Hidden History

The Quiet Death of the Man Who Built America’s Electric Chairs

When a soft-spoken 73-year-old from Arkansas succumbed to cancer, the country’s outdated mode of execution may have finally met its end.

The Quiet Death of the Man Who Built America’s Electric Chairs

On September 21, 2016, Jay Allen Wiechert, 73, passed away in his Fort Smith, Arkansas home after battling cancer. To the public, Wiechert identified himself as a professional engineer and member of Mensa. Upon the death of this mild-mannered, middle-America everyman, there was no memorial service; any tributes – written messages only – were instructed to be left on the website of the funeral chapel in charge of his cremation. What the general public doesn’t know, however, is that Wiechert oversaw the production and maintenance of electric chairs used for execution over his final forty years. For at least the past quarter-century, he has been the only person in America doing this work.

Jay Weichert
Jay Wiechert. (Photo courtesy Iris Breed)

Wiechert was a fiercely private individual who didn’t even let his closest friends know the intimate details of his life. Iris Breed, former director of a Fort Smith nonprofit, first met Wiechert while working on the city’s sesquicentennial time capsule project. She knew him more than twenty years, and, at his passing, said, “I think it was testicular cancer.” A 33-year-old great-niece of Wiechert’s, who knew him her entire life, didn’t know he made electric chairs until just two years ago.

A diminutive man at around five-foot-eight, Wiechert weighed all of about 120 pounds. His skin was sallow and his hair, though still brown, was balding at the top. His voice was soft, his cowboy boots looked like any average Arkansan’s, and his glasses might not have been updated in forty years. Simply put, Jay Wiechert was an underwhelming individual – not at all what you’d expect from the man who’d built the kinds of contraptions responsible for the death of 158 people since he started making them.

Born June 28, 1943, in Brazilton, Kansas, Wiechert was machine-minded from an early age; he began working in his father’s blacksmith shop at the age of ten, where he often assisted in the repair of farm equipment. Influenced by two engineer uncles, Wiechert later attended Kansas State University, earning his Bachelor’s and then his Master’s in electrical engineering. He taught electronics and math to soldiers at nearby Fort Riley to help finance his own schooling. After completing his thesis, Wiechert accepted a position with Whirlpool in Michigan, heading up projects in the dryer division. He soon sought a transfer to the company’s factory in Fort Smith, a move south that his first wife, who hated Michigan, welcomed.

It wasn’t long before Wiechert distinguished himself in the engineering of appliances. In the late 1960s, he invented the dryness sensor still used in most clothes dryers today. “That was the most valuable patent I had,” Wiechert, who was a friend of my mother’s, asserted in an interview before he passed. “The first year, it made one and a quarter million dollars.” In return for the sensor’s design, the Whirlpool Corporation paid him $1. But Wiechert wasn’t bitter. “It belongs to the corporation because one person doesn’t do everything. I mean, you’ve got the lab, the model shop… There’s a lot of people involved.”

In 1973, Wiechert left corporate America to start his own engineering business. It was his former employer, Whirlpool, that gave him his first big job in 1973 – building the controls for a machine that places foam in refrigerators. Soon his business expanded to designing and building machines that would tool and sand shower/tub inserts and doors for houses.

The process of obtaining new jobs was quite simple: a customer would contact Wiechert with a task that had to be performed, and he would design a machine to get it done – without the aid of humans. If he came in as the low bid, he’d build and install the machine. Which was exactly how he got into the electric chair business.

“Back in the ’70s, the state of Arkansas couldn’t find anybody to build an electric chair,” Wiechert said – a state of affairs with parallels to the difficulty states have obtaining the lethal injection cocktail these days. “They called me and I said, ‘Yeah! I’ll build you an electric chair. How difficult can that be?’ In my business, the hard part is not electrocuting somebody! Killing somebody is a piece of cake.”

In 1976, with no Internet and no research library in Fort Smith, Wiechert drove the 63 miles north to Fayetteville where the University of Arkansas had a full research facility. He found one extremely helpful book, written by an executioner.

Most people don’t realize that the electric chair isn’t a chair at all – the condemned can sit anywhere. It’s the electrodes placed on saline-dampened sponges attached to the prisoner’s head and leg that do the business.

After designing the electrodes and control panel, Wiechert gave the state a quote, and says he was selected over the one other fellow who submitted a bid because he held his professional engineer’s license. After receiving the purchase order, Wiechert drove another 35 miles to Mountainburg, where he bought a hog so he could test out his creation. He remembered: “Brought the hog back to my office and locked all the doors. Made some special electrodes that would fit the hog. Executed the hog, and everything worked great. Butchered the hog and filled up the freezer. Hauled the equipment down to Cummins [Unit of the Arkansas Department of Corrections] and installed it. We didn’t use that equipment for quite a few years.”

Fourteen years, to be exact. On June 18, 1990, John Swindler became the first (and last) inmate to die in Arkansas’ electric chair. Wiechert was in attendance. “He was a cop killer from Fort Smith. I flew my little airplane down there, landed on their dirt strip. The prison officials made a big party of it – I shouldn’t call it a party – but they had buckets and buckets of fried chicken, fed everybody. After all the ceremony was over, I just flew my little airplane back home that night.”

In addition to manufacturing and maintaining electric chairs, Wiechert was regularly called to testify as an expert witness when inmates appealed their sentences, citing the ban on cruel and unusual punishment. “There’s an old saying,” Wiechert said. “The testicles get very small a week before the execution date.”

He said he went to Florida a few times to testify in court as an expert witness in electrocution as a means of execution. One defense attorney was particularly combative while Wiechert was on the stand. Wiechert recalled: “He said, ‘You know, the only thing I can find that you’ve ever written is your thesis from when you were in school. Don’t you ever write anything?’ I said, ‘No. I build things. I don’t write anything.’”

The counselor declared Wiechert unfit to be called an expert, but the judge intervened and asked Wiechert how many chair systems he’d built. “Well, I built all of them since the mid-70s,” Wiechert said. The judge stood up and said to the defense attorney, “This guy is an expert. Shut your mouth.”

“I got a kick out of that,” Wiechert said.

Wiechert testified that the electric chair was not cruel and unusual, but more than that, he believed that none of the current execution methods were. “I think most of the ways that we’ve used the last 150 years have been okay,” he said. “There isn’t anything wrong with electrocution. And if it’s not botched, there’s nothing wrong with lethal injection. I don’t even have a problem with hanging. The U.S. Army set up procedures for hanging years ago. Works very well. There’s nothing wrong with hanging.”

But that didn’t mean he was a fan of capital punishment. “The only reason I got involved was because of my engineering,” Wiechert asserted. “I never got involved because I had a political argument. Never.”

Instead, he preferred to focus on the work he called his “do-gooder jobs”: He contrived a machine that enabled a quadriplegic woman to cut cables in a factory and he created and donated Fort Smith’s Creekmore Park train, a miniature locomotive well-loved by locals. Others knew Wiechert for his casual men’s group; the members would hike, ride horses, and float Arkansas’s legendary Buffalo River (after which they named themselves “The Buffalo Buzzards”). Donnie Phillips, a member of that group, best remembers Wiechert’s persistence and sense of humor: “On one trip, Jay brought his Honda 70,” Phillips says. “After a few beers, he decided to try to ride it up the side of the mountain. After flipping his bike and rolling down about twenty feet, he got up, picked up his little Honda, and tried again. After two or three more times up the mountain – failing each time – he finally gave up and came sat by the fire, smoking his pipe, laughing at himself.”

Wiechert’s legacy is undeniably tied up in the execution business. Only two states – Georgia and Nebraska – have officially declared the electric chair unconstitutional under the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, while eight – Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia – still allow use of the electric chair (as a method secondary to lethal injection). If lethal injection is discontinued, there are 24 other death-penalty states that will be looking for alternatives. They’ll have to look to someone else – someone who has yet to take up Wiechert’s mantle.

In 1992, the Fort Smith sesquicentennial time capsule committee worked to put memorable items into the nine-hundred-pound stainless-steel pressure vessel Wiechert designed and created. A local high school teacher put in an award-winning student essay. Jay’s friend Iris included that year’s Kelley Blue Book of car values. Wiechert? Why, he put in a miniature electric chair, of course.