By: Scott RossPublished: August 6, 2022

William Kemmler

William Kemmler was dealt a shitty hand, which he then played rather poorly, and for his sins received the most terrible punishment American jurisprudence has to offer. And to top it all off, we made a dog's breakfast of the whole affair.

Kemmler was born May 9, 1860 in Philadelphia to a pair of German immigrants, both of whom were alcoholics, an affliction they passed on to their son. As a young man he became a vegetable peddler in the slums of Buffalo area.

On March 28, 1889, Kemmler went on a bender and in the fog of the next day's hangover accused his live-in girlfriend, Matilda "Tillie" Ziegler of stealing from him so that she might run off with one of his mates. As the argument reached a crescendo, Kemmler went to his barn to fetch his hatchet, went back to the house and murdered Tillie, whereupon he went to his neighbor's house to confess to his crime.

He was arrested and charged that day, and by May had been found guilty and sentenced to death. As luck would have it, New York had recently passed a law replacing hanging with the electric chair as the state's method of execution. How did this come about?, you might well ask.

Following a botched hanging in England a few years earlier, a movement had been brewing to find a more humane alternative to execution. As it happened, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse were at the same time embroiled in "The Current Wars," as the former stumped for direct current electricity, the latter for alternating current--whoever won would become the uncontested deliverer of electricity to American homes. Though Edison was no fan of capital punishment, he saw a chance to discredit his competitor's juice by framing it as deadly and unsafe, and so suggested that alternating current would be a great way to kill someone humanely. Once he got hip to Edison's game, Westinghouse refused to sell any of his generators to anyone who was planning to use them for such a horrific purpose, so Edison--evil genius that he was--(seriously, the dude was a fucking super villain)--sent some of his goons out to canvas the country in search of used Westinghouse generators, which he then giddily turned over to New York State authorities.

Naturally, Kemmler filed an appeal, claiming that the electric chair violated his Eighth Amendment rights against "cruel and unusual punishment." Dude had no idea how right he was, though he naturally lost his appeal and the state of New York was told to go right ahead and kill him.

On August 6, 1890, Kemmler was awakened at 5 am at Auburn Prison in upstate New York. He put on his suit and tie, said his prayers, and ate some breakfast with his former jailer, J.C. Veiling, who then gave him a terrible haircut.

"They say I'm afraid to die, but they will find I ain't. I want you to stay with me, Joe, and see me through this thing and I will promise you that I won't make any trouble," Kemmler told his friend. If Kemmler would be true to his word, the same cannot be said of those who were ready to kill him.

Kemmler was brought onto the killing floor, where he was strapped into the chair, which a day earlier had been used to kill a horse, and introduced to the 17 witnesses in attendance. Kemmler, as promised, was super chill about the whole thing, saying just before he took his seat, "Gentlemen, I wish you all good luck. I believe I am going to a good place, and I am ready to go."

They then put a mask over his face so they wouldn't have to watch him endure the impending punishment which had been previously deemed neither cruel nor unusual, and put a restraint on his head. Still, Kemmler remained calm.

"Now take your time and do it all right, Warden. There is no rush. I don't want to take any chances on the thing, you know," Kemmler said.

"All right, William," the warden replied.

Warden Charles Durston gave the word and the switch was flipped at 6:43am, sending 1,000 volts coursing through Kemmler's body for 17 seconds, after which Kemmler was declared dead by one Dr. Edward Charles Spitzka (the same man who'd testified that Charles Guiteau was insane in the latter's trial for the assassination of President William McKinley). But then shouts came from the audience:

"Great God! He is alive!"

"Turn on the current!"

"For God's sake kill him and have it over!"

"Have the current turned on again, quick—no delay," said Spitzka.

The generator was cranked up to 2,000 volts and they had another go at Kemmler, the electricity finally being cut eight minutes after the first jolt had been administered. The stench of burnt flesh and hair was unbearable, Kemmler's blood vessels had been carbonized, his brain hardened.

Later, when Kemmler was laying on an operating table awaiting an autopsy, Spitzka checked his temperature at the back of his neck and found it to be one degree above normal. Having already falsely called Kemmler dead, Spitzka, in an abundance of caution, decided that they should just let Kemmler sit for a few hours before taking a scalpel to him, lest they be blamed for his death.

The headline of the New York Times the following day declared simply FAR WORSE THAN HANGING. Westinghouse suggested that Kemmler's ex got the better death, saying "They would have done better using an axe."

And still it was just a matter of a few years before electrocution supplanted hanging as the dominant means of execution.


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