Executions · New York · Newspaper clippings

The electric chair’s first execution

August 6, 1890
Auburn, New York
William Francis Kemmler becomes the first person in the world to be legally executed by the electric chair, though his execution was inhumane at best

Kemmler was convicted of killing his common-law wife, Tillie Ziegler, with a hatchet. Because of the AC/DC war being waged between Alternating Current and Direct Current, George Westinghouse (the largest supplier of alternating current equipment, licensed from Nikola Tesla) attempted to support Kemmler’s appeal, fearing the electrocution would lead the general public to find AC dangerous. On the other hand, Thomas Edison’s company utilized DC power and was trying to eliminate competition from AC; he and another anti-AC activist acquired a Westinghouse generator for the electric chair in an effort to discredit AC. (This, obviously, did not work as residential and commercial buildings use AC.)

Kemmler’s execution was botched, likely due to the inexperience of the executioners in this new form of killing. One witness wrote of the experience (from August 7, 1890 issue of The New York Herald):

BREATHED AFTER FIRST SHOCK

Doctors Pronounced Him Dead and Then to Their Horror Discovered Their Mistake

WITNESSES FAINT AND SICK

Terror Added to the Scene by the Burning Parts of the Body.

DISAGREEMENT OF SCIENTISTS

Not Satisfied That the New Method of Execution is a Success

THE HERALDS EYE WITNESS

[By Telegraph to the Herald]

AUBURN, N.Y., August 6, 1890.—The killing of Kemmler to-day marks, I fear, the beginning and the end of electrocution, and it wreathes in shame the ages of the great Empire State who, entrusted with the terrific responsibility of killing a man as a man was never killed before, brought to the task imperfect machinery and turned and execution into a horror.

William Kemmler is dead, indeed, but at what a price? He has paid a double penance for his crime and a penance for his childlike trust in man who by their carelessness have brought shame upon the great State whose servants they are.

Kemmler’s Death by Torture: Twice the Current Was Sent through the Murderers Quivering Frame – New York Herald 7 Aug 1890

The scene of Kemmler’s execution was too horrible to picture. He died the death of Feeks, the linemen, who was slowly roasted to death in the sight of thousands.

Man accustomed to every form of suffering grew faint as the awful spectacle was unfolded before their eyes. Those who stood the sight were filled with awe as they saw the effects of this most potent of fluids which is only partly understood by those who have studied it most faithfully, as it slowly, to slowly, disintegrated the fibre and tissues of the body through which it passed.

The heaving of a chest which it had been promised would be stilled in an instant peace as soon as the circuit was completed, the foaming of the mouth, the bloody sweat, the writhing shoulders and all the other signs of life.

THE ODOR OF BURNING FLESH.

Horrible as these were they were made infinitely more horrible by the premature removal of the electrodes and the subsequent replacing of them for not seconds but minutes, until the room was filled with the odor of burning flesh and strong man fainted and felt like logs upon the floor.

And all this done in the name of science.

It would be strange, indeed, if this execution had been anything else than what it was-a shameful thing. There has been no feature connected with the punishment of William Kemmler that was not shameful. The instruments were stolen from the first place. They were admittedly imperfect. But though the makers offered under pressure to build the State and machinery that could be relied upon, they were told that they were merely making a few hue and cry to save themselves.

The events of to-day proof either that the dynamos were faulty or that the interested company had bribed some one to make them seems so.

Yesterday, with 14 months behind him in which to complete his preparations, the Warden had the execution room moved and the newly repaired voltmetre put in a place where those conducting and execution could not see it or know whether it was registering 2,000 or 200 bolts.

In the doctors were told before it was known that the facts had better be suppressed that the machine was only registering from 700 to 1,200 bolts, when 1,800 were needed.

AN INQUIRY NEEDED.

Nothing but a legislative inquiry will bring out the truth. And those who were present say that in the interests of humanity it is to be hoped that one will be had before another poor wretch is put on the official grill.

Kemmler went to the slaughter like a big boy, trusting and hopeful, leading ill will to none and with no apparent fear of what was coming. He chided his executioners for their nervousness and did everything in his power to help them make a good job of it.

Not a cloud blocked the morning sky as he sauntered into the chamber of death, adjusting his cravat as he went. Without the prison walls a vast crowd was collected in the Windows of the death chamber were closely watched.

The ivy on the great gray walls was filled with twittering sparrows, the St. Bernard barked in its kennel. The rifle and lariat armed guards mounted to their wanted places on the prison parapets, and the prisoners were turned out at seven just as usual.

It was not until little District Attorney Quimby, of Buffalo, came tottering down the steps, his face purpling and every fibre in his being trembling, and whispered, “It Is over,” that people knew the end had come.

The doctors sitting in a semi-circle about the Rome saw a quiet fellow enter, accompanied by the Warden.

SHAVED HIS HEAD.

A monk’s spot had been rabidly caught on the crowd of Kemmler’s head in order to make a place for the sponge of the upper electro, and the death warrant had been read and the new brown trousers and vest and spotless shirt put on hand the minister had prayed and read the Scriptures, while Kemmler said “Amen” to everything.

When Kemmler sat down in that share that has so quickly earned the title of the chair of death the morning sun streamed in the window and kissed the floor. It touched with light the face, stupid perhaps, but placid. It was the faces around about that were the hue of ashes. It was the Warden of the prison who could scarcely find the handle to work with.

The story of the drama that followed his told below by an eye witness. Of the parts played by the various actors that some speak for themselves. Nine minutes, that seemed like an hour, cut by at last, and the deed was done.

It was not until an hour after that the body was cold enough to put under the shining scalpels of the post-mortem inquisitors. The doctors came out of the prison determined to be discreet and silent, but honest indignation soon overmastered them and it was not long before they were talking of the horrors they had seen.

DIVIDING THE BODY.

The autopsy was made very carefully, and the doctors made it through. They could not have any legal disputes as to whether the man was dead nor as to the cause of death, so Dr. Jenkins took the chest and abdominal region and Dr. Daniels the brain and head and spinal cord, and with deft fingers dissected them while the others looked on.

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