‘A Disgrace to Civilization’

     On March 29th, 1889, William Kemmler murdered his common-law wife, Matilda Ziegler, with a hatchet.  A little over one year later, on August 6th, 1890, he became the first person to be electrocuted in an electric chair.

     Kemmler was a very public casualty of the War of the Currents, the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse for the future of American electricity.  Edison favored the direct current (DC), which he had developed; Westinghouse produced alternating current (AC), which had several distinct advantages over DC, most particularly its ability to travel over long distances more efficiently at higher voltages.

     Edison went to great lengths in his campaign against AC.  He invented stories about people being electrocuted by AC.  He tried to convince people to refer to death by electrocution as “Westinghousing”.  He had his assistants hold public demonstrations during which they “westinghoused” stray cats and dogs with AC.  Finally, he arranged for the creation of an AC-powered electric chair for state executions, in the hope that it would persuade the general public of the lethality of AC electricity.

     The chair itself was designed by Harold P. Brown.  Brown worked for an electric company that used DC electricity, and he threw his lot in with Edison against AC.  The chair, as it was eventually assembled by Edwin Davis, the ‘State Electrician’, had two electrodes, one to be placed on the top of the head, and the other to be placed on the back.

The Kemmler Electric Chair

The Kemmler Electric Chair

     The day before the execution, the chair was successfully tested on a horse (the logistics of which tax the imagination).  On the day of, Kemmler, dressed in a suit and tie, was taken into the execution chamber at 6:38 a.m.  He apparently remained composed, even while the warden cut a hole in the back of his suit for the second electrode.  When he was all strapped in, the warden said, “Goodbye, William”, the signal to turn on the current.

     Accounts differ on the exact voltage to which Kemmler was subjected, and for how long.  From somewhere between seventeen and fifty seconds, anything from seven hundred to seventeen hundred volts of AC electricity coursed through Kemmler.  He smoked, gasped, and passed out.  The attending physician, Dr. Edward Spitzka, declared him dead.

     When several attending witness noticed that Kemmler was still breathing, Spitzka revised his diagnosis.  A second current, of one thousand thirty to two thousand volts, was initiated.  The New York Times described it thus:

“Blood began to appear on the face of the wretch in the chair.  It stood on the face like sweat…But there was worse than that.  An awful odor began to permeate the death chamber, and then, as though to cap the climax of this fearful sight, it was seen that the hair under and around the electrode on the head and the flesh under and around the electrode at the base of the spine was singeing.  The stench was unbearable.”

     In all, Kemmler remained in the chair for eight minutes from the first moment the current was turned on.

     A subsequent autopsy found that, despite the imperfect nature of the procedure, Kemmler had become unconscious during the first instants of electrocution, and that death had been painless.  The autopsy also indicated that the skin contact of the electrode on Kemmler’s head had been obstructed by his hair, which Kemmler had refused to cut.  The electrode on his back had been insufficiently wetted; according to the New York Times,

“The result was a terrible burning of the back clear through to the spine.  The skin in contact had been burned to a black cinder and the flesh above had been cooked until yellow, while the inner tissues had been baked.”

     Despite these hiccups, many considered Kemmler’s execution a success; indeed, it was hailed as an humanitarian triumph.  Proponents offered that it represented a significant improvement over hanging, which often took fifteen to thirty minutes to choke the life out of its victims.

     The New York Times was not convinced.  In an editorial dated August 7th, 1890, it wrote,

“A sacrifice to the whims and theories of the coterie of cranks and politicians who induced the Legislature of this State to pass a law supplanting hanging by electrical execution was offered to-day [sic] in the person of William Kemmler, the Buffalo murderer.  He died this morning under the most revolting circumstances, and with his death there was placed to the discredit of the State of New York an execution that was a disgrace to civilization.”

 Image taken from The Times

I first encountered the story of William Kemmler and the Society for the Suppression of Eating, oddly enough, in Bill Bryson’s fabulous Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States.

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