“They would have done better using an ax.” – George Westinghouse on the world’s first judicial electrocution, that of William Kemmler.
Had convict William Taylor survived the events of July 27, 1893 he might well have agreed. Unfortunately for him he didn’t, but that was the object of the exercise, after all.
Taylor wasn’t one of Auburn’s lovable rogues. Thick-necked, barrel-chested and possessed of enormous muscles, he was to pay his debt to society after having decapitated another inmate with a carving knife. This after previously striking down a guard with a hatchet during an escape attempt.
At noon that day he was to walk his last mile to sit in the same chair as the world’s first electrocute William Kemmler. He would die at the hands of the same executioner, Edwin Davis, in the same prison and the chair (already known as ‘Old Sparky’) would be powered by the same second-hand generator fraudulently purchased and shipped to Auburn via Brazil after George Westinghouse had refused to sell any of his generators for use in electrocutions.
The chair was several years old. The generator was several years older. This would prove somewhat troublesome for all concerned.
Davis wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary. Taylor was one of 203 people he electrocuted including Martha Place, the first woman to die by electrocution. Well, it was 202 if you discount the execution of Albert Koepping at Sing Sing in June 1904. Under Davis’s supervision the switch was thrown that day by Robert Greene Elliot, himself later to electrocute 387 convicts including, on January 6, 1927 three in Massachusetts and three in New York on the same day. Davis tested the chair using a board of light bulbs. If all the bulbs glowed bright as the then-standard voltage of 1260 volts was fed through them then all was well. The light board glowed brightly and all was indeed well.
It wouldn’t remain so for very much longer.
Warden James Stout was in charge, having replaced Warden Durston who’d supervised the Kemmler atrocity. Durston had transferred to Sing Sing to replace Warden Brown who, in the fragrant words of the New York Times:
“Will be required to walk into the secluded shades of private life.”
Which is a polite way of saying he’d been fired. Brown’s walk into the secluded shades of private life would prove infinitely easier than Taylor’s walking his last mile.
This was no sinecure for Warden Stout. It was the first of five electrocutions during his tenure at Auburn and the 4th including the Kemmler disaster. Aside from Warden Stout, ‘State Electrician’ Davis and the prison Chaplain and two guards escorting Taylor the ten yards between his cell and Old Sparky, there were four doctors in attendance, none of whom expected to do anything other than certify Taylor’s death. In the end they would have to do far more and so would Edwin Davis.
Dr. Brown was the senior doctor, assisted by Doctors Conway, Mooney and Wright. They would play a far greater role in proceedings than was normally the case and were about to find out just how gruesome a business electrocutions can be.
At 12:15 Taylor walked his last mile accompanied by the two guards and the Chaplain. He was swiftly seated and, while guards applied the heavy leather restraining straps, Davis applied the electrodes. In less than five minutes Taylor was strapped, capped and ready to ride the lightning. All was ready.
Warden Stout, standing behind the chair, gave the signal. Davis threw the switch.
And it all went horrifically wrong from there.
The then-standard jolt of 1260 volts surged through Taylor’s body. To the monotonous hum of the flowing current Taylor violently arched his back and every muscle in his body strained against the heavy leather straps. The straps held tight.
The front section of the chair didn’t.
With a rending crack Taylor’s legs shot straight out in front of him, trembling manically as the current still surged through his body. Davis, with one eye on Warden Stout and the other on the voltmeter, kept it flowing. After the then-mandatory minute Davis reduced and then cut the power entirely.
The doctors moved toward the smoking figure in the wrecked chair, intending to make their formal checks and certify Taylor dead. There was only one small problem. He was still very much alive. As they approached the chair Taylor gasped and started twitching. Obviously he wasn’t actually dead. Equally obviously, he would have to have another jolt to finish the job.
Cue another small problem. The old, second-hand generator had died before William Taylor. The dynamo had broken down and, until a solution could be improvised, the doctors were now forced to keep Taylor alive until he could be electrocuted according to the law.
This they did. Dr. Brown ordered two guards to carry Taylor into the adjoining autopsy room (autopsies were conducted immediately after executions in New York to ensure the inmate was actually dead. Heaven help those who the doctors merely thought were dead, but we digress). Taylor was laid out on a cot while Davis hurriedly improvized a solution to the problem.
While Davis was hurriedly trying to think of what to do, the doctors were appalled to see that Taylor was not only still alive, but was also beginning to regain consciousness. Acting under Dr. Brown’s instructions, Dr. Conway prepared a syringe of morphine which he hurriedly shot into Taylor’s arm. The doctors waited to see what effect it would have and the short answer was none at all. Taylor, still waking up, was probably in too much pain to be kept under with a mere painkiller. But, if a painkiller didn’t work there was always anesthesia.
The morphine didn’t work. Fifteen minutes passed while Davis arranged for cables to be strung over the prison wall and tapped directly into upstate New York’s power grid. Meanwhile, the doctors were becoming progressively more disturbed by Taylor’s progressive return to consciousness and the total failure of Conway’s morphine shot. Something more was definitely required. And Dr. Brown had something more in his black bag.
A gauze mask and a bottle of ether.
Brown quickly soaked the inside of the mask with neat ether and. Taking a firm grip on Taylor, muzzled him with it. Taylor, by now considerably more lively than he was supposed to be by this point in proceedings, began to struggle harder, even opening his eyes as the choking fumes were sucked into his lungs. Taylor’s struggles were surprisingly strong, all things considered, but Dr. Brown’s grip was stronger and it’s fairly hard to resist anybody when you’ve just been partially electrocuted and are breathing pure ether. Taylor soon drifted, perhaps mercifully under the circumstances, into unconsciousness.
Meanwhile, Davis had been busy supervising the improvised (and probably illegal) tapping of upstate New York’s power grid. High-tension cables had been strung over the prison wall and linked up to electrical poles running along the street outside. With semi-normal service having been resumed, Taylor was carried back to be seated and re-strapped into the wreckage of Old Sparky. Replacing the legpiece was a wooden box to try and keep him steady.
Warden Stout looked on as Davis re-applied the electrodes and, presumably wishing the whole affair to be over for everybody’s benefit including Taylor’s, gave the signal as soon as all was ready. Davis threw the lever.
1260 volts surged once more through the already-lifeless body of William Taylor. Whether he was actually still alive by that point is open to question. But the law was the law, and the law said that Taylor had to suffer electrocution until he was certified dead. After a full forty seconds of the 1260 volts flowing through Taylor, Davis finally cut the power and the doctors moved in to make their checks. Taylor was finally dead. Although his electrocution, which should only have taken a matter of a few minutes, had in fact taken almost two hours.
Further food for thought can be taken from the words of local County Sheriff Jerry Collins, whose county jail sometimes lodged prisoners awaiting their fate:
“The reformatory prisons do not seem to be the place for executions. It has been found that each approaching event… is the cause of perturbation and depression among the prison population. It is something antagonistic to the disciplinary methods of these institutions and is so obnoxious that the officers do not hesitate to condemn the practise of having such executions in the prisons.”