, 1916)
Hans Schmidt holds the dubious honor of being the only Roman Catholic priest to receive the death penalty in the United States. He began a secret relationship with his New York rectory’s housekeeper that continued after he was transferred, and they even got married in a secret ceremony. However, when she revealed that she was pregnant, Schmidt cut her throat, dismembered her, and dumped her in the Hudson. He was put to death for his crime at Sing Sing Prison. He was also suspected in other crimes, including the murder of a 9-year-old girl at his former church in Kentucky.
10. Bruno Hauptmann (April 3, 1936)
The kidnapping and killing of the infant son of Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, was called the “crime of the century,” so it’s little surprise that the man responsible received a death sentence carried out in the electric chair. Bruno Hauptmann was caught when he spent a gold certificate from the ransom money he’d extorted in the kidnapping. In recent years, though, some have come to question his guilt.
11. Louis “Lepke” Buchalter (March 4, 1944)
Lepke Buchalter was a mob boss whose heyday in the 1930s included protection rackets and multiple orders of murder. Eventually caught and convicted, Buchalter was killed in the electric chair in 1944, and he remains the only major mob boss in American history to receive the death penalty.
12. Charles Starkweather (June 25, 1959)
Charles Starkweather, barely 20 years old, killed 11 people on a murder spree throughout Nebraska and Wyoming in the late 1950s, accompanied by his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fulgate. The killings took place during a two-month road trip, and the events would go on to inspire such films as Badlands and Natural Born Killers. Fulgate served 18 years and was paroled in 1976, but Starkweather received the death penalty and was executed in June 1959. Fulgate refuses to speak of the murders.
13. John Arthur Spenkelink (May 25, 1979)
A pair of Supreme Court cases meant that the death penalty was suspended in the United States from 1972-1976. John Spenkelink was the second person to be executed after capital punishment was reinstated. (The first, Gary Gilmore, died by firing squad in 1977.) Already an ex-con, Spenkelink travelled from California to Florida with a fellow inmate and was convicted of murdering a travelling companion. Spenkelink’s Florida death warrant was overturned the first time by the Supreme Court, but the second one stuck, and he was executed in the electric chair in May 1979.
14. Donald Henry Gaskins (September 6, 1991)
A brutal serial killer, Donald Gaskins actually didn’t start committing murders until in prison for lesser crimes. His first victim was a fellow inmate, though it was ruled he acted in self-defense. After escape, rearrest, and eventual release, Gaskins committed more crimes and rapes, bouncing in and out of prison before killing a series of hitchhikers beginning in September 1969. These victims were often tortured and mutilated. He was eventually convicted on eight charges of murder and sentenced to death, though that was commuted to life in prison in 1974 to follow temporary Supreme Court guidelines on capital punishment. However, once in prison, he killed again, on orders from someone else, and it was this final killing that earned him a death sentence that would be carried out. He confessed to more than 100 murders while waiting on death row, and was put to death in the electric chair in September 1991. His finals words: “I’m ready to go.”
15. Martha Place (March 20, 1899)
Martha Place was the first woman ever executed in the electric chair. In 1898, her husband came home to find Martha wielding an ax, and though he escaped and brought help, Martha managed to murder her 17-year-old stepdaughter via asphyxiation. Teddy Roosevelt, then the governor of New York, was asked to commute the death sentence, but he refused, and thus Martha Place was put to death.
16-17. Linwood and James Briley (October 12, 1984; April 18, 1985)
Brothers James and Linwood Briley, along with younger brother Anthony, were bad seeds from youth, and in 1979 they took on accomplice Duncan Meekins and went on a seven-month killing spree in and around Richmond, Virginia. Eventually captured and arrested, Meekins turned on the brothers to avoid the death penalty, and Anthony Briley also received life with possible parole because of his limited role in the murders. Linwood and James were both sentenced to death but led four other men in a prison break in May 1984. Recaptured soon after, their appeals quickly ran out, and they were put to death in the electric chair shortly thereafter. To date, Anthony has yet to earn parole.
18-19. Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck (March 8, 1951)
Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, his common-law wife, became infamous as the “Lonely Hearts Killers” after they were arrested and tried for a killing spree in the late 1940s. Fernandez had wife and four kids in Spain while he was in the U.S. committing robberies by answering personal ads in the paper from lonely women, taking them out on the town, and then stealing their money. Already mentally unstable from a head injury, he answered an ad placed by the equally disturbed Beck, after which they hit it off and teamed up to commit their crimes. Caught after a killing in Michigan, Fernandez confessed, assuming he and Beck wouldn’t he extradited to their home state of New York, since Michigan didn’t have a death penalty but New York did. He guessed wrong. They were promptly extradited, tried, and convicted for three murders, and they both received death in the chair. Their story was retold in the films The Honeymoon Killers and Lonely Hearts.
20. Peter Kudzinowski (December 21, 1929)
Polish immigrant Peter Kudzinowski killed three people in New Jersey in the 1920s, including a 7-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl. He also tried to accost other kids, but they were able to run away. He was also suspected in the disappearance of other children. Captured in Michigan, he was brought back to New Jersey for his trial, and subsequently convicted and sentenced to death. He was put to death in the electric chair at the end of December, 1929.