Recent History Non-Fiction Reads: The Electric Chair, & Empireland

I. The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History [1999/2009] by Craig Brandon – ★★★★

This book is on the history of one of “the elephants in the room” in the US – death penalty by electrocution. It talks in depth about the case of William Kemmler, a vegetable peddler from Buffalo, who became the first person to be executed by electric chair in America on 6 August 1890. Previously, Kemmler was convicted of murdering his common law wife Tillie Ziegler. It is this man, or rather his death, that became a pawn in the complex business and political game of inventors, investors, entrepreneurs and politicians, at the centre of which was the so-called “current war” waged by Edison (a proponent of the direct current (DC)) and Westinghouse (a proponent of the alternative current (AC)), both eager to prove that only their patented electricity was the way forward for American society, both for domestic and penal purposes.

The strongest parts of the book talk about the early history and how the public’s naivety about the nature of electricity played to the inventors and businessmen’s propositions: “the public ignorance, fear, awe and admiration of electricity were important factors in the development of the electric chair” [Brandon, McFarland: 1999: 13]. What was electricity, exactly?, many wondered at that time: is it “a wonderful power, a culmination of progress and science that would change their lives for the better”, or an “invisible, mysterious and…deadly force?” [Brandon, McFarland: 1999: 13]. Two names linked to the development of the electric chair in the US are that of Alfred P. Southwick (aka the “Father of the Electric Chair”) and Harold P. Brown. While Southwick, a rising dentist in Buffalo, was probably the first person to push the idea of executing convicts with electricity, electrical engineer Harold P. Brown became known for his bizarre experiments to produce the “most perfect electric chair”. The execution of Kemmler also happened in the midst of the fierce debate between death penalty abolitionists and its supporters, and while the first usage of the electric chair was debated, people were still recovering from seeing all the negative publicity directed at hanging as a method of execution, including newspaper articles showing many hangings where convicts’ necks did not break and they died slow and painful deaths.

Brandon’s book continues by talking about Kemmler’s numerous appeals of 1890, including to the Supreme Court, on the basis that this type of execution would amount to a “cruel and unusual punishment”, and thus, contrary to the US Constitution, and his botched execution itself. Since Kemmler’s death, whereby he did not die on the first attempt and died only after the second attempt was made, whereby the current was switched on for the whole seventy seconds, there have been many similar executions that did not go according to plan, meaning that convicted people died painful and agonising deaths, ranging from a cardiac arrest and slow suffocation to being “burned” to death. Thus, the book’s final parts are all about the most infamous “electric chair” executions that happened from 1892 to 1974 (including the execution of Ruth Snyder in 1929), and from 1976 to 1998 (including the execution of Ted Bundy in 1989).

This book about America’s morbid history is surprisingly enlightening, engaging and, actually and unfortunately – still relevant. Death penalty is still a possibility in twenty-seven American states, though even in these states its usage frequency varies considerably. Though lethal injection is now a preferred method of execution in the majority of the states, electrocution is still possible in eight American states and, in South Carolina, it remains the primary method.

II. Empireland: How Imperialism Shaped Modern Britain [2021] by Sathnam Sanghera★★★★

Empireland is a book centering on the author’s argument that the vestiges of the British Empire, once admired by Hitler and covering some twenty-four percent of land on Earth, can be seen everywhere in our modern Britain. It explains many things that are going on in the country, from the prestige of British museums and racism on the streets, to the power of the City of London and the diaspora of millions of Britons spread around the globe. Sathnam Sanghera demonstrates that modern Britain has not only been shaped by its imperial past, but that it still actively denies any remaining colonial links and the glaring imperial mentality that is present in the country’s life. This denial, or “selective amnesia”, as the author calls it, is damaging for the country in the long run.

What do British museums represent?, asks Sanghera. World-wide prestige, excellence in research and a well-travelled, curious nation? How about brutal invasions, senseless looting and crime? The author shows that British museums, “being at the very heart of British cultural life”, are packed with imperial loot and are still reluctant to accept the fact that their prized artefacts were once very unfairly and, in some cases, cruelly taken from their rightful owners in other countries [Sanghera, Penguin Random House 2021: 55]. One of the most enlightening (and also emotional) chapters in the book details the British expedition aka invasion of Tibet in 1903 led by Colonel Sir Francis Younghusband. The result of this “expedition” was that up to three thousands Tibetans were killed and much was illegally looted, with the invaders having no respect for the culture or the people they allegedly came “to study” [Sanghera, Penguin Random House 2021: 53].

The reluctance by the British to accept their active participation in the horrors of slavery in America is another case of “selective amnesia”, states the author: “…we have a long tradition of playing down imperialism in this country…The British profited from slavery for many decades, brutalised and exploited millions, paid compensation of £20 million to former slave owners while offering the slaves nothing – but the moment Britain abolished it, abolition became the main narrative” [Sanghera, Penguin Random House 2021: 197]. In fact, as I previously read in this great book on the history of New Orleans, British slave-owners were particularly known for their cruelty towards their slaves, and every slave thought it was a blessing to be owned by either the French or the Spanish who were deemed more “humane” masters in the eighteenth century America. Sanghera’s chapter on racism is just as illuminating, showing how, because of the Empire, many Black and Asian people once came to Britain as British citizens, as lawful subjects of Her Majesty, doing much to help the country recover after the WWII. However, this is not how they or their descendants were then treated when the word “Empire” started to become uncomfortable. The fact that some Britons want to acknowledge a looted artefact in a museum as “theirs”, but not a person or a descendant of that person who once entered their country as a rightful citizen just beggars belief. The author mixes these horrors with more light-hearted chapters, such as the one titled “Home and Away”, presenting the British as people who still regard the rest of the world as their personal “playground”, always being able to find a fish-and-chips-serving pub in a place where everyone speaks their native language.  

Despite its good intentions, however, the unfortunate aspect is that Empireland is more of a “did-you-know-that?” book, rather than a serious non-fiction on the British history. Though Sanghera’s arguments seem bullet-proof, they are presented and organised in a very brisk, frenzied and irregular manner. Some chapters appear close to some rants one would find on some history blog, especially since they are filled with random tweets taken from random people by way of evidence. That is certainly not what one would expect from any non-fiction published by such a reputable publishing house as Penguin Random House. Still, despite all that, Empireland feels personal and important, being an eye-opening account on one still very uncomfortable topic for many people. Sathnam Sanghera is clear: we do not learn and better the world by ignoring, burying and forgetting, but by facing, acknowledging and giving back.


11 thoughts on “Recent History Non-Fiction Reads: The Electric Chair, & Empireland

  1. I was more impressed by Empireland than you. Having been brought up on very Empire-centric history, I think the fury at this complacency is a necessary stance, at last at first, while this debate is still at a pretty early stage. The reasoned arguments backed up by thoughtful evidence is important of course, but the eye-opening which you comment on is quite a call to action and further thought.

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    1. Yes, I certainly understand and sympathise with all the fury, and I am in total agreement with the author’s views (some reviewers even say that they are too moderate and even apologist in some way for the topic he discusses). I only had trouble with the language, formatting and presentation, which only added to a sense that this book is hardly more than a personal stance. My impression of “Empireland” had probably something to do with my recent finishing of Shashi Tharoor’s “Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India”, which I found brilliant and brutal. Though it focused only on India, I found it a lot more serious and focused than “Empireland”.

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  2. Do you ever feel reading a book like Empire that there’s another side to it all? I’ve gotten in the habit of “pairing” books that tell opposite stories and trying to figure out who is more convincing. It turns out the total truth is more ambiguous and nuanced. Everything in Empire can be factually true, yes, but so can everything in the other book.

    Much more troubling recently though has been my experience of reading books closer to the time of the issue. I recently read a book about the British Empire in Africa written in 1924. It was wild! It made the more recent books completely irrelevant as neither had researched the facts to the bottom. History as cherry-picking rather than real scholarship seems to be the order of the day. Truth is lost. But it’s there, still, if you look for it.

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    1. Yes, I love pairing books that present opposite arguments, but it usually happens to me when I read about some scientific or esoteric arguments and I would not personally try something like this with historic or political issues. Clearly, there are also few if any such “completely opposite view” books on more clear-cut incidents in history, including that involving British Imperialism, but there are undoubtedly books that defend imperialism/colonialism more generally. Some come from ex-British servants involved in all this first-hand, such as essays by Alan Burns.

      And, yes, I agree, cherry-picking is a common problem in today’s history books and contemporaries writing about events certainly had a clearer view. I guess there are few dangers that these accounts would be revisionist, too. I am sure there are many pretty truthful account such as these and they provide invaluable insight into history and view on the matter. But, I guess not all. Some of these contemporaries were writing at the time when they still hadn’t the time to properly take stock of events they described and very probably ignorant of ideas still to come. So, there are also disadvantages in certain cases. Besides, this time proximity to events does not always guarantee truth, but sometimes even bias by the very virtue of them – being embroiled in events themselves? or having a certain mentality not compatible with objective presentation? Some of them must have been necessarily limited by ideas and perceptions that were in circulation in their time, which could not have been many since knowledge did not travel as fast then as it does now, not to mention completely-shocking-to-us-now things being universally accepted.

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  3. Very interesting reviews, thanks for sharing. I think I would find a history of the electric chair too grim, it’s horrifying to think about but as you say, still relevant. That’s disappointing about Empireland, it misleadingly looks like an academic history book.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. At times I am attracted to that grimness in books, but it is rather depressing. and, yes, Empireland was just the opposite of a serious history book. It can even be considered part autobiography, I suppose. I wish there were less random tweets and snatches of speeches and conversations quoted and more rigour.

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  4. Great reviews! And both books seem very interesting. I am more drawn to The Electric Chair because it is a topic I know very little about and I would be very curious to learn more about it, even though it can probably be a bit gloomy and depressing at times!

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  5. I found Empireland a very good read; I think he was trying to get a wider audience than a straight academic book would gain (for example, David Olusoga’s Black Britain, which covered some of the same ground, was also excellent but a lot longer and more detailed and something a general reader might get a bit bogged down in). I found his quotations from letters and tweets etc. that had been directed at him both grim and enlightening, and I know he did rigorous research, working with academics and historians to get details, so it’s a shame that didn’t maybe come across to you. If you can find the TV series of Empireland (I think it was two episodes) that’s very good, too, though also personal by necessity.

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