Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Electric Chair

Horrifying Mistakes

Electric chair to be introduced soon in New York (CORBIS)
Electric chair to be introduced soon in
New York (CORBIS)

Only a few details remained—Kemmler was brought back to Buffalo to be resentenced, as all his previous execution warrants were expired.  His execution would now take place between August 3 and August 6, 1890.  When the call went out for the official witnesses to report to the prison, crowds began to gather outside.  Witnesses were to report on August 5, and among them were Alfred Southwick and George Fell, there to see their idea finally realized.  Kemmler was informed that he would be executed at 6:00 a.m., August 6.  Though he paced and seemed nervous, he did not lose control.  Upon waking on the 6th he dressed hurriedly in a suit which had been chosen for him.  He walked resolutely to the death chamber.  Asked if he had anything to say, he stated, "Well, gentlemen, I wish everyone good luck in this world.  And I think I am going to a good place and the papers have been saying a lot of stuff that isn't so."  The warden's hands shook as he fastened the straps that would secure Kemmler to the chair.  Kemmler chided him:  "My God, warden, can't you keep cool?  Take your time.  Don't be in a hurry."  An electrode, in the form of a metal cap containing a sponge, was attached to his head.  Another electrode was attached to his spine, so as to provide a clear path through the body for the current.  The electrodes were moistened with a saline solution.

In another room, the Westinghouse generator hummed as it increased power.  Lamps on its control panel lighted up, indicating that it had reached 2000 volts, which had been determined through experiments to be the optimal voltage for killing a human being.  Edwin Davis then pulled the switch that allowed current to flow to the chair.  Electricity coursed through William Kemmler for seventeen seconds.  He convulsed against the straps and turned bright red.  When the current was stopped, Albert Southwick exclaimed, "There is the culmination of ten years work and study!!  We live in a higher civilization from this day."

But there was a problem.  Kemmler wasn't dead.  Officials hurriedly gave the order to turn the current back on, but some time elapsed, as the generator had been turned off and needed time to gather power again.  Meanwhile, Kemmler groaned and struggled for breath.  The witnesses were horrified.  When the generator again reached 2000 volts the current was again switched into the chair.  This time it was kept on for over a minute.  Smoke rose from Kemmler's head.  There was a smell of burning flesh and a curious crackling sound.   When the current was shut off, Kemmler was dead. 

Media coverage of the event ranged from sober to sensational.  Some newspaper reports claimed that flames had shot from Kemmler's mouth.  Some of the witnesses were troubled by what they saw and said so to reporters.  Though there was considerable public outcry, it was not enough to move legislators to repeal the electrocution law.

Both Harold Brown and Thomas Edison claimed, despite evidence to the contrary, that Kemmler had been killed painlessly within the first second that the current flowed.  Edison suggested, however, that future executions should be conducted with more powerful generators and a different method of applying the current. 

An execution by electrocution (CORBIS)
An execution by electrocution

The next electrocutions took place in the spring of 1891.  Four murderers, each convicted of a different murder, were executed at Sing Sing Prison.  James Slocum, Harris Smiler, Schichiok Jugigo and Joseph Wood were executed in a modified version of the system used at Auburn Prison.  The generator was better able to supply steady high voltage current, and thicker wires were used.  The second electrodes were placed on the condemned men's calves rather than at their spines.  These executions went more smoothly, clearing the way for acceptance of the electric chair as a widely accepted means of carrying out death sentences.

Edison had won his battle against Westinghouse for the time being, but would not prevail in the long run.  Direct current systems quickly fell out of favor and were replaced by alternating current, which became the national standard.  Rather than proving his system superior, Edison's machinations had only served to besmirch his reputation.

We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'