First Woman Executed in the Electric Chair

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On March 20, 1899, Martha Place earned her place among the infamous by becoming the first woman executed in the electric chair.

Martha Place was put to death in Sing Sing Prison’s electric chair on March 20, 1899 after having murdered her stepdaughter and trying to murder her husband. The double murder was shown conclusively to have been planned by Place and yet, her death elicited sadness among many, including the prison warden.

The First Woman Executed by Electrocution

Martha Place was led into Sing Sing Prison’s death chamber and strapped to the electric chair. An electrode was placed on a shaved area on the crown of her head and one on her calf.

“Mrs. Place went calmly to the chair. She leaned on Warden Sage’s arm. Her eyes were closed, and she seemed neither to seem nor to hear. She murmured a prayer,” reported the Portsmouth Herald.

She wore a plain black dress she had made herself.

“It was her expectation to wear this dress when she emerged from the penitentiary, either as a free woman or to return to Brooklyn for a new trial,” the Marion Daily Star reported.

Her last words as she sat down were, “God help me.”

More than 1700 volts were sent through her body, killing her instantly at 11:01 a.m. One report noted how the only sign of pain was how her lips pressed together.

“It was almost a smile, as she died,” the Portsmouth Herald reported.

Why She Was Executed

William Place lived in Brooklyn with his daughter Ida. About 18 months after the death of his first wife, he hired Martha as a housekeeper. They were married two months later.

“As long as she was housekeeper, it is said, she was extremely kinds to place’s daughter Ida, but she became quite a different person when place married her,” the Portsmouth Herald reported.

Martha was jealous of the close relationship between her husband and stepdaughter, which led to quarrels between the three of them. In addition, William wouldn’t let Martha’s son from her first marriage come to live with them.

And so, on February 8, 1898, after planning what she would do, Martha Place attacked her 22-year-old stepdaughter. She threw carbolic acid in the young woman’s face and then struck her senseless with an axe. She then carried the woman to the bed and smothered her with a pillow.

Following that, she lay in wait for her husband to return. When he did, she attacked him with the axe.

She injured him and he lost consciousness, but not before his screams alerted the neighbors. When the police broke into the house, they found Martha unconscious on an upstairs bed in an apparent suicide attempt.

The husband recovered and identified his wife as his attacker. Further, it was shown that Martha had written to her brother outlining her plan and telling him that she would be coming to live with him.

The Trial and Appeals

Judge William Hurd sentenced her to death after her trial and she fainted when she heard the verdict. Martha Place was sent to Sing Sing Prison on July 21, 1898, and wept as she entered.

She appealed the decision, but did not win.

Gov. Theodore Roosevelt of New York would not commute Martha’s sentence. He wrote in his statement, “This murder was one of peculiar deliberation and atrocity. To interfere with the course of the law in this case would be justified only on the ground that never hereafter, under any circumstances, should capital punishment be inflicted upon any murderess, even though the victim was herself a woman, and even though that victim’s torture preceded her death. There is but one course open to me. I decline to interfere with the course of the law.”

And so, Martha became the 26th person to die in Sing Sing’s electric chair.