The law is not without its moments that could be described by some as the best of times, by others as the worst of times.

 

The electrocution of William Francis Kemmler on Wednesday, August 6, 1890, was a welcome event to New York State politicians, the local district attorney, and the family of Kemmler's dead girlfriend Tillie Ziegler, who he had killed with an axe.

But to others, the advent of the electric chair to administer the death penalty represents the worst of what, in the name of law, civilization has to offer.

Unfortunately, no one had ever been electrocuted before and judging by this first occasion, it is surprising that anybody was ever executed by electrocution again.

Innovation?

The stage for the execution was described in an article appearing in a dentistry journal, since the innovator was a dentist:

"The search for a modern, humane method of criminal execution was triggered by a freak accident which occurred in Buffalo, New York in 1881. Dr. Alfred P. Southwick (a former steam-boat engineer, noted dentist and dental educator) happened to witness an intoxicated man die after he inadvertently touched a live generator terminal. Southwick's initial reaction was shock. Later, as he pondered this tragic event, he concluded that electrocution was, at least, a quick and seemingly painless way to depart from this earth. As his thoughts turned to common methods of capital punishment, Alfred concluded that death by electrocution could become a more humane alternative, as compared with the more grisly methods (e.g., hanging).

"Working through the governor of New York and the state legislature, Southwick originated and successfully promoted the passage of laws which mandated electrical executions in New York and in approximately 20 other states. During 1888-1889, Southwick served on the state's three-person Electrical Death Commission, a group who reported that electrical execution was superior to all other methods. On January 1, 1889, the world's first electrical execution law went into effect."

Snyder electrocutionIn 1889, Kemmler had the misfortune of being sentenced to death and of being available for the great electric chair experiment, an experiment endorsed by Thomas Edison but opposed by George Westinghouse.

The proposition of death by electricity fascinated the public. Electrical services had not yet been taken over by the government and private companies saw this as a unique marketing opportunity. Some of them sponsored travelling roadshows which featured the electrocution of cats and dogs and even a horse, all for public entertainment.

The ultimate was the electrocution of an orangutan, considered then to be most similar to a human.

Still, electrocution had its doubters. Some believed that no amount of electricity could kill a human being, but instead would simply put them into a deep coma.

Kemmler

When he found out he was to be the first to be subjected to electrocution, his lawyers appealed saying it was cruel and unusual punishment. But the United States Supreme Court disagreed.

And so at the Auburn prison in the state of New York, an oak chair was bolted to the floor, a thick, black electric wire running from the base of the chair to the wall.

On the chair were two primitive electrodes, one being a simple inverted metal bowl which was to be strapped over the head. The second electrode was to be strapped directly onto the back of the condemned.

Kemmler was led in and spoke his last words to the 25 witnesses (which included 14 doctors):

"Gentlemen, I wish you all good luck. I believe I am going to a good place, and I am ready to go. I want only to say that a great deal has been said about me that is untrue. I am bad enough. It is cruel to make me out worse.

"Now take your time and do it all right, Warden. There is no rush. I don't want to take any chances on this thing, you know."

Kemmler took his seat as the executioner E. F. Harris strapped him down. A black hood was placed over his head. Harris then disappeared behind the wall that the black wire ran to, and threw the switch at 1,000 volts.

According to the New York Times reporter who was present:

"The great experiment of electrical execution had been launched. New York State had thrown off forever the barbarities, the inhumanities of hanging its criminals

"But had it? Words will not keep pace with what followed. Simultaneously with the click of the lever the body of the man in the chair straightened. Every muscle of it seemed to be drawn to its highest tension. It seemed as though it might have been thrown across the chamber were it not for the straps which held it.

"There was no movement of the eyes. The body was as rigid as though cast in bronze, save for the index finger of the right hand, which closed up so tightly that the nail penetrated the flesh on the first joint, and the blood trickled out on the arm of the chair."

It was 6:43 AM.

Kemmler convulsed so violently that he partially pulled out the restraining bolts under the chair, causing the chair to rock. The electricity cackled and burned out the electrode on Kemmler's back, causing his skin to start smouldering.

Harris turned the electricity off and a doctor moved in and pronounced Kemmler dead. The skin on Kemmler's body was "bright red".

Then Kemmler's mouth opened, bloody foam flowed out and his chest heaved. One of the witnesses yelled out:

"My God, he's alive!"

The doctors checked again and now, Kemmler showed signs of life.

Harris took no chances. He yelled at the doctors to clear away and turned the switch back on, this time to 2,000 volts. He alternated, on and and off, causing a series of bursts of massive electricity to course through Kemmler, who was probably dead by that time anyway. This second sequence lasted a minute.

The doctor checked Kemmler again. This time there was no return of vital signs.

The local newspaper, the New York World wrote:

"The doctors say that the victim did not suffer. Only his maker knows if that be true. To the eye, it looked as though he were in convulsive agony."

Post-Kemmler

In spite of the less than successful electrocution, America plodded on, hoping to perfect their system of capital punishment.

Indeed, the first series of executions were carried off successfully until July 27, 1893 when William Taylor reacted to 2,000 volts much like Kemmler had. His body lunged every which way against the straps and his breathing became excessively labored.

When the switch was turned off, Taylor's body twitched - he was still alive! The executioner noticed that one of the wires had broken. Taylor was unstrapped and move to a adjacent medical room while the execution apparatus was repaired. The doctors actually gave him medical assistance including a morphine painkiller and chloroform, to keep him as comfortable as possible! Taylor's heart was beating and he was breathing on his own.

After 15 minutes, Taylor was returned to the electric chair, strapped in again and the current re-applied. This time, he died.

This did not deter the politicians.

By 1906, there had been over 100 condemned prisoners dispatched by execution, including women. There was even a double execution by electrocution of a co-worker, boyfriend and girlfriend pair: Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray for the murder of Ruth's husband Albert Snyder (to make a life for themselves on his $100,000 life insurance policy). The trial was sensational and resulted in books and movies, the latter under the name of Double Indemnity. The couple was electrocuted moments apart at the Sing Sing Prison on January 12, 1928.

The execution of Ruth Snyder was caught on tape as Chicago Tribune reporter Tom Howard had a concealed camera strapped to his ankle, and attached to a shutter switch which ran under his clothing to his wrist. His picture (see image) made legal as well as photography history. It was the first picture ever taken of an electrocution as the gruesome image made the cover of the New York Daily News on January 13, 1928:

"Headline: DEAD! Ruth Snyder's Death Pictured! This is perhaps the most remarkable exclusive picture in the history of criminology."

No other country except the Philippines has ever used the electric chair as a form of inflicting capital punishment.

Most American states now prefer legal injection although a few have retained the electric chair.

REFERENCES:

  • Bishop, George, Executions - The Legal Ways of Death (Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1986), pages 17-25.
  • Christen, A.G., Alfred P. Southwick, MDS, DDS: Dental Practitioner, Educator and Originator of Electrical Executions, 48:3 Journal of the History of Dentistry 117 (2000)
  • Death Penalty Information Center, History of the Death Penalty [retrieved on January 5, 2012 from http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/part-i-history-death-penalty]
  • New York Times, Far Worse Than Hanging, August 7, 1890