Martha Place was was born in New Jersey and at the age of 23 she was struck in the head by a sleigh. Her brother claimed that she never completely recovered and that the accident left her mentally unstable.
Martha Garretson was employed by widower, William Place, as his housekeeper, but their relationship became closer and they got married. William already had a daughter, Ida, by his first wife and Martha resented the affection shown by her new husband towards the 17-year-old girl to such an extent that it apparently affected her mental balance. There was also another problem: Mr. Place refused to allow his new wife to bring to the home a 14-year old son by her first husband. Every time Mr. Place refused to allow the boy to come home, Mrs. Place would yell and scream at the top of her voice and threaten the father and daughter with violence.
On February 7, 1898, after an argument in which Ida had sided with her father before he left for work. She claimed the argument was the result of stories Ida had told him about her and he had hit her in the face with his hand.
After Mr. Place left for work, Martha viciously attacked Ida, throwing acid into her eyes. As the girl covered her face in agony, Martha picked up an ax and struck her several times. Ida collapsed on the floor and her stepmother then piled pillows on her face and suffocated her.
When William came home he was immediately attacked by his ax-wielding wife and although he sustained a severely fractured skull, he managed to get out of the house and neighbors called the police.
On entering the house, the police found Mrs Place unconscious, having turned on the gas in an attempt to commit suicide. Upstairs they discovered the dead body of 17-year-old Ida Place lying on a bed. Her mouth was bleeding and her eyes disfigured from having acid thrown in them. The evidence later indicated Ida Place died from asphyxiation.
Martha Place was hospitalized and arrested. Mr. Place's brother said that he believed his sister-in-law was crazy from drink when she committed the crime. He added that she had the most fearful temper that he ever saw in any human being.
Mrs. Place was described by a local newspaper as a tall woman with a long and pointed face, her chin sharp and prominent, her lips thin and her forehead retreating.. The newspaper added, “There is something about her face that reminds one of a rat’s, and the bright but changeless eyes somehow strengthen the impression.” Mrs. Place was about 6 feet 7 Inches in height and weighed about 150 or 160 pounds. Her hands were large and bony and her colorless brown hair was streaked with gray and was thin.
At her trial her defense tried to enter a plea of insanity, but she was declared sane. She proclaimed her innocence while awaiting trial, but was found guilty of murder and on March 20, 1899 was sentenced to death. Her husband was a key witness against her.
Mrs. Place was not informed of the exact time the sentence was to be carried out. Instead, a few days before she was told that all hope of pardon was lost and she was to prepare herself to go at any moment. She spent the last several days of her life eating at the warden's table and exhibiting a calm demeanor.
While confined at Sing Sing Prison she had several hysterical outbursts, but after prayer sessions with her priest she regained her self-assurance. On March 20, 1899, at the age of 44, Martha M. Place entered the history books when she became the first woman to get fried in Old Sparky, as the electric chair was known.
Gruesome as electrocutions were, it was seen as a big improvement over hanging. Hanging, it seems, was not such a simple matter; misjudgments of the required counterweight, strength of rope, specific knot, or length of drop lead to people being beheaded or slowly choked to death when their necks failed to break.
In New York, prison officials were upset when they witnessed the execution of one woman who took fifteen minutes to die that they resolved to find a better way and electrocution promised to be a neat and tidy solution. As a result, electrocution came into regular use in the 1890s.
New York was a liberal state and the death sentence imposed on the woman was not supported by public sentiment, and there was loud clamor for a reprieve. No woman had been executed in New York for many years because the governors who ruled there wouldn't allow it. But when it came time for Mrs. Place's sentence to be carried out, the governor, future president, Teddy Roosevelt refused to be swayed by what he called "mawkish sentimentality."
She sat quietly in the chair holding a Bible in her hands while her hair was clipped short, preparatory to the head electrode being positioned. Being the first woman to get electrocuted presented some problems to the officials and they had to devise a new way to place the electrodes on her. They decided to slit her dress and place the electrode on her ankle. A female tightened the straps around her, attached the leg electrode and covered her face and then 1,760 volts surged through her body and after about four seconds she was zapped with another 200 volts. She died on the third surge. The prison doctor at Sing Sing described the execution as, "the best execution that has ever occurred here."
She wasn't the first woman sentenced to the electric chair though. That distinction goes to Maria Barbella, but she was later found not guilty.
She was buried in the family cemetery plot in East Millstone, New Jersey without religious any observances.