JOHANNESBURG, Oct. 28. The Rand Daily Mail, in an article dealing with the economic situation of the Union, gives striking figures illustrating the steady advance of the gold industry on the march towards prosperity.
Profits for the July-September quarter show an increase of £1,136,000 over the previous quarter. This has been accomplihed not only by lowering wages, but by all-round improvement in efficiency per unit, mining costs having fallen from 25s. 8d. in 1921 to 20s. 5d. in September, 1922 …
[T]he Rand Daily Mail says that these facts “represent unmistakable omens of coming prosperity which should steel the downhearted farmer to greater effort and encourage the suffering industrialist throughout the Union, and transform the pessimism of the merchant into healthy confident and hope.” (London Times, Oct. 30, 1922)
THREE RAND EXECUTIONS.
(From our correspondent.)
JOHANNESBURG, Nov. 17. The bitterest feeling prevails among the workers over the refusal to reprieve the three men, Long, Hull, and Lewis, who were condemned to death for murder in connexion with the Rand revolt, and were executed at Pretoria to-day.
Appeals for mercy poured in till almost the last moment, and an open-air mass meeting was held, in which prominent Communists took part. At this meeting angry and threatening speeches were made; the names of General Smuts and Sir Lionel Phillips were boohed, and the crowd attempted to break into the Town Hall, severely injured a detective, and was finally dispersed by armed police. The public generally approves the Government’s firmness. The condemned men sang the Red Flag on the scaffold. (London Times, Nov. 18, 1922)
“Come dungeons dark or gallows grim the sun will be our parting hymn.”
FUNERAL OF RAND MURDERERS.
COMMUNIST APPEAL TO CHILDREN.
(From our correspondent.)
JOHANNESBURG, Nov. 19. Remarkable scenes recalling the funeral of the victims of the great strike of 1913 were witnessed at the burial of the remains of Long, Lewis, and Hull, who were executed on Friday. The coffins, in separate hearses, were followed by thousands of workers, with banners and regalia, representing every trade union. “The Red Flag” was sung at the graveside and addresses were delivered, in which members of Parliament, of the Provincial Council, and Town Councils participated.
The latest development of Communist propaganda in Johannesburg is the distribution broadcast among children and students as they are leaving their schools and colleges of a pamphlet denouncing as “legalized murder and a blot on history” the execution of the men convicted of murder at special treason courts. (London Times, Nov. 20, 1922)
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.
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.”
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.
Brown 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.
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.
Though worth billions (or at least hundreds of millions), Yuan went down over the trivial sum of $9 million — the amount he reckoned a business associate had taken by fraud.
But then, it’s always impolite to count the corpses stuffed into the pillars of capital. The surprise here is that Yuan got caught: he’d hired a dirty cop to kill that business partner, but after the plot failed the cop started blackmailing the tycoon. Yuan responded by hiring his brother and cousin to pop the cop.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?)
Official reviews for the “art of killing by electricity” were, ahem, mixed.
“They could have done better with an axe.”**
“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.”
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.”