1888: One Newfoundland, for Thomas Alva Edison

5 comments July 30th, 2013 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1888, a 76-pound Newfoundland was electrocuted before a crowd in a lecture hall at the Columbia College School of Mines (now the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University) in New York City. The pooch was an innocent bystander who’d fallen victim to the War of Currents between Thomas Edison and his electrical adversary, George Westinghouse.

Edison was a proponent of direct current (DC), where the electricity flows in one direction from source to receiver. Westinghouse, one the other hand, favored AC, alternating current, where the electrical current will reverse direction from time to time and electricity doesn’t flow from the source to the receiver so much as in between them.

In the late 1800s, as electrical systems were spreading all over America, Westinghouse’s company and Edison’s company were duking it out as to which system would prevail over the other. Westinghouse’s AC, being far more efficient, was usually the system of choice for providing electricity to houses, businesses and streetlights, which was where most of the profits lay. (DC was better for things like batteries.)

Desperate to hold onto eroding market share, Edison saw an opportunity to do Westinghouse dirty when New York State adopted the electric chair as their means of execution. Some notable botches had rendered hanging unpalatable, but industrial electrification was still such a newfangled concept that at the time the law was passed, the chair had yet to be built. Edison figured that a propaganda blitz to make sure the device used AC would help convince the public that the rival current was too deadly to be used in private homes and city streets.

Edison hired Harold P. Brown to help him in his campaign to prove AC’s dangerousness: which brings us to this day’s event, as described in Craig Brandon’s detailed book The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History.

In private experiments, Brown and his assistant, Arthur E. Kennelly, “attached electrodes to dozens of stray dogs and tried various combinations of volts and amperes before announcing that it took only 300 volts of alternating current to kill a dog, but 1,000 volts of direct current.”


Seriously?*

Satisfied that they were ready to go public, Brown scheduled a demonstration at Columbia on July 30, inviting electricians, scientists and the press to watch. Kennelly and Dr. Frederick Peterson, a member of the Medico-Legal Society of New York, assisted him.

Book CoverBrown opened his demonstration by insisting that he had been drawn into the controversy not out of any self-interest but because of his concern that alternating current was too dangerous to be used on city streets. He denied charges that he was in the pay of any electric light company and had “no financial or commercial interest” in the results of his experiments. Of course, the fact that he was using Edison’s equipment and was assisted by Edison’s chief of research spoke of itself.

Brown then brought in the first experimental subject: a 76-pound Newfoundland dog in a metal cage. The dog had been muzzled and had electrodes attached to one foreleg and one hind leg.


SERIOUSLY?! (cc) image from DanDee Shots.

Brown connected the dog to the DC generator that Edison had loaned him and starting with 300 volts gradually increased the voltage to 1,000 volts. As the voltage increased, the observers noted, the dog’s yelping increased but it remained alive.

Having proven the safety of DC current, Brown disconnected the suffering animal from the DC generator and connected it to the AC generator with the remark, “We shall make him feel better.” (No word on whether he was twirling his mustache as he said so.)

Brown turned the voltage to 330, and the dog collapsed and died instantly.

The viewers were impressed, but Brown wasn’t done yet and brought in another dog. He said he was going to connect this one to the AC generator first. This, he said, would prove that the animal didn’t die because the shocks from the DC generator had weakened it.

Before he could accomplish this, however, an agent from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals arrived and asked Brown to stop the experiment and spare the poor dog’s life. It took some convincing, but in the end Brown agreed to stay of execution. The second dog would die another day.

Although the regular newspapers loved this bit of theater, the trade magazine The Electrical Engineer claimed the experiment was unscientific. The magazine offered a terrible little poem about the proceedings:

The dog stood in the lattice box,
The wires around him led,
He knew not that electric shocks
So soon would strike him dead…
At last there came a deadly bolt,
The dog, O where was he?
Three hundred alternating volts,
Had burst his vicerae

Although the ASPCA might have brought his first experiment to a premature end, Brown was not deterred. He toured New York State for months, giving dog and pony shows before fascinated crowds, where he would electrocute cats, cows, calves, and well, dogs and ponies, using both direct and alternating currents. He paid young boys twenty-five cents apiece to round up stray animals to get fried.

The public watched — but wasn’t fooled, and continued to use alternating currents. Even the 1890 execution of William Kemmler in New York’s brand-spanking new AC electric chair failed to convince anyone that they were going to drop dead if they installed AC electricity in their homes. (Brown helped design the chair.) AC won the War of Currents hands-down.

The poor Newfoundland, having laid down its small life for the greater prosperity of Edison’s investors, died, unmourned, in vain.

* This shock-a-dog diagram is from “Death-Current Experiments at the Edison Laboratory,” an article that Harold Brown published in the New York Medico-Legal Journal, vol. 6, issue 4. He remarks therein, just by the by, on alternating current’s “life-destroying qualities,” and how the august committee carrying out these electrocutions “were not a little startled when I told of them results of recent tests for leakage made by me not long since on the circuit of one of the alternating current stations in this city.” Brown was, he said, indebted to “Mr. Thos. A. Edison, through whose kindness I was allowed the use of apparatus.”

As noted, the thorough Brown put said apparatus to use on a variety of fauna. In the interest of science, he also includes in this same article diagrams on the electrocution of a calf and a horse; we enclose them here for your edification.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Animals,Borderline "Executions",Electrocuted,Guest Writers,History,Innocent Bystanders,New York,No Formal Charge,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions,USA

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1888: Hugh Mottram Brooks, for the Trunk Murder

2 comments August 10th, 2011 Headsman

Entomb your mate in a trunk and the Show-Me State will hoist your neck on a rope: Hugh Mottram Brooks found that out on this date in 1888.

This story had made worldwide headlines within hours of the time an employee at St. Louis’s Southern Hotel had opened the door to a guest bedroom emitting a horrible stench and discovered a corpse stuffed in a trunk.


Headline of the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, April 15, 1885. The story occupied the entire front page.

The remains, in life, had belonged to Charles Arthur Preller, an English traveling salesman who had been hanging about the hotel with his impecunious countryman, Brooks.

Those two had been understood on the premises to have been involved, in the Oscar Wilde sense. But the spark for homicide was mere avarice.

The dramatic note left pinned to the late Preller — “so perish all traitors to the great cause” — was almost immediately deemed a red herring, and suspicion descended on Preller’s recent companion, who had absconded with our dead salesman’s money.

A global manhunt pursued the fugitive, who was found to have fled to San Francisco and thence overseas; he was soon arrested in Auckland and extradited back to face a sensational trial — which, by the by, entailed disinterring the corpse to search it for evidence that it had been catheterized. (It hadn’t, and this rubbished the defendant’s alibi that he’d accidentally killed the guy while consensually chloroforming him in the course of a bit of home medicine.)

The wonderful 19th century crime site Murder by Gaslight covers this case and Brooks’s futile defense in meticulous detail. Aptly enough, the Trunk Murderer didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Brooks hanged along with another murderer, Henry Landgraff. The British government did make diplomatic representations on its citizen’s behalf, but they were ignored — prosecutors retorting that London had recently given short shrift to American citizen Patrick O’Donnell.

Part of the Themed Set: Branded.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Missouri,Murder,Pelf,USA

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1888: Prado, before Gauguin

4 comments December 28th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1888, “Prado” — also known as “Count Linska de Castillon”; he never copped to his real identity — was beheaded as a thief and murderer at Paris.

The trial of this intrepid criminal promised, in the London Times‘ Nov. 6, 1888 preview, to be “one of the most extraordinary of our times”

He [Prado] is a Spaniard, and was brought up at Gijon, but he refused to say who he was. When 14 years of age he visited Mozambique, India, China, California, the West Indies, and North America. In 1872 he was a sub-lieutenant in the Carlist bands. He then lived by his wits. He once crossed the French frontier and stole 8,000f. At the battle of Somorrostro he was wounded by a shell, and removed to a hospital, from which he enticed the sister of the Order of Saint Vincent de Paul who nursed him. She belonged to one of the first families in England. He married her, and with her visited the Holy Land, but her health failed, and she died on their return to Italy. Prado says he married a second wife at Lima, with a dowry of 1,200,000f., and that after her death he committed many daring robberies.

He’s the most interesting man in the world.

This vagabond upon the overgrown lost highways of fortune eventually ditched wife #2 in penury in Spain and proceeded to France where he mooched off a local girl and her absentee American sugar daddy, until one night he slashed the throat a dame named Marie Aguetant, the lover of a late-working croupier, and plundered their domicile of chattels.

Prado eluded capture for some time, keeping his lover, taking another — both of whom ended up in the dock with their insolent Don Juan, along with various male intimates in various aspects of accesorizing. None of those others drew a death sentence, but as the interest of the London Times suggests — it fronted near-daily trial dispatches from Paris — all this stuff about cabals of swarthy men ravishing women of their virtue and their valuables made global news.

It also moved Third Republic bodice-ripping true crime like this zippy little volume, “Prado ou Le Tueur de Filles,” with a copyright notice as late as 1931.

A savage crime by a strange character, but now that it’s long departed all living memory, it scarcely stands out. Legion are the lotharios who have slain for the pedestrian motivation of gold.

In a post-bourgeois order, “we will no longer see men like Pranzini, Prado, Berland, Anastay and others who kill in order to have this metal,” the French terrorist Ravachol‘s suppressed address to the courtroom declared in 1892. “The cause of all crimes is always the same, and you have to be foolish not to see this.”

Yes, I repeat it: it is society that makes criminals and you, jury members, instead of striking you should use your intelligence and your strength to transform society. In one fell swoop you’ll suppress all crime. And your work, in attacking causes, will be greater and more fruitful than your justice, which belittles itself in punishing its effects.

-Ravachol


Just a few days before this headline-grabbing execution, impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh undertook the most famous thing he ever did off-canvas: after his latest dispute with roommate and fellow-artist Paul Gauguin, van Gogh sliced off his own left earlobe.*

It was in this abnormal circumstance that Gauguin, fresh to Paris fleeing from the scene of the self-mutilation in Arles, attended Prado’s beheading, even forcing his way through a line of gendarmes to obtain a closer view.

“[H]e may have had the counterphobic desire to reassure himself of his courage by taking an unflinching look at Prado’s execution,” writes Bradley Collins. “Gauguin may have identified with both the executioner and his victim. On the one hand, by watching the state kill a man, he could vicariously release some of his pent-up aggression toward Vincent. On the other, by identifying with Prado he could vicariously atone for the guilt he felt about precipitating Vincent’s breakdown and abandoning [Arles].”

Aptly for Gauguin’s personal demons, the guillotine managed to botch this job, too — giving Prado a non-fatal facial injury and requiring the now-wounded condemned to be repositioned for another chop.

All this pate-slashing sure seems to have found its way into Gauguin’s next creation:


Gauguin’s grotesque “Jug in the form of a Head, Self-Portrait”. “Within one work, he has become both the bloody, earless Vincent [Van Gogh] and the guillotined Prado.” –Collins

* Latter-day revisionist hypothesis: Gauguin actually cut off van Gogh’s ear in a fight, but both painters kept to a cover story to keep everyone out of trouble. That version would only thicken the psychological stew for Gauguin’s pilgrimage to the guillotine and subsequent “self-portrait”.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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1888: Pauline McCoy

1 comment October 12th, 2009 Headsman

The Daily Picayune, October 13, 1888 (page 3).

ALABAMA.

MONTGOMERY.

Execution of Pauline McCoy, the First Woman Hanged in Alabama Since the War — She Murdered a Little Girl for Her Clothes.

MONTGOMERY, Oct. 12 — [Special.] — Pauline McCoy, colored, who was hanged at Union Springs at 1 o’clock for the murder of Annie Jordan, white, last February, was the third woman hanged in Alabama since its incorporation as a state and the first since the war.

On the scaffold the woman broke down completely and had to be supported on the trap by two deputy sheriffs. She had not eaten anything for a day or two and was kept up by the use of stimulants. She admitted having killed the girl in her last speech, but denied that her motive was robbery.

The crime for which the woman was hanged had not its equal in the whole criminal history of Alabama. Her victim had strayed away from her home in this city, being demented, and meeting Pauline down the railroad asked her to accompany her.

That was the last seen of Annie, the 14-year-old child, until her dead body was discovered in a plum thicket near the roadside several days after. Pauline was seen in Union Springs a few days later wearing the shoes, hat and jacket belonging to her victim. She was arrested and said under oath that her father, Jake McCoy, killed the girl and brought the clothes home. At the preliminary trial Jake was discharged and Pauline committed. On her third trial in August she was found guilty and sentenced to be hung, which sentence was faithfully carried out to-day.

Indefatigable crime blogger Laura James has some unanswered — unanswerable — questions about the case. The Daily Picayune had supplied a scanty few additional details from Pauline’s supposed jailhouse confession a few weeks before (September 5, 1888):

Pauline McCoy, the young negro woman who was recently convicted in the circuit court of Bullock county of the murder of Miss Annie Jordan, a demented young white woman who wandered from her home in Montgomery county last spring, has made a full confession of the crime to the jail physician at Union Springs. The murder was committed near [indistinguishable]. Pauline says she and Annie Jordan had a quarrel, and that she choked the young woman to death and concealed the dead body in the bushes. The murderess is sentenced to death on the scaffold on the 18th [sic?] of October.

According to the Espy file (pdf) of American historical executions, Alabama had last executed a woman in 1864 — she was a slave — and would not do so again until Silena Gilmore rode the lightning for murder on January 24, 1930. Over 250 men were put to death during the 41-year span between the two milestone murderesses.

(Only three additional women have been executed in the Yellowhammer State since Gilmore.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Alabama,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,USA,Women

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