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  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.