1872: John Barclay

Add comment October 4th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1872, John Barclay hanged in Ohio for murder — and was almost reanimated for science.

Barclay was a late-twenties knockabout of the area whom the Cincinnati Enquirer judged “does not look the diabolical murderer he is charged to be.” (“except his eyes”: from the May 23, 1872 edition, as are the subsequent quotes in this section)

Charles Garner, his victim, was a livestock merchant who specialized in supplying the Columbus butchers. On November 28, 1871, Garner headed out of Columbus rich with cash from a successful business trip. Barclay knew both Garner and the butcher with whom he was transacting business, one J.B. Rusk, and had hung about with them during the day — even holding open the bank door as Garner entered to cash Rusk’s check.

In the evening, hearing that Garner was about to depart, Barclay ducked into a nearby general store, inquired about buying a hatchet, and not being able to find a suitable one, settled for buying a yellow-handled hammer instead. Then he apparently hopped on the back of Garner’s wagon just as it set out, where a great heap of merchandise obscured him from the driver’s view.

Four miles out of town, at a bridge over Alum Creek, Barclay presented himself to his unknowing chauffeur and bludgeoned him with the hammer, “crushing in the skull so that the brain was exposed” — then fled on foot, having relieved the victim of several hundred dollars. The mortally wounded Garner somehow managed to drive the wagon to a house two miles further down the road, where he died five days later. A surgeon who attended him later testified that “brain, matter and blood [were] issuing from head and nose … a portion of forehead was an open wound; a portion of the brain was broken in and a portion lost.” Barclay would eventually confess the crime.


A most unusual postscript was appended to the execution of the hanging sentence.

Barclay willed his body to the benefit of the Starling Medical College in town, and there a local high school teacher named Thomas Corwin Mendenhall subjected it to the Frankensteinish jolts of a galvanic battery.

The dream, of course, was to reanimate the corpse altogether — although a history mused that the Supreme Court judges who also took enough interest to attend the experiment “might have to pass upon the uncanny question of Barclay’s legal status as a living person who had already suffered the death penalty.”*

Barclay hanged at 11:49 a.m.; by 12:23 p.m., his flesh was on the table under Mendenhall’s probes. Notwithstanding the dispatch of the scientists they did not accomplish his resuscitation, although the Cincinnati Commercial (Oct. 5, 1872) reported some ghoulish simulations of life:

The first test was on the spine. This caused the eyes to open, the left hand to become elevated, and the fingers to move, as if grasping for something. The hand finally fell, resting on the breast. The battery was then applied to the nerves on the face and neck, which caused the muscles of the face to move as in life. The test was next applied to the phrenic nerve of the left arm, and afterward to the sciatic nerve.

The next year, Mendenhall was hired as a physics instructor by the new Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College in Columbus: while he would go on to a varied and widely-traveled career in the sciences, Mendenhall has the distinction of being the very first faculty member at the institution known today as Ohio State University, and the namesake of its Mendenhall Laboratory building. (Starling Medical College, site of the galvanic experiments, would also be absorbed into OSU’s college of medicine.)

* It ain’t like they’d be the only ones to ever confront that difficulty.

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1793: Jean-Jacques Ampère, father of a savant, for Joseph Chalier

2 comments November 22nd, 2013 Amelia Fedo

(Thanks to Amelia Fedo, a graduate student in French literature, for the guest post.)

He didn’t know it yet, but on this date in 1793, a brilliant adolescent named André-Marie Ampère lost his father to the guillotine. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because it would eventually become the SI unit of electrical current.

Andre-Marie Ampere, one of the founding pioneers of electromagnetism (Ampere called the new field “electrodynamics”) lost his father to the French Revolution’s guillotines.

The father in question was Jean-Jacques Ampère, an intelligent and levelheaded man whose sense of duty outweighed his instincts of self-preservation.

He was determined to do every job he had to the best of his ability — whether the task was educating a son or discharging the office of justice of the peace — and this diligence cost him his life.

A bourgeois silk merchant (a quintessentially Lyonnais occupation), he lived with his wife and son in a tiny village outside of Lyon called Poleymieux-au-Mont-d’Or. It was there that he and his wife, who were one of only five bourgeois families in a primarily peasant population, raised the boy who would grow up to be the father of electrodynamics.

In 1782, he retired and devoted himself full-time to his children’s upbringing — particularly that of his son, whom he soon realized was not an ordinary child. Born partly of necessity (Poleymieux lacked a school) and partly of choice (Jean-Jacques had, after all, opted to move to Poleymieux, and some speculate that he wished to give his son an upbringing like the one advocated by Rousseau in Émile), André-Marie’s unorthodox education resembled what today’s DIY pedagogues might call “unschooling”: he was encouraged to take charge of his own learning, given access to his father’s library, and taught a variety of eclectic subjects according to what most held his interest at the moment.

For most children, this technique is questionable; but when your kid happens to be a genius and a polymath, it works just fine. André-Marie was an audodidact and proactive in his learning, which would be a force for good in his life: as we’ll see, it was what pulled him out of his depression after his father’s death.

When the Bastille fell in 1789, not much changed at first. Jean-Jacques embraced the ideals of the Revolution and even wrote a play called Artaxerxe ou le Roi constitutionnel [Artaxerxe or the constitutional king], which James Hofmann, author of André-Marie Ampère: Enlightenment and Electrodynamics, sees as a parable containing Revolutionary themes.

A month after the fall of the Bastille, he lost his job as local aristocrat Guillin Dumontet’s procureur fiscal (a “judicial and administrative position,” according to Hofmann). Then, in the fall of 1791, he took another bureaucratic job: justice of the peace and “presiding legal functionary for the police tribunal” in Lyon. He may have done it voluntarily, out of sincere political fervor; but he may also have done it to protect his family, since his former boss, Guillin Dumontet, had been beheaded and partially cannibalized by his peasants a few months prior. If he had indeed taken this post for the good of his family, his plan backfired horribly…

As has been detailed in the post on Joseph Chalier, 1793 was not a good year for the Lyonnais.

The Revolution ran counter to the grain of Lyonnais culture for a number of historical reasons (the strong Catholic tradition and the silk trade being two of them). More immediately, famine and taxes had not disposed the people of Lyon towards the local Revolutionary government — particularly the far-left Jacobin faction, which continuously struggled for control of the city.

When the Jacobins seized power in March 1793, they provoked opposition from Girondins and royalists alike, and on May 29 important members of the Jacobin leadership were arrested. Among those apprehended was Joseph Chalier, head of a major Jacobin club known as the “Central Club.” Someone had to open the case against Chalier, and that someone was Jean-Jacques Ampère.

In spite of the Convention’s attempts at negotiation (which quickly turned to threats), Chalier was sentenced to death on July 16 and guillotined the next day. It was not Jean-Jacques who condemned Chalier to death — that does not appear to have been part of his job — but it was he who sent out the warrant for his arrest, and this was more than enough to get him sentenced to death when the political tides turned. (If the judges who actually sentenced Chalier to death — Cozon, Pourret, Régnier, and Maret — were ever punished, I haven’t found any evidence for it.)

Paris responded by placing Lyon under siege on August 9, and two months later, the city surrendered to the Convention. Rather than flee, Jean-Jacques remained in the city, resolved to see his duty through to the bitter end. Throughout the siege, he instructed his wife not to tell their children of the danger he was in. When Lyon was taken, he was immediately arrested, and in the six weeks he spent in prison, he had little doubt about his fate.

Trial and execution

Much of his trial is preserved in court documents. They refer to Lyon as “Ville-Affranchie” — “Liberated City,” the name Bertrand Barère gave to the town before declaring, “Lyon has made war against liberty; Lyon is no more” — so you know they mean business.

During his interrogation, Ampère père was accused not only of having issued the warrant for Chalier’s arrest, but also of having sentenced male and female Jacobin club members to public humiliation and having their eyebrows shaved off, respectively — as well as just generally having been a jerk to Jacobin detainees during interrogations.

The responses he gives show a man resolved to keep both his pride and his honor in the face of certain death, a functionary convinced that he had committed no wrong. Ampère admits to having had Chalier arrested but vehemently denies the other charges. He was also asked if he had left his post and/or sent a revocation to Paris, and responded that he had kept his post and had “no revocation to make.” This probably sealed his fate.

Here’s the full text of his interrogation, from Histoire des tribunaux révolutionnaires de Lyon (take my translations of legalese with a grain of salt; I don’t speak it in any language):

Frimaire 2, Year 2 (November 22)

Interrogation of Jean-Jacques Ampère, 61 years of age, justice of the peace of the canton of Halle-aux-Blés, residing in Lyon, Quai Saint-Antoine, Number 44. — Responses he gave.

I was in Lyon during the siege.

I never had any correspondence with the so-called constituent authorities in Lyon.

Question: You are accused of having filed the whole procedure against the patriots, of having been president of the correctional police during the whole time of the counter-Revolution, and of having judged those who had committed no crime other than belonging to the [Jacobin] club, sentencing the men to be tied to the post [this refers to a punishment formally known as “exhibition,” which was sort of like the pillory] and the women to having their eyebrows cut off; of having condemned, among others, Cadet Rufard, member of the [Jacobin] club, to six months of imprisonment for having sought bread for his brother, put in chains on May 29. You are reproached with having said to all of those whom you interrogated, “You are scoundrels, you people with your clubs; you had agents all the way out in the country, and your plot was the destruction of honest people.” In a word, you are accused of the assassination of the virtuous Chalier, since it was you who filed the first procedure, and it’s thanks to your arrest warrant that he mounted the scaffold.

Response: I never had any part in the judgments against patriots, men or women, which pronounced the sentence of pillory against the men and shaved eyebrows against the women; I admit to having filed the procedure against Citizen Chalier, on the declaration that had been made to me on May 27 by the public prosecutor who had the right to provoke my ministry; I also made several investigations against certain municipal officers after May 29, and in ruling on these procedures, I followed the law in sending back the accused in the presence of the director of the jury, the indictment alone regulating the jurisdiction. I conformed to the investigation of the functions of police officers who are uniformly employed to gather the vestiges of crimes and send the judgment back to the courts who should be informed of them. The circumstances were such that prudence joined with my sense of duty in making me carry out the measure indicated by the law. Before ruling on the procedure against the municipal officers, I had also ruled on the fate of a municipal named Sautemouche. I let him out under an oath to return, and soon after his release, the unfortunate Sautemouche succumbed to the blows of malicious persons. He was murdered, and most of the sections shouted for my arrest, because I had obeyed my conscience and my opinion by delivering an innocent man.

Question: Did you leave Lyon and did you send your revocation to the Committee of Public Safety, according to the law?

Response: I have no revocation to make.

Question: Did you continue your functions during the siege in a city in revolt?

Response: Yes, from May 27 until the beginning of August.

Question: Did you issue the warrant for Chalier’s arrest?

Response: Yes, on June 7.

On November 22, the same day as his trial (other sources give the date as November 23, 24 or 25, but I’m going by the date of execution given in legal documents), he was guillotined in Place Bellecour along with three men who appear not to have been involved in the affair: Étienne Chazottier, a lawyer and the president and secretary of the “permanent section” (a local political office), for “offenses against patriots”; Pierre-Elisabeth Chaponnay, an aristocrat, for “giving considerable sums to, and favoring the plans of, counterrevolutionaries”; and Jean Freidière, a geometer and secretary of the “surveillance committee” — no crime given. Ampère was 61 years old.

Shortly before his execution, he was allowed to write a final letter to his wife. Here’s the most complete version I can find, taken from Portraits Littéraires by Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve:

My dear angel, I have received your comforting letter; it was a life-giving balm to the emotional wounds that had been inflicted on my soul by my regret at being misunderstood by my fellow-citizens, who have denied me, through the most cruel separation, a homeland that I have cherished so much and whose prosperity is so close to my heart. I wish for my death to be the seal of a general reconciliation between our fellow-men. I pardon those who rejoice in it, those who caused it, and those who ordered it. I have reason to believe that the national vengeance, of which I am one of the most innocent victims, will not extend to the few possessions that have been sustaining us, thanks to your wise money-saving and our frugality, which was your favorite virtue … After my trust in the Eternal, to whose breast I hope will be taken that which remains of me, my sweetest consolation is that you will cherish my memory as much as I cherished you. That much is owed me. If from my home in Eternity, where our dear daughter has preceded me, I am able to attend to things on earth, you and my dear children will be the object of my care and concern. May they enjoy a better fate than their father and always have before their eyes the fear of God, that salutary fear that makes innocence and justice act on our hearts in spite of the fragility of our nature! … Do not speak to Josephine [André-Marie’s younger sister, then about eight years old] of her father’s misfortune — make sure she does not know about it; as for my son, there is nothing I do not expect of him. As long as you have them, and they have you, embrace each other in my memory: I leave you all my heart.

The author then explains that “There follow a few pieces of advice concerning the household economy, notes about paying off debts, and meticulous scruples regarding antique probity, signed with these words: J.-J. Ampère, husband, father, friend, and forever-faithful citizen.”

He continues with a sentiment shared by most nineteenth-century commentators on this affair: “Thus died, with resignation, with grandeur, and expressing himself almost as Jean-Jacques [Rousseau] would have been able to, this simple man, this reclusive merchant, this justice of the peace from Lyon. He died like so many members of the National Assembly, like so many Girondins, sons of [the spirit of] ’89 and ’91, children of the Revolution, devoured by it, but pious to the end, and not cursing it!”

We are also treated to some of Ampère’s actual notes (it would have been nice if Sainte-Beuve had just reprinted them in their entirety instead of only snatches): “It is impossible, my dear friend, for me to leave you rich, or even moderately comfortable; you cannot attribute this to my bad conduct nor to any spendthrift behavior. My greatest expense was the purchase of books and geometrical instruments which our son could not do without; but that expense was itself a bargain, because he never had any tutor except for himself.”

The Jacobins greatly spun the proceedings against Ampère; in a November 25 letter to the Convention, Collot d’Herbois and Fouché claimed that: “It was liberty that they wanted to assassinate in killing Chalier; his executioners have confessed it; before coming under the blade of justice, they were heard to say that they were dying for the king, that they had wanted to give him a successor.” It goes without saying that there is no reason to believe that Ampère said any such thing on the scaffold—he lived and died a Republican.

Aftermath

To say the execution was a shock to the eighteen-year-old André-Marie would be an understatement.

He never truly recovered from the death of his father, which was neither the first nor the last personal tragedy that would befall him; his older sister Antoinette had died a year earlier, and he would also lose his first wife after only four years of marriage. James Hofmann points out in Enlightenment and Electrodynamics that Jean-Jacques was André-Marie’s only link to the world outside Poleymieux, where he was socially isolated in addition to being intellectually stimulated (his undersocialization did indeed have a permanent effect; he was extremely awkward all his life).

Although André-Marie made a “return to normalcy” through study, he was scarred for life; Hofmann asserts that the event “contributed to the permanently melancholy cast of his adult temperament.”

After hearing the news, André-Marie became catatonic for a year; according to his friend and fellow-scientist François Arago, “The blow was too hard; it was beyond the strength of a young man of eighteen: Ampère was shattered. His intellectual faculties, so active, so intense, so developed, suddenly gave way to a veritable idiocy. He spent his days mechanically contemplating the earth and sky, or making little heaps of sand.”

Yikes. Arago claims that André-Marie was able to snap out of it with the help of Rousseau’s writings on, of all things, botany: “This lethargy of all moral and intellectual feeling had lasted for more than a year, when the letters of J.-J. Rousseau, on botany, came into Ampère’s hands. The limpid and harmonious language of this work entered the soul of the sick young man and partially gave him his nerves back, as the rays of the rising sun pierce the thick fogs of morning and bring life to the heart of plants stiff from the night’s chill.” With that, Ampère’s intellectual life reawakened; he began to study, and eventually became more or less functional — although, according to Hofmann, direct discussion of the event remained a taboo subject.

Indirect references are another matter; he named his son Jean-Jacques, in memory of his father and also, some speculate, as an homage to Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

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1803: George Foster, and thence to the reanimator

9 comments January 18th, 2009 dogboy

It’s not too often that a typical convicted murderer becomes a source for not just law, but also literature and science. George Foster (sometimes spelled George Forster despite few, if any, contemporaneous spellings as such) managed just that on this date in 1803, and his legacy lives on to this day.

Foster’s case was, in the annals of capital punishment, unremarkable.

He was accused in the drowning of his wife and youngest child in the Paddington Canal, one of the many canals being improved at the time to connect various parts of England by water. Foster was found guilty based on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to hang at Newgate Prison on 18 Jan 1803.

Shortly after 8 a.m., Foster was executed; minutes later, he was a science experiment.

Professor Giovanni Aldini was the nephew of biological electricity guru Luigi Galvani, and he wanted to electrify a body. Galvani had shown that frog legs responded to electricity, twitching when current was passed through the muscle, and he was in academic competition with his associate and sometime dissident Alessandro Volta over why this occurred. Galvani claimed that an electrical fluid flowed through the corpse, activating the muscles; Volta said that the cells passed electrical signals between one another. It was this latter assertion that led to the development of Volt’s first battery, a voltaic pile.* Aldini was convinced that his uncle was right about electrical fluid, but he was keen on Volta’s ideas for creating portable electricity.

His stated reason for delving into what was known as galvanic reanimation was to aid the recently drowned, who, he said, might be resuscitated. Galvani leaned on some earlier experience with beheaded victims in Bologna, as well as animal experiments, to convince British government agents of the viability of the plan. As one witness to those events stated:

A very ample series of experiments were made by Professor Aldini which show the eminent and superior power of galvanism beyond any other stimulant in nature. In the months of January and February last, he had the courage to apply it at Bologna to the bodies of various criminals who had suffered death at that place, and by means of the pile he excited the remaining vital forces in a most astonishing manner. This stimulus produced the most horrible contortions and grimaces by the motions of the muscles of the head and face; and an hour and a quarter after death, the arm of one of the bodies was elevated eight inches from the table on which it was supported, and this even when a considerable weight was placed in the hand.

Which is not to say it was really difficult to get permission.

Aldini’s experiments were a very public roadshow demonstration of Galvani’s ideas. London’s Royal College of Surgeons was, at that time, fascinated with the boundaries of life and death, and Aldini was more than happy to offer his services. As well, the 1751 (or 1752) Murder Act would not allow hanged criminals to be buried, and their corpses were often used for scientific discovery. Foster’s body, which had hung for an hour in slightly sub-zero temperatures, was the first complete corpse Aldini acted upon, but he wasn’t the first to get a chance.**

The Newgate Calendar summarizes the events:

On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright soon after his return home.


An illustration of Aldini’s experiments with executed corpses. His notes of George Foster record that “the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened … The action even of those muscles furthest distant from the points of contact with the arc was so much increased as almost to give an appearance of re-animation … vitality might, perhaps, have been restored, if many circumstances had not rendered it impossible.” (cited in Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters)

Aldini’s act was yet another public showcase of strange new technologies, this time sparking the imaginations of the Brits. Within a generation, Scottish experimenters were performing similar feats, and the College of Surgeons had, after further attempts similar to Aldini’s, revived the heart of another convicted murderer, John Bellingham. It was the first recorded heart shock revival in modern medical history.† (Even today’s scientists turn to electricity to instantiate life’s precursors in trying to solve the riddle of abiogenesis.)

But even more than that was the effect these results had on popular culture, where Mary Shelley, well aware of Aldini’s work (as well as that of Erasmus Darwin, a proponent of evolution well before the concept of “natural selection” was framed by his more famous grandson), used the idea of reanimation — such as was attempted on her husband’s first wife after she drowned — to inspire her signature characters, Victor Frankenstein and his “monster.”

As a cultural icon, Frankenstein did exceedingly well. Considered a true Gothic novel, the story was remade for stage as early as 1887, turned into a variety of films which were subsequently parodied (c.f. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Treehouse of Horror II”, The Re-Animator, etc.), retold on radio, brought up in song, and re-written in novels.

Galvanization was never mentioned directly in that book, but the studies at the College of Surgeons were clearly an inspiration. And galvanization transcended that book, striking a chord in the public imagination. It continued to pop up in publication for decades after the Aldini/Foster event, for instance in the 1836 illustration “A Galvanized Corpse”, in which the editor of the Washington Globe, Francis Preston Blair, is shown being “galvanized” by two demons, who represent the interests of Andrew Jackson.

* The Voltaic pile was originally used to disprove Galvani’s fluids theory. However, the two were largely non-adversarial, so Volta actively advanced Galvani’s name through the word “galvanism” and, by the time of Foster’s death, “galvanize.” The term “galvanized” metal refers to a conductive element coated with something non-conductive and dates from the late 1830s. Volta, of course, is the recognizable source of the the electrical potential unit of the “Volt.”

** Indeed, the College of Surgeons was receiving all hanging victims from London since 1752, and most were put through rigorous postmortems. Such scientific experimentation is also often blamed for the revival of Patrick Redmond in 1767, who received a windpipe incision following his hanging in Cork, Ireland; Redmond, however, was documented as hanging for just nine minutes, only slightly longer than the average person takes to die if deprived of oxygen.

† Those interested in the history of cardiology in general should take a look at Louis J. Acierno’s The History of Cardiology; those interested in the use of human remains in medical science should seek out Human Remains: Dissection and Its Histories by Helen MacDonald.

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1890: William Kemmler, only in America

27 comments 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.”

On this day..

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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1989: Horace Franklin Dunkins, Jr., “just hope that he was not conscious”

29 comments July 14th, 2008 Headsman

Minutes after midnight this date in 1989, Alabama’s executioners electrocuted a developmentally disabled murderer. Nine minutes later, after rewiring the chair, they finally managed to kill him.

Alabama’s fifth execution of the “modern” era initially made the headlines as the nation’s first execution of a mentally impaired prisoner after the Supreme Court’s controversial Penry v. Lynaugh decision (since overturned) green-lighted the death penalty for developmentally disabled defendants.

Horace Franklin Dunkins, Jr. and an accomplice had raped a mother of four, tied her to a tree, and stabbed her to death, an unquestionably horrific crime. A black man with a white victim deep in Dixie … well, his IQ in the high sixties wasn’t going to help him do anything but waive his right to remain silent. The jury at his trial didn’t hear about his borderline mental retardation — Penry would require that juries get that information in the future — and at least one juror later said that little tidbit would have made the difference in Dunkins’s case.

At any rate, the buzz in this morning’s papers wasn’t about the circumstances of Dunkins’s entry into the criminal justice system, but his clumsy exit from it into the great hereafter.

According to the account of a Dr. John Vanlandingham:*

I saw Dunkins in the electric chair and I heard the generator start…. After a short period of time the other doctor … and I were called into the execution chamber. I could see that Dunkins was breathing…. I checked his peripheral pulse, in his wrist, and it was normal. I listened to his heart and his heartbeat was strong with little irregularity…. I told an official that Dunkins was not dead. Dr. – and I returned to the witness room…. I again heard the generator begin.

“I believe we’ve got the jacks on wrong,” the prison guard captain called out. It was flatly not enough current to kill, although it apparently did the killer the favor of knocking him out.

From 12:08 to 12:17, Dunkins sat motionless and seemingly unconscious while the execution team went all MacGyver on Yellow Mama. Once they’d fit Tab A into Slot B into Lethal Electrode C, they were finally able to try again. The doctors pronounced death 19 minutes after the switch had first been thrown.

”I regret very very much what happened,” the Alabama Prison Commissioner, Morris Thigpen, said at a news conference after the execution. ”It was human error. I just hope that he was not conscious and did not suffer.” (The New York Times)

* Dr. Vanlandingham was participating in the execution despite an injunction by the American Medical Association, which considers it a violation of the Hippocratic Oath. Physicians’ involvement (or not) in executions is a thorny ethical issue of its own; Vanlandingham, however, is not the only doctor to break the taboo.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alabama,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Electrocuted,Execution,Milestones,Murder,USA

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