July 7th, 2011 Headsman
After its famously inauspicious debut the previous summer, this date in 1891 marked the second, third, fourth and fifth uses of New York’s pioneering electric chair.
Having grotesquely botched its maiden execution of William Kemmler, there was a considerable sentiment to retire the electric chair immediately.
The second round of “electrocutions” — 19th century papers still put this then-neologism in quotes — were closely watched as an
acidelectric test of the chair’s staying-power. If these men burned to death, slowly and horribly, as Kemmler had, that might have been it. And had New York reverted to hanging or moved on to lethal injection,* the chair’s subsequent adoption by other states and its journey into the iconic popular culture would likely have been aborted.
But, they fixed up the chair, tested it on some more large animals, and moved the electrode combination from head+spine to head+leg … and voila!
There was nothing about the executions of the horrible nature that shocked the country when Kemmler was made the first victim of the law. If the testimony of a score of witnesses is to be believed, the executions demonstrated the use of electricity for public executions to be practical whether or not it is humane. While the Kemmler butchery, with all its terrible details cannot be forgotten, against that one awful failure the advocates of the law now point with unconcealed pride to four “successes.”
-New York Times, July 8, 1891
“Unconcealed” pride would be an interesting choice for these advocates, since these prophets of brave new death technology had themselves feared a calamitous failure of their apparatus as much as anybody — well, as much as anybody except the condemned.
every witness of the execution was made to pledge himself in writing never to reveal any detail of it unless requested to do so by the authorities. No newspaper representative was admitted. As THE TIMES has repeatedly stated, it was the intention of the advocates of the law to keep the public from knowing anything about these executions … Therefore, Gov. Hill** and his henchman, Warden Brown, made up their minds that these experiments with the law should not go before the public as anything else than successes, and they packed the jury accordingly with picked men.
The Times dilates considerably in this vein; ever the helpful courtier, it is concerned principally that the state’s orchestrated public relations campaign would have had more credibility had the successful executions been witnessed by third parties who have newspapers to sell. You know?
But … if only the state’s handpicked friendly witnesses were allowed to see what went down, do we actually know that it wasn’t another dog’s breakfast? The July 8, 1891 London Times — for the executions had a global audience — cobbled together a less reassuring wire report.
There are, however, many conflicting statements current as to what actually occurred, and it is extremely difficult to discriminate as to which are true and which are false … Dr. Daniels, one of the witnesses of the executions this morning, said, in an interview this afternoon, that he might tell a great deal about the affair if he were not bound to silence. He added that the Kemmler scene was practically repeated in each case, there having been two shocks given to each of the condemned men. The truth, Dr. Daniels said, would make a thrilling story.
If Dr. Daniels actually said anything like that, someone got this electric chair proponent rewrite (pdf) pretty quickly.
I was misquoted. I simply said that if I were at liberty to give a detailed account of the scenes in the death chamber the public would no doubt be interested in knowing that the executions had been a pronounced success.
You could totally see how the guy would say “pronounced success”, and this British rag would hear, “the Kemmler scene was practically repeated in each case.” Separated by a common language and all that.
For the record, the chair salvaged itself upon these unfortunates:
James Slocum, for murdering his wife
Levy Smiler, for murdering his mistress
Joseph Wood, for murdering a fellow-laborer
Shibuya Jugiro, a Japanese seaman, for murdering one of his comrades
History has all but forgotten them … save that their deaths were officially ruled a great technological triumph, sufficient to rescue “the chair” from abortive 19th century penal cul-de-sac and set it on its way to becoming a pop culture icon.
* The modern-seeming method of lethal injection was actually one of the options vetted to replace the rope in the 1880s.
** Hill at this time was flirting with a presidential run, which ultimately didn’t happen: he won a Senate seat instead.
Also on this date
- 1730: Olivier Levasseur, "La Buse"
- 1285: Tile Kolup, pretender
- 1896: Charles Thomas Wooldridge, of The Ballad of Reading Gaol
- 1865: Four for Abraham Lincoln's assassination
Entry Filed under: 19th Century,20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA