Was the builder of the electric chair also executed with it?
Search the Internet and one can find the macabre tale of Charles Justice, who built the electric chair while imprisoned at the Ohio Penitentiary and was later executed in it. An intriguing story, but is it true? No, it is not. Charles Justice was incarcerated four times at the Ohio Penitentiary, but he was not actually in the prison when the electric chair was built.
Justice was born in April 1868 and was raised in the Xenia, Ohio area. Early records list his occupation as butcher and also state that he was intemperate. At the age of 22, he was convicted of burglary and larceny in Greene County. Entering the Ohio Penitentiary on May 21, 1889, he was released on March 29, 1890. Two years later on December 21, 1892, Justice returned to the Ohio Penitentiary when he was convicted of larceny in Clark County. He finished this term on October 20, 1893.
While Charles Justice was building his criminal record, the Ohio Penitentiary officials and state government were seeking a more humane alternative to hanging. Warden E.G. Coffin was so distressed that he wrote in his 1896 Annual Report to the Ohio General Assembly:
“The number of executions during my term of office has been greater than during the term of any other Warden, and I state it as the result of my observations that the present method of inflicting capital punishment is unsatisfactory.”
Electrocution was seen as more humane because death was more quickly administered. The Ohio General Assembly passed a bill substituting electrocution for hanging beginning July 1, 1896.
Who built the electric chair is not really known. It appears that Superintendent R.C. Green and a team of employees of the Gas Works and the Electric Light Plant constructed the heavy wooden chair in the fall and winter of 1896-1897. An electrician, Harry Canfield, purchased the electrical components, tested them, and then witnessed the first execution to see if they worked properly.
The first executions occurred in the early morning hours of Wednesday April 21, 1897. William Haas, age 17, was executed for murdering his employer’s wife. After Haas was pronounced dead at 12:32 AM, William Wiley was strapped into the electric chair. He was pronounced dead at 12:47 AM for the crime of murdering his wife.
According to the January 21, 1902 edition of the Republican newspaper of Xenia, Ohio, Justice spent the preceding years including the time when the electric chair was built in and out of prison. He served two years in an Ontario, Canada prison and was incarcerated in the Greene County Workhouse twelve times.
On November 21, 1901, Justice discovered that his wife had left him. Upset by this, he attacked his father-in-law. For this attempted murder, Justice was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1902. After serving some time he became a trustee in the prison, earning him some special priveledges. Visitor tours of the Ohio Penitentiary were quite popular and Justice was able earn a considerable income by selling souvenirs. On April 19, 1910, Governor Judson Harmon commuted his sentence and Justice was released from prison.
However, his freedom did not last long. On September 16, 1910, John and William Shoup of Xenia went outside to investigate a commotion among their chickens on their farm. They encountered a man whose description resembled Justice trying to steal their livestock. The thief fired three shots, one which killed John Shoup. According to testimony at the trial, Justice calmly picked up the bag of chickens and walked away. He was convicted of first degree murder on November 3, 1910 in the Greene County Court of Common Pleas.
Several hours before his scheduled execution a long knife was found in Justice’s cell. He stated that he intended to use it on the guard who strapped him into the electric chair. Two other prisoners who were housed with him asked to be moved because they feared that he would kill them as well. His last words were “I am not guilty of the crime for which you are killing me.”
Charles Justice was executed at 12:05 AM on October 27, 1911. No friends or relatives claimed his body and it was given to a medical school in Columbus.
How did this story get started? It may have started with a scrapbook called The Electrocution Book donated to the Ohio Historical Society in 1983 and probably compiled by employees of the state’s prison system. In an undated article called The Electric Chair, Richard J. Jemison states that a prisoner name Charles Justice helped build the chair and was later executed in it.
Charles Justice did not build the electric chair, but he was executed in it.
For further information, please read “Charles Justice and the Electric Chair: Myth or Truth? OHS Archives Provide Answers.” Echoes. Ohio Historical Society, April/May 2003.
Your last chance to see the electric chair will be this weekend November 18- November 20, 2011 as part of the exhibit: Controversy: Pieces You Don’t Normally See. For more information about hours and entrance fees see our website.