Crime History Hot Seat: William Kemmler And The Electric Chair’s 1890 Debut

William Kemmler, sketch portrait [WikiMedia Commons]

In a Buffalo, New York, slum on March 29, 1889 — just after breakfast — impoverished tradesman and butcher’s assistant William Kemmler announced he could take no more.

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Kemmler accused Tillie Ziegler, his common-law wife, of repeatedly squandering what little money the couple had on salacious affairs with both men and women. He told her to stop. She told him where he could go. He grabbed an ax. She didn’t make it out of the kitchen in one recognizably human piece.

Investigations suggest that Kemmler’s suspicions about Ziegler’s adulterous doings may well have been accurate. Still, sleeping around is no capital offense, nor was Kemmler in any position to have acted as an executioner.

And, in 1889 New York, chopping up your live-in lover — or anybody — very much was a capital transgression, and thus did Kemmler quickly come to have a date with his own executioner.

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Kemmler was cool with it, though. Right after the murder, he ran and told neighbors, “I’m glad I’ve killed her. I had to do it, and I’m willing to hang for it.”

William Kemmler, artist's portrait [WikiMedia Commons]

William Kemmler, artist’s portrait [WikiMedia Commons]

William Kemmler, however, would not hang for the crime. Instead, he would become humanity’s first criminal to be executed by means of an electric chair.

The same year that Tillie Ziegler met the business end of Kemmler’s hatchet, New York State enacted the Electrical Execution Law. The decree ordered that all future New York implementations of the death penalty would be done by zapping rather than with rope, guns, or gas.

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Authorities believed electrocution would be a more humane means of dispatching the condemned. The idea first arose in 1881, after Buffalo dentist Dr. Alfred Sedgwick saw a drunk accidentally bump into the terminals of an electric generator and die instantly and, he figured, “painlessly.”

Based on Sedgwick’s design, Auburn Prison electrician Edwin R. Davis constructed the first electric chair while Kemmler’s lawyers attempted to appeal this specific nature of their client’s sentence. The appeals failed and Kemmler’s fate-to-fry was sealed.

Replica of the first electric chair, from Louisiana State Penitentiary, West Feliciana Parish

Replica of the first electric chair, from Louisiana State Penitentiary, West Feliciana Parish [WikiMedia Commons]

On August 6, 1890, guards strapped William Kemmler into the electric chair in Auburn’s death chamber, and the doomed convict took his hot seat atop history.

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The device’s essential design closely resembles the modern version. It featured rubber-coated electrodes to be attached to the prisoner’s head and back, and a helmet under which a damp sponge would be placed to carry the charge.

At 6:45 A.M., Kemmler spoke his last words: “Good-bye, and I wish you all good luck, boys.” It then took two flips of the switch to kill him.

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The first shock lasted 17 seconds, and sent 700 volts through Kemmler’s body. He stretched, twisted, and convulsed. Onlookers reported smelling charred flesh. Still, he remained alive.

A second blast of 1,030 volts went on for more than two minutes. Kemmler frothed at the mouth, and his ears billowed smoke. The electrode on Kemmler’s back burned clear through to his spine. That follow-up jolt finally did him in.

The execution of William Kemmler, artist's rendering [WikiMedia Commons]

The execution of William Kemmler, artist’s rendering [WikiMedia Commons]

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Witnesses to the execution largely reported being completely freaked out by what they saw. Among them was the esteemed Dr. Frederick Shrady, who went on to conduct Kemmler’s autopsy.

Afterward, Dr. Shrady said, “The execution was brutal – worse, I think, than hanging. It probably was not painful, but the failure to kill at the first application was barbarous.” After the full medical examination, Dr. Shrady would change his position and conclude that the execution was likely to have been very painful.

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In short order, the electric chair became the United States’ standard means of execution. It remained so for almost an entire century, until lethal injection came to prominence in the 1980s.

To date, the U.S. has put 128 prisoners to death using the electric chair. The state that tops the list at 29 is George Kemmler’s old chopping grounds itself — New York.

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Main image: William Kemmler, sketch portrait [WikiMedia Commons]

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