The Conversion of William Kemmler - Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death - Mark Essig

Edison and the Electric Chair: A Story of Light and Death - Mark Essig (2005)

Chapter 19. The Conversion of William Kemmler

ON THE MORNING of March 31—a year and two days after he murdered Tillie Ziegler with a hatchet—William Kemmler put on a brown suit, a multicolored scarf, and an imitation diamond pin. Around his right wrist was a handcuff that bound him to the left wrist of Daniel McNaughton, his keeper. Joined by warden Durston, the pair boarded a train that carried them to Buffalo. The law required that Kemmler be sentenced again in the court where he was convicted, and he arrived in time for a hearing in the early afternoon. The courtroom was filled to overflowing, and spectators stood on tiptoes in the corridors, trying to catch a glimpse of the prisoner. Standing before the judge, Kemmler seemed numb and cold. Asked if he had anything to say, he replied, "No, sir."

"Then the order of the Court is that the former sentence in your case be carried into effect within the week beginning April 28," the judge said.1

There was some talk of an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the previous December Bourke Cockran had vowed that if he lost in the state Court of Appeals, he would carry the case no farther. "It is generally believed that nothing further will be done," the World now reported. William Kemmler, it seemed, had less than a month to live.2

Kemmler and his escorts boarded the return train to Auburn that same day, and before midnight the prisoner was back inside his cell. He was the first occupant of that particular cell. Not long after Kemmler arrived in Auburn, the warden built two solitary cages side by side in the prison's basement to house condemned men. Since all earlier executions had taken place at county jails, this was the state's first "death row." Steel plates lined the floor, ceiling, and walls, while the front had iron bars set two inches apart. The cell was furnished with an iron bedstead, a chair, a stool, and a small stand. Just outside the door was a chair occupied at all times by one of Kemmler's two keepers, who alternated in twelve-hour shifts. Neither had worked in the prison before being hired to keep what was known as the "death watch." Kemmler slept from ten to six. He ate breakfast at eight, dinner at noon, and supper at six. He was allowed to pace back and forth in front of his cell for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening.3

Kemmler usually slept well, but after returning from the Buffalo sentencing he spent a restless night. The next day he could not speak without bursting into tears. At the midnight shift change, Keeper McNaughton told his relief, Bill Wemple, to keep an eye on the prisoner. A few minutes later Wemple heard a voice from the cell: "Who are you up there?" Kemmler said. "What do you want with me?" The keeper rushed to the cell and asked what was wrong. Kemmler pointed to the ceiling and said, "I saw a man up there who said that he was Jesus Christ. He had, oh, such a good face, and he said to me that he would forgive all my sins."4

When he had first arrived in Auburn the previous May, Kemmler was "no more than a wild beast," according to the newspapers. He boasted about murdering "the old she-devil" Tillie Ziegler and said he would do it again a hundred times. But he had changed, through the combined effects of solitary confinement, enforced sobriety, and the influence of a few visitors. Keeper McNaughton read to Kemmler from the Bible and told him about the saving power of Christ. These efforts were assisted by the warden's wife, "a sort of Florence Nightingale in the prison," in the Herald's view. As was common practice at the time, Gertrude Durston lived with her husband on the prison grounds and worked alongside him. With a dramatic escort of two huge dogs—a Saint Bernard and an English mastiff—she went on daily rounds of the workshops, the mess, and the hospital, distributing religious tracts to the prisoners.5

Mrs. Durston made a special project of William Kemmler, the first condemned man to come within range of her ministry. She gave him gifts—a Bible, a pictorial Bible primer, and a writing slate—and set to work on the twin pillars of American uplift: religion and literacy. She helped him write on his slate and read him Bible stories. In the hours when she was absent, Keeper McNaughton took on the same tasks. After a few months of their quiet ministrations, Kemmler became more gentle and started to take a genuine interest in religion. In his quiet hours he practiced on his slate, or looked at his pictorial Bible, or even tried to read a few verses on his own. His vision of Christ was less a bolt from the blue than the culmination of a year of religious training.

The Herald broke the story of Kemmler's vision of Christ on April 7, and it was quickly picked up by newspapers across the country. Mrs. Durston received dozens of letters from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, even Texas, encouraging her to continue the work of the Lord. The prisoner also began to receive visits every other day from two spiritual advisers: Reverend Horatio Yates, the prison chaplain; and Reverend Dr. Oscar A. Houghton, the pastor of Auburn Methodist Episcopal Church. On each visit the ministers discussed a Bible verse with Kemmler, then offered a prayer. "The Bible says, 'If a man shed blood, by man shall his blood be shed,'" Kemmler told Reverend Houghton. "I love Jesus and I am not afraid."6

Some newspapers doubted the authenticity of Kemmler's conversion. The warden barred reporters from visiting the prisoner, so all reports of his behavior were filtered through the Durstons, the clergy men, or the keepers. Some reporters discovered that his favorite possession was not the pictorial Bible but a game called "Pigs in Clover," which had become a fad that year after it was learned that President Benjamin Harrison played it at the White House. Kemmler sat for hours with the handheld toy, guiding marbles (the pigs) through a circular maze to their resting point at the center (the clover). The Buffalo Evening News learned that Kemmler "chews tobacco … and hums the common songs of the day. Does he look over his pictorial Bible? Yes, but he would just as soon look over a pictorial Boccaccio."7

The World took an even harsher stance, decrying "the on-pouring of maudlin gush over Kemmler's beatific piety, his 'experience' of religion and his 'changed' heart," not to mention "the romancing of saintly feminine influences and their regenerating effect on the murderer's dull, sodden faculties."8

The World understood that the story being told about Kemmler's conversion was standard melodrama, familiar from the countless tearjerkers of the Victorian stage. But the very conventionality of the tale was what made it compelling. One of the goals of the new method of killing was to rob execution of ritual, to turn it into a medical procedure and destroy the old hanging ceremony of procession, prayers, confession, and drop. Kemmler may have been locked away in a basement cell and denied contact with the public, but the execution ritual reasserted itself through the medium of the newspaper. Kemmler played a role not unlike that of Jesse Strang, the man hanged before a crowd of 30,000 in Albany in 1827. Both prisoners expressed sorrow for their sins, submitted to the will of God and the state, and accepted meekly the punishment meted out. Regardless of whether it was true, the story of Kemmler's conversion reassured Americans that their system of punishment was fair and good. They were killing someone, certainly but they were also protecting society and saving a soul.

KEMMLER'S EXECUTION had been set for the week beginning April 28, with the warden deciding the exact day Kemmler spent a great deal of time that week scribbling on cards for the benefit of those who wanted his signature for their autograph collections. Each day he wrote "William Kemmler, Auburn, N.Y., April 1890" on dozens of plain white cards. It was a laborious process, given his still-shaky writing skills. Sometimes he confused April with Auburn and wrote "Aprilburn" or "Aubril," which forced him to tear up the card and start again. Keeper McNaughton read him stories about his case from the New York newspapers, and Kemmler complained that the newspapers' illustrations did not look a bit like him. The window of Kemmler's cell afforded him a view of the comings and goings at the prison's front gates. On more than one occasion he was heard to say, "By God, there's another reporter."9

None of the reporters indicated that Kemmler was anything but calm in the face of death. According to some reports, Gertrude Durston told Kemmler to "go to the chair like a man," and the prisoner said that he would. He gave Mrs. Durston a message for her hus­band: "Tell Charley not to put on the current so strong that it will burn me." Later the prisoner offered reassurances to the warden: "You have been kind to me and I shall try to make your work easy"10

The law allowed Warden Durston to invite about two dozen witnesses. He kept his list a secret, but on April 28 the men began to appear in Auburn. Alfred Southwick and George Quinby, the district attorney who had convicted Kemmler, arrived from Buffalo and proceeded to the prison. As the warden walked them toward the death chamber, he said, "Hush! Talk low!" He nodded at a wall: "Kemmler is in that room." The men heard the steady tramp of a man's boots. "That is Kemmler marching up and down in the corridor in front of his cell," the warden explained.11

Durston had placed the electric chair in a room immediately adjacent to Kemmler's cell. Formerly the reception room where new prisoners were bathed and issued their stripes, the death chamber still contained a bathtub and a sink. The room measured about seventeen by twenty-five feet and was dimly lit by two heavily grated windows. The ceiling was low, the floor boards rough, the walls freshly painted in a dull white. Whereas Brown's electric chair had been a reclining model, the one Dr. Fell designed was a simple oak chair with a ladder back, wide arms, and a footrest that could be extended or stowed under the seat. Newspapers reported that it looked like "an ordinary barber's chair." "There is nothing uncomfortable about the chair save the deadly current which goes with it," the Herald observed.12

The deadly current would be applied through two electrodes, one at the lower back, the other at the head. Attached to the top of the chair's back was a figure-4-shaped frame that projected out over the seat and that could be raised or lowered, depending on the prisoner's height. Dangling from this frame was a bell-shaped piece of rubber containing the sponge-covered head electrode. A similar electrode was attached to the lower back of the chair so that it pressed against the victim's spine. The chair was bolted to—and insulated from—the floor, and it bristled with leather straps: two for each arm and leg, two for the torso, and a broad mask for the face. The death chair's seat was perforated with drainage holes, because death released the bladder and bowels.13


The first electric chair, designed by Dr. George Fell and built in Buffalo, featured a retractable wooden footrest.

On Monday morning, April 28, Reverend Houghton persuaded Kemmler to be baptized in preparation for his death. The minister called for a bowl of water, and the prisoner knelt on the floor as the water was poured over his neatly combed hair. Gertrude Durston also visited Kemmler. She told him they would not meet again in this world. Normally stoic, Kemmler began to weep. He made her a gift of fifty autographed cards to distribute as she wished. Mrs. Durston told him to keep his spirits up and trust in the warden. She bid him a hasty good-bye, and within the hour she had boarded a train that took her out of town. She wanted to be far away when William Kemmler died.14

"ELECTROCUTION: Painless Death of Murderer Kemmler." So read the headline in the Weekly Sentinel of Port Arthur, Ontario. The article reported that after Kemmler was strapped into the chair, "his spiritual adviser repeated slowly the words of the Lord's prayer, the doomed man repeating it after him. When he came to the words 'For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory' the electrician in charge of the apparatus touched the electric button sending the charge of over 7,000 volts through the chair and its unfortunate victim."15

It was a dramatic account, but it did not have the virtue of being true. More accurate reports of events in Auburn on April 29 could be found in the New York and Buffalo papers, which ran headlines such as "He Still Lives" and "Kemmler's Doom Delayed by Law." About noon a lawyer named Roger M. Sherman arrived from New York and presented Warden Durston with a writ of habeas corpus delaying the execution while an appeal was made to the U.S. Supreme Court.16

Warden Durston brought Kemmler the good news. "Well, Kemm­ler, you've got a reprieve," the warden said. "You have two months and perhaps longer to live." "All right," the prisoner replied. "It makes me feel a little easier." Since the human execution was called off, Warden Durston and about ten of the invited witnesses executed a calf in the death chamber, and Dr. Fell tried unsuccessfully to revive the animal with his Fell Motor. Harold Brown did not attend this calf killing. As he left town, he reminded reporters that his contract to supervise electrocution equipment for the state would expire on May i, and he said he would have nothing to do with Kemmler's execution, should it ever take place. Brown said that he was "glad to be relieved of the responsi­bility," although he did not explain why. Perhaps, having ensured that Westinghouse dynamos would be used, he considered his true purposes to have been fulfilled.17

NEWSPAPERS FIXED THE BLAME for this latest legal maneuver upon George Westinghouse. On the day of the reprieve, one of the Pittsburgh tycoon's lawyers was spotted on a train near Auburn, but he claimed to be on unrelated business.

A reporter buttonholed Roger Sherman as he left Auburn by train: "Mr. Sherman, who is your client?"

"Why, Kemmler."

"Have you seen him today?"

"No, I didn't care to."

"Have you ever seen him?"

"Well, I don't care to answer that question. It is of no public interest."

"Are you in any way connected with the Westinghouse people? Have they retained you to save Kemmler?"

"Absolutely, no. I do not know any one connected with the Westinghouse Company, and I am not in their employ directly or in­directly"

"You are not doing this for humanity's sake?"

Sherman laughed and said, "There are four men in Sing Sing Prison, three in Clinton and one in Auburn who will probably be executed by electricity." His true client, he hinted, was one of the other 241 men. Sherman pointed out that the state Court of Appeals had not ruled on the question of cruelty and had instead simply deferred to the judgment of the legislature. Sherman said, "If Kemmler's lawyers were stupid enough to sit down supinely and accept such a decision when the issue could be settled in a higher court, and another man has the sense to come in and show them the proper thing to do, why shouldn't he do it?"18

Within forty-eight hours of Kemmler's reprieve, a piece of astounding news arrived on the wires from Albany: The lower house of the state legislature had voted to abolish capital punishment. Every year Representative N. M. Curtis, a principled foe of the death penalty, introduced a bill to abolish it, and every year he watched it die of mockery or neglect. This session, however, the bill passed, without debate, by an overwhelming majority of 74-30. The reason for the vote was not hard to divine. The backroom dealing was so brazen that one lawmaker told his colleagues on the floor of the Assembly, "Westinghouse money is passing this bill." Newspapers, which normally couched their corruption charges in hints and innuendo, came right out and charged the Westinghouse company with bribery. According to the World, "Such a bill would never have been passed except for the aid of Westinghouse's money." The bill was "purely and simply in the interest of the electric light company," the Herald wrote. The Times described passage of the bill as "probably the most disgraceful exhibition ever made of itself by a legislative body in a civilized country"19

When the bill was forwarded to the state senate, it died in a committee, but this outcome did little to stem the tide of invective sweeping over the Westinghouse company George Westinghouse felt compelled to publish a denial in the New York newspapers: "Neither I nor the Westinghouse Electric Company, nor any person associated with me, has any connection, direct or indirect, with the habeas corpus proceedings instituted by Mr. Sherman in the Kemmler case or with the effort to abolish capital punishment in this State by legislative enactment. I make this denial without any reservation of any character."20 Incredulity greeted Westinghouse's disavowals. "Poor Mr. Westinghouse," the Herald wrote mockingly, claiming that the industrialist had only himself to blame. The danger of his alternating current had received "a thousandfold the advertising that it would have got had he remained quiet and never started the ball of investigation and publicity rolling."21*

THE WRIT OF habeas corpus acted as a stay allowing time for Sherman to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. When he appeared before the Court in Washington on May 20, Sherman argued that electricity was likely to inflict a slow and lingering death. The justices of the nation's highest court, like their counterparts in New York, were unmoved. The court's opinion in Exparte Kemmler provided a definition of cruelty that would become standard: "Punishments are cruel when they involve torture or a lingering death; but the punishment of death is not cruel, within the meaning of that word as used in the Constitution. It implies there something inhuman and barbarous, something more than the mere extinguishment of life." Given this standard, the Court held that electrical execution was not cruel. The New York State Legislature had acted within its proper authority in passing the electrical execution act, and the state courts had affirmed the law's validity The Supreme Court had no reason to intervene.22

A few thin rays of hope remained. There were reports that Westinghouse Electric would try to repossess the execution dynamos on the grounds that Harold Brown had obtained them fraudulently, but the rumors proved false. Bourke Cockran jumped back into the game to file a new appeal with the state courts. On June 24 he argued before the Court of Appeals that the state constitution vested the power to execute criminals with county sheriffs, and the law violated the constitution by granting that privilege to the prison warden. It was a desperation move, and the court swiftly rejected it.23

The long road of appeals had come to an end. When he learned that he would die during the week beginning August 4, Kemmler took the news stoically "Well, the sooner it's over with now the better," he told Keeper McNaughton. "I'm tired of this monkeying."24

*It was later revealed that Westinghouse wrote a letter to Roger Sherman on May 7 explaining why he thought electrical execution would be unreliable. Although the letter does not explicitly state that Westinghouse had hired Sherman, many observers viewed it as further evidence that Westinghouse was financing Kemmler's appeal. The New York Tribune estimated that Westinghouse spent $100,000 on the case.