Aug. 6, 1890: First execution by electric chair

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By virtually any reckoning, William Kemmler—an illiterate vegetable peddler, a boundless alcoholic and a confessed ax murderer—was both an unwilling and an unlikely pioneer. But by the time he was executed—for having murdered his common-law wife during a hungover spasm of jealousy—Kemmler had become both a symbol for a growing public revulsion toward capital punishment and a pawn in a high-stakes struggle over control of America’s nascent electrical power grid.

New England in the 1880s was the heartbeat of a post-Civil War surge in industry, technology and conspicuous consumption tagged by Mark Twain as the Gilded Age. It was also the heyday of conspicuous corruption and a period of intense cultural reflection spurred by a belief that scientific innovation could solve any problem.

One such cultural reflection pertained to capital punishment. The growing sense that hanging—the traditional method of execution in most states at the time—was inappropriate to a modern age gave rise to a search for “humane” alternatives and a debate over whether capital punishment should be tolerated at all.

In New York, Alfred Southwick, a dentist and former steamboat captain, had a reputation in Buffalo as a man of science despite an education that ended with high school. And as arc lamps and incandescent light bulbs replaced gas lamps and candles, Southwick became fascinated by the possibilities of electricity. When a local man was killed instantly after grabbing at the electrodes of a dynamo, Southwick conceived of using electricity as a means to execute criminals instantly and humanely.

He published in technical journals several conceptions of a device which, with Southwick being a dentist, centered on the functional convenience of a chair. His idea caught the fancy of a few powerful influencers, among them Thomas Edison. As an opponent of capital punishment, Edison had no interest in pursuing capital electrocution, and he worried that electrocuting anyone—even on purpose—would make his electrical products seem unsafe in the public mind.

Still, Edison found a way to benefit. Edison’s company developed and sold large-scale electrical distribution and lighting systems to cities and townships throughout the country. His system was based on direct current technology, while that of his chief rival, George Westinghouse, was based on alternating current, a higher-voltage European technology more adaptable for large-scale distribution.

Hoping to demonize the Westinghouse system, Edison deployed proxies to promote, legislate and secure Southwick’s conception as a model for execution in New York. And by June 1888, when Gov. David Hill signed it into law, Edison allies were firmly in control of the technical development of the “electric chair”—actually, three of them: at state prisons in Dannemora, Sing Sing and Auburn, with the use of Westinghouse AC technology a foregone conclusion.

In May 1889, when Kemmler was convicted by a jury in Buffalo and sentenced to death for murdering Matilda Ziegler, it went almost unnoticed he was eligible for electrocution under the new law. But as it dawned on the public that the nation’s first use of electrical execution was on the verge of reality, it also dawned on Westinghouse that Edison’s hand was behind what might prove to be a devastating blow to the AC technology upon which his fortune depended.

Like Edison, Westinghouse downplayed the extent of his involvement, but he bankrolled high-priced lawyers for Kemmler’s appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and moved to block any sale of Westinghouse dynamos, new or used, for the planned execution. And through his own proxies, Westinghouse challenged the validity of the gruesome animal experimentation that had been used—even at Edison’s lab—to test the process.

All of it proved unsuccessful. On Aug. 6, 1890, Kemmler was strapped to a wooden chair, and two electrodes were attached to his shaved scalp and spine. A switch was tripped allowing as much as 1,500 volts to surge through his body. The switch was tripped off after 17 seconds, but when Kemmler’s mouth foamed and chest heaved, an attending doctor declared Kemmler alive and demanded that the current be reapplied. The second surge left burns in Kemmler’s scalp, raising doubts about whether the new technology was, in fact, a humane improvement over the rope. 


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