South Carolina’s electric chair dates back to 1912, when the state conducted its first electrocution execution | Photography by S.C. Department of Corrections

South Carolina convicted two men to die by electrocution for the first time in 1912, and Tench Boozer needed to figure out how to do it.

As the state electrician, Boozer was among those involved with fine-tuning the newly adopted “death chamber.”

“I will appreciate very much any information you may decide to forward me,” he wrote his Massachusetts counterpart.

Sigmon v. Stirling, United States District Court

More than a century later, South Carolina officials are still trying to figure out the best way to end the lives of fellow citizens sentenced to die at the hands of the state.

South Carolina law gives condemned criminals the ability to choose the method by which they will die. Until this year, the default was lethal injection, and the electric chair was a second option. But as public support for capital punishment waned, pharmaceutical companies became unwilling to ship states the deadly cocktail of drugs needed to end a life.

For a decade, S.C. leaders have been clamoring to figure out how to restart executions. This year, lawmakers finally passed a bill that reconfigured the state’s death penalty rules. Electrocution is now the state-endorsed execution method if lethal injection isn’t available, and the new law introduced a third option: firing squad.

With an amended statute nominally in place, state-retained lawyers notified the South Carolina Supreme Court on May 19 that the S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC) “is now able to carry out executions by electrocution.” 

Brad Sigmon, convicted of a 2002 double murder in Greenville County, was the first scheduled. But with lethal injection unavailable and the state’s new firing squad not yet assembled, the high court vacated Sigmon’s execution order.

Right now, South Carolina Corrections officials are in the process of developing protocols for a firing squad. They say they are consulting with other states with similar policies.

Literature or drawings

Tench Boozer signed letters simply as, “State Electrician.” He would hold the post for just seven years, appointed in 1911 by Gov. Coleman Blease at age 25. He died in 1918 at 32 from pneumonia brought on by epidemic Spanish flu. Boozer’s duties ranged from the statehouse to the death house.

Blease | Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Blease was notorious in his own time as an amoral demagogue whose naked class appeals to conservative white mill workers and urban anti-prohibitionists alike turned off even Ben Tillman, the violent, virulent former governor and U.S. senator.

And while lynching and factories devoid of health and safety laws were OK in Blease’s book, death by hanging at the hands of the state was just too much.

“It seems to me that this is a much more humane manner of execution than the barbaric form of hanging,” Blease wrote to lawmakers Jan. 9, 1912, according to the Charleston News and Courier.

The law swapping the gallows for the electric chair, passed March 2, 1912, was hailed in the paper as “one of the most important measures passed by the General Assembly in many years.”

A week after the law was passed, with executions already on the books for June, Boozer got to work.

“I will appreciate any literature or drawings of your chair and electric apparatus, also of the death chamber,” Boozer wrote to the Massachusetts state electrician, according to letters filed as part of Sigmon’s federal appeal.

Sigmon v. Stirling, United States District Court

State officials purchased their new electric chair from New Jersey-based Adams Electric Company in May 1912 at a cost of $2,800, according to The News and Courier. The apparatus required additional electricity at the state penitentiary in Columbia when power itself was still relatively scarce — some rural areas of South Carolina would not be electrified for 20 more years.

By all accounts, the chair purchased in 1912 is the same one used today, though some electrical components have been updated. Some parts were being adjusted soon after executions began, according to letters between Boozer and Adams Electric.

“Secure and send me two sets of sponges, as thick as you can get them,” he wrote Aug. 13, 1913. Sponges are still used to ensure an electrical connection between the chair and the inmate’s bare head.

The day South Carolina’s new execution law was passed, two men were sentenced to death by electrocution. By June, there would be at least four others, according to news reports. Five were Black, one white.


In 1972, as now, there was concern about disparities in death penalty cases. Justice Thurgood Marshall noted varying experiences across the board in cases involving the death penalty, particularly when it came to class.

“It is the poor, and the members of minority groups who are least able to voice their complaints against capital punishment,” Marshall wrote in a concurring majority opinion in Furman v. Georgia.

Ruling that death penalties were doled out arbitrarily in Georgia, the Furman decision effectively halted capital punishment in the U.S. until Gregg v. Georgia ruled in 1976 that new changes made state law more universally applicable. Marshall remained unconvinced in dissent.

“The task of eliminating arbitrariness in the infliction of capital punishment is proving to be one which our criminal justice system — and perhaps any criminal justice system — is unable to perform,” he wrote.

Many of those disparities are still with us today. More than half of South Carolina’s 37 death row inmates are Black, according to the SCDC, while Black South Carolinians make up just 27% of the population.

A victim’s race in a S.C. capital case can also be an indicator of whether a death sentence will be handed down. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, of the 43 executions performed in South Carolina since 1977, nearly 70% of the related crimes involved white victims.

Those statistics are not lost on death penalty critics, who echo Marshall’s view.

South Carolina’s death row is at Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia | Photo courtesy of S.C. Department of Corrections

“In reality, the likelihood of receiving a death sentence in South Carolina is not primarily based on the facts in your case, but rather on the race and gender of the victim, the location of the offense and the solicitor in office at the time of the offense,” American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina executive director Frank Knaack wrote in a February City Paper op-ed.

Best practices

Access to current state execution protocols is “restricted,” SCDC spokesperson Chrysti Shain told the City Paper in June. But 2002 procedures also marked “Restricted” — obtained as part of a Freedom of Information Act request and filed in federal court by attorneys for Brad Sigmon — mapped out, down to the minute, how executions were carried out in the Palmetto State at that time.

Sigmon v. Stirling, United States District Court

On the day of their execution, inmates set to die by electrocution had their head and lower-right leg shaved, took a shower and wore pants cut off at the knee (to ensure contact with conducting strips on the chair). Once inside the execution chamber, the inmate was strapped in and outfitted with a leather cap studded with a brass electrode and lined with copper mesh and a sponge soaked in ammonia chloride.

Sigmon’s attorneys believe the cap to have been purchased by the state in the 1980s from Fred Leuchter, a self-taught execution expert who made a career out of advising states before publishing his own analysis questioning the Holocaust. Shain said she had “no information” on Leuchter’s past with the department.

At the appointed time, three executioners chosen from SCDC employee volunteers stand behind a one-way mirror facing the condemned inmate. Each pushes a red button at the far end of the room. All three buttons are capable of starting the deadly 2,000-volt cycle, according to another SCDC document filed by Sigmon’s attorneys, “but only one is active during an execution” — a psychological sleight of hand.

In Utah, five firing squad officers stand 25 feet from an offender and are similarly equipped with one blank round. Utah is one of three states that still use firing squads that South Carolina is turning to for guidance.

“We’re looking at best practices and what’s been done in other places to create our policies and procedures,” Shain told the City Paper.

There is no expected timeline for the policy’s development.

Appetite for punishment

From her time as a criminal defense attorney, Cameron Blazer describes navigating a “deeply punitive” justice system that prioritizes retribution over prevention.

Blazer | City Paper file photo

“I, every day, am up against that punitive culture in our criminal justice laws and in the environment of criminal justice. And it extends far beyond the most serious part of criminal punishment,” Blazer told the City Paper.

Gov. Henry McMaster noted the adjusted state law could be some consolation to victims’ families and loved ones.

“This weekend, I signed legislation into law that will allow the state to carry out a death sentence. The families and loved ones of victims are owed closure and justice by law. Now, we can provide it,” he tweeted May 17.

But that closure may still be elusive, Blazer said, with each death penalty case drawing close scrutiny and challenges.

“The finality that people desperately seek, when they have been through an awful tragedy, is not going to come to them in any speedy fashion through the death penalty, nor can it or should it, given how bad we are at imposing it.”

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