I like to think of myself as a charitable sort of cove but it is difficult to find much sympathy for a convicted felon, particularly one who has been convicted of a brutal murder. However, I experienced a scintilla of sympathy when I came across the fate of William Kemmler.
Kemmler was born in Philadelphia and after dropping out of school at the age of ten to work in his father’s butcher shop, became a peddler after the death of his parents and earned enough to own a horse and cart. Unfortunately, he drank heavily, becoming an infamous drunkard in the neighbourhood. One of his escapades after imbibing too much of Sir John Strawberry was to attempt to jump an eight foot fence with his horse and cart, Inevitably, it led to disaster, causing him to lose both the horse and his cart.
On March 29th 1889 Kemmler murdered his common-law wife, Matilda Zeigler, with a hatchet and was sentenced to death by electrocution at New York’s Auburn Prison. What was unusual about Kemmler’s sentence was that he was going to be the first person to be executed by this new-fangled killing machine.
On 6th August 1890, the day appointed for his execution, Kemmler was woken up at 5 am, dressed himself in a suit, tie and white shirt and had the top of his head shaved. After breakfast and prayers, he was led to the execution room at 6.38 am to find 17 witnesses in attendance. He is reported to have looked at the chair and said to his audience, “Gentlemen, I wish you all good luck. I believe I am going to a good place, and I am ready to go”. He then sat down on the chair but was ordered to stand up again so that a second hole could be cut into his suit to allow another electric lead to be attached to him. Sitting down again, he was strapped to the chair, had his face covered and a metal restraint was put on his bare head. Kemmler is then reported to have said, “Take it easy and do it properly, I’m in no hurry”. The warden, Charles Durston responded by wishing him farewell and ordered the switch to be thrown.
The generator, which had been trialed on a horse, was supposed to pass 1,000 volts into the unfortunate, inducing a cardiac arrest and a swift lapse into unconsciousness. After 17 seconds he was pronounced dead and the current was switched off.
Unfortunately, several of the witnesses noticed that Kemmler was still breathing and on further examination two of the medics in attendance confirmed that he had indeed survived the ordeal.
The current was switched on again and this time 2,000 volts were passed through the felon’s body, causing blood vessels under the skin to rupture and bleed. An awful odour started to permeate this chamber of horrors as the hair around the electrode on his head and the skin around the second electrode started to singe.
In all it took eight minutes to complete the execution and some of the witnesses reported that the spectacle was so awful that it was worse than a hanging. George Westinghouse, whose AC system the electric chair used, commented that they would have been better off using an axe.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, the electric chair became the method of choice for executing felons in the States.