The Emperor’s electric chair

The death chair in Auburn prison, c.1890

award-2010Many countries have folk-tales that feature foolish kings – monarchs whose vanity causes them to make catastrophic misjudgements or attempt impossible things. Greek mythology offers the tradition of King Midas, who lived to regret wishing for the power to turn everything he touched into gold; for we Brits, the foolish ruler is King Canute, who – at least in the common modern telling of the tale – allowed courtiers to flatter him that even the seas would obey his commands, and consequently got his feet wet in a failed attempt to turn back the tides.1

Most of these legends are hundreds of years old, of course, but the motif is a potent one and it still crops up from time to time. Here, for example, is a story that has stuck firmly in my mind ever since I first read it in The Book of Lists, a best-selling compendium of all sorts of remarkable trivia, first published in 1977:

The Abyssinian electric chair

On August 6, 1890, the first electric chair in history was put into use in the death chamber of Auburn Prison in New York. In distant Abyssinia – now called Ethiopia – Emperor Menelik II (1844-1913) heard about it and decided that this new method of execution should become part of his modernisation plan for his country. Immediately, he put in an order for three electric chairs from the American manufacturer. When the chairs arrived and were unpacked, the emperor was mortified to learn that they wouldn’t work – Abyssinia had no electricity. Determined that his investment would not be completely wasted, Emperor Menelik adopted one of the electric chairs for his imperial throne.

David Wallechinsky et al, The Book of Lists (London: Corgi, 1977) p.463.

Pretty amusing, and plainly I’m not the only person who finds this odd tale peculiarly memorable; the editors of The Book of Lists themselves ranked it among their “15 favourite oddities of all time,” and if you type the search string ‘Menelik’s electric chair’ into Google, you come up with several thousand hits from sites such as, all of which are clearly based on the BoL‘s telling of the story; they contain the same basic information, but nothing different or new. More