ON MARCH 29, 1889, WILLIAM KEMM ler killed his lover Matilda (“Tillie”) Ziegler with an ax at their home in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo, it would turn out, was an infelicitous place to have done such a thing. The city was the home of the nation’s first commercially successful alternating-current electrical-transmission system and of a progressive-thinking humane society that had recently introduced the use of electricity to dispose of stray cats and dogs. It was also called “the Electric City of the Future.” Sixteen months later, after protracted legal proceedings, William Kemmler became the first person ever executed by electrocution, in a ceremony witnessed by eminent doctors and members of the national and international press.
The event was presented as the beginning of a new era of humane capital punishment. Dr. George E. Fell, the unofficial executioner’s assistant and one of the pioneers of the new electric chair, declared, “The man never suffered a bit of pain!” Dr. Alfred P. Southwick, a principal proponent of electrocution, proclaimed, “We live in a higher civilization from this day on.” But the press was less sanguine. “Strong men fainted and fell like logs on the floor,” reported the New York Herald . The Times of London said it would be impossible to imagine a more revolting exhibition. The New York Times predicted that “electrical executions would be invariably discredited.” However, despite such poor reviews, the show was to play and play. Ohio introduced electrocution in 1896; Massachusetts followed in 1898. In its heyday, the electric chair was the method of choice for execution in at least twenty states—by far the most popular means of execution.
Riding on a wave of new technology, the electric chair was ostensibly born as a quick and civilized alternative to hanging, but the desire to be humane was hardly the only impulse behind it. It was also the product of the struggle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to dominate the nascent electric-power industry. Edison, the early leader, had developed a direct-current (DC) supply system and installed it in several large cities. Westinghouse had devised a more flexible supply system based on alternating current (AC) and was enjoying remarkable success with it.
In the mid-1880s Edison and Westinghouse were going head to head in a noisy publicity and marketing battle, and the winner would ultimately control the technology for supplying and transmitting electric power in the United States. As Edison found himself losing market share to Westinghouse, he began to attack, first by polemic and then by debate and demonstration. When the dust settled, New Yorkers found themselves owning the first electric chair.
In 1880 the laws of most states provided for capital punishment, usually by hanging. When properly carried out, death by hanging occurs when the condemned falls through a trap door in the gallows apparatus, causing severance of the spinal cord between the second and third vertebrae. The length of the drop is calculated by the hangman after considering the prisoner’s weight, age, and physical condition. If all goes well, unconsciousness is instant and death follows quickly. But when the hangman miscalculates, one of two things can go wrong: If the drop is too short, the prisoner will slowly strangle; if it is too long, tearing of the neck or even decapitation can occur.
A table of appropriate drops was formulated in England by James Berry, a noted hangman of the Victorian period. To avoid mishap, British executioners were required to follow the table, with only slight variations permitted. American hangmen, on the other hand, appear to have usually simply used a six-foot drop. Sometimes that drop produced a cleanly broken neck, but often it did not. Moreover, executions were often carried out by inexperienced hangmen with little knowledge of proper technique. (For example, correctly positioning the knot or ring of the noose relative to the prisoner’s neck is crucial.) Hangmen’s ignorance produced enough horrific scenes, avidly reported by the press, to give opponents of capital punishment plenty of ammunition.
The search for a new method of cleaner execution began in 1881, when Dr. Alfred Southwick, a dentist and former steamboat engineer, saw an elderly drunkard touch the terminals of a live electrical generator in Buffalo. Dr. Southwick marveled at the ease of the man’s passing, and he later described the episode to his friend State Senator Daniel H. McMillan. McMillan was so impressed that he spoke to the recently elected governor of New York, David B. Hill, who in turn asked the state legislature to consider how “the science of the present day” might supplant hanging. After considering the suggestion for a year, the legislature enacted Chapter 352 of the Laws of 1886, entitled “An act to authorize the appointment of a commission to investigate and report to the legislature the most humane and approved method of carrying into effect the sentence of death in capital cases.” Elbridge T. Gerry (grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and commodore of the New York Yacht Club), Dr. Southwick, and the Honorable Matthew Hale of Albany were appointed to the commission on January 17, 1888.
Commodore Gerry’s report was a curious document indeed. It contained a history of capital punishment, including a list of the capital offenses in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; an analysis of various current and former methods of execution; the commission’s recommendations; and a draft of what on January 1, 1889, would become the world’s first Electrical Execution Law. The historical section of the report described in often sensational detail some thirty-three manners of execution—including “the illuminated body” (many small holes drilled in the condemned, filled with oil, and then individually lighted), dichotomy (cutting in half), flaying, and suffocation. It concluded with an analysis of the shortcomings of existing modes of execution “in civilized countries.” The following table summarizes the Gerry Report’s treatment of three of the more popular methods:Guillotine
Advantages: “most merciful”
Disadvantages: “the fatal chop, the raw neck, the spouting blood”
Recommendation: “unhesitatingly rejected”Garrote
Advantages: “celerity and certainty”
Disadvantages: “scarcely less distressing … than is the guillotine”
Recommendation: “not desirable”Shooting
Advantages: “the means needful [for military executions] are always at hand, and competent executioners are in readiness”
Disadvantages: “bloody in its character and effects, would lack … celerity and certainty”
Recommendation: “would not tend … to promote the orderly administration of justice”
When it came to hanging, the commission abandoned its ostensibly evenhanded approach and launched into a twenty-two-page harangue describing in detail its characteristic problems, including uncooperative condemnees, drunken executioners, and chaotic multiple executions. Not surprisingly, the commission recommended that hanging be replaced by a method less likely to cause great suffering.
Having dismissed every method of execution then in practice, the commission unveiled its choice to replace them: “Perhaps the most potent agent known for the destruction of human life is electricity. Death, as a result, is instantaneous upon its application. The application may be made without the slightest injury to the officers charged therewith; the place for its infliction may be strictly private, and at the same time its certainty is beyond a doubt.” Though the commission paused to consider lethal injection with prussic acid, this alternative was dropped because the medical profession objected to the use of hypodermic needles for a purpose contrary to the Hippocratic oath.
The commission polled judges, doctors, and public officials. Eighty of them voted to retain the rope, eighty-seven preferred electricity (some half-heartedly), and thirty-two preferred other methods or were undecided. The Gerry report also carried testimonials to the efficacy of electrocution and Dr. Fell’s account of the Buffalo SPCAs success in putting down stray dogs with the procedure.
Said the commission: “All that would be essential would be a chair, with a head and a foot-rest, in which the condemned could be seated in a semi-reclining position; one electrode would be connected with the head-rest, and the other with the foot-rest.” The commission recommended the purchase of three electric chairs and three AC generators, one each for the Sing Sing, Dannemora, and Auburn state prisons. To be on the safe side, the commission suggested having backup wiring connected to an outside power source “so that under all circumstances and contingencies there could be no failure of sufficient current.”
The commission also recommended that the chair be fired with alternating current. Edison himself wrote: “The most suitable apparatus for the purpose is that class of dynamo-electric machinery which employs intermittent currents. The most effective of these are known as ‘alternating machines.’ The passage of the current from these machines through the human body, even by the slightest contacts, produces instantaneous death.” Why would Edison, champion of DC, endorse the enemy product? Quite simply, to make it seem too lethal for the home.
By 1886 Westinghouse was seriously threatening Edison’s hold on the electric generating and transmission market. Edison had pioneered the utility industry with DC service in 1882, when AC technology was in its infancy. Rapid advances in transformer development and electrical metering, as well as the increasingly obvious cost benefits of the AC system (chiefly due to much lower transmission losses), were beginning to make DC impractical and expensive.
Westinghouse had foreseen the potential of AC, acquired the necessary patents, and provided seed money for its development. Within two years of starting to compete with Edison, Westinghouse had sold his AC system to almost a third of the market. Edison could have hedged his losses by developing a competing AC system, but he preferred to defend his own technology. Nevertheless, by 1887, when copper prices spiraled after a French syndicate cornered the market, Edison realized that if the AC-DC battle was to be fought on economic grounds alone, DC would surely lose. (DC transmission required especially thick copper cables.) Other measures were required.
Inspired by Samuel Insull, his Machiavellian assistant, Edison set out to impeach AC by exaggerating its killing potential. He and his associates in West Orange, New Jersey, bought as many cats and dogs as they could and showed the killing power of AC by coaxing the animals onto a metal plate wired to a 1,000-volt AC generator. The press described these grisly proceedings in generous detail.
At the same time, Edison loosed a barrage of public announcements condemning AC as a safety hazard. He suggested that its dangers could be dealt with by limiting transmissions to 300 volts, thus neatly disposing of AC’s primary advantage: long-distance, high-voltage, low-cost transmission with minimal loss. Typical of these communiqués was a red-lettered pamphlet entitled A Warning , which soberly listed the dangers of AC and the advantages of DC, accompanied by a roll of AC victims.
Supporters and detractors of each system argued their positions in the trade journals in 1887 and 1888. Westinghouse remained publicly blasé about the controversy, and his responses were not nearly as clever or effective as Edison’s attacks. His approach, typified by his famous remark that “alternating current will kill people, of course … so will gunpowder and dynamite and whiskey,” suggests that he didn’t realize that logical arguments are not necessarily winning ones.
In the beginning of 1888 the battle of the currents was still being fought on fairly even terms. Everything changed that June, with the entry into the fray of Harold P. Brown. Brown was an obscure inventor and electrical engineer who realized that the AC-DC controversy could be turned to his personal advantage. On June 5, 1888, the New York Post published a long letter from Brown on the dangers of AC. The letter, entitled “Death in the Wires,” recommended that the New York Board of Electrical Control limit AC transmissions to 300 volts. With his pathetic invocation of the memory of “the poor boy Streif fer, who touched a straggling telegraph wire,” Brown showed a flair for dramatization.
Predictably, the letter irritated proponents of AC. Brown was undeterred but realized that he would soon have to substantiate his case. To prepare himself, he went to West Orange. Edison often allowed members of the public to use his laboratory, but Brown was especially favored. Edison deputed Arthur E. Kennelly, one of his assistants, to work with Brown in determining the lethality of various currents at various strengths. Once again the canine and feline populations of West Orange dropped.
In July 1888 the two researchers had conducted enough tests to support Brown’s theory. They publicized the results at a demonstration at the School of Mines at Columbia University. There on July 30, 1888, Brown addressed an invited audience of electricians, members of the press and the public, and Superintendent Hankinson of the local SPCA.
Brown began his talk by declaring that he represented no company and no financial or commercial interest. Then he proceeded to demonstrate that alternating current would produce instant and painless death at low voltage. With the assistance of Dr. Frederick Peterson, a physician who had studied “medical electricity” in Europe, a large Newfoundland mix was muzzled, loaded into a wire cage, and connected to a pair of cables. A relay device, to cut the power instantly upon application, had been added to the circuitry.
Brown administered a series of DC shocks in increasing voltages. The dog was surprised, perplexed, angered, pained, frightened, and finally, at 1,000 volts DC, agonized—but not killed—by the jolts. By this point a number of people had left the room. Promising to “make him feel better,” Brown finished the animal off with a charge of 330 volts AC, using no relay device.
Brown asserted that the demonstration had proven AC to be more lethal than DC, but a member of the audience suggested that the dog had been weakened by the original DC jolts. Undaunted, Brown called down to the basement for another animal, who was to get a single shot of AC. At this point the SPCA representative stepped in, and the second dog became the first creature ever publicly reprieved from electrocution (it later perished when Brown ran the AC-only variation at a subsequent lecture). The meeting ended with Brown declaring that AC should be permitted only in pounds, slaughterhouses, and prisons.
Meanwhile, the New York legislature had acted on the recommendations of the Gerry commission and passed Chapter 489 of the Laws of New York of 1888, providing for the infliction of the death penalty by “a current of electricity of sufficient intensity to cause death.” The day before Harold Brown’s letter to the Post was published, Governor Hill signed it into law. The legislature invited the Medico-Legal Society of New York to recommend how to implement the new law.
The society selected Dr. Peterson, Brown’s assistant at the Columbia demonstration, to form a committee to study the matter. Peterson and his committee repaired to West Orange to carry out further research. Over the ensuing months they dispatched some two dozen dogs. Then on December 5, 1888, two calves, weighing 124½ and 145 pounds, and a 1,230-pound horse were put to death by AC in front of Edison, Gerry, Brown, Peterson, and other notables. Dissection followed. “Brain, heart and lungs were found to be in normal condition,” reported The New York Times , “and the [calves’] meat was pronounced fit for food.” The newspaper’s account concluded with the observation, probably engineered by Brown or Edison, that “alternating current will undoubtedly drive the hangmen out of business in this State.”
The Peterson committee submitted its report to the Medico-Legal Society on December 12, 1888. It reported that AC caused no “howling and struggling” and recommended using a chair, rather than a tank of water or a rubberized table.
Meanwhile Westinghouse was restless. The day after the Medico-Legal Society received the Peterson committee’s report, he published a letter in the Times accusing Brown of acting “in the interest and pay of the Edison Electric Light Company” and declaring that the recent West Orange tests did not demonstrate any danger to ordinary citizens from AC. He stated that it was perfectly safe in commercial use.
Brown framed his reply in spectacular fashion five days later: “I therefore challenge Mr. Westinghouse to … take through his body the alternating current while I take through mine a continuous current. The alternating current must not have less than 300 alternations per second (as recommended by the Medico-Legal Society). We will commence with 100 volts and will gradually increase the pressure 50 volts at a time, I leading with each increase, until either one or the other has cried enough and publicly admits his error.” Westinghouse, prudently, did not accept. (DC is, in fact, less lethal at equal voltages.)
Over the next year Brown continued his anti-AC campaign, but in more muted fashion, playing the role of concerned citizen and AC watchdog at every opportunity. He also took on a new role—that of human-electrocution expert for New York State.
The Electrical Execution Law took effect on January 1, 1889. In March, Dr. Carlos MacDonald, superintendent of the State Asylum for Insane Criminals and a colleague of Dr. Peterson, wrote to Brown asking him to provide a design and a price estimate for an electric chair. The following week Brown visited Austin Lathrop, the superintendent of prisons, in Albany. As it turned out, that was the week when William Kemmler murdered Tillie Ziegler.
The meeting with Lathrop went well. That evening Brown wrote to Edison saying that he had been authorized to act for the state in purchasing AC generators. But there was a catch: the state would pay for the equipment only if the device actually worked; if it fizzled, Brown would be stuck with the generators. Brown asked Edison for $7,000 to $8,000 to buy Westinghouse generators. If the experiment was successful, the world would know that New York State relied on Westinghouse equipment to kill people.
The purchase was tricky. Since Westinghouse was not keen to sell his equipment to Edison or Brown, subterfuge was required. Details of the scheme (and of much of Brown and Edison’s maneuvering) came to light after Brown’s desk was rifled and a large pile of incriminating correspondence was delivered to the editor of the New York Sun . The letters were published in August 1889 under the headline FOR SHAME, BROWN!—DISGRACEFUL FACTS ABOUT THE ELECTRIC KILLING SCHEME .
The correspondence suggests that Edison arranged Brown’s acquisition of the Westinghouse generators through the Thomson-Houston Company of Boston, a major competitor to both Edison and Westinghouse that was shortly to merge with the Edison interests. Thomson-Houston worked through still another party to acquire secondhand Westinghouse generators from plants that were upgrading their equipment. After the purchase Brown boasted that one of the generators, like some rogue elephant, “already had a record as a man-killer.”
According to the correspondence, Brown feared that Westinghouse would try to block shipment to the prisons, and he instructed his correspondents to waterproof the generators, transport them in unmarked containers, and store them under lock and key. By the end of July 1889, all three generators either had been shipped to Baltimore (for a public DC-vs.-AC efficiency test) or were in place in the New York prisons.
By the spring of 1889 Kemmler’s legal proceedings were also well advanced. Six weeks after killing Tillie Ziegler, Kemmler was convicted of first-degree murder; three days later he was sentenced to death. He was not the first person given the death penalty under the Electrical Execution Law; one Joseph Chappleau bears that honor, for murdering a neighbor who had poisoned his cows. But Chappleau’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
Kemmler embarked on a series of appeals. He won an early victory when his lawyer convinced Judge S. Edwin Day of Cayuga County (the site of Auburn prison) that electrocution might be cruel and unusual. Kemmler’s lawyers persuaded Judge Day to appoint a referee to take testimony on the novel and as yet untested method of execution. Tracy C. Becker, a Buffalo attorney, was named the referee. Rumor had it that Westinghouse was funding the penniless Kemmler’s high-priced counsel.
Edison and Brown were the heavyweight witnesses for the state. Edison assured Becker that, properly administered, death by AC was a certainty “beyond peradventure.” One witness for Kemmler was a dog named Dash who had survived a powerful AC shock. (Coincidentally, the recently inaugurated President of the United States, Benjamin Harrison, also had a dog named Dash, as well as a pair of opossums named Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection.)
Despite the strenuous efforts of Kemmler’s attorneys, Dash and his colleagues were no match for Brown and Edison. Becker concluded that though electrocution might be unusual, it was not cruel, and Kemmler was again sentenced to die. The matter was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which twice upheld both the conviction and the sentence. Ultimately, Kemmler was sentenced a third and final time.
In an article published in November 1889, Brown described his vision of the new execution procedure: “The condemned criminal’s cell is visited by the prison authorities and his hands and feet are saturated with the weak potash solution which so rapidly overcomes the skin’s resistance.… Shod in wet felt slippers, the convict walks to the chair and is instantly strapped into position; his feet and hands are again immersed in the potash solution contained in a foot-tub connected to one pole and in hand-basins connected to the other.” This “wet work” approach to electrocution was due in large part to Edison, who had observed that fatal AC shocks were, in his experience, generally suffered through the victim’s hands. Warden Durston of Auburn prison was not impressed with Brown’s design and assigned the task of building a more satisfactory model to Edwin F. Davis, the prison electrician, who devised an apparatus that more closely resembles our modern device. Nevertheless, one unsuccessful execution was attempted, in 1892, with the potash method.
One striking feature of the first electric chair was its extended leg rest, which made it look like a chaise longue. The leg rest was removed for the Kemmler execution. The Davis electric chair, unlike the Brown model, also had a head electrode. A second electrode was pressed to the base of the spine. After the unsatisfactory performance of the spinal electrode, a calf electrode would be substituted. Today’s most modern designs contain a head electrode and two ankle electrodes, the better to ensure that the entire body, not just the prisoner’s left or right side, is exposed to the current.
The head electrode of the Davis chair resembled the working end of a toilet plunger. Inside was a sponge-covered brass plate that pressed onto the convict’s head. Efficient electrode-scalp contact was maintained with the aid of Brown’s potash solution, which in Kemmler’s case was applied through a small funnel in the head electrode.
An important part of the electrocution procedure was to determine whether, on execution day, the rig was functioning correctly. Robert Elliott, a successor to Edwin Davis, described Davis’s testing procedures in a later case: “I went up to the death chamber. Davis was busy attaching two sponges about the size of a man’s hand to a large piece of beef. To each sponge he fastened one of the wires leading to the chair. Looking up from his work, he greeted me pleasantly, and explained that he employed the meat (sometimes weighing as much as fifteen pounds) to determine whether or not current was passing through the chair. Seven amperes ordinarily went through the meat, he said.”
On the sunny morning of August 6, 1890, “the ivy on the great gray walls was filled with twittering sparrows,” sang the New York Herald , and “the St. Bernard barked in its kennel.” Inside the prison, however, tempers were short. Warden Durston had tired of the carnival attending the Kemmler proceedings. He was distracted by the continual politicking for the scarce (twenty-five maximum) witness seats. He had fallen out with Harold Brown and with his assistant Charles Barnes, though Barnes and Durston patched things up in time for Barnes to supervise the operation of the generator. Durston was also upset by an offer from a group called the Whitechapel Club in Chicago that wanted to buy Kemmler’s body. He was irritated when Southwick told the press how he thought the execution should be conducted (with no straps on the chair, to keep the condemned from panicking). And he was annoyed by the tardiness of the medical witnesses that morning.
The Herald reported that Kemmler wore yellow trousers and a gray jacket with a black-and-white-checked bow tie; it also noted the “spruce and natty” prisoner’s striped underwear and polished shoes. Dr. George Fell had already taken the chair for a test run by being strapped in for a low-voltage shock. He was pleased with the result and assured the press that there would be “no problem.”
Minutes before the execution was to begin, the witnesses were locked into the execution chamber. A somewhat disquieting exchange then took place when Warden Durston came to speak to Drs. MacDonald and Spitzka about a matter that might better have been resolved before then.
“How long shall I have the current on?” asked the warden.
Spitzka said, “Fifteen seconds.”
The warden replied, “That’s a long time.”
Spitzka looked at MacDonald and said, “Will you say, doctor? You have had more to do with these things than I have.” (This was only partially true, as MacDonald’s expertise was with dogs and cattle.)
The warden said, “Well, I have left the matter entirely to you. How much time do you say?”
Dr. MacDonald replied, “Well, say ten seconds at least.”
This lack of forethought was to have disturbing consequences.
At this point Kemmler and his entourage arrived, and Warden Durston introduced the prisoner to the witnesses. Kemmler was remarkably composed, even encouraging his attendants to “be sure that everything is all right.” Drs. Spitzka and MacDonald, the latter holding a stopwatch, were poised to begin. After a set of farewells, Warden Durston signaled for the current to be applied. A click was heard, and Kemmler’s body tightened against the straps.
About fifteen seconds later, Dr. MacDonald said, “Stop!”
Two other voices echoed, “Stop!”
The warden said, “Stop!”
Dr. Spitzka said, “He’s dead!”
Dr. MacDonald said, “Oh yes, he’s dead.”
So sure were the physicians about their diagnosis that no one felt for a pulse or looked for a reflex. Dr. Spitzka pointed out that Kemmler’s nose was dark red, reflecting an appropriate post-mortem state. One of the doctors, Lewis Balch, secretary of the state board of health, looked at Kemmler’s limp right hand. When the current had hit, Kemmler’s fist had knotted convulsively, and the uncut nail on his index finger had jabbed into the base of the thumb. Now, as Dr. Balch stared at that thumb, he noticed blood beginning to ooze out of it. That meant that Kemmler’s heart was still beating.
“Undo that now,” Dr. Spitzka said. “The body can be taken to the hospital.” Dr. Balch called to Dr. MacDonald and pointed to the dripping thumb. Conversation stopped.
Dr. Spitzka said, “Turn on the current. This man’s not dead!”
Another said, “Great God, he’s alive!”
Everybody else either sobbed or groaned. Warden Durston, who had halfway undone the straps, reattached the convict, and the chair was fired up again, this time for considerably longer. Kemmler finally died.
The witnesses may have nearly wanted to die too, after this cruel surprise. The electrocution, complete with heaving chest, gurgles, foaming mouth, bloody sweat, burning hair and skin, and smell of feces, made a stunning impact on them. Unlike the fainthearted observers at the Columbia demonstration who fled when the Newfoundland was yelping in distress, the Kemmler witnesses were locked in the execution chamber until the end. Many who had pulled political strings to secure a witness seat regretted doing so.
After the death certificate had been completed and the witnesses dismissed, five doctors, including MacDonald and Spitzka, performed the autopsy. It had to be postponed for several hours to allow Kemmler’s body to cool down (electrocuted prisoners typically heat up to more than 130 degrees and are sometimes too hot to touch). The Times noted that the skin above the spinal electrode had been “cooked until yellow,” while the inner tissues had been “baked.” How well baked? Like “overdone beef,” said one of the examining physicians.
Recriminations were not slow in coming. One doctor said Dr. Spitzka had left the current on for too short a time; others said that having twenty electric lights wired in series with the electric chair had decreased the current to an unacceptably low level. George Westinghouse thought “they would have done better with an axe,” and one of his assistants commented that AC had never been shown to be more deadly than DC. On the other hand, Edison asserted that if his method (electrocution through the hands) had been followed, matters would have gone more smoothly. Harold Brown was strangely quiet.
These solo voices were heard against an almost operatic press chorus. The Herald , which had played an instrumental part in feeding the public’s morbid curiosity about the electric chair, now damned it as an “official grill.” But despite the grisliness of Kemmler’s execution, even the unhappiest critics agreed that it appeared painless. The massive electrical discharge had apparently rendered him unconscious long before he could have felt pain, satisfying Governor Hill’s mandate of providing a humane and practical alternative to hanging.
After William Kemmler was given his quietus, several months elapsed before the electric chair was used again. The next occasion was the multiple execution of James Slocum, Harris Smiler, Joseph Wood, and Schichiok Jugigo, at Sing Sing prison in Westchester County. In his official report Dr. MacDonald recounted that the prisoners were all dead within six minutes after entering the execution room. They wore state-of-the-art forehead electrodes as well as calf electrodes fastened immediately behind and below the knee.
Before long, the Edison/Brown liquid-and-potash system was tried, at the execution of Charles McElvaine at Sing Sing on February 8, 1892. Newspaper accounts relate that the liquid conductors failed to do the job properly and had to be supplemented with the head-and-calf equipment. Dr. MacDonald’s bland account suggested that this two-step procedure had been anticipated, if not planned, but the potash method was not used again.
It took several more botched executions for observers to realize that electricity was an imperfect cure for the evils of hanging. With the early electrocutions there was a good deal of trial-and-error experimentation. Carlos MacDonald perhaps best summarized the problem and its solution when, after the Kemmler execution, he commented: “While this is not so great a success as I had hoped it would be, it is demonstrated to my mind that this method is infinitely preferable to hanging.… I believe that there should be some central place in the state where executions should take place and be in the hands of men specially fitted to perform them in a perfect manner. It’s an outrage and a terrible hardship to place this duty on the shoulders of the wardens of our state prisons.” With the appointment of Edwin Davis, Auburn prison’s electrician and electric-chair designer, as official state electrocutioner (240 career executions), along with his successors John Hulbert (120) and Robert Elliott (387), Dr. MacDonald’s prescription was filled.
Most of the men involved in Kemmler’s execution continued their distinguished lives. Edward Spitzka had a celebrated career as a brain anatomist. Carlos MacDonald worked with the mentally afflicted, establishing “Dr. MacDonald’s House,” over which he presided for fourteen years. Frederick Peterson published a number of medical papers and textbooks as well as some rather curious Chinese poetry. Commodore Elbridge Gerry devoted his efforts to the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which he had founded in 1874, and other charities. Harold Brown disappeared from public view but continued to work on projects such as “an electrochemical method of removing from the human system poisons due to fatigue, old age and metabolism and of introducing the necessary tonic or nerve food, and electrochemical methods of internal cleansing and of detecting and locating internal congestion.”
Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse continued to prosper. Edison’s company merged with Thornson-Houston to form the General Electric Company. Edison’s antipathy to AC gradually subsided, and in 1907 he privately admitted that his opposition had been shortsighted. Westinghouse not only won the battle of the currents but had his last laugh in 1912, when the American Institute of Electrical Engineers awarded him its Edison Medal, citing his “meritorious achievements in the development of the alternating current system.” He died in New York City in 1914.
Dr. Albert Southwick died in June 1898; Dr. George Fell died in 1918. Edwin Davis retired in 1914, having transferred his electrode patents to New York State for $10,000. Before his retirement, Davis built up an execution monopoly in three Northeastern states, and he once said he would electrocute his own son if he were found guilty. He was preoccupied with money; until he received satisfactory assurances he refused to train a successor, fearing that to do so would disrupt his lucrative franchise. His successor, John Hulbert, performed electrocutions for twelve years before retiring in 1926. Hulbert was succeeded by Robert Elliott, a former Sunday-school superintendent, who died in 1939 after expressing the wish that capital punishment in the United States be forever halted.
The Auburn electric chair was smashed during a 1929 prison riot. And Tillie Ziegler and William Kemmler both lie in weedy graves in Buffalo.