On this date in 1890, convicted murderer William Kemmler became the first person to be executed in the electric chair. A native of Buffalo, Kemmler was convicted in 1889 of the hatchet murder of his common law wife Tillie. He was sentenced by the court to die in the electric chair at Auburn State Prison.
The sentenced was immediately appealed by Kemmler’s high priced legal team, which was hired by George Westinghouse. Westinghouse feared that the association between alternating current and death would be bad for business (he had even attempted to prevent the prison from obtaining Westinghouse generators for use with the electric chair). The appeal was based on the 8th amendment to the Constitution, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment. Westinghouse testified at a hearing that death by electrocution would be exceptionally painful. Thomas Edison (a proponent of direct current) took the stand and testified that electrocution, if done with sufficient voltage, would be quick and relatively painless. The appeal was eventually denied, but Kemmler’s lawyers appealed to a higher court, which also denied it. By the time the appeal process was exhausted, Kemmler’s original execution warrant had expired. He was brought back to Buffalo for re-sentencing and his execution date was set for August 6, 1890.
On the morning of his execution, Kemmler ate a large breakfast. Prison staff shaved his head where one of the electrodes would make contact. Dressed in a new suit, he was led to the death chamber where the witnesses were assembled. As he was being strapped into the chair, he said, “Now take your time and do it all right, Warden. There is no rush.I don’t want to take any chances on this thing, you know.” Several minutes later, at the warden’s instruction, the switch was thrown by State Electrician Edwin Davis. Two thousand volts surged through Kemmler’s body for seventeen seconds. At that point, convinced he was dead, the command was given to cut the juice. It soon became apparent that Kemmler wasn’t dead. The decision was made to throw the switch again. This time, the electricity was left on for a minute. Witnesses reported hearing a crackling sound and smelling burning flesh. When the electricity was cut, the prison doctor examined Kemmler and declared him dead.
Crime Library – The Electric Chair
NY Times article from August 7, 1890 – “Far worse than Hanging; Kemmler’s Death Proves an Awful Spectacle”