August 6, 1890 saw the dawn of a new age for criminal history. At Auburn Prison in upstate New York there was the execution of one, William Kemmler, condemned for murdering his girlfriend Matilda Ziegler with a hatchet. There was nothing remarkable about Kemmler (an alcoholic vegetable peddler with a vicious temper) or about his crime. There wasn’t anything unusual about an execution in New York State, either, hangings being a fairly regular event.
What was unusual was the method. Americans had been hanged, shot, drowned, and burnt alive, but none of them had ever been electrocuted. Even the word ‘electrocute’ was brand new, coined specially to reflect what its enthusiasts clumsily named ‘electrical execution.’ It had never been done before and, after its nightmarish debut, there was much debate about whether it should ever be done again.
Of course, it was. There have been over 4000 electrocutions in American penal history since Kemmler’s and, while the ‘Old Sparky’ is (rather ironically) at death’s door due to the introduction of the gas chamber and lethal injection, it was once by far the most popular means for America’s prisons to perform human pest control. State after State threw away its gallows and plugged into the latest way to get the job done. They did so with varying degrees of enthusiasm. New York really loved it, South Dakota only used it once and even then they had to borrow one from the State of Nebraska because they didn’t have their own. They also turned on to the new idea with varying degrees of competence — often with hideous results for all concerned, especially the condemned.
Hanging can be the least inhumane method of execution if properly performed, so there’s a bitter irony in the reason for Old Sparky’s long tenure, that being that many American executioners would probably have found it a challenge correctly hanging curtains, let alone humans. Bungled hangings were regular events, with prisoners often beheaded or slowly strangled by hangmen using faulty or unsuitable equipment. British hangman Albert Pierrepoint was openly scathing of American hangmen and their kit, sarcastically calling the traditional hangman’s rope a ‘cowboy’s coil’. After one horror show too many at the hanging of Roxalana Druse, New York State Governor David Hill decide to form a ‘Death Commission’ to decide which method would best replace the rope. Enter two very big names, an inventor, a dentist and, of course, William Kemmler.
The idea of electrocution came from a dentist, Alfred Southwick of Buffalo, New York. Southwick had seen a drunk die instantly from accidentally staggering up against an electrical generator and, being a staunch supporter of capital punishment, decided that the new technology would be perfect for deliberately killing people. Also, being a dentist, he thought a chair with straps all over it was the best way to convey the current to the inmate. He left the actual building of the ‘hot seat’ to Harold Brown, an electrical engineer working for a rather famous name. Enter one Thomas Edison.
Edison had been approached to oversee the creation of the electric chair but, being an opponent of capital punishment, had firmly refused to take part. Unfortunately, Edison became locked in the ‘War of the Currents’ with his great rival George Westinghouse. Edison championed direct current (DC) while Westinghouse was marketing an alternating current (AC) system. Both wanted to corner the rapidly-snowballing market in electricity and related products. Westinghouse’s system was far more efficient at transmitting electricity over long distances, but it was required far higher voltages to do so, making it potentially far more dangerous to technical staff and consumers. Edison saw that as an opportunity to bury his rival’s new system and, putting his personal opposition to executions aside (along with many other principles), decided to make full use of AC being more dangerous to human life.
He started by mounting a publicity campaign openly touting AC as deadly and his own DC as the safe option. He mounted a series of public demonstrations, electrocuting animals ranging from cats and dogs to a fully-grown elephant. Then he reconsidered his attitude to the death penalty. What better way was there to discredit George Westinghouse by harnessing both his system and his name to death? Westinghouse had refused to sell the State of New York a generator for executions so Brown, funded by Edison, bought one under a false name, had it delivered to Brazil and then shipped back to Auburn Prison. This infuriated Westinghouse, but not nearly as much as the more personal aspect of Edison’s campaign. The new method, in the eyes of many Americans, needed a new name. ‘Electrocution’, a combination of ‘electricity’ and ‘execution’ caught on to replace the clumsy phrase ‘electrical execution.’ Edison campaigned in favour of describing inmates as having been ‘Westinghoused.’
With Kemmler, a violent drunkard, ensconced on Auburn’s Death Row, Westinghouse funded his appeals. Edison secured large funding from one of his investors, J.P Morgan, to ensure Kemmler’s appeals failed. They did. William Kemmler was destined to take a prime (and unwilling) place in criminal history as the first inmate ever to do the ‘hot squat’.
At Auburn Prison preparations went ahead. Harold Brown enlisted Edwin Davis to help perfect the final touches to the ‘electrocution chair.’ Davis was a qualified electrical contractor at Auburn and was the perfect choice to become the world’s first ‘State Electrician’. Davis would execute around 200 inmates and train two of his proteges, John Hurlbut and Robert Elliott, both of whom succeeded him as executioners. Between them, these three men would execute over 700 prisoners and Elliott would be credited with perfecting electrocution as an execution method. For now, though, Davis was in charge. Davis designed and patented the first electrodes, which on early chairs were fixed to the inmate’s head and the base of their spine. After much gruesome experimentation, electrodes were fixed to an inmate’s head and leg as standard.
August 6, 1890 dawned bright and clear. The chair had been installed, linked to the prison generator (later chairs had their own separate generator) and thoroughly tested. Warden Charles Durston woke Kemmler at 5am, gave him a final breakfast and had him dressed for the occasion. At 6:30am the grim ritual began. Kemmler, his head and spine shaved and with a slit in his shirt-tails, was led into a room in front of 17 witnesses including 3 doctors and numerous reporters. He was asked for his last words which proved grimly ironic in the light of what was about to happen:
“Take it easy and do it properly, I’m in no hurry…”
Kemmler probably would have been in a hurry if he’d known what was coming and the execution team, given that they’d never actually electrocuted anyone before, certainly didn’t do it properly. About the best that could be said for the witnesses was that their misery would be less horrendous than Kemmler’s.
At 6:38am the signal was given and Davis threw the switch. 1000 volts of alternating current seared Kemmler’s body and nervous system. After 17 seconds the power was shut off and Doctor Charles Spitzka stepped forward fully expecting to certify Kemmler dead.
Spitzka initially thought Kemmler was dead and said as much. The chair’s inventor, dentist Alfred Southwick, proudly stood before the witnesses and in front of Kemmler’s smoking body and uttered the immortal words:
“Gentlemen, we live in a higher civilisation from this day.”
Then the dead man began to breathe and started twisting against the straps and moaning increasingly loudly. Horrified witnesses blanched as Warden Durston and Doctor Spitzka hurriedly discussed what to do. Either the current had been too low or not applied for long enough so the obvious solution was to double the voltage and increase the duration. Spitzka spoke briefly and sharply:
“Have the current turned on again, quick. No delay!”
The current was turned on quick. Not knowing what they were doing the execution team turned it on far too high for far too long. For a full minute 2000 volts cooked Kemmler alive. His remaining hair smouldered, his flesh singed and blood vessels burst under his skin, causing him to bleed through his pores. Smoke and a stench of burnt meat filled the room while witnesses tried to get out through locked doors. Some fainted and slumped around the floor.
Kemmler did at least die, but in a way that nearly made his the first and last electrocution in criminal history. The newspapers competed to run the gaudiest tales of his suffering, as though it needed to look any worse than it actually was. Two of the doctors present, Charles Spitzka and Carlos MacDonald, feuded bitterly and publicly for years afterward. Edison, whose role in the affair was now public knowledge, refused to comment or to even speak to reporters. His great rival George Westinghouse, when asked for his opinion of the execution, was far more forthcoming and brutally frank:
“They would have done better using an axe…”
Of course, the chair, its components and the overall method were steadily refined and perfected over the next century or so. Davis’s apprentices Hurlbut and Elliott would go on to perfect the process and kill hundreds doing so, although Hurlbut did commit suicide shortly after resigning from his job as the euphemistically-titled ‘State Electrician’. All of New York’s executioners after Davis had to be qualified electricians, and were paid $150 per prisoner with an extra $50 for any additional prisoner during multiple executions. Good money if you could stomach pulling the switch.
There’s a grim postscript to this story. Until earlier this year the electric chair had fallen into disfavour and disuse. No States retained it as their primary method, having changed to lethal injection as their first choice. The current refusal by drug companies to supply American prisons with the drugs for lethal injection has led to experimentation with different drug combinations and, in turn, botched lethal injections such as Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma and Joseph Wood in Arizona. Wood took over two hours to die in a process that should have taken minutes.Which is why the State of Tennessee, previously discarding their electric chair for lethal injection, have reinstated electrocution and dusted off their ‘hot seat.’
Unlike William Kemmler and 4000 or so other inmates, Old Sparky has risen from the grave.