Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The First Execution by Electrocution

     I am distracted by articles completely unrelated to my research subject when I am poking through old newspapers, like the headline in the August 14, 1890 Barrie Examiner which caught my eye "Execution by Electricity". It would appear as though the first execution by these means was not a success, the editor declines to describe the details of what went wrong but simply states they are sickening and harrowing. Even the inventor of the process, who had gone through a competitive bidding war against George Westinghouse to obtain the contract, Thomas Edison agreed that the work was 'sadly' blundered. One can only imagine how awful it was.
     The editor of the Medical Record of New York and eyewitness to the execution, Dr. Shrady is quoted as saying if this system was generally adopted with the same problems, the public would soon demand an end to capital punishment. Westinghouse was later widely quoted as saying "It could have been done better with an ax."
      The unfortunate, who was dispatched in such a disgusting fashion, was William Kemmler from Buffalo, New York. He was convicted of murdering his girlfriend Mrs. Tillie Ziegler. They were both married to others but had abandoned these relationships and were living together. Kemmler had a jealous disposition and beat Tillie to death in a drunken rage.
      The Aberdeen Evening Express had no qualms about giving greater details on the execution. Kemmler had to be strapped in, a long and fiddly process but he managed to remain calm. The first blast of current failed to kill him and, as he was appearing to recover consciousness, the 'dynamo' had to be restarted. On the second try, the prisoner began to drool, convulse and moan and the electricity remained on for 73 seconds or four and a half minutes (depending on which account you read) of awful, while a vapour emerged from the top of the head and the room filled with a stench of burning flesh.
     The botched execution of Eduard Delacroix scene in The Green Mile film is very close to how this execution ran. Newspapers widely predicted that this form of execution would be swiftly abandoned. They were wrong.

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