ONE HUNDRED years ago tomorrow, William Kemmler achieved immortality -- not for how he lived but for how he died.
A slow-witted, alcoholic ax-murderer from Buffalo, Kemmler was the first person to pay for his crime in the electric chair. Despite the cowardly nature of his deed, the condemned man acquitted himself well in his final hours. It was the electric chair that fell into disrepute.
The next day, newspapers here and abroad were filled with lurid and often exaggerated accounts of Kemmler's death, written mainly by reporters who were not present at the execution. The New York World alleged that Kemmler was "slowly roasted to death." The Washington Post said he had been "burned and shocked till life was extinct." The New York Herald called the execution "death by torture." A New York Times reporter called the execution a "disgrace to civilization."
The press was joined by both proponents and opponents of capital punishment in calling for quick repeal of the 1888 New York state law that had replaced hanging with the "more humane and practical" electrocution method. One critic was the great American inventor and business tycoon, George Westinghouse, who had fought unsuccessfully to prevent the use of his company's dynamos to generate the electricity for the execution. "It has been a brutal affair," he said. "They could have done better with an ax."
It was Kemmler's own use of an ax -- or rather a hatchet -- that had put him in the electric chair. On March 29, 1889, the 28-year-old Kemmler -- who worked as a produce huckster in the local markets -- killed his common-law wife, Matilda "Tillie" Ziegler, by striking her more than 25 times on the head, neck and shoulders with the hatchet during a drunken row in their squalid apartment.
A native of Philadelphia, he reportedly had deserted a wife and run off with "the Ziegler woman" and her small child about 18 months before the murder. The press labeled him "a brutish ignorant drunkard" and described him as "repulsive in appearance," although artists' sketches showed a short, ordinary-looking individual with dark wavy hair and a full beard and moustache.
The wheels of justice apparently turned a bit swifter a century ago. Kemmler was brought to trial on May 6 -- just 5 1/2 weeks after the crime -- and convicted of first-degree murder four days later. On May 13, Kemmler became the first man to be sentenced under New York's new capital punishment law. The pronouncement by a certain Judge Childs of the Court of Oyer and Terminer in and for Erie County was simple and direct and would become the model in hundreds of murder cases that followed:
"The sentence of this court is that for the crime of murder in the first degree, whereof you stand convicted . . . you suffer the punishment of death to be inflicted by the application of electricity as provided by the Code of Criminal Procedure of the State of New York."
Kemmler was ordered to the state prison at Auburn where, in keeping with the new law, he was to be held in solitary confinement until the sentence could be carried out. Execution was set for the week beginning June 24. Warden Charles F. Durston of Auburn had the responsibility for picking the exact date and time.
New York had adopted the electrocution method on the recommendation of a special commission established by the state legislature in 1886 "to investigate and report upon the most humane and practical method known to medical science of carrying into effect the sentence of death in capital cases." On Jan. 17, 1888, the commission reported that it had reviewed the various methods of executing criminals down through the ages and had rejected all of them. The guillotine was too bloody, the garrote too barbarous, shooting too uncertain and revolting (except for military executions) and hanging too often bungled. The preferred method, it said, was electrocution. The legislature agreed with little opposition, and on June 4 Gov. David B. Hill signed the legislation. As of the following Jan. 1, New York's condemned would die by electrocution.
Not everyone believed the new method would prove more humane. Lawyers charged that electrocution violated federal and state constitutional guarantees against "cruel and unusual punishment." Scientists challenged the capability of electricity to bring about swift and certain death. Electricians haggled over the respective merits of alternating and direct currents (AC and DC).
Kemmler's attorney relied on both the constitutional and technical arguments against electrocution, and the appeal process seemed endless in an era of swift justice, dragging on for more than one year. One witness was Thomas Alva Edison, "The Wizard of Menlo Park" himself. Edison testified that, in his opinion, an electric current of 1,000 volts would kill instantly, painlessly and in every case. He also endorsed AC as the preferred current, noting that DC "doesn't seem to have much effect on the nerves."
Meanwhile, a special committee was testing the new equipment on a variety of animals -- including large dogs, several calves, a young bull and a horse weighing more than 1,000 pounds. Death, it reported, was instantaneous. The experiments also seemed to establish the lethal superiority of AC over DC, raising the ire of AC supporters like George Westinghouse who feared the public now might perceive AC as the more dangerous method and resist its nationwide adoption. Westinghouse reportedly even helped to finance Kemmler's appeal at a cost of well over $100,000.
On May 23, 1890, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the defense counsel's application for a writ of error. On July 3, after a few more unsuccessful legal skirmishes, the convicted murderer once again went before Judge Childs and was scheduled to be executed the week beginning Aug. 4.
Warden Durston did his best to keep the exact time and date of the execution a secret as required by law, but Auburn was far too small and close-knit a community for the ploy to be successful. Though the press was prohibited by law from publishing details of the execution, it enthusiastically ignored the proscription.
On Aug. 6, the curious began gathering outside the prison gates as early as 4 a.m. By 7 a.m., one newspaper reported, "it seemed as if all Auburn had congregated in the immediate neighborhood of the prison."
Inside the cell, Kemmler made final preparations. He took great care in dressing in a new suit of "gray mixed goods" provided by the warden, a white linen shirt and a checked linen tie fashioned into a bow knot. His shoes were well polished. He spent considerable time combing and brushing his wavy brown hair and was distressed to learn it would have to be clipped to ensure a clean contact with the electrode. The job was performed so inexpertly that the top of his head, by one account, had "the appearance of a great scar."
Shortly before 6:30 a.m., Durston read aloud Kemmler's death warrant and then led him to the execution room, where more than a score of witnesses representing the medical, legal and penal communities were gathered around an oak chair rigged and wired to carry out the sentence.
By all reports, Kemmler was the calmest person in the room. After Durston introduced him to the witnesses, Kemmler delivered a short statement reported with slight variations in different publications. In essence, he said:
"Gentlemen, I wish everyone all the good luck in the world. I believe I am going to a good place. The papers have been saying a lot of stuff that ain't so. That's all I have to say."
Durston and several assistants then began preparing Kemmler for execution. Using a pocket knife, the warden cut a piece from the back of the condemned man's shirt to ensure a clean contact between the electrode and the skin at the base of the spine. As leather straps were adjusted across the chest and around his arms and legs, Kemmler several times offered unsolicited advice.
Then the warden put his right hand on the condemned man's head, pulled it back gently against the rubber cushion and applied the leather harness designed to hold the head in place and largely mask the face. Kemmler asked Durston to make sure the harness was tight, and when the electrode was applied to the top of the head, he said, "You'd better press that down further." The warden did as he was asked.
It now was 6:43 a.m. and Kemmler had run out of time. Durston stepped back, said "Goodbye, William" and gave a signal to the unidentified executioner in the next room.
The witnesses heard a "click" and the electricity began coursing through the condemned man's body. He strained against the leather straps and, according to the deputy coroner of New York, "his shoulders slowly drew up as they sometimes do in the case of a man who is hanging." The power was shut down after approximately 17 seconds when two attending physicians, E.C. Spitzka and Carlos MacDonald, determined through observation that the man in the chair was dead.
But to their horror, the witnesses suddenly realized that Kemmler was still alive. Confusion and panic followed -- a grisly fiasco that would horrify the public and renew debate about capital punishment. Details varied with the telling but not the substance. Dr. Lewis Balch, secretary of the New York State Board of Health, probably was as reliable a witness as anyone:
"A few seconds after the connection had been broken, signs of life were discovered. Consciousness did not return, but the heart and lungs resumed their functions to a minor extent. The breathing became labored and blowing in character, while some frothy mucus drooled from the mouth."
"Great God, he is alive!" someone cried. "Turn on the current!" others shouted. But the dynamo was some distance from the switchboard and it took several minutes to restore power.
According to some estimates, the second application of power continued for more than four minutes, although MacDonald reported to the governor it was only a minute and a half. In any event, a "terrible stench" of burning flesh and singed hair soon permeated the small room.
The grotesque scenario proved too much for some of the witnesses. Several were reported "prostrate." One doctor opened a window and began gulping fresh air. The district attorney from Erie County, who had prosecuted the case, bolted from the room and collapsed in the hall.
Power finally was shut off at approximately 6:51 a.m. Kemmler had been in the chair for eight minutes since the first electrical jolt. The doctors once again pronounced him dead. This time they were right.
The "poor wretch," as the newspaper accounts now referred to Kemmler, was removed from the chair and placed on a dissecting table that had been pushed into place. However, the attending physicians decided to wait until the body had "cooled down" before they performed the required autopsy. They wanted to preclude any allegations that Kemmler had died under the knife rather than from the electric current.
The autopsy was conducted three hours later by a team of doctors. Their opinion was that Kemmler had been rendered instantly unconscious by the first electrical jolt and apparently remained so throughout the ordeal, ensuring that his death was painless.
Additionally, they said, the fact that Kemmler was not killed instantaneously was the result of improper contact or of insufficient voltage or pressure. In short, the fault was in the machine and not in the method.
But these assurances did little to calm the public outrage that followed. Many demanded a return to hanging while others sought to capitalize on the incident to ban all forms of capital punishment. Dr. George F. Shrady, editor of the Medical Record of New York and an eyewitness to the execution, wrote an editorial that was telegraphed to major newspapers.
"Although science has triumphed, the question of the humanity of the act is still an open one . . . ," he said. "We venture to predict that public opinion will soon banish the death chair, as it has done the rope, and imprisonment for life will be the only proper punishment meted out to a murderer . . . ."
Shrady and the others who shared his views were wrong -- dead wrong. Electrocutions in New York resumed on July 7, 1891, when four men were executed on the same day at the state prison in Ossining (Sing Sing). A system of flag signals was set up -- with each man designated by a different color -- to alert the outside world of the progress of the executions. Lewis E. Lawes, who later would became a legendary warden at Sing Sing, noted in a memoir that this time the executions were carried out with military-like precision: "Sing Sing's first electrocution required, on average, a half hour per man, including the raising of the flag."
Precise statistics are hard to come by, but apparently at least 4,100 people have died in the electric chair since William Kemmler led the way a century ago. Today more than 2,000 prisoners await execution -- about 900 of them in the 14 states that still prefer electrocution to hanging, the firing squad, the gas chamber or -- the new candidate for most humane -- lethal injection.
No one knew more about the electric chair than Robert G. Elliott, who threw the switch for 400 condemned men and women in several states over four decades -- including anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, Lindbergh baby kidnapper/murderer Bruno Hauptmann and Ruth Snyder, the first woman to die in the chair. Yet despite his career as a professional executioner, Elliott maintained in his autobiography: "I believe that capital punishment serves no useful purpose and is a form of revenge . . . . I hope the day is not far away when legal slaying . . . is outlawed throughout the United States."
John Leyden is a free-lance writer who lives in Davidsonville, Md.