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Dear Matmail,

What exactly does the body go through in the electric chair when the juice is turned on? I have heard that the eyes have to be taped to keep them in. Does the state provide a diaper? How many volts and amps are used? Does it really smell like greasy fried chicken?

-- pharris, the Net

The elves were pleased to be able to haul out one of their favorite bedtime stories to help answer this one -- Dr. Harold Hillman's "Possible pain experienced by execution by different methods" from the journal Perception. He's a prof at a British university and an expert in what happens to you when you're hanged, gassed, stoned, electrocuted, etc., in the name of the state. Of course, he had a tough time gathering any direct data, since his subjects don't have much to say about the experience. But Hillman's assembled other medical and scientific info and reconstructed the probable experience.

We've been zapping people into the hereafter since 1890. People were just beginning to install that newfangled electricity in their homes, and they noticed what seemed like a swift, neat death when someone didn't follow the directions on the package. Thomas Edison was pleased at the clever suggestion and said 1000 volts AC should do the job nicely. Tom was a little optimistic, as it turns out, and the few chairs still in use in the U.S. are wired for 6 amps, 2000 to 2500 volts AC. Even so, Hillman considers it the second most miserable form of execution after stoning.

When they shoot the juice into the condemned, it goes through the skull electrodes and saline-soaked sponges then looks for the quickest route to the ground. Skin has a relatively high resistance, so the circuit goes through muscles and veins into the brain, eye sockets, sinuses, and eventually out the leg electrodes. Horror stories of shooting flames and smoke billows are not routine. Executions are performed by "technicians" -- ordinary Joes who've answered a Help Wanted ad and received some training from the state. In electrocution, particularly, the tech has to be careful about the amount of saline in the electrode sponges, electrode placement, and the condition of the chair and wiring. Most problems are blamed on pilot error.

Scientists are still arguing about exactly how the electricity kills. Best guesses? Eventual paralysis of the brain's respiratory centers and heart fibrillation. But if the amperage is too high and the voltage too low, the flesh actually cooks from the heat generated in the circuit. Even well-calibrated chairs cause charring and swelling. Yes, electrocution gives off the smell of burning skin and hair. And the body has to cool down before it can be carried away. Ma Alice, always looking for the ultimate get-rich-quick-and-retire-early brainstorm, is now busy trying to rig a chicken to a lamp to see if the concept has practical application in the kitchen. We're not sure what Ma's retiring early from, unless you consider looking for retire-early schemes to be a career.

We might have to tape the eyes on Ma's chicken, since the electrical jolt and tissue swelling can cause eyeballs to protrude from their sockets. But the condemned is masked or hooded, not to hold the eyeballs in (at that point, nobody cares), but mainly so the witnesses will not have to see the facial muscle contortions of the dying. Too real, I guess. For the convenience of the living, diapers are provided.

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