125 Years Ago Today William Kemmler Became The First Prisoner To Be Put To Death By Electrocution
While the debate continues today over what exactly comprises cruel and unusual punishment or whether the death penalty should ever be invoked, 125 years ago today on August 6, 1890 William Kemmler became the first person put to death by the electric chair. The electric chair was proposed to be a more “humane” way to execute criminals.
On June 4, 1888 New York’s Governor David B. Hill signed a law passed by the legislature that the punishment for murder after January 1, 1889 should be “death by means of an electrical current that should be caused to pass through the body of the condemned.” Electrical experts then came up with the plan to apply the current and strap a man in a chair while he sat.
The New York Evening World wrote of the convict Kemmler on the day of his execution, “If vengeance were what the law seeks by capital punishment for murder it would get little satisfaction out of the event today, for the poor wretch whose life has been taken within the walls of Auburn Prison has for weeks awaited the coming of black-visored Death with a child-like expectancy, almost impatience.”
One of eleven children, William Kemmler was born into poverty on May 9, 1860 in Philadelphia, PA. Kemmler was poorly educated and never learned a trade, surviving by helping his father in a butcher shop. He married Ida Prier in October 1888, but after two days of marriage he deserted his wife and ran off with Mrs. Matilda Tripner Ziegler and settled in the slum area of Buffalo, NY. During the 18 months he was in Buffalo, Kemmler had become a modestly successful fruit “huckster.” At their home at 526 South Division Street, the couple quarreled constantly and Tillie Ziegler took the little money that Kemmler had and spent it having affairs with the worst sort of men and women.
On the morning of March 29, 1889 as Mrs. Ziegler was preparing breakfast, Kemmler confronted her about her indiscretions. Things grew heated and Kemmler went out to the barn, picked up a hatchet, returned to the kitchen and without saying a word, buried it into Tillie’s forehead. Kemmler went berserk and kept hacking Tillie’s head, shoulder and breast until it was an indistinguishable mass of flesh, blood and bone.
Kemmler dropped the hatchet and left their flat covered in blood and began visiting neighbors telling of what he had done. He told everyone he encountered, “I’m glad I’ve killed her. I had to do it and I’m willing to hang for it.” Mrs. Ziegler died at 1:00 a.m. the next morning never regaining consciousness, she was 30.
Unlike today where murder trials take months or even years to come before the court, on May 9 ,1889, just five weeks after the crime, William Kemmler was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to die by electrocution in the prison at Auburn, NY.
Immediately after the conviction Kemmler’s lawyer Charles S. Hatch appealed to Justice Charles C. Dwight of the State Supreme Court that Kemmler’s sentence of death by electricity was cruel and unusual punishment. A referee was appointed to listen to both sides of the argument and for four months testimony was heard. It was decided on October 9 against Kemmler. The case was then brought before the Court of Appeals and on March 30, 1890 it was again decided the law and sentence was constitutional. One final appeal before the United States Supreme Court was also denied. Some more legal wrangling delayed the inevitable and on August 6, 1890 the sentence was scheduled to be carried out.
At Auburn Prison the electric chair was set up in a room 17 feet wide by 25 feet long which also held 27 witnesses to the execution. The dynamo where the electric current was produced, was 1,000 feet away in another part of the prison and carried into the room by wires. There in the execution room was set up a push button on a board which contained a voltage meter that would measure the amount of current flowing to the chair. A small switch next to the meter would turn the current on and off. The twenty four lights next to the electric chair that can be seen in the photograph above were not for lighting the room but for signaling when the current was on and running steadily. Two switches would then carry the current to the chair.
It was 6:45 a.m. as Kemmler was strapped into the chair. Warden Durston asked Kemmler if he had any last words to say. Kemmler replied, “Nothing.” Then after a moment he added, “Goodbye. And I wish you all good luck boys.” As Kemmler was repeating his goodbyes he was cut short as the executioner flipped the switch. The first jolt lasting 17 seconds did not kill him. The voltage increased as jolts were given intermittently. For four and a half minutes jolts of electricity registering between 800 to 1,300 volts passed through Kemmler’s body. His chest convulsed and he sat up rigidly every time the current passed through his body with his arms stretching out as far as the straps which held him would allow. His mouth was frothing and his body was smoking. Finally Kemmler stopped moving.
The smell of burnt flesh permeated the room. Every witness to the execution was distressed as to what they were seeing according to Dr. Shrady who witnessed the electrocution and later conducted the autopsy. Dr. Shrady’s conclusion upon exiting the death chamber was, “The execution was brutal – worse, I think, than hanging. It probably was not painful, but the failure to kill at the first application was barbarous.”
The autopsy confirmed what many of the witnesses believed: that Kemmler probably had suffered greatly during the execution.The base of Kemmler’s spinal column where an electrode had been placed burned a hole the size of a palm of a man’s hand. The muscles were baked clear to the bone. On the top of his head the scalp was burned off and his brain was actually baked.
Debates raged afterwards on cruel and unusual punishment and no one could be certain how long Kemmler was in pain, but one thing was sure: William Kemmler had entered history as the first man to be executed by the electric chair.
Pingback: This month in History: August 2019 – This Adventure called Write
Thank you for your informative and insightful article. I want to inform you that I downloaded and posted the first image as well as quoted the description for an article of my own at bxhistory.com – titled “Radical Rants || Execution Solutions: An Eye for an Eye (Literally).” To credit the source of the image, I inserted a [source link] to this article in the caption of the image. Please contact me with any objections you may have to the use of your content or the citation of your article.
Once again, as a history academic, this article was a delightful read!
Thanks for this article. Interesting stuff. Would you mind sharing your sources that you used to describe the details of Tillie Ziegler’s murder? For example, “There the couple quarreled constantly and Tillie Ziegler took the little money that Kemmler had and spent it having affairs with the worst sort of men and women.”
Any and all resources would be appreciated. Thank you!
Many sources were used for the story, among them:
New York Evening World Aug 6 1890
Detroit Free Press Aug 7 1890
New York Times Aug 7 1890
National Police Gazette Aug 23 1890
Atlanta Constitution Aug 4 1940
Details of the murder, most from the first three:
Buffalo Morning Express various issues April 1889, May 7- 10, 1889 & August 7, 1890
Buffalo Courier May 6 – 10, 1889, August 7 1890
National Police Gazette August 23, 1890
Buffalo Evening News March 29, 1889
Olivet Obiter Aug 7, 1890
Virden Recorder Aug 7, 1890
Buffalo Evening News various issues 1889-1890
What’s your source for the picture of the electric chair?
It is from the defunct news wire photo service, “International News.” Usually we include that information and in this case it would be seen by hovering the mouse over the photo or clicking on the photo. The credit source appears in the address bar when clicked.