Book Review | Old Sparky: The Electric Chair and the History of the Death Penalty

Old Sparky: The Electric Chair and The History of the Death Penalty, by Anthony Galvin. Carrell Books, 2015. $34.99 paper, ISBN-13: 978-1631440267.

How much does America really know about the death penalty? What is the overall agreement in America . . . abolish it completely or use sparingly? These questions, and many others, have been the talk since the invention of the electric chair, “Old Sparky,” and now. Executions have been going on since at least the Roman Era. People were killed for crimes that today’s society would consider discrimination against their rights, specifically, their fourteenth and eighth amendment rights.

Anthony Galvin, author of Old Sparky: The Electric Chair and the History of the Death Penalty, lives in Ireland. He is a crime journalist and writer of several true-crime novels. His most famous book is called, Family Feud: Gangster Limerick exposed. Another book that he has written is The Great Polar Fraud. Galvin writes Old Sparky as an example of crime history and its impact on society and culture.

His style of writing is very organized. He provides an in-depth background on the topic of the book he is writing. For Old Sparky, this meant the first person ever to be electrocuted, William Kemmler. William was arrested for killing his wife while under the influence of alcohol at the time. He then goes on to explain how the death penalty was handled in other countries as well as America before and after the invention of the electric chair.

There were several strengths throughout this book that stood out. The first strength was the listing of the various methods of execution, which were burning, garrote, shooting, hanging, etc. Along with the executions methods, there was the list of famous executions during the time of the electric chair. A few names that were mentioned were Ted Bundy, Albert Fish, Rosenberg, Murder Inc., and Charles Starkweather.

The second strength was the history of the war on currents because of its great detail and information. Direct current uses fewer volts than alternating current. The reason is because direct current goes through an individual with 300 volts, which is not enough to kill them. Alternating currents take about 1,000 volts to kill a person, so it is much more efficient but very dangerous.

The third strength of this book is the history of the last meal death row inmates received before being executed. There were some weird requests that were made from some of the inmates, but the ones that stood out the most were dirt and humans. The year the last meal was exercised was back in Texas in 2011. A death row inmate requested an enormous meal and then refused to eat any of it. The last strength that stood out was the ending because it explained that most states have the electric chair as a method of execution, but they use lethal injection as the main execution procedure.

There was only one major weakness throughout Old Sparky and that was the graphic, descriptive imagery. This was most common in the chapters having to talk about the execution methods as well as in some of the famous executions, specifically, Ted Bundy and Albert Fish. It is only graphic because Galvin is describing the nature of their crime and what led them to do such heinous acts in the first place. In the case of Albert Fish, he had a fascination for the discipline he observed the other foster kids get such as spanking and timeouts. This began his sexual fantasies involving young boys.

The death penalty has been a part of history for a very long time, but America was the only country to come up with the electric chair. The Supreme Court tried to get rid of the death penalty by putting a moratorium on it, but it didn’t last very long. The next step was finding another alternative means of execution, which was lethal injection. This method seems to be working, but the issue here is being able to provide the injections. The thought of getting rid of the death penalty entirely isn’t easy for the courts to agree upon, but without lethal injection, will they bring the electric chair back?

This book would be beneficial to any law, criminal justice, or political scientist because it explains the legal, constitutional discussions for who should receive the death penalty and so forth. However, this book would also benefit to a college student in general because it gives insight into what the death penalty means and if it is worth keeping around.

Capital punishment in America is used in today’s society, but there are many advocate groups and political speakers with a lot of biased opinion on keeping it or abolishing it completely. This book will get people thinking about the death penalty without leaning towards one side of the debate verses the other.

To summarize, Anthony Galvin writes a fascinating yet engaging story about the electric chair and the death penalty that is relevant to any student or adult in the twenty-first century. The death penalty is one of many controversial subjects in today’s society, and the world should explore it more than it has been in recent times. Similar books about this very topic may give a one-way, biased opinion for or against it. Galvin tells the story with an unbiased opinion. Old Sparky will keep you interested, yet wondering, until the very end.

Katherine Laak
North Hennepin Community College

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