The Emperor’s electric chair



Many 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.

Of course, you don’t have to think too hard about the Abyssinian electric chair to realise that the story’s racist: the joke is always on Menelik and those funny Africans, so backward that they’ve never heard of electricity, and so stupid that it doesn’t actually occur to them that they might need some in order to operate an invention called an electric chair. And that interests me, because the thing is that – pace Lloyd Bentsen – I know Abyssinian history. Abyssinian history is an interest of mine. And – for several reasons – the story of Emperor Menelik and his electric chair does not strike me as good or reasonable history.

Part I. The King of Kings

Let’s look briefly, to begin with, at the remarkable man at the heart of this story. Menelik II, who reigned in Abyssinia for the best part of a quarter of a century, is generally acknowledged as one of the most able of all Ethiopian emperors – indeed, of all African rulers. Coming to the throne at a time when the country had suffered a large setback – his predecessor, Yohannes IV, had just been killed in battle with the same Sudanese Islamic zealots who famously did for General Gordon at Khartoum – Menelik not only saved Abyssinia from colonisation (his victory over the Italians at Adwa in 1896 has been described, with pardonable exaggeration, as the first by an African army over a European one since Cannae), but also played a leading role in bringing his empire into the twentieth century. For the Emperor was – most pertinently for our enquiry – a man with a pronounced love of engineering. He founded Addis Ababa, and enjoyed sketching designs and building wooden models of the innovations that he planned. Menelik was also progressive and a moderniser, responsible for introducing or encouraging a wide variety of high-tech innovations, including the telephone (1890), the railway (1896), the electric telegraph (1897), the Bank of Abyssinia (1905), the wheelbarrow and the automobile (1907), a state printing press (1911), hydro-electricity (1911-12), and of course the croissant (c.1901).[2] It would not be out of character for such a man to take an interest in the electric chair. It would, however, be surprising to find that Menelik had such an incomplete grasp of electricity that he did not understand, even in the 1890s, that an electric chair could not be made to work without it.

It wouldn’t do to get too carried away at this point, however. Technological progress was slow in Abyssinia – a combination of harsh terrain, lack of infrastructure and investment, virtually no trained engineers and a wildly superstitious priesthood saw to that. It took 20 years for the railway to make its way from Harar to Addis Ababa, and 21 for it to reach the coast. Priests declared the first telephones in Addis “inhabited by demons” and had them destroyed; the proprietor of the city’s earliest cinema very cannily avoided a repetition of this incident by ensuring that his opening night offering was a miracle film showing Christ walking on water, so that even the clergy could not find an excuse to burn the projector, although they wanted to. Nonetheless, Menelik himself showed that he was far from superstitious. He called the priests who destroyed his telephones “cretins”, stressing: “The machine functions without diabolical interference of any kind,” and when a British emissary arrived in the capital with a phonograph and a wax cylinder recording of a greeting made by Queen Victoria, the Emperor and his Empress happily recorded a reply; their voices can still be heard on the cylinder in the British Library’s Sound Archive. [Richard Pankhurst, Economic History of Ethiopia, 1800-1935 (Addis Ababa: Haile Selassie University Press, 1968) pp.19-20, 25, 702, 706, 710; Ray Prather, King of Kings of Ethiopia: Menelik II, Defeater of Italy (Nairobi: Kenya Literary Bureau, 1981) p.84; Chris Prouty, Empress Taytu and Menelik II: Ethiopia 1883-1910 (Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1986) pp.44, 237-9; Peter Garretson, ‘Ethiopia’s telephone and telegraph system, 1897-1933’, North-East African Studies 2:1 (1980) pp.59-69; Garretson, A History of Addis Ababa, from the Foundation in 1886 to 1910 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2000) pp.107, 145]

Of course, all of this still leaves open the question of when electricity itself first arrived in Abyssinia, but the answer seems to be that it was known quite a bit earlier than one might reasonably expect. Battery-powered telegraph equipment was brought into the country by a British expeditionary force as early as 1868, and the website of the Ethiopian Electricity Agency states that the first generator in the country was a dynamo gifted by the German government in 1890 for the purpose of powering electric lights; the same source also suggests that coins were being minted by electricity by 1896. Neither contemporary accounts nor modern histories mention either of these marvels, and it’s worth noting that the sort of dynamos in existence in 1890 could not provide more than a dim current to a handful of appliances. According to EA Wallis Budge, however, the first electric lights in the country were switched on in Addis in 1903, while Prouty and Rosenfeld state that Menelik’s palace was provided with electrical power from 1905 on the initiative of the Emperor’s chief engineering advisor, a Swiss by the name of Alfred Ilg. Little was done elsewhere, however, and as late as the 1930s Addis was the only place in the country provided with electric light – “an outpost of modernity in an otherwise conservative, highly formalized, Ethiopian state.” [Harry Gailey, History of Africa (Malabar, FL: Robert E, Krieger, 1989) II, 112] All sources, in short, agree that Abyssinia lacked the generating capacity to power something as greedy as an electric chair before some time in the 1930s. [EA Wallis Budge, A History of Ethiopia (London, 2 vols: Methuen, 1928), II, 538; Prouty and Eugene Rosenfeld, Historical Directory of Ethiopia and Eritrea (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1994) pp.104-05] That, of course, is scarcely a fatal problem in this instance, and it need not mean that The Book of List‘s account is not correct. Determining the Book‘s reliability, however, means knowing more about its sources – and it is to this perplexing topic that we turn.

Part II. John Hoy of Ethiopia

It’s not easy to establish how The Book of Lists got hold of its outlandish and (given the above) apparently implausible account. The writer of the section listing “15 favourite oddities” was Irving Wallace, the Book‘s co-editor, who was well-known in the 1970s as the successful writer of slightly sleazy airport fiction, but was also the author of assorted works of non-fiction – among them The Nympho and Other Maniacs. Wallace, an avid collector of data, gave no sources for any of his information, but one thing we can say with some certainty is that he didn’t heavily research his list. Most of the other items featured alongside the tale of the Abyssinian electric chair have some sort of basis in fact, but remain a little questionable; for example, Wallace includes a note about Pancho Villa and the contract he signed in 1914 to fight his Mexican revolution for the benefit of Hollywood movie cameras (an outrageous-but-true story that I really ought to tell you sometime), but also prints without comment the frankly perplexing tale of Frank Samuelson and George Harvo – who in 1897 were fêted as the first men to row the Atlantic, yet claimed that they had done it in a faster time than any other crew has managed since.

Is there any way of knowing, then, where Wallace read of Menelik? Well, the answer to that question, almost certainly, is yes, for it seems more than likely that the BoL picked the story up from another oddity hunter by the name of L.M. Boyd. Boyd was a veteran American newspaperman who ran a syndicated trivia column, entitled The Grab Bag, which appeared in around 400 newspapers across the U.S., and he liked the Abyssinian story so much that he ran it twice – for the first time in the autumn of 1970, and again in the summer of 1974, at about the time that The Book of Lists was being compiled. That, and the fact that The Grab Bag was so widely syndicated, make it entirely possible that Wallace may have read Boyd’s words; more to the point, there is nothing in Wallace’s paragraph that did not appear in The Grab Bag’s versions of the story.

Here are the two takes on the story as told by Boyd:

History – exactly 71 years ago, Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia bought three electric chairs. To dispose of capital criminals. Unfortunately, Ethiopia at the time had no electricity, so the chairs did not work. This saddened the emperor, but he made do, converting a couple into garden furniture and turning the third into his own personal throne. Somebody someday is going to write an operetta about it, I expect.

Modesto Bee [CA], 15 October 1970


Electric Chair

Emperor Menelik II ruled Ethiopia from 1889 until 1913. It was in 1890 that he was visited by missionaries who talked him into buying three electric chairs from the United States on the theory that this new electrocution was the most humane method of inflicting capital punishment. When the chairs got there, however, Menelik II was deeply disappointed to learn he had to have electricity to run the things. Ethiopia didn’t have any electricity then. So the emperor gave two of the chairs to friends. And he set up the third in his palace. Historical records reveal no other instance where an electric chair has been used as a royal throne.

Sun-News (Las Cruces, NM), 7 June 1974

So, some useful information there. But if we were, say, confronted by those two passages in an A-level history source analysis paper, there’d be plenty to say about the thorny question of reliability. To begin with, two different dates are given for the acquisition of the chairs – 1899 in Boyd’s earlier para, and 1890 in the second. The Grab Bag gives two competing versions of where the death chairs ended up, as well – “garden furniture” in the earlier version, presents for friends in the later clipping. And what a bloodthirsty bunch of missionaries Menelik apparently attracted – a group of holy men happy to act as salesmen for an instrument of death.[3]

Of course, though tracing the details back to L.M. Boyd probably explains where Irving Wallace got the story, it doesn’t take us closer to a proper source. There is one, though, and the clue here lies in Boyd’s longevity: he began work as a journalist in the 1940s, and started his trivia column in the early 1960s. And, if we think about the story from a journalist’s perspective, and wonder just when Abyssinia was in the papers on a daily basis – hence when the story of Menelik and his useless purchase might have been considered newsworthy – the answer hits us right between the eyes. Mightn’t it have emerged somehow from the extensive coverage of the country published after Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, during the war of 1935-36?

Well, the answer to that question is yes, and this is where the Canadian journalist Pierre van Paassen comes firmly into focus. A well-known foreign correspondent who was sent to Africa by his employer, the Toronto Star, Van P. pitched up in Addis Ababa, arriving in time to cover the latter stages of the conflict from Haile Selassie’s point of view. I’ve gone through all the dispatches that he wrote for the Star at the time without finding any reference to Menelik’s electric chairs. But the late Emperor’s acquisitions do feature in the memoirs that Van Paassen composed a few years later, and that book – Days of Our Years, the writer called it – was the best-selling non-fiction title in the United States in 1939. Seen from that perspective, it’s easy to believe that L.M. Boyd could well have read it, and – once again – the information Van Paassen gives ties in well with Boyd’s accounts; even the moralising missionaries are present and correct. Judge for yourself: here’s the electric chair story as recounted by Van Paassen in a passage about an expedition that sets out to head south from Addis:

We did stumble on another curiosity: the local Dedjaz, or chief of the village, at the foot of the St Abo mountain was the proud possessor of an electric chair. This deadly instrument, quite harmless in that rural Ethiopian environment, was one of the famous trio imported by the Emperor Menelik from America. Another specimen stands in the old Guebi [palace] in Addis Ababa, and a third lies somewhere in the desert near Aouash, where it is said to be venerated with superstitious awe by the Danakil tribesmen. Menelik ordered three metal chairs from America when he heard that his own method of executing criminals (he had them ripped apart by letting two saplings to which their legs were attached suddenly spring back in opposite directions) was decried as un-Christian by his missionary friends. It was found impossible to make the chairs do the work for which they were intended without an electric current, and as this was not available in Menelik’s days, the great Negus [Emperor] used one of them as a throne, the second he gave away, and the third never reached him, for the vehicle in which it was conveyed across the Danakil desert was wrecked two hundred miles from home.

Pierre Van Paassen, Days of Our Years (London: Heinemann, 1939) p.315

Now that’s a pretty interesting story. Aside from anything else, Van Paassen implies that he personally saw at least one, probably two, of the mysterious electric chairs, and the details that he supplies as to their origin and fate are very precise – which is to say that they certainly don’t sound as though they came to him at fourth or fifth hand. The only thing missing from the passage is a date – and it’s not, as we will see, all that hard to work out how Boyd and Wallace arrived at theirs.

All that said, however, there are still strange details in Van Paassen’s story that require elucidation. For one thing, Van P. didn’t see his discovery as a scoop – the existence of the three electric chairs was common knowledge at the time, apparently, and not just to journalists in Addis, since there’d be no point in the author talking of the “famous trio” imported by Menelik if he didn’t think his readers would have heard of them. If you really put the passage under the microscope, in fact, you might reasonably deduce that the story could even antedate the Italian invasion; after all, Van Paassen says, the location of the chairs is news, so there must have been an earlier version of the tale which just involved the arrival of the consignment.

What, though, can we extract from the detail in the Canadian’s account? It’s certainly possible to identify the places that he mentions: “St Abo mountain” is Meta Abo, a hill outside Sebetta, about 12 miles (20km) south of Addis Ababa, while Aouash is better known today as Awash, 100 miles (160km) to the east of the capital. That does place it on the road to the coast, where presumably any American imports would have been put ashore, and the area is inhabited by the Danakil – or Afar – people. Note, however, that Van Paassen has the distance from the lost chair to Addis all wrong; it’s only half as far to the capital as he suggests. This implies not only that Van P.’s knowledge of Ethiopian geography was far from complete, but also that he either recorded what his informant told him incorrectly (there must have been an informant – at least, there’s no indication that Van Paassen ever saw this third artefact at all), or that his informant, in turn, was not a first-hand witness.

All in all, then, there are already some reasons to doubt Van Paassen’s accuracy, and the mystery of where and when the story first emerged remains; despite some pretty extensive searching, I have yet to find any detailed account that antedates Days of Our Years, either in book form or in a major newspaper. By detailed, I mean a version that includes the story in all its essential elements – the placing of an order, the recognition that the consignment is useless, and the disposal of the electric chairs within Abyssinia. What certainly does exist, however, is a much vaguer and less detailed version of what could perhaps be the same strange tale – and this emerged in print three years before Van Paassen published.

What makes this earlier account particularly interesting is that it, too, appears in a book written by a Canadian journalist. This time the author was one Robinson Maclean, who went to Abyssinia to report for the Toronto Telegram, arriving in the country some time before Van Paassen did. Maclean lacked his compatriot’s experience – the New Yorker, 2 May 1936, refers to him as “an enthusiastic boy reporter.” Even so, the close-knit world of correspondents in Addis Ababa, and the fact that both Maclean and Van Paassen wrote for Toronto papers, makes it practically certain that they met. My own suspicion is that the electric chair story may first have appeared in a dispatch Maclean had published, prominently, in the Telegram – which would certainly explain why Van Paassen, writing for the same Toronto audience, thought his readers would have heard of it. Sadly copies of the Telegram have not been digitised and aren’t available anywhere in the UK, so I can’t prove at present that’s what happened. Even if it’s not, however, it’s certainly no great stretch to suppose that Van Paassen would have shown some interest in Maclean’s book and what he wrote.

What exactly, then, does Robinson Maclean have to say about electric chairs? The subject gets only a glancing mention in his John Hoy of Ethiopia [4] (Toronto: SB Gundy, 1936), but it’s the earliest such account that I have ever traced, and as such it is deserving of attention. What Maclean reports is that Menelik [d.1913, remember] did build an electric chair “to execute high-born evil doers,” and that his chair could still be seen in the royal palace at Addis. What he doesn’t say is that any chairs were ordered from the United States, that there were three of them, or that they were turned into thrones or otherwise disposed of. Nor – just as pertinently, as we will see – does the Toronto Telegram‘s man in Abyssinia make any mention at all about what the chair in the palace looked like. [Maclean op.cit. pp.116, 122] If Maclean really was the source for Days of Our Years, in other words, some pretty extensive elaboration of the story has gone on somewhere behind the scenes. All of which brings us back with rather a bump to Pierre Van Paassen and his dubious reliability.

Part III. A Canadian conspiracy theorist in Abyssinia

Time, then, to take an even closer look at Pierre Van P. and his account. We’ve already seen that the writer implied, however obliquely, that he had actually viewed two of Menelik’s electric chairs – one at Meta Abo and the other at the imperial palace in Addis Ababa. We’ve seen that there are reasons to wonder just how much of his paragraph is accurate. What we haven’t done is looked in detail at his antecedents. Just how trustworthy was Pierre Van Paassen?

Well, there’s no doubt that Van P. enjoyed a heady reputation in the 30s and 40s. He was a storied war reporter, and apparently much-respected by his boss; in later years his reputation would be burnished by his determined opposition to the Nazi regime in Germany. During a posting to pre-war Berlin, indeed, Van Paassen got himself thrown into Dachau, the concentration camp, for his pull-no-punches criticism of the Führer, whom he attacked in many angry dispatches. [Pierre Van Paassen (ed.), Nazism: An Assault on Civilization (New York: Jewish Labor Committee, 1934 p.22] This courageous and praiseworthy activity has largely rendered him immune from criticism ever since. Yet, as we’ve seen, there are indications that – like many journalists before and since – Van Paassen was at best the sort of writer who stuck scrupulously to the facts when reporting hard news, but felt less inclined to keep to the straight and narrow when handling colour pieces. I’ve already noted that the French village in which Van P. alleged that he encountered a ghostly black dog does not, apparently, exist. Leafing through the remainder of Days of Our Years, moreover, reveals some further passages that don’t stand up to detailed scrutiny, the most disturbing of which concern Van Paassen’s fervent belief that the Great War had been deliberately organised and run by a cartel of major arms manufacturers. Their representatives, the writer wrote, had even dared to meet in Vienna while the war raged on, so as to plot how to further extend the conflict and hence maximise their profits. [Van Paassen, Days of Our Years p.76] Now, conspiracy theories centred on the military-industrial complex were pretty common between the wars, and plenty of Van Paassen’s contemporaries believed that Sir Basil Zaharoff, not Aleister Crowley, most deserved the title of Wickedest Man in the World. Still, it’s disturbing to find the author making allegations of this sort in the same book that deals with the Emperor’s electric chair – and without the slightest shred of evidence to back them up.

Looked at rather more critically, moreover, Van Paassen’s passage contains one further, enormous, clue as to its likely reliability – and that’s scarcely encouraging, for Van P., it is clear, envisaged Menelik’s electric chairs as monstrous constructions. That’s implicit in the idea that the Abyssinian would consider one of his three specimens impressive enough to turn it into an imperial throne, but the Canadian makes his thought explicit, too, by describing the three chairs as “metal”. Apparently he thought of the electric chair as some sort of shiny death machine, perhaps with much internal wiring, and of a size much greater than an ordinary chair. And that is absolutely fascinating, because Van Paassen could not have been more wrong.[5]

The idea of the electric chair as a large, elaborate contraption is a common one. I know – I used to think the same myself. A few years ago, however, I wrote a book about a crooked New York cop, and since that cop met his own violent end in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison, I had to research the process of electrocution. I was rather startled to discover that the chair installed at Sing Sing was actually a flimsy affair, and that the same applied to its predecessor, the chair at Auburn prison pictured at the top of this post. In fact, there was nothing at all special about the chair portion of the contraption. It was simply an ordinary straight backed chair, with arms, which had been customised by the addition of numerous leather straps in order to restrain the prisoner. The only metal fittings were the wires that carried electricity, and these were small and thin enough to be run along the wood. The one other modification was a large goose-neck type fitting that was screwed to the back of the chair and extended forward, over the condemned man’s head, to make it easy to attach an electrode to the killer’s scalp.

There are two huge points to make here. Firstly, these chairs were not manufactured and offered for sale by some sort of specialist company. The earliest examples were fashioned by hand by the electricians employed at Auburn and Sing Sing, then hooked up to a generator that had been purchased separately. It was the Auburn chair that carried out the execution of William Kemmler, who was the first man executed by electricity, and Kemmler’s death deserves some note here, because he checked out in August 1890, and it was news of his execution that (at least according to Irving Wallace) reached Abyssinia to inspire Menelik to order his electric chairs. In one sense Wallace could well have been right – there’s no doubt that the execution was a major news event, nor that newspaper accounts reached most parts of the globe eventually. Equally, though, Kemmler’s death was not made the occasion for a large expenditure on this new type of death machine. Contemporary reports clearly state that the Auburn chair was built by Edwin Davis, who was the state executioner, and pretty clearly any competent carpenter and electrician could have knocked together something similar. There would simply have been no market, in short, for a “design” for which there was very little demand, and which was in any case both simple and obvious. The only really complicated part of Auburn prison’s killing machine was its high-voltage electrical generator, and that was not instrinsically lethal.[6]

This discovery has profound implications for our story, for if Menelik did hear of the execution of Kemmler in 1890, or even made enquiries after an electric chair as late as 1899, there is simply no way he could have “ordered” three devices even if he had wanted to. Yes, it might just have been possible for the Abyssinians to obtain blueprints, or simply some idea of how the chair was made, but it’s hard to imagine that any such exchange would not have dealt extensively with the really vital portion of the design itself: the need to obtain a generator, a machine that was so uncommon anywhere in 1890 that the need for one would surely have been mentioned. It’s clearly a fallacy, to my mind, that anyone, in Menelik’s day, could have simply “written off” to the U.S. for three death chairs; what they would have needed was three generators, and I doubt that this point could really have escaped them.

Next, consider the design of the chair itself. It’s just not at all impressive. Yes, a large, gleaming metallic chair of the sort imagined by Van Paassen might conceivably have suggested itself as a throne to a monarch as forward-thinking as Menelik, but what about a real-life contraption of the sort used during the 1890s? Certainly the straps on the device would have had to be removed – no Emperor could sit with dignity on a throne so clearly designed to restrain him. But consider, also, the problem of the Imperial head. Thrones, after all, are sat on by monarchs wearing crowns, but the goose-neck portion of the Auburn chair clearly sits too low to allow any sort of headgear to be worn – much less the elaborate Abyssinian crowns pictured below (the one on the far right is Menelik’s own). That fitting, too, would have had to go – but when it’s gone you’re left with nothing but a common-or-garden upright chair. And that would scarcely have communicated grandeur – nor any association with futuristic technology. The average supplicant to Menelik’s court would not have had the least idea what he was actually looking at. So why turn an electric chair into a throne? From this perspective, too, the story simply makes no sense.

I have just one more point to make before I’m done, and that concerns one of Irving Wallace’s specifics: that, if Menelik did acquire, or build, an electric chair circa 1890, he had it installed in his palace (where, remember, it could still apparently be seen in Van Paassen’s day). Here, once again, there’s evidence of a journalist’s imagination working overtime. Yes, I can see that, straining to turn Boyd’s handful of lines into a paragraph, Wallace may have assumed that any emperor would have a palace, and that such a stout, brick-built construction might well have guarded an electric chair for a few decades. The truth is, though, that no such structure existed in the Abyssinia of 1890. Addis Ababa, Menelik’s capital, was founded only in 1886, and four years later – when, the Kemmler version of the story suggests, the emperor’s chairs set out on their long journey to Africa – the town still consisted of nothing but a scattering of isolated huts separated by a series of ravines. The royal ‘palace’ – shown above in a contemporary illustration – was made of sticks and thatch, and looks scarcely big enough for Menelik, much less for an electric chair. This structure, moreover, burned to the ground by accident in 1892, along with its contents.

Yes, the palace was rebuilt, and by 1900 it was an altogether grander affair, filling much of a compound with a perimeter of nearly 4.5 miles (7km). [Pankhurst, op.cit. pp.701-05] By then, however, it possessed another throne – one that was large, serviceable, traditional, and more impressive than any wooden electric chair could have been. It’s a symbol of imperial magnificence, moreover, that survives today in the Ethiopian National Museum [left] – and, looking at Menelik’s real throne, it’s doubly hard to believe that the Emperor would have preferred an import – at least not one lacking the sort of deadly magnificence imagined by Van Paassen. The story, to put it mildly, stinks.

I don’t pretend that I’ve solved every aspect of this minor mystery. I still don’t know where Robinson Maclean got hold of the idea that Menelik built his own electric chair – we’ve seen that even by the time of the Emperor’s death (1913 – and he was pretty much incapacitated after 1909, in fact) there was no source of electricity in Abyssinia capable of powering such a machine. But consider the facts as we know them. One, Maclean is the first writer that we know made any reference to the Emperor’s electric chair. Two, he was very inexperienced. Three, he certainly would not have spoken Amharic, and must have relied entirely on interpreters to get his stories – so the potential for simple error was enormous. And, four, Pierre Van Paassen (who plainly was the man responsible for getting the whole tale into wide circulation circa 1940) was neither entirely reliable, nor averse to embroidering his material. What, if anything, Van P. encountered at the foot of Meta Abo back in 1936 I doubt we’ll ever know for sure, but the one thing that I’m reasonably sure of is that it wasn’t what he said he saw: a metal “electric chair” imported to Abyssinia by the Emperor Menelik.


[1.] Properly known as Cnut the Great (r.1016-35). The story of Cnut’s encounter with the waves comes from the chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon, a monk writing about a century later, making it at best apocryphal and more likely deliberately placed to make a point about God’s glory and human fallibility. Henry, however, has Cnut more than aware of his own weakness, and writes that the king wished to make the same point to arrogant courtiers. The distorted version, in which the king himself become vainglorious, emerged from tellings in 19th century school text books. Oddly enough, I’ve always been aware of the ‘true’ version of the story because it featured, correctly slanted, in the first volume of L. Du Garde Peach’s vividly memorable Ladybird book Kings and Queens of England, which also featured illustrations by Dan Dare artist Frank Hampson and which played a disturbingly prominent part in my own childhood.

[2.] The introduction of the croissant to Ethiopia can be attributed to the work of a French jack-of-all-trades, M. Stévenin, who not only got the first Abyssinian telephone line working, but also ran a mill in the capital around 1900. In 1901 the enterprising Stévenin brought a baker over from France and sent the first batch of French bread over to the palace. Menelik was so delighted with the taste that he placed an immediate order for 40 thalers’ worth of bread per day, enough to make the venture instantly profitable. Stévenin followed up this triumph by sending to Paris for a second pâtissier and baking Abyssinia’s first croissant a year or so later. Prouty, Empress Taytu pp.238-9.

[3.] Actually, I rather get the feeling that Boyd just guessed that late nineteenth century Abyssinia would have been in need of missionaries – after all, the continent was full of Muslims and pagans in those days, wasn’t it? Well, not in Abyssinia it wasn’t – the country was Coptic Christian, and had been ever since the fourth century. So though Menelik did occasionally receive missionaries at his court, both Catholic and Lutheran, they were pretty few and far between throughout his reign. In fact there had been considerable trouble with missionaries only a few years previously, during the reign of Tewodros II, and Menelik himself had expelled the members of a Catholic mission from his home district, the province of Shoa. [Harold Marcus, The Life and Times of Menelik II (New Jersey: Red Sea Press, 1995) pp.22, 43, 57-8]

[4.] “John Hoy,” Maclean explains, is a crude Anglicisation of an Amharic word that roughly transliterates as janhoy, and means “Your Majesty”.

[5.] Much the same objection be raised regarding Van Paassen’s unique and pretty much outrageous account of execution in Abyssinia. I’ve never seen it suggested elsewhere that trees were used to carry out capital sentences in Menelik’s day. Anatomy is against the whole idea, for one thing; I remember reading one gory account of an attempt to tear a man apart with horses, which failed – despite vigorous whipping of the animals – until some of the unfortunate victim’s ligaments were snipped in two. And there are other accounts suggesting other fates for those who earned imperial disfavour. Maclean, for one [op.cit. p.123], writes that in Menelik’s day prisoners were chained in a sort of oubliette – a circular pit-dungeon, made to hold 200, which had no sanitation, light, or “hope for anything but a merciful death.” Some time later, according to another contemporary, the writer Paul Hartlmaier, a surer form of execution was brought in:

The “House of the Dead,” that is, of execution, consists of two rooms. In the wall between them, a rifle is fixed into a tube. Opposite the rifle is a kind of platform which can be raised or lowered. The condemned man stands on this platform, pinioned to a pole, so that the rifle points at his heart. His relatives are gathered in the other room. One of them is allowed to carry out the sentence. [Hartlmaier, Golden Lion: A Journey Through Ethiopia (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1936) p.173.]

[6.] It is interesting to note, in this context, that Thomas Edison’s assistant, Harold Brown, attempted to obtain a patent on his version of an electric chair, but never managed to get the design registered. Tom McNichol, AC/DC: the Savage Tale of the First Standards War (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006) p.88.


I cannot close without pointing out that the story of Emperor Menelik and his electric chair is not found solely in English-language histories. It also features in Amharic, and the well-known Ethiopian journalist Paulos Gnogno mentions it in his Atse Minilik [Emperor Minilik] (Addis Ababa: Bolie Printing Press, 1992), p.270. This passage, loosely translated, yields several new details, though without knowing anything of Gnogno’s research and methods it’s simply impossible to know whether he tapped independent Ethiopian traditions or simply elaborated on the western sources published earlier. Those who have staggered through thus far will not be surprised to know that I suspect the latter – not least because Gnogno supplies a date before Addis was really a city and the execution of William Kemmler brought electrocution to the attention of a grimly fascinated world.

One day, when Emperor Minilik was showing the city of Addis Ababa to some foreign visitors, they reached a place where criminals were hanged from a tree. The Emperor tried hard to divert the foreigners’ attention. However, the foreigners noticed the bodies and asked the Emperor: “Why do you carry out the death penalty in this way?” Emperor Minilik replied” “These are criminals who kill innocent people; don’t you execute these kinds of people according to the law of the land in your own country?” The foreigners said, “Yes, but our criminals are executed using the electric chair, not in public like this.” Minilik replied: “How does this electric chair perform its task?” The reply was: “You make the criminal sit in the chair and turn on the switch. Automatically, the criminal dies.”

Minilik was so impressed that he ordered three electric chairs, and these were delivered from the United States. Upon their arrival, criminals who had been condemned to death were brought in and one was forced to sit on a chair while Minilik stood by to watch how it was done. At this moment, the Emperor’s engineering advisors said: “Your Highness, the chair does not kill by itself.”

The Emperor replied: “Why not?”

The advisors: “It needs electricity.”

The Emperor: “What is electricity?”

The advisors: “Electricity is useful to generate light and energy.”

The Emperor: “I need to import an electric power system. In the meantime, give me one of the electric chairs to be used in the throne-room, and give the other to Lique Mequas Abate [governor of the province of Tigray; a close ally].”

In this way, electricity was introduced to the imperial palace in Ethiopia in 1889 (Ethiopian calendar).

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply