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: march 20, 1933


On this date in 1933, would be presidential assassin Giuseppe Zangara was executed in the Florida electric chair. Forty-five days prior to his execution, Zangara had tried to assassinate President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. He missed Roosevelt, but managed to shoot several other people, including Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. Cermak later died of his wounds.

The general consensus among historians is that Roosevelt was the intended target, and that Cermak was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But there is another school of thought: Cermak was the real target. As the story goes, Cermak was behind the attempted assassination of Chicago Outfit boss Frank Nitti. The designated hitters for that job were officers of the Chicago PD, who claimed that they shot Nitti in self defense. Nitti survived the shooting and stood trial for his supposed assault on the officers. The jury didn’t buy it, and Nitti was acquitted. The officers, on the other hand, were eventually charged with assault. One flipped on the other, and they were both convicted and fined $100 each.

As payback for the attempt on Nitti’s life, the Outfit supposedly contracted Sicilian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara to kill Cermak. The hit went down as planned, and Zanagara took the fall as a “crazed gunman.” Of course, there’s not much proof to support this theory, which is fairly standard for conspiracy theories. But it makes for an interesting story. Maybe Oliver Stone will make a movie about it someday.

Further reading:

Awesome Stories: Frank Nitti – The Enforcer

Chicago TribuneThe Shooting of Anton Cermak

Executed Today – 1933: Giuseppe Zangara, who is not on Sons of Italy posters

this day in crime history: march 4, 1944

On this date in 1944, it was the big adiós for Louis “Lepke” Buchalter and two of his henchmen. Lepke Buchalter and Albert “Mad Hatter” Anastasia ran the stable of killers that the media of the day tagged “Murder, Incorporated.” Buchalter, along with Murder, Inc. members Emanuel “Mendy” Weiss and Louis Capone (no relation to big Al), was convicted and sentenced to death for the killing of Brooklyn candy store owner Joseph Rosen. All three men were executed within minutes of each other in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison.

Further reading:

AmericanMafia.com – The Last Days of Lepke Buchalter, et al

Wikipedia – Murder, Inc.

this day in crime history: september 6, 1901

On this date in 1901, US President William McKinley was shot at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. President McKinley died eight days later from his wounds. Czolgosz was subdued at the scene by the crowd and taken into custody. He was tried in NY State court and convicted of murder. He was executed in the electric chair at Auburn Prison on October 29, 1901.

This video is of a reenactment of the execution of Leon Czolgosz. The original film was shot by Thomas Edison in 1901.

Further reading:

The American Experience: Leon Czolgosz

The Trial and execution of Leon Czolgosz

Wikipedia: Leon Czolgosz

this day in crime history: august 23, 1927

On this date in 1927, Ferdinando Nicola Sacco (above right) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (above left) were executed in the Massachusetts electric chair for an armed robbery that resulted in the deaths of a paymaster and a security guard. Controversy still rages to this day as to the guilt of the men, but their convictions have yet to be overturned.

Further reading:

The Sacco-Vanzetti Case

Wikipedia – Sacco and Vanzetti

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: may 20, 1899

slowdown

On this date in 1899, taxi driver Jacob German was arrested for speeding in New York City. German was operating his electric car at the breakneck pace of twelve miles per hour, four miles per hour over the speed limit. German is believed to be the first person cited for speeding in the United States.

Further reading:

The First Speeding Infraction in the U.S. was Committed by a New York City Taxi Driver in an Electric Car on May 20, 1899

US’ First-Ever Speeding Infraction Issued to Electric Vehicle in 1899