In the late 1800’s, most people were convinced that the wonders of modern science could improve everyone’s lives. Two events that occurred around the same time in the 1880’s – a three-times botched hanging in England that received world-wide attention, and the hanging of a young woman in New York State – caused a considerable increase in the “anti-gallows movement.”
On August 7, 1881, a drunk man in Buffalo, NY accidentally killed himself by touching the generator in the Brush Electric Light Company. A local dentist, Alfred P. Southwick, became fascinated with reports of the man’s instantaneous death. Southwick became a vocal advocate for the use of electricity when instant death is warranted. Southwick brought his ideas to the head of the Buffalo SPCA, and began experimenting on “euthanizing” animals with electricity. He kept careful records of his experiments and published them in scientific journals.
Some members of the State legislature feared that the public outcry over the barbarity of hangings would doom capital punishment in NY State. In 1886, Gov. David Hill established a Commission to Investigate and Report the Most Humane and Practical Method of Carrying into Effect the Sentence of Death in Capital Cases – the Gerry Commission, also known as the Death Commission. Alfred Southwick, the leading proponent of electrocution, was appointed to the three–member commission.
The commission’s final report recommended electrocution as the official method of capital punishment: instead of each county doing its own executions, the State should build execution chambers in the prisons in Auburn, Sing Sing, and Dannemora.
The commission further recommended that the bodies of the executed be given to scientists, after the scientists were through the bodies be buried with quick lime, and the press be banned from witnessing executions – an attempt to stop the outcry which followed newspaper accounts of each hanging. In June 1888, the bill making death by electricity New York State’s official method of execution was signed into law.
On March 29, 1889, William Kemmler killed his lover Tillie Ziegler with a hatchet. He went to trial in Buffalo in May 1889 and was convicted of murder in the first degree. On May 13, Judge Henry Childs sentenced Kemmler to die by electricity.
The Auburn execution chamber was built in the basement of the Administration Building. All the state and federal appeals were ended by June 1890. The first week of August, hundreds of visitors began arriving in Auburn to be there when the execution occurred. Reporters, electrical engineers, legal scholars, doctors, even politicians came to the big event.
The World’s First Execution
William Kemmler was brought into the execution chamber early on the morning of August 6. The current was turned on, and Kemmler was subject to 17 seconds of electricity. All the witnesses thought he was dead. “There is the culmination of ten years’ work and study,” said Southwick. “We live in a higher civilization from this day.” Then Kemmler’s slumped body started to moan and wheeze. “Turn on the current! This man is not dead!” yelled the doctor. The cry to turn on the current was picked up by all. “Keep it on, keep it on,” yelled the warden.
When the current was finally on again (it took some time to build up in the generator room 1000 feet away), no one wanted to turn it off prematurely. The official report was that it was on for 70 seconds, but some witnesses said as long as 4 minutes. Smoke rose from Kemmler’s head and the room filled with the stench of burning flesh. At 6:40 a.m. the current was finally turned off. Kemmler had been in the death chamber for 8 minutes.
Within minutes of the official announcement, the news of Kemmler’s execution flashed all over the world. A temporary telegraph office had been set up in the New York Central station across the street from the prison. Coverage of the death varied widely; even the eyewitnesses’ reports were inconsistent. Those who had a stake in the execution continued to claim that Kemmler died instantly and painlessly. Other witnesses said he survived the first attempt to electrocute him and the second jolt was the most gruesome thing they had ever seen.
Between 1890 and 1916, when the state concentrated all capital punishment at Sing Sing, 55 people were electrocuted in Auburn Prison.
In all, 686 men and 9 women died in the electric chair in New York between 1890 and 1963 when the use of the electric chair was discontinued.