The strange origins of the electric chair

"Nebraska's electric chair." (AP Photo/Nati Harnik) Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nebraska%27s_electric_chair.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Nebraska%27s_electric_chair.JPG

“Nebraska’s electric chair.” (AP Photo/Nati Harnik) Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nebraska%27s_electric_chair.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Nebraska%27s_electric_chair.JPG

One thing I love about the study of history is its little weird surprises — such as finding out that a certain notorious invention came with a hidden agenda that had little to do with the death penalty, and a whole lot to do with Thomas Edison’s desire to protect his market share against a superior technology.

First used in 1890, the electric chair is part of a longer humanitarian trend away from acceptance of capital punishment. For much of human history, executions were usually a public spectacle, were widely employed for a wide range of offenses, and were often designed to inflict the greatest possible suffering on the condemned person. Devices like the gallows or the guillotine were actually humanitarian developments because they offered a relatively quick death. And the electric chair was promoted as just such a device — a modern, scientific update for a traditional practice that might otherwise look like a barbaric holdover from more primitive times.

But that isn’t really what the electric chair was about, at least as far as America’s most famous inventor was concerned. Continue reading

The end of Walden. “There is more day to dawn.” (Walden 212)

We’ve come to the final anecdote of Walden. A year of blog posts about this book and here we are. The end of the trail. The last roundup. The final lines are to be delivered, and then it’s roll credits and cue the theme song.

So what does Henry have for us today? What is his grand summation of his magnum opus?

He’s going to talk about the eggs of a bug.

That’s it. That’s his grand sendoff. But listen to it: Continue reading

Are we missing the best stuff in life? (Walden 211)

“There is an incessant influx of novelty into the world, and yet we tolerate incredible dulness. I need only suggest what kind of sermons are still listened to in the most enlightened countries. There are such words as joy and sorrow, but they are only the burden of a psalm, sung with a nasal twang, while we believe in the ordinary and mean.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden

When you read Thoreau’s long rants against civilization, against triviality, against conventional thinking, remember this: his big concern is that we’re missing the best stuff. He thinks we tend to settle for lesser lives, and that we drive ourselves crazy thinking about all the wrong things. There’s a better world out there, he’s saying, and it’s all around you. It’s right in front of you. All you have to do is reach out and there it is.

We come to the book’s closing words in the next post.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

Thoreau and truth… and love (Walden 210)

The book is drawing to a close, with Thoreau back living in a large house with others. You can hear his irritation as he talks about the small-talk, the daily news, the ephemera of “this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century.”

He is looking for something solid on which to rest his mind. He talks about bogs and quicksands and looking for a solid bottom. He talks about not wanting to drive nails into plaster and lath only, but into the solid stud that lies beneath: Continue reading

The book of the world (Walden 209)

“If you are restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences; you are compelled to deal with the material which yields the most sugar and the most starch. It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler.” — Henry David Thoreau, Walden

This is a remarkable thing for a writer to say, particularly in the conclusion of the book he’s been working on for several years. Moreover, it’s a remarkable thing for such an avid reader to say, a man who read voraciously, deeply, and in several languages — often going back and re-reading books to learn more from them.

But this brings us back to what Walden is about. It’s a book about experience. That’s what’s most important. Thoreau isn’t being dismissive books or of education so much as he’s emphasizing the value of paying attention to your surroundings, both internal and external. After all, what are books without a contemplative spirit? The most valuable book is the book of the world, and it is always near at hand, always open.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

“Humility like darkness reveals the heavenly lights.” (Walden 208)

Milky Way Galaxy Stars West Virginia Mountain Sky. Wikimedia Commons

Milky Way Galaxy Stars West Virginia Mountain Sky. Wikimedia Commons

“Humility like darkness reveals the heavenly lights.”

— Henry David Thoreau, from “Conclusion,” Walden

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

Supposing a case: Thoreau on our physical and mental surroundings (Walden 207)

“No face which we can give to a matter will stead us so well at last as the truth. This alone wears well. For the most part, we are not where we are, but in a false position. Through an infinity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out. In sane moments we regard only the facts, the case that is.”

I found this part confusing and had to read it several times and look up “case.” What does Thoreau mean? Does he mean a case as in a box or container, or a case as a set of circumstances or conditions? I think he means both. This looks like another instance of Thoreauvian wordplay. The circumstances which you suppose then become a box in which you confine yourself, and at that point it doesn’t matter that the box is imaginary. You’re trapped just the same. That’s what he means by being in two cases at the same time — you’re confined not only by reality itself, but also by your assumptions about reality. It reminds me of a saying I heard: “Most of life is imaginary.”

It’s best, Henry believes, to be honest about our circumstances and find joy in them: Continue reading