1676: Malin Matsdotter and Anna Simonsdotter, ending a witch hunt 1777: A British spy, by Israel Putnam

1890: William Kemmler, only in America

August 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1890 the iconic symbol of the American death penalty made its grisly debut upon the person of William Kemmler at New York’s Auburn Prison.

The long New World tradition of hanging condemned prisoners came under fire as a barbarism in the late 19th century, leading reformers to look for killing procedures less likely to result in a horrendously protracted strangulation or a midair decapitation. As Empire State Governor David Hill put it,

The present mode of executing criminals by hanging has come down to us from the dark ages, and it may well be questioned whether the science of the present day cannot provide a means for taking the life of such as are condemned to die in a less barbarous manner.

On this stage, Executed Today presents a rogues’ gallery of homo Americanus, the salesmen and swindlers who would help the U.S.A. ride the lightning.

The Dentist

A true renaissance man, Buffalo dentist Dr. Alfred Southwick, applied his active mind to the need to better kill a fellow, and soon hit upon an inspiration — that is to say, a town drunk hit upon an electrical generator and died instantaneously, and the observant Southwick said “eureka!”

Without the subsequent industry of this neglected gentleman, who added to his repertoire scientifically-minded electrical butchery of animals alongside political gladhandings to bring a flutter to a busybody’s heart, the Chair’s entire oeuvre of machismo-sadism might have missed the country altogether. Just imagine living in a world where New York had pioneered its other leading reform alternative: lethal injection.

(This, incidentally, is why the chair is a chair, and not a bed or a stake or a St. Andrew’s Cross: because the guy who thought of it spent all day administering his own tender mercies to seated penitents.)

The Plutocrats

As Southwick nagged his senator and shocked stray cats into the great hereafter, the gears of commerce strove relentlessly ever-onward. The business of America was ever business, and never more so than the Gilded Age.

And the business of killing people was about to become the biggest business there was.

The age of electricity was buzzing into incandescence, and two rival standards were at currents amped over eventual dominance of this stupendous industry. Thomas Edison’s earlier Direct Current (DC) standard was being challenged by Nikolai Tesla’s Alternating Current (AC), backed by the financial muscle of George Westinghouse.

Cheaper and more efficient, AC tilted the playing field against Edison. Seeing his days numbered, the Wizard of Menlo Park fought back the way any dinosaur industry would: dirty.

AC, Edison said, was too dangerous for consumer use — a lurking killer. “Is this what your wife should be cooking with?” And he started taking up traveling road shows zapping large animals with AC to demonstrate the rival product’s deadliness. (This press coined the term “electrocution” from these spectacles.)

This clip of the electric demise of a circus elephant — don’t hit “play” if you’re not up for animal cruelty — is from some years later (Edison kept tilting at windmills and megafauna carcasses as his DC empire disappeared), but it’ll give a sense of the horrifying spectacle.

(Topsy, it should be noted, was being put down as a danger and not strictly for kicks.)

Elephants? Horses? Dogs?

How about a human?

With the New York legislature’s embrace of Southwick’s seated voltage people-eater, Edison turned his PR gears on the state, demanding they adopt his competitor’s “deadlier” current for the contraption. And they did, reflecting a widespread belief inculcated by Edison’s experiments — as this New York Times article on an Edison crony’s public livestock-killing show in the days leading up to the advent of the electrocution law indicates:

The experiments proved the alternating current to be the most deadly force known to science, and that less than half the pressure used in this city for electric lighting by this system is sufficient to cause instant death.

After Jan. 1 the alternating current will undoubtedly drive the hangmen out of business in this State.

Too bad for Edison that the business he was really trying to kill was made of sturdier stuff.

The Alcoholic Vegetable Merchant

As the 1880′s wane, we come at last to our subject — in several senses of the term — an illiterate nobody of German stock who chanced to kill his common-law wife with just the right timing to join in a new kind of experiment.

William Kemmler mounted a “cruel and unusual punishment” appeal against his sentence funded by Westinghouse himself: no dice. Perhaps appreciating the odd foothold on history he was about to attain, he showed little worry as he entered the execution room and sat himself — “undoubtedly the coolest man in the room,” a journalist present reported.

The End of the Beginning

That reporter’s description for the New York Herald graphically captures humanity’s first horrible encounter with this “humanitarian” machine, beginning with the prisoner’s parting remarks.*

Doubtless he knew that his words will go down in history and he had his lesson well learned. He addressed his audience [in] a commonplace way and without hesitation.

“Well, gentleman, I wish everyone good luck in this world, and I think I am going to a good place, and the papers have been sa[yi]ng a lot of stuff that isn’t so. That’s all I have to say.”

And so with a parting shot at what he was good enough to refer to not long ago as “those d—d reporters,” William Kemmler took his leave of earth. The quiet demeanor of the man as he entered had made a strong impression on those in the room. His self-possession after his oratorical effort simply amazed them. He got up out of his chair as though he were anxious to try the experiment, not as though he courted death, but as though he was thoroughly prepared for it. …

There was no delay. Kemmler constantly encouraged the workers at the straps with “Take your time; don’t be in a hurry; do it well; be sure everything is all right.” He did not speak with any nervous apprehension.

Warden Durston leaned over, drawing the buckle of the straps about the arm. “It won’t hurt you, Bill,” he said, “I’ll be with you all the time.”

A minute later Kemmler said, “There’s plenty of time.” He said it as calmly as the conductor of a streetcar might have encouraged a passenger not to hurry.

Kemmler was pinioned so close that he could hardly have moved a muscle except those of his mouth.

The Warden took a last look at the straps. “This is all right,” he said.

“All right,” said Dr. Spitzka, and then bent over and said, “God bless you, Kemmler.”

“Thank you,” said the little man, quietly.

“Ready?” Said the Warden.

“Ready,” answered the doctors.

“Goodbye,” said the Warden to Kemmler. There was no response.

GAVE THE SIGNAL.

The Warden stepped to the door leading into the next room. It was then forty-three and one-half minutes past six o’clock by the prison clock. “Everything is ready,” said the Warden to some one hidden from view in the next room.

The answer came like a flash in the sudden convulsion that went over the frame of the chair. If it seemed rigid before under the influence of the straps, [it] was doubly so now has it strained against them.

The seconds ticked off. Dr. McDonald, who was holding the stopwatch, said “Stop.”

Two voices near him echoed, “Stop.”

The Warden stepped to the door of the next room and repeated the word “Stop.”

As the syllable [passed] his lips the forehead of the man in the chair [grew] dark [in] color, while his nose, or so much of it as was exposed, appeared a dark red.

There was very little apparent relaxation of the body, however. [A] fly lighted on the nose and walked about unconcernedly. The witnesses drew nearer to the chair.

“He’s dead,” said Spitzka, authoritatively.

“Oh, yes, he’s dead,” said McDonald.

“You’ll notice,” said Spitzka, “the post-mortem appearance of the nose immediately. There is that remarkable change that cannot be mistaken for anything else, that remarkable appearance of the nose.”

The other doctors nodded [assent]. They looked at the body critically for a minute and then Spitzka said, ["]oh, undo that now. The body can be taken to the hospital.”

“Well, I can’t let you gentlemen out of here until I have your certificates,” said the Warden.

FOUND SIGNS OF LIFE.

It was while this businesslike conversation was going on that Dr. Balch made a discovery.

“McDonald,” he cried, “McDonald, look at that rupture,” he pointed at the abrasion of the skin on Kemmler’s right thumb. In the contraction of the muscles the figurehead[?] scraped against it and removed the skin, and from that little [wound] blood was flowing-[an] almost certain indication of life.

A low cry of horror went through the assemblage.

“[Turn] on the current,” excitedly cried Dr. Spitzka. “This man is not dead.”

The crowd fell back from the chair, as though they were in danger. The Warden sprang into the closed door and pounded on it with his hand.

“Start the current!” he cried. As he spoke of fluid began to drop from Kemmler’s mouth and to run down his beard; a groaning sound came from his lips, repeated and growing louder each time.

It seemed [an] age before the card was again turned on. In fact it was just seventy-three seconds from the end of the first contact when the first sound was heard to issue from Kemmler’s lips, and it was not more than a half [minute] before the card was again turned on.

RECOVERING CONSCIOUSNESS.

But every second to that time the horrible sound from those groaning lips was becoming more distinct, [a straining] of the chest against the leather harness stronger and more evident.

The man was coming to life. The spectators grew faint and sick. [Men] who had stood over dead and dying [men] and had cut [men] to pieces without an emotion [grew] pale and turned their heads away.

One witness was forced to lie down while one of the doctors fanned him.

But [the end] came at last. There was another convulsion of the body, and … it became rigid with the rigidity of iron.

“That man wasn’t dead,” cried Spitzka excitedly. As he spoke the body twitched again. The electrician had given the current gain new alternation and now 2,000 volts [were] playing in short, successive shocks down Kemmler spine. The sound ceased with the first convulsion, but the fluid continued to trip from the mouth and down the beard, making the body a sickening spectacle.

“Keep it on now until he’s killed,” said one of the doctors. …

“Keep it on! Keep it on!” Cried Warden Durston through the door.

Silence reigned for a moment. A bell without began to [toll] solemnly. …

BURNED BY THE CURRENT.

Then from the chair came a sizzling sound, as of [meat] cooking on hand. Following it immediately a billow of smoke came from the body and filled the air of the room with the odor of burning hair.

There was a cry from all the members of the little group, and Warden Durston cried through the door leading to the next room to [turn] the current off.

(Also of interest: the New York Times‘ (non-eyewitness) report on the affair.)

More shocking — so to speak — papers ran the next day’s headline “Kemmler Westinghoused,” the verb “to Westinghouse” being another shameless Edisonian bid to stamp his marketing project onto the Queen’s English. This fine, rounded, archaic neologism the right sports anchor could resuscitate as a fresh synonym for thrashing, horsewhipping, poleaxing, or else (in greater justice) for moderation and decency as the only principal in the sordid affair that rejected death-dealing by electricity.

(Officially, Edison also opposed the death penalty. Like Dr. Guillotin, he was doing his part for humanity in the meantime … just with a little skin in the game. Did we mention the business of America is business?)

Westinghouse, for his own part, thought the Kemmler debacle would nip the electric chair in the bud, and he was scarcely the only one.

Official reviews for the “art of killing by electricity” were, ahem, mixed.

“They could have done better with an axe.”**
-George Westinghouse

“Strong men fainted and fell like logs on the floor.”
-New York Herald

“Revolting … a disgrace to civilization.”
-New York Times

“We live in a higher civilization from this day on.”
-Alfred Southwick

Books (remarkably numerous!) about the creation of the electric chair

It should, in fairness, be noted that the U.S. was not the only country (pdf) to mull an electrocution chair in the 19th century … but it was (and for a long time remained) the only one to actually use one.

* The Herald excerpt, along with several other articles from the same paper about the Kemmler execution, is here, but the text has obviously been generated from a scan with uneven results. As I do not have access to the originals, [bracketed] remarks in the excerpt indicate this author’s own interpretations or interpolations of seemingly mistaken transcriptions.

** Some sources make it “would have done better with an axe.”

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Language,Mature Content,Milestones,Murder,New York,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Pelf,Popular Culture,USA

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27 Responses to “1890: William Kemmler, only in America”

  1. 1
    ExecutedToday.com » 1924: Gee Jon, debuting the gas chamber Says:

    [...] The first great American contribution — if you can call it that — to the the art of killing me softly was the electric chair, and its debut did not impress everyone. [...]

  2. 2
    ExecutedToday.com » 1997: Pedro Medina, en flambe Says:

    [...] did not want his Direct Current (DC) form associated with the gruesome business of death — a sordid chapter in the history of public relations. The first execution was carried out in New York State in 1890, [...]

  3. 3
    ExecutedToday.com » 1972: The rapists of Maggie dela Riva Says:

    [...] The Philippines adopted use of the electric chair in the early 20th century from the U.S., its colonial ruler at the time. It’s the only country besides the United States to have used [...]

  4. 4
    ExecutedToday.com » 1987: Jimmy Glass, electrocution appellant Says:

    [...] that point the country’s prevailing method of execution despite its medieval reputation for grisly botches, remained a constitutional method of inflicting [...]

  5. 5
    ExecutedToday.com » 1901: Leon Czolgosz, William McKinley’s assassin Says:

    [...] now-doomed project of discrediting Alternating Current, a business rivalry that had helped introduce the electric chair in the first place, I have been unable to determine; the Edison labs produced a number of silent [...]

  6. 6
    ExecutedToday.com » Daily Double: Throwback Executions Says:

    [...] in the Republic’s youth, before science started devising less personal, more mechanical ways to kill. In fact, these executions on consecutive days in 1996 are as of this writing the last time [...]

  7. 7
    ExecutedToday.com » 1879: Three botches in three states Says:

    [...] 16th, 2010 Headsman America’s weird love-affair with Frankenstein execution technology has been an occasional theme on this blog, but the fact is that the old-school [...]

  8. 8
    ExecutedToday.com » 1927: Sacco and Vanzetti (and Celestino Madeiros) Says:

    [...] have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to throw the [...]

  9. 9
    ExecutedToday.com » 1923: Nathan Lee, the last public hanging in Texas Says:

    [...] indeed been hangings administered by county sheriffs. But that newfangled killing technology, the electric chair, beguiled the legislature here as elsewhere. Oil wells popping up all over the state were rewriting [...]

  10. 10
    ExecutedToday.com » 1924: Frank Johnson, the first electrocuted in Florida Says:

    [...] “Old Sparky” (numerous electric chairs shared this nickname) was brand new here in the Roaring Twenties, a jerry-built contraption outfitted with “homemade accessories” to replace the icky old gallows with a brave new world’s brave new mankiller. [...]

  11. 11
    ExecutedToday.com » 1891: Four to save the electric chair Says:

    [...] its famously inauspicious debut the previous summer, this date in 1891 marked the second, third, fourth and fifth uses of New [...]

  12. 12
    ExecutedToday.com » 1915: Charles Becker Says:

    [...] used to execute a man in August 1890. The victim on that occasion had been an axe-murderer named William Kemmler, who was accidentally subjected to ‘a far more powerful current than was necessary’ and [...]

  13. 13
    ExecutedToday.com » 1941: Eugene Johnson, the first electrocuted in Louisiana Says:

    [...] this date in 1941, the U.S. state of Louisiana joined the 20th century (or at least the late 19th) with its first [...]

  14. 14
    ExecutedToday.com » 1916: Mary the Elephant Says:

    [...] But how? They couldn’t shoot Mary to death — she apparently survived gunshots from the vengeful crowd in the immediate aftermath of the trampling; firearms just didn’t pack the wallop to put down a pachyderm in 1916. The area didn’t have the sort of electrical juice available that Thomas Edison had once used to drop a circus elephant during his weird campaign for the electric chair. [...]

  15. 15
    Reason 488,394,568 Wild Animals Should Not Perform In Circuses | Crasstalk Says:

    [...] have the electrical power available that Thomas Edison had once used to slay an elephant “during his weird campaign for the electric chair” (something I didn’t know or want to know about [...]

  16. 16
    ExecutedToday.com » 1903: Willis, Frederick, and Burton van Wormer Says:

    [...] On this date in 1903, an“unusual if not unprecedented” execution occurred when three brothers died one after the other in the Sing Sing electric chair. [...]

  17. 17
    Edison vs. Westinghouse: A Shocking Rivalry | Past Imperfect Says:

    [...] New York State sentenced convicted murderer William Kemmler to death, he was slated to become the first man to be executed in an electric chair. Killing [...]

  18. 18
    Shocking vocabulary | Vaguely Interesting Says:

    [...] the end, the first person to be executed by the electric chair was WilliamKemmler in New York’s Auburn Prison on August 6, 1890. The “stateelectrician”, taking the [...]

  19. 19
    ExecutedToday.com » Feast Day of Santa Barbara Says:

    [...] protecting against lightning storms might qualify Barbara for safekeeping people sentenced to die in the electric chair: maybe she saved Willie [...]

  20. 20
    Edison vs. Westinghouse: A Shocking Rivalry « ArtoftheSTEM Says:

    [...] New York State sentenced convicted murderer William Kemmler to death, he was slated to become the first man to be executed in an electric chair. Killing [...]

  21. 21
    Mike Says:

    Love the title “only in America” the loser who wrote this article should do a little research about executions. The electric chair is Micky mouse compaired to the suffering every other country has done. (except for the US, which has never used any of these methods) France, Britain.. all of Europe for that matter executed hundreds of thousands by horrendous means that you were alive for 90% of. let’s see…Burning at the stake, drawn and quartered, disembowelment, four winds, garroted, (sure you will have to look that one up cause you apearently did no research) beheading, hanging, streching, pressed to death, stoning, impaling at the stake, boiled alive, 1000 cuts, bleeding, wrapped in bag and thrown into a river, and a thousand other ways, and you dare to criticize the electric chair that every neurologist has said in afidavits renders anyone unconcious is 1/240th part of 1 second 24 times faster than the brain can process pain. What a joke of a site!

  22. 22
    ExecutedToday.com » 1936: Allen Foster, who fought Joe Louis Says:

    [...] the arrival of the electric chair, the South adopted it virtually across the board; North Carolina had switched [...]

  23. 23
    ExecutedToday.com » 1952: Chester Gregg Says:

    [...] bromide-potassium chloride sequence at the request of legislators looking for a less unpleasant alternative to that ubiquitous 20th century contraption, the electric chair. (That’s also how [...]

  24. 24
    1821: Timothy Bennett, duelist | Says:

    [...] recapping the Land of Lincoln’s hanging history on the occasion of its trendy switch to the electric chair. Hanging has been the legal method of execution in the state of Illinois for 106 years, the first [...]

  25. 25
    ExecutedToday.com » Executioner-in-Chief: a tour of U.S. Presidents and the death penalty Says:

    [...] Late 19th century America is an age of weak and forgettable presidents, although the march of science continued apace and American ingenuity gave birth to the electric chair. [...]

  26. 26
    ExecutedToday.com » 1913: Floyd and Claude Allen, for the Carroll County courthouse massacre Says:

    [...] why not? From corn-shucking to the twisted family honor to the electric chair, every pore oozed Americana. Even a young woman who was described as “a mountain girl” [...]

  27. 27
    ExecutedToday.com » Themed Set: Old New York Says:

    [...] with us now to a bygone New York State, before the days when it pioneered the electric chair, before the days when it was the world oligarchy capital — back when high crime in New York [...]

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