William Kemmler (May 9, 1860 – August 6, 1890) of Buffalo, New York was a convicted murderer and the first person in the world to be executed using an electric chair.
Murder, trial, and appeals
Kemmler murdered Tillie Ziegler, his common-law wife, with a hatchet on March 29, 1889, and was sentenced to death by electrocution at New York's Auburn Prison. His lawyers appealed, arguing that electrocution was cruel and unusual punishment. George Westinghouse, one of the backers of alternating current as the standard for the distribution of main power, supported his appeal. The appeal failed, partly due to the support of Thomas Edison for the state's position (Edison was a backer of direct current power supplies, and it is speculated he wanted to use the publicity surrounding the electric chair to convince people that AC was dangerous).
The practical details of the chair were finalized by the first State Electrician, Edwin Davis.
On the morning of his execution, August 6, 1890, Kemmler was awakened at 5:00 a.m. He dressed quickly and put on a suit, necktie, and white shirt. After breakfast and some prayer, the top of his head was shaved. At 6:38 a.m., Kemmler entered the execution room and Warden Charles Durston presented Kemmler to the 17 witnesses in attendance. Kemmler looked at the chair and said: "Gentlemen, I wish you luck. I'm sure I'll get a good place, and I'm ready."
Witnesses remarked Kemmler was composed at his execution; he did not scream, cry, or resist in any way. He sat down on the chair, but was ordered up by the warden so a hole could be cut in his suit through which a second electrical lead could be attached. This was done and Kemmler sat down again. He was strapped to the chair, his face was covered and the metal restraint put on his bare head, saying "Take it easy and do it properly, I'm in no hurry." Durston replied "Goodbye William" and ordered the switch thrown.
The generator was charged with the 1,000 volts, which was assumed to be adequate to induce quick unconsciousness and cardiac arrest. The chair had already been thoroughly tested; a horse had been successfully electrocuted the day before.
Current was passed through Kemmler for 17 seconds. The power was turned off and Kemmler was declared dead by Dr. Edward Charles Spitzka.
However, witnesses noticed Kemmler was still breathing. The attending physicians, Dr. Spitzka and Dr. Charles F. Macdonald, came forward to examine Kemmler. After confirming Kemmler was still alive, Spitzka reportedly called out, "Have the current turned on again, quick — no delay."
In the second attempt, Kemmler was shocked with 2,000 volts. Blood vessels under the skin ruptured and bled and some witnesses claim his body caught fire. Witnesses reported the smell of burning flesh and several nauseated spectators unsuccessfully tried to leave the room.
In all, the entire execution took approximately eight minutes. The competitive newspaper reporters covering the Kemmler execution jumped on the abnormalities as each newspaper source tried to outdo each other with sensational headlines and reports. A reporter who witnessed it also said it was "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging." Westinghouse later commented: "They would have done better using an axe."
La première exécution d'un condamné à mort par l'éléctricité in La Nature, №901, 06 septembre 1890, pp.209-211 (French)
John L. CAROLL, Death Row. Hope for the future, Challenging Capital Punishment, London, 1988, pp.269-288
Jean-Claude BEAUNE, Les spectres mécaniques. essai sur les relations entre la mort et les techniques, Seyssel, Champ Vallon, 1988 (French)
Marc VANDEN BERGHE, De l'utopie de la "mort propre" à la chaise électrique : l'affaire Kemmler in La Revue Générale, Brussels, août/septembre 1996, pp.31-42 (French)
Craig BRANDON, The Electric Chair. An American Unnatural History, McFarland & Company, 1999
Moran, Richard (2002). Executioner's current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and the Invention of the Electric Chair. New York: Random House.
Babyak, Richard. "Current". pp. 5.