Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Electric Chair


William Kemmler was an illiterate, alcoholic vegetable peddler in Buffalo. Considering the squalor of the Buffalo slum in which he lived, he was successful—he owned his business, which employed several neighborhood men and boys. Kemmler, though, did not aspire to finer things. His passion was drink, and he preferred to drink in the roughest bars in Buffalo. Kemmler was also a jealous man. His common-law wife Tillie Ziegler had left her first husband in Philadelphia to accompany Kemmler to Buffalo. Now he feared that she would leave him and return to Philadelphia. They argued constantly, and Kemmler tried to extinguish his anger with constant drinking.

On the morning of March 29, 1889 William Kemmler was drinking beer, trying to soothe a hangover brought on by a furious night of drinking. John Debella, one of his employees, had come to fetch him for work, and Tillie spoke pleasantly to him, asking him to get some things for her from the market. Kemmler was enraged. He told Tillie that he had noticed that she had packed her trunk to leave, whereupon she claimed that she had merely straightened its contents. Kemmler raged that Tillie had plans to run away with Debella, that she had been deceiving him, and that she had stolen money from him. Finally, Tillie shouted back that it was all true. Whether the admission was indeed true or was brought on by anger and frustration was never determined. Kemmler, now quiet, left the house and went to the barn. He returned with a hatchet, with which he struck Tillie repeatedly. When he was finished he went to a neighbor's house. "I killed her," he said. "I had to do it. I meant to. I killed her and I'll take the rope for it."

Electric chair in Auburn, New York (CORBIS)
Electric chair in Auburn, New York

Kemmler's trial was short. On May 10 he was convicted of first degree murder. On May 13 he was sentenced to death, which was to take place within three weeks. William Kemmler was the first man in New York sentenced to death in 1889. Thus, he was to be the first man ever executed using electricity. Almost immediately a temporary stay of execution was granted, based on an appeal filed by W. Bourke Cockran. The new device, Cockran claimed, violated the Eighth Amendment, as it was cruel and unusual punishment.

Cockran was a high-priced lawyer, and the fact that he was taking interest in Kemmler, a lowly vegetable peddler drew some attention. Cockran claimed only to be working in the interest of humanity. In fact, he was hired by George Westinghouse. Westinghouse and his allies had tried desperately to keep Harold Brown from acquiring Westinghouse generators for use in the new apparatus. So diligent was Westinghouse that Brown had to buy used generators, ship them to Brazil, then have them shipped back to America. In his dealings with the press he was always careful to point out that the generators to be used were made by Westinghouse, and that they used deadly alternating current. By hiring Cockran to step in on Kemmler's behalf Westinghouse was trying to keep his name and business from a potentially ruinous association with death.

Kemmler's stay was granted by Judge Edwin Day, who appointed lawyer Tracy C. Becker to conduct the hearings, which would explore Cockran's claims. The hearings began on July 9, and Cockran was allowed to present his case first. The main thrust of his argument was that electricity was unpredictable. Among his witnesses were men who had taken shocks of huge voltages and lived to tell the tale. Other witnesses had conducted animal experiments in which some subjects lived through jolts that should have killed them. The key to the argument was resistance—the ability of a substance or thing to impede the flow of electrical current. Resistance, Cockran claimed, differed greatly from person to person, and there was no reliable way to tell if a man would be killed instantly or would suffer through ever increasing voltages until he expired.

The State's case was argued by Deputy Attorney General William Poste. Resistance, the State's witnesses claimed, became irrelevant at such voltages as would be used in the electric chair. As long as the electrodes maintained good contact with the condemned man's skin, they said, death would be instantaneous and painless. The State's star witness testified on July 23. Thomas Edison strongly disagreed with Cockran's witnesses, calling their arguments nonsense. As long as sufficient voltages were used, the electric chair would work quickly and humanely, he claimed. He was careful to point out that those voltages should be delivered in alternating current, and mentioned Westinghouse generators by name.

Becker submitted results from the hearings to Judge Day on September 17. On the same day both sides presented their closing arguments. On October 9 Judge Day ruled in favor of the State. Kemmler was to be executed as planned. Cockran appealed the decision with the State Court of Appeals, which would hear the case on February 25, 1890. Meanwhile, William Kemmler languished at Auburn prison, and Harold Brown had already conducted preliminary tests on the electric chairs he had assembled at three New York prisons.

The State Court of Appeals decided quickly—it found no merit to Cockran's arguments regarding the Eighth Amendment. Kemmler's execution would proceed. For a time it seemed as if Kemmler's life was coming quickly to a close. The electric chair at Auburn prison stood ready. Prison inmates had finished building Kemmler's coffin, and the prison warden had alerted the witnesses who were to be present at the execution. But on May 2 Roger Sherman, another attorney hired by Westinghouse, arrived in Buffalo with an order bearing the signature of the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Kemmler's case was to be heard by the highest court in the country. On May 5 the Court granted another stay. They would hear the case on May 21.

Chief Justice Melville Fuller (Corbis)
Chief Justice Melville Fuller

Sherman argued again that to execute Kemmler by means of electricity was cruel and unusual punishment and would violate his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Again, the State argued that electrocution was indeed humane, that much research and consideration had gone into making it so, and that the law was supported by all the governing bodies and courts of New York. On May 23, Chief Justice Melville Fuller delivered the Court's opinion—Kemmler's appeal was denied. The Court found that New York's law did not violate the Constitution and should stand. William Kemmler would be executed at Auburn Prison.

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