annals of heartlessness, law

Annals of Heartlessness (10): “Let’s Invent Execution by Electrocution as a Way to Settle Some Business Differences”

Sketch of the execution of William Kemmler on August 6, 1890, using alternating current

Sketch of the execution of William Kemmler on August 6, 1890, using alternating current


I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a worse case of commercial cynicism:

Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse … engaged in a nasty battle over alternating and direct current, known as the “War of Currents.”  Both men knew there was room for but one American electricity system, and Edison set out to ruin Westinghouse in “a great political, legal and marketing game” that saw the famous inventor stage publicity events where dogs, horses and even an elephant were killed using Westinghouse’s alternating current. The two men would play out their battle on the front pages of newspapers and in the Supreme Court, in the country’s first attempt to execute a human being with electricity. …

DC power … was very difficult to transmit over distances without a significant loss of energy. … [I]n alternating current … high-voltage energy could be transmitted over long distances using lower current—miles beyond generating plants, allowing a much more efficient delivery system. …

Thomas Edison, by Victor Daireaux, 1880s

Thomas Edison, by Victor Daireaux, 1880s

Thomas Edison had an idea. Surely Westinghouse’s system must be more dangerous, what with all that voltage passing through the wires. “Just as certain as death,” Edison predicted, “Westinghouse will kill a customer within 6 months after he puts in a system of any size.” …

In November 1887, Edison received a letter from a dentist in Buffalo, New York, who was trying to develop a more humane method of execution than hanging. Having witnessed a drunk man accidentally kill himself by touching a live electric generator, Alfred P. Southwick became convinced that electricity could provide a quicker, less painful alternative for criminals condemned to death. … Edison, who opposed capital punishment, at first declined to get involved with Southwick’s project. But when the dentist persisted, Edison, recognizing the opportunity that had landed in his lap, wrote back to say that although he would “join heartily in an effort to totally abolish capital punishment,” he did have some thoughts about electric currents in which to dispose of “criminals under sentence of death”. “The most effective of these,” he wrote, “are known as ‘alternating machines,’ manufactured principally in this country by Mr. Geo. Westinghouse, Pittsburgh.” …

George Westinghouse

George Westinghouse

In June 1888, Edison began to demonstrate the lethal power of alternating current for reporters. He rigged a sheet of tin to an AC dynamo and led a dog onto the tin to drink from a metal pan. Once the dog touched the metal surface, it yelped and the little cur dog fell dead.” …

Electricity will kill a man “in the ten-thousandth part of a second,” Edison told one reporter shortly after the demonstration, and he was quick to remind him that “the current should come from an alternating machine.” …

An electricity salesman named Harold Brown was commissioned by the state [of New York ] to build an electric chair, and Edison was paying him behind the scenes to use alternating current in his design. …

When New York State sentenced convicted murderer William Kemmler to death, he was slated to become the first man to be executed in an electric chair. Killing criminals with electricity “is a good idea,” Edison said at the time. “It will be so quick that the criminal can’t suffer much.” He even introduced a new word to the American public, which was becoming more and more concerned by the dangers of electricity. The convicted criminals would be “Westinghoused“. …

Westinghouse was livid. He faced millions of dollars in losses if Edison’s propaganda campaign convinced the public that his AC current would be lethal to homeowners. …

William Kemmler

William Kemmler

[O]n August 6, 1890, Kemmler was strapped into Harold Brown’s chair at Auburn prison and wired to an AC dynamo. When the current hit him, Kemmler’s fist clenched so tight that blood began to trickle from his palm down the arm of the chair. His face contorted, and after 17 seconds, the power was shut down. Arthur Southwick, “the father of the electric chair,” was in attendance and proclaimed to the witnesses, “This is the culmination of ten years work and study. We live in a higher civilization today.”

Yet behind the dentist, Kemmler began to shriek for air.

“Great God! He’s alive!” someone shouted.

“Turn on the current! Turn on the current instantly!” another screamed. “This man is not dead!”

But the dynamo needed time to build its current, and Kemmler wheezed and gasped before the horrified witnesses as the electricity began to course through his body. Some witnesses fainted while others vomited, as it appeared that Kemmler was on the verge of regaining consciousness. The back of his coat briefly caught fire. Minutes passed until Kemmler finally went rigid. The current stopped and he was pronounced dead by Dr. Edward Spitzka, who predicted, “there will never be another electrocution.” …

Westinghouse was horrified by the reports of Kemmler’s execution. “It has been a brutal affair,” he said. “They could have done better with an ax.” …

Despite all of Edison’s efforts … the superiority of the AC current was too much for Edison and his DC system to overcome. (source)

And because this first electrocution was so successful, it became the standard method for the next decades.

More on capital punishment here. More on botched executions here. More in the annals of heartlessness here.


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