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Has anybody gotten electrocuted peeing on the third rail?

Dear Cecil:

Are there any known instances of winos, derelicts and others possessing unreliable bladders meeting their Maker while peeing on the third ("hot") rail from a subway or elevated train platform?

Impatient on the Howard line, Chicago

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Not in Chicago. But I did turn up one instance in New York City, ever the pacesetter in this regard.

Marshall Houts’s Where Death Delights (1967) contains the sad story of one Joseph Patrick O’Malley, a man with two unfortunate habits: heavy drinking and wandering through subway tunnels.

One morning, O’Malley’s mangled body was found in a tunnel 50 yards from the nearest station. He had apparently been struck and killed by a train.

But an autopsy turned up another cause: “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.”

Others have their doubts, however.

The combination of water and electricity is notoriously volatile — so much so that there might be a built-in safety factor, i.e., the shock would be great enough to knock you down. This would spoil your aim and cut off the current before the electricity could do its lethal work on your heart muscles.

In any case the experience would not be pleasant. So take a tip from your Uncle Cecil: play it cool, stay in school, and watch where you’re spreading those vital fluids.

(2009 addition: The Mythbusters TV show has pointed out that the urine stream would break into droplets shortly after exiting the penis and wouldn’t provide a continuous path for the flow of current. However, it’s possible that at sufficiently high voltage the juice could arc past the air gap. The UK Daily Mail reported in 2008 that a Polish tourist had been electrocuted after urinating on a 750-volt rail in London, and a 14-year-old boy was reportedly killed doing the same on a 600-volt rail in Chicago in 1991. We have also belatedly learned of a 1977 case in which an inebriated Chicago man was electrocuted after walking onto ground-level tracks and urinating on the third rail at close range. Available documents indicate his penis was exposed but provide no further details. Notwithstanding uncertainties about these cases, caution with respect to peeing and third rails is advised.)

Cecil Adams

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