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Followup: Can you get electrocuted peeing on the third rail?
March 4, 2010

Dear Cecil:

Your old column on whether somebody could be electrocuted peeing on the third rail was recently featured on straightdope.com. Your research standards were still a little shoddy back in the 70s, apparently. You based this answer on a single anecdote from a 10-year-old (at the time) book. I'm skeptical that the stream could remain uninterrupted and in contact with the rail long enough to be fatal, but there's so little in the way of facts or evidence in your article that it seems rather pointless to even argue it.

— Wheelz

Mythbusters spent a lot of time on this story. They found that a urine stream is too broken up into droplets to make a good conductor. They tried a lot of scenarios trying to make it happen. They finally had the test dummy barefoot, standing in a puddle, and only inches away before he got shocked.

— aceplace57

Wait, what about E
——? The Sun-Times described him as "a 14-year-old boy whom the medical examiner ruled died of electrocution while urinating on the third rail near the Morse Avenue CTA station in 1991." I guess it's possible that he merely stepped on the rail. Sadly, the news stories I found didn't go into enough detail about where on his body the electrical contact occurred. But urination must be a key detail, for surely the Sun-Times would never include an irrelevant fact merely because it's titillating. And our civic institutions also let me down: the appellate decision in the inevitable court case merely stated, "He was killed when he came into contact with the 'third' rail," without describing exactly how. The court cared more about boring things like trespassing and signage than important stuff like burn marks. But I bet Cecil's crack team can dig up either the medical examiner's report or the transcript of the original trial.
 

— slewis

Cecil replies:

We need to get something out of the way right off the bat. I acknowledge this subject is low, gross, and disgusting. However, LG&D have never been major impediments to discussion at the Straight Dope, particularly if there's some offsetting social value, as in this case there unquestionably is. For one thing, this column's honor has been impugned, and at a time of national anxiety we can't have the reliability of a bedrock American institution (me) cast into doubt. We've also got the public safety issue to consider. Finally — and I'm sure scientifically-minded readers will sympathize — I just wanted to know.

I've made further inquiries. I'm not saying I've got the definitive answer. But I think I'm close.

Let's recap. We got the above-cited question in March, 1977 from "Impatient on the Howard line." We knew of no cases in Chicago but turned up one in New York, mentioned in Where Death Delights by Marshall Houts (1967). Houts told the story of Joseph Patrick O'Malley, a heavy drinker who was struck by a train while wandering through a New York subway tunnel. An autopsy turned up a contributing factor:

The burns on the head of the penis and on the thumb and forefinger were obviously electrical burns … The stream of urine had come into contact with the 600 volts of the third rail. The current had coursed up the stream to cause the burns on his body as the electricity entered it.

In all probability, he was dead from electrocution before the train ever hit his body.

In my opinion this seemed pretty much dispositive. Houts had been an FBI agent, lawyer, judge, and professor of forensic pathology; surely he could be relied on. True, he reported just one case. However, the issue wasn't whether a lot of people had been killed in this way, but whether anybody had. My answer: yes. Next question?

As you can see, that wasn't good enough for the Teeming Millions. Wheelz, for example, has taken the view that facts, as they age, become less true. What's more, the factuality decay rate is remarkably steep — a mere ten years out and you've slipped into the realm of myth. We also had those contrary results from Mythbusters, which seemed to show that death by peeing on the third rail was impossible except at implausibly close range.

Understand that I enjoy Mythbusters and have the highest respect for laboratory research. Lord knows if I had the budget for chain saws, high voltage, and incendiary devices, I'd be out in the back yard every day. However, you work with the tools you have. I resolved to see what more could be discovered with gumshoe work and Google, the reporter's best friend.

I soon had three candidate cases. Two were from Chicago; one had occurred only seven months after I wrote my original answer:

Only the 2008 account unmistakably indicated that the fatal current traveled up the urine stream (and who knows, that may have been the reporter's embellishment). The other two were vague on the details of death. For that matter, the original question merely asked if anyone had expired "while" (as distinct from "due to") peeing on the third rail. Obviously, however, the question of interest was whether a lethal jolt could be carried some distance by a narrow stream of fluid. Time to inquire further.

Obtaining an autopsy report from London didn't seem practical. The medical examiner's office in Cook County, Illinois, which handled the two Chicago cases, was less of a challenge. I filed a Freedom of Information request and a couple months later received a copy of the 14-year-old's post mortem. Points of interest:

  • On the lengthy list of injuries, all the electrical burns were on the arms and legs, not the hands. The largest burns were on the forearms and lower legs.

  • The abdomen and genitalia were normal, and the hands had no injuries of significance.

  • The toxicology analysis came back positive for carbamazepine, a drug used to treat epilepsy.

The medical examiner's opinion was that the deceased had "died of electrocution while urinating on the power rail of the Rapid Transit System." That may be, but it seems clear the victim's arms and legs had come into direct contact with the third rail. There was nothing to suggest the current traveled up the urine stream. We'll cross this case off the list.

That left Sang Yeul Lee. The medical examiner's office couldn't locate the autopsy report. However, one of the paramedics on the scene turned out to be a high school classmate of Little Ed's.

I spoke to the paramedic. He remembered the incident well — he'd been asked to testify in the lawsuit arising from the incident.

At the location where the accident occurred, Kedzie Avenue on the Brown Line on Chicago's northwest side, the tracks cross the street at grade. The victim had been drinking at a nearby tavern and apparently had walked a short distance onto the right-of-way from the sidewalk. Here's what the paramedic saw:

  • The body lay on the gravel between the tracks, perpendicular to the rails. The feet were within three feet of the third rail.

  • The man was wearing, among other things, light pants and rubber boots. The pants were unzipped and his penis was exposed.

  • No electrical burns were visible. However, the body was smoldering, with smoke emanating from the ears and eyeballs.

The medical examiner's office is still looking for the autopsy report. Pending its appearance, here's what we know: (1) the fellow had been electrocuted; (2) he'd been urinating on the 600-volt third rail; (3) he was close to but not in contact with the third rail when his body was found; (4) the position of his body was consistent with his having fallen backward; (5) he was wearing rubber boots, which presumably insulated him from direct contact; and (6) his blood alcohol concentration was an astonishing 0.341 (0.08 is legally drunk). We may conjecture, therefore, that he produced copious flow.

Maybe there's some other way for Sang Yeul Lee to have been killed besides the electrical current traveling up the urine stream. However, absent other information, it seems like the obvious explanation to me. You have to get pretty close before the third rail presents a danger, though. My advice: don't whizz off the platform (I say this mostly on sanitary and aesthetic grounds), and if that's too much to ask, at least stay off the damn tracks.

Update
April 17, 2010

The Cook County medical examiner's office still hasn't turned up the autopsy report for Sang Yeul Lee. However, a spokesperson sent me a PowerPoint slide show that the office's medical staff had prepared for an internal presentation. Title: "To Pee or Not to Pee: An Overview of Electricity Related Deaths, and Examination of the Question of Whether Peeing on the Third Rail Can Kill." We note with satisfaction that the slide show quoted my column on the subject, including the mention of the two Chicago cases cited above. More important, it summarizes the autopsy findings for Sang Yeul Lee.

We learn that, contrary to what I was told by the paramedic, Sang Yeul Lee's body displayed a "large area of burn with marked charring" on the left knee, right wrist, right forearm, and right toes. Conclusion: Lee had been electrocuted by direct contact with the third rail, not by current carried up the urine stream. I'm disappointed, of course; I thought for sure this was a case of death-by-peeing. However, one accepts one's scientific duty. We'll cross Lee's name off the list, too.

We're not done yet. The Cook County spokesperson faxed me a page from the Color Atlas of Forensic Medicine and Pathology edited by Charles A. Catanese (2009). Dr. Catanese, according to Amazon, had spent ten years as a pathologist with the New York medical examiner's office. New York, you'll recall, was where Joseph Patrick O'Malley reportedly had been found electrocuted on the subway tracks with burns on the tips of his fingers and penis.

Page 367 of the atlas has a photo with the following caption:

This individual was found lying next to an electrified subway rail with his pants down, and an electrical burn to his penis. He was lying in a puddle of urine and was markedly intoxicated at the time of his death.

Is the individual Joseph Patrick O'Malley? The atlas doesn't say, and faxing turned the photo into a black blot. However, I'm told the deceased was African-American, which presumably O'Malley wasn't.

I also found a 1988 article in Newsday about the Milton Helpern Forensic Museum in New York, named after the city's chief medical examiner from 1954 to 1973. The article says:

It was surely one of the most bizarre deaths in the annals of New York history, let alone its medical history. An unidentified man was traveling the subways one day when he felt the urgent call of nature. Unable or unwilling to seek out a public toilet, he proceeded to relieve himself on the subway tracks. But alas, relief was not forthcoming. The arc of the man's urine hit the third rail, conducting a high-voltage current back to his body and killing him instantly … [I]n the [museum] repose the organs of that unfortunate man, the most popular of the 2,100 exhibits.

Does that mean we have three cases of electrocution-by-pee in New York, or one case that's been turned into three through multiple retellings? I don't know. However, I note that the subtitle of Where Death Delights, the 1967 book that was the source of the Joseph Patrick O'Malley story, is "The Story of Dr. Milton H. Helpern, Chief Medical Examiner to the City of New York." From this we deduce that all these stories originated with the late Dr. Helpern and the New York medical examiner's office. Clearly it's to this institution we must turn for further illumination. I'll get to it when I can. Don't look for it next week.

 — Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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