William Francis Kemmler (May 9, 1860 – August 6, 1890) of Buffalo, New York, was a convicted murderer and the first person in the world to be executed using an electric chair.
William Kemmler was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Both of his parents were immigrants from Germany and both of them were alcoholics. He was of Lutheran religion. His father died from an infection that he received after a drunken brawl and his mother died from complications of alcoholism. Kemmler worked in his father’s butcher shop after dropping out of school at age 10, having learned neither how to read nor write. After his parents died, he went into the peddling business and earned enough money to buy a horse and cart, although at this point he was becoming a heavy drinker. In one episode involving him and his friends after a series of drunken binges, he said he could jump his horse and cart over an eight-foot fence with the cart attached to the horse. The attempt was a failure, and his cart and goods destroyed in the incident. He was known to friends as “Philadelphia Billy” due to his drinking binges that were very well known around the saloons in his Buffalo neighborhood. Kemmler was reportedly slender, with dark brown hair. He spoke both English and German.
Murder, trial, and appeals
Kemmler murdered Matilda “Tillie” Ziegler, his common-law wife, with a hatchet on March 29, 1889, and was sentenced to death by electrocution at New York’s Auburn Prison. His lawyers appealed, arguing that electrocution was cruel and unusual punishment. George Westinghouse was the main financial backer of the powerful and potentially deadly alternating current. After safety measures were taken in the future, AC would become the standard for distribution of main electric power. It powered the electric chair, and Westinghouse actively supported Kemmler’s appeal because they did not want their electrical system to be perceived by the public as dangerous. The appeal failed, partly due to the even greater financial support of the powerful financial tycoon J. P. Morgan. Morgan was backing Thomas Edison and wanted to use the execution to show that Edison’s direct current was a much safer way to provide electric power.
The practical details of the chair were finalized by the first electric chair executioner, Edwin Davis (officially given the title of “State Electrician”).
On the morning of his execution, August 6, 1890, Kemmler was awakened at 5:00 a.m. He dressed quickly and put on a suit, necktie, and white shirt. After breakfast and some prayer, the top of his head was shaved. At 6:38 a.m., Kemmler entered the execution room and Warden Charles Durston presented Kemmler to the 17 witnesses in attendance. Kemmler looked at the chair and said: “Gentlemen, I wish you all good luck. I believe I am going to a good place, and I am ready to go.”
Witnesses remarked that Kemmler was composed at his execution; he did not scream, cry, or resist in any way. He sat down on the chair, but was ordered to get up by the warden so a hole could be cut in his suit through which a second electrical lead could be attached. This was done and Kemmler sat down again. He was strapped to the chair, his face was covered and the metal restraint put on his bare head. He said, “Take it easy and do it properly, I’m in no hurry.” Durston replied, “Goodbye, William” and ordered the switch thrown.
The generator was charged with the 1,000 volts, which was assumed to be adequate to induce quick unconsciousness and cardiac arrest. The chair had already been thoroughly tested; a horse had been successfully electrocuted the day before.
Current was passed through Kemmler for 17 seconds. The power was turned off and Kemmler was declared dead by Dr. Edward Charles Spitzka.
However, witnesses noticed Kemmler was still breathing. The attending physicians, Dr. Spitzka and Dr. Charles F. Macdonald, came forward to examine Kemmler. After confirming Kemmler was still alive, Spitzka reportedly called out, “Have the current turned on again, quick — no delay.”
In the second attempt, Kemmler was shocked with 2,000 volts. Blood vessels under the skin ruptured and bled and some witnesses erroneously claimed his body caught fire. The New York Times reported instead that “an awful odor began to permeate the death chamber, and then, as though to cap the climax of this fearful sight, it was seen that the hair under and around the electrode on the head and the flesh under and around the electrode at the base of the spine was singeing. The stench was unbearable.” Witnesses reported the smell of burning flesh and several nauseated spectators unsuccessfully tried to leave the room.
In all, the entire execution took approximately eight minutes. The competitive newspaper reporters covering the Kemmler execution jumped on the abnormalities as each newspaper source tried to outdo each other with sensational headlines and reports. A reporter who witnessed it also said it was “an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.” Westinghouse later commented: “They would have done better using an axe.”