this day in crime history: august 6, 1890

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.

Further reading:

Crime Museum – Electrocution

NY Times article from August 7, 1890 – “Far worse than Hanging; Kemmler’s Death Proves an Awful Spectacle”

this day in crime history: august 4, 1892

Lizzie Borden

On this date in 1892:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.

Of course Lizzie was acquitted of the murders. So technically, the case remains unsolved. You can read all about it at the Crime Museum’s Crime Library.

You can sleep in Lizzie’s old bedroom at the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast, where live re-enactments are performed for guests. There’s also a gift shop where you can buy Lizzie Borden memorabilia, like the Lizzie Borden Hatchet Cookie Cutter. Sounds like a nice spot for a romantic weekend getaway.

this day in crime history: august 2, 1876

On this day in 1876, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was murdered in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Hickok was playing poker, his back to the door, when a man named Jack McCall walked up and shot Wild Bill in the back of the head. Hickok was holding two pair, aces and eights: the “dead man’s hand.”

The motive for the murder was never clear. McCall claimed he was avenging the killing of his brother by Hickok. A trial was held in Deadwood and McCall was acquitted and told to leave Deadwood. As it turns out, McCall may have never had a brother. So much for the justice system.

But all was not lost. McCall, as dumbass crooks often do, bragged about killing Hickok. He was eventually arrested and taken to Yankton, Dakota Territory for trial. It turns out that Deadwood was an illegal town, as it was built on Indian land (like they say in the real estate biz, it’s all about “location, location, location!”). Consequently, the trial that was held there was not legit, so a trial in Yankton wouldn’t constitute double jeopardy (“I’ll take screwed, blued, and tattooed for $1000, Alex”). McCall was tried and found guilty. He was hanged (I’m not sure if he was hung, you’ll have to ask Mrs. McCall) on March 1, 1877. Legend has it that when his body was exhumed in 1881, it was discovered that he’d been buried with the noose still around his neck.

Further reading:

Legends of America: Jack McCall – Cowardly Killer of Wild Bill Hickok

John “Jack” McCall Trials

this day in crime history: july 31, 1945

On this date in 1945, inmate John Giles escaped from the federal prison at Alcatraz. Giles, a convicted train robber, worked on the prison’s dock loading and unloading military uniforms that were cleaned in the prison laundry. Over a period of time, Giles managed to steal a complete uniform, which he hid from guards. While dressed in the uniform, he boarded a ferry carrying a forged pass and left the island, headed for freedom. Or so he thought.

Luck and math weren’t working in Giles’s favor. The guards at Alcatraz soon realized they were one inmate short on their dock detail. And the senior officer on the ferry saw that he had somehow picked up an extra soldier. When the ferry arrived at its destination, nearby Angel Island (not San Francisco, as Giles had hoped), Giles stepped off the boat and into the hands of Alcatraz guards.

Further reading (and viewing):

Alcatraz History – Alcatraz Escape Attempts

Video – John Giles 1945 Escape Attempt

this day in crime history: july 30, 1975

On this date in 1975, former (and wannabe future) teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa disappeared. Hoffa was scheduled to have a sit-down at the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield, MI with Detroit mobster Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone and New Jersey labor leader Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano. Tony Pro, by the way, was also a made member of the Genovese crime family.

Hoffa’s plan was to mount a court challenge to a federal ban on his participation in union activities that would have kept him out of the Teamsters until 1981. With that out of the way, he could challenge his successor Frank Fitzsimmons for control of the Teamsters. Sadly for Jimmy, it looks like the mob had other ideas. He was last seen leaving the restaurant parking lot in an unidentified car.

Further reading:

Crime Museum – Jimmy Hoffa

Wikipedia – Jimmy Hoffa

this day in crime history: july 29, 1976

sonnasam

On this date in 1976, an unidentified man shot two women, 18 year old Donna Lauria and her friend, 19 year old Jody Valenti, while they sat in a car in the Bronx. Lauria died from her wounds, while Valenti survived. These were the first shootings attributed to the “.44 Caliber Killer,” who would later be known as the “Son of Sam.” A year and two days later, postal worker David Berkowitz would be arrested for the crime. Prior to being caught, Berkowitz would go on to kill five more victims and wound another six. Berkowitz was convicted of the crimes and is currently incarcerated at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, NY. His next parole hearing is scheduled for May 2018.

Further reading:

Crime Museum – David Berkowitz | Son of Sam Killer

About.com – The Son of Sam

Wikipedia – David Berkowitz