After 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 21. After Kemmler

NEWSPAPERS ignored the ban on printing details of electrocutions. In an article head1 lined "Far Worse Than Hanging," the Times asserted that "no convicted murderer of modern times has been made to suffer as Kemmler suffered." Recalling the electric wire panic of the previous fall, the Herald noted that Kemmler suffered the same fate as John Feeks, "the lineman who was slowly roasted to death in the sight of thousands." In London the Standarddescribed the execution as "a disgrace to civilization." "Kemmler's Death was Disgusting," the Buffalo Express stated plainly.1

The suspicions that electricity might stun rather than kill had never entirely been laid to rest. The warden had forbidden Dr. Fell from trying to resuscitate Kemmler with his Fell Motor; to make sure Kemmler would not awaken spontaneously, the doctors chose to wait three hours after the execution before performing the autopsy. As South­wick explained, they wanted to explode the notion "that if the electric shock did not kill him the surgeon's knives would."2

The postmortem revealed that a large part of the brain had been "carbonized"—burned to a crisp black—while the skin of the lower back exhibited a burn four inches in diameter. One doctor reported that the spinal muscles under the burn were "cooked, like 'overdone beef,' throughout their entire thickness." When the autopsy was concluded, the physicians took samples of blood, brain, and spinal cord to study at leisure in their own laboratories. Kemmler's corpse was put inside a pine coffin and driven at midnight to the convict burying ground that adjoined Auburn's Fort Hill Cemetery. There the coffin was reopened and, in accordance with the law, a barrel of quicklime poured over the body. After nailing the coffin shut again, the sextons lowered it into the ground and covered it with earth.3


The only known photograph of the first electric chair. Note the brackets beneath the seat that held the footrest, which was never used. The chair was replaced by a new design in 1893.

Bourke Cockran described Kemmler's death as "a sort of ghastly triumph" for him, because it seemed to confirm his arguments against the method. Some believed that Cockran or his Westinghouse employers had sabotaged Kemmler's execution. "Yes, there might have been corrupt reasons for this," Dr. Spitzka said. "The interests of the company who manufactured the dynamos would certainly be advanced … if this execution was a botch." Warden Durston also suspected "crooked work," and the Herald proposed "either that the dynamos were faulty or that the interested company had bribed some one to make them seem so."4

No one ever proved sabotage. The charges simply distracted attention from the more likely cause of the problems: shoddy preparations. Durston's decision to put the chair and the switchboard in different rooms meant that the men who decided when to turn the current off and on had no idea how strong the current was running. Moreover, the switchboard and the dynamo were located more than 1,000 feet apart, and the switchboard room could communicate with the dynamo room only through a crude electric bell signal system. The men in the dynamo room had no outgoing communication system at all, so they could not inform those in the death chamber about problems with the machinery.

And there had been problems. The dynamo rested on a wooden floor that vibrated up and down more than an inch when the dynamo ran at full power. The leather belts linking steam engine to dynamo were brand-new and had not been used enough to get the stretch out. When Kemmler was thrown into the circuit, the resistance of his body put such a strain on the dynamo that the belts began to slip badly. Charles Barnes, who supervised the dynamo operation, later described the chaotic scene as he and three convict assistants tried to keep the dynamo running. One convict listened for the switchboard room's bell signals, another was "busily oiling the dynamos and putting rosin on the belt to try to stop the slipping, while the third was busy holding a board against the pulley to keep the belt on." Barnes estimated that during the execution the current was running at 700 volts—about half what the physicians thought they were using.5

WITNESSES DIFFERED WIDELY in their assessments of the exe­cution. Alfred Southwick flatly denied the reported horrors of the death chamber: "A party of ladies could have been in that room and not known what was going on, so silent was the process—not a cry from the subject, not a sound." Other witnesses claimed that it had been a gruesome spectacle, but the question of whether Kemmler had suffered remained in dispute. "I will see that bound figure and hear those sounds until my dying day," said the electrician Charles Huntley, who came to the reasonable conclusion that Kemmler's moaning was evidence of great pain. However, most of the physicians present believed that Kemmler had suffered no pain whatsoever, because he was knocked unconscious at the start of the first shock. They did not explain how they came to this conclusion.6

Some were comforted by this claim and saw in it hope for the future of electrocution. "The failure was due not to the system but to the bungling, inefficient way in which the execution was managed," the Herald claimed. In the view of Thomas Edison, the electric chair was like any other new device, requiring a few trials to work out the bugs. The next electrocution, Edison predicted, "will be accomplished instantly and without the scene at Auburn today"7

George Westinghouse disagreed. "It has been a brutal affair," he told a reporter. "They could have done better with an axe."8

In the weeks following the execution, more people agreed with Westinghouse than with Edison. Many believed that no one else would ever die in an electric chair. Dr. Spitzka, despite his assertions that Kemmler died quickly, nonetheless predicted, "There will never be another elec­trocution." According to the World, "The first experiment in electric execution should be the last." Newspapers all across the country—the Philadelphia Times, Terre Haute Express, Indianapolis Standard, and Boston Globe—agreed with this judgment. The Sun urged the state legislature to repeal the law, then acidly added, "Civilization will find other lines on which to manifest its progress."9

In the official execution report, filed in October, Dr. MacDonald described electrocution as "the most efficient and least painful method that has yet been devised." He proposed boosting the execution voltage 257 to 2,000 volts and placing the voltmeter in the same room as the chair. MacDonald also urged the state to build a special dynamo for the purpose in order to avoid doing "injustice to any electrical lighting company"10

Also in the fall of 1890, other physicians present at Kemmler's death published their views on the matter in medical journals. According to Dr. Spitzka, Kemmler was "dead, in the usual sense of the word, after the first passage of the current." The blood flowed from Kemmler's cut not because he had a pulse but because the electricity broke down its structure and inhibited normal postmortem coagulation; the spattering mucus and saliva were caused by postmortem muscle contractions; and the apparent breathing was simply a release of air that had been trapped in Kemmler's lungs by current-induced muscle contractions. Spitzka's claim about the breathing contradicted the reports of every other witness, who reported that Kemmler had inhaled as well as exhaled. Dr. Fell offered an ingenious explanation that played on the uncertainties concerning the definition of death. In Kemmler's execution, Dr. Fell said, "effective respiration survived the final heart arrest." In other words, Kemmler was dead despite the fact that he was breathing. These opinions, however dubious, were published by prominent physicians in respected medical journals. As the horror of Kemmler's death faded, many newspapers tempered their criticism and began to suggest that electrocution deserved another chance.11

HAVING FAILED IN HIS BID to save Kemmler, Roger Sherman reappeared as the attorney for Shibuya Jugiro, a Japanese immigrant convicted of murder and sentenced to death. In November 1890 Sherman presented Jugiro's case before the U.S. Supreme Court, offering Kemmler's death as a "practical illustration" of the cruelty of electrocution. Without issuing an opinion, the Supreme Court rejected Jugiro's appeal on the authority of its decision in Exparte Kemmler.12

During the oral arguments in the Jugiro case, one of the Supreme Court justices provided a clue to his reasoning. When Roger Sherman claimed that electricity could not be counted on to destroy life, the justice pointed out that "in New-York City persons have been killed in a short time by accidental contact with electric wires."13

The Supreme Court's decision ended the hopes of the men awaiting death in New York penitentiaries. Sing Sing's warden decided that all four murderers on his death row—Jugiro, Harris Smiler, James Slocum, and Joseph Wrood—would die on the morning of July 7,1891. When tests showed that the Sing Sing ammeter was faulty, it was sent to Arthur Kennelly at the Edison laboratory, who recalibrated the device and sent it back. Dr. MacDonald also made some changes in the apparatus. Rather than electrodes at the crown of the head and base of the spine, as in Kemmler's execution, the Sing Sing chair featured a larger head electrode that covered the forehead and temples and a second electrode to be affixed to the calf.

The details of how these new arrangements worked were kept secret, because the warden prohibited witnesses from speaking to the press after the executions. "I cannot give you any minute particulars," Dr. A. D. Rockwell told reporters upon emerging from the prison, "but they were all highly successful." Although newspapers grumbled about the gag law, most accepted the official line that the executions went off flawlessly "A proud day for the Empire State!" the Herald crowed.14

A more complete picture emerged months later, in Dr. MacDonald's official report. All of the prisoners received shocks ranging from 1,400 to 1,700 volts. James Slocum, the first in the chair, survived an initial shock of twenty-seven seconds, with a strong pulse and "noisy respira­tion." A second shock of twenty-six seconds was required to kill him. MacDonald and the other doctors present conferred and decided that several shorter shocks, rather than one long one, might kill more quickly. Harris Smiler, the next victim, received three contacts of ten seconds each, with a pause between shocks just long enough to rewet the sponges. Even after these shocks, however, "the pulse was beating so firmly and regularly" that a further contact of nineteen seconds was required to kill him. The doctors consulted again, deciding that the first two experiments had shown that "the duration of the current was quite as important an item as the making and breaking of the contact." In the next execution, therefore, Joseph Wood took three contacts of twenty seconds each. Afterward doctors detected a faint heartbeat, but it disappeared within twenty seconds. The final prisoner, Shibuya Jugiro, received three contacts of fifteen seconds, after which "a very slight fluttering was felt at the wrist." This pulse disappeared within fifteen minutes, and Jugiro was pronounced dead.15

MacDonald's report highlighted the experimental nature of electrocution. The press gag law gave the physicians and prison officials the secrecy they required to improve the killing process free from the threat of public criticism.16

ALTHOUGH THE LAST of these four victims died rather quickly, his body nonetheless had been scorched and burned. Hoping to prevent this unsightly effect, electrocution's boosters again sought advice from Thomas Edison.17

In his testimony at the Kemmler hearings, the inventor had advised running the current from hand to hand and using jars of water as electrodes to prevent burning. In the wake of the four Sing Sing executions, the idea was revived. At Alfred Southwick's urging, Edison sent Arthur Kennelly back to the laboratory. In September 1891 Ken­nelly filled two jars with salt water and placed a zinc electrode in the bottom of each. He then took a two-foot-long piece of raw beef, placed one end in each jar, and sent 780 volts through it. Although the meat caught fire at a spot between the jars, Kennelly emphasized another observation: "The beef was not scarred or altered in appearance over the part that had been immersed in water."18

Kennelly warned Southwick in a letter that the skin of the prisoner's hands would offer more resistance than raw beef, but he nonetheless concluded that it would be "almost impossible to burn the skin" if liquid electrodes were used. Southwick replied, "Allow me to thank you personally and also Mr. Edison through you." The new electrode arrangement, Southwick wrote, "will fully settle the question of electrocution. It will remove all the unsightly part of an execution (scalding)."19

Southwick thought the new method would be used in the execution of convicted murderer Martin Loppy, who exhausted his appeals in October and was scheduled to die in December. For unknown reasons, however, the authorities chose not to adopt the liquid electrode plan. When Loppy was strapped into the Sing Sing chair on December 7, the electrodes were affixed to his forehead and calf, as they had been for the last four victims. As at the last executions, the warden swore all witnesses to secrecy, but this time a few broke the silence and revealed that Loppy's execution had been horribly bungled.20

Loppy's death created another sensation in the press and provoked calls for a repeal of the electrocution law. At the very least, the editors wrote, the press needed access to the death chamber, because only with clear information could the public judge the method on its merits. Press opposition to the gag law had intensified the previous summer, when Manhattan's district attorney indicted the Herald for violating the law by printing details of the four executions at Sing Sing. The other newspapers charged that the district attorney was playing favorites; they wanted indictments, too, because self-righteous defense of the First Amendment made good copy. The district attorney obliged by indicting all but one of New York's morning papers. As it turned out, the indictments were moot. Governor Hill—the man who signed the electrical execution act into law—left office at the end of 1891, and the new governor came out in opposition to the gag law. An obliging legislature repealed it in early February.21

The press thus gained access to the death chamber just in time for the execution of Charles McElvaine, which was set for the morning of February 8, 1892. Given the outcry at Loppy's fate, state authorities decided to try Edison's electrode arrangement. Arthur Kennelly was on hand as a witness. Before the prisoner entered the room, Dr. MacDonald explained the motive behind changing the position of the elec-trodes: "Eminent electricians—Mr. Edison in particular—have publicly expressed their opinion that contact should be made through the hands." McElvaine entered the room and sat in the newly designed chair, which had a wooden basin of salt water suspended from the end of each arm. McElvaine's arms and wrists were strapped down such that his hands were fully immersed in the water. MacDonald hedged his bets by attaching a backup pair of electrodes in the usual spots on the head and calf.22


Upon Edison's suggestion, New York officials attempted to use liquid hand electrodes in the 1892 execution of Charles McElvaine at Sing Sing. This illustration from the New York Medical Journal is inaccurate: As a backup, the executioners also attached electrodes to McElvaine's head and calf and used these to kill McElvaine after Edison's hand-to-hand arrangement failed.

The preparations complete, the anxious prisoner shouted "Let her go!" MacDonald obliged by signaling to the switchboard. After about fifty seconds at 1,600 volts, MacDonald cut off the current, but McElvaine began to sputter and moan. "Turn it on!" MacDonald yelled. "The other way" The electrician threw a switch that sent the current into the leg and head electrodes. This time the current flowed for forty-three seconds. McElvaine was dead, his corpse a frightful sight, covered in burns and blisters.23

The criticism was directed at the new electrode arrangement. "Mr. Edison was entirely mistaken in recommending that the current be applied through the hands," the Times wrote.24

Electrocutions continued with the old electrode arrangement. In May 1892 authorities executed a man at Auburn prison—the first to die there since Kemmler—and reports indicated that this one went more smoothly. There were ten electrocutions in 1893, two in 1894, six in 1895, five in 1896, eight in 1897. By the turn of the century, more than fifty men had died in the chair. The killings started to become routine, rating only short articles in the daily newspapers.25

Not all of the later executions went smoothly. During his 1893 execution in Auburn, William Taylor's legs contracted so strongly that the front leg of the chair was torn free, sending him pitching forward.* Officials tried to turn the current on again but discovered that the dynamo had burned out. Taylor revived and began to groan, so the physicians gave him morphine and chloroform to ease his suffering while carpenters repaired the chair and electricians tapped into the city's electrical supply for more current. An hour later, Taylor's unconscious body was carried back to the chair for a second jolt. Some witnesses claimed that the drugs had killed him before the second shock was administered.26

An illustration from the New York Medical Journal showing the flow of electricity through the human body in both the head-to-calf and hand-to-hand electrode arrangements.


Taylor's case was extreme, but botched electrocutions were not infrequent. As a result, there were few outright enthusiasts of electrocution, but alternatives were few. Many physicians proposed different methods of scientific killing, usually involving poison—an injection of morphine, chloroform, a sealed chamber filled with carbon monoxide or illuminating gas—but no one carried through on these ideas. A New York State assemblyman suggested a return to hanging, but his bill went nowhere, probably because bungled hangings remained common in states that retained the gallows. The Herald expressed the general mood of resignation: "Electricity seems, on the whole, to answer the purpose better than anything else." The Journal of the American Medical Association observed, "All public clamor against the method may be said to have been effectively stilled, for the present at least. Now it remains to be seen if other States will adopt the measure."27

*By the time of Taylor's execution, the original chair had been replaced by one with only three legs—two in back, one in front.