This Day in History – August 6th, 1890

New York, William Kemmler had been found guilty of murdering his common-law wife Matilda “Tillie” Ziegler with an axe in March of 1890. The punishment for this murder was death, but Kemmler would not to be hanged as was the typical form of execution, instead he was to make history as the first person executed with an electric chair.


Kemmler’s death came in the crossfire of a political and financial battle, also known as the War of Currents, between the developers of alternating current electricity and direct current electricity, AC vs. DC. George Westinghouse, the main financial backer of AC was among the objectors supporting Kemmler’s lawyers appeal against the electric chair as “cruel and unusual punishment,” but they failed to change the court’s sentence. This was largely due to pressure from the backers of DC, financial tycoon J. P. Morgan. Morgan was Thomas Edison’s financial backer in the development of DC, and Edison seized this opportunity to demonstrate that AC was deadlier than DC, and thereby selling DC as a safer alternative to AC.


George Westinghouse

On the morning of August 6th, 1890, Kemmler is reported to have faced his execution very calmly, looking at the chair and then addressing the 17 witnesses in the room, “Gentlemen, I wish you all good luck. I believe I am going to a good place, and I am ready to go.” For 17 seconds, 1,000 volts were passed through Kemmler, but it took a second attempt at 2,000 volts to actually kill him. At this higher voltage blood vessels under the skin ruptured and bled and some witnesses 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.” Various newspapers sensationalized the execution with gory details, one 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.”

124 years later, the electric chair is still used in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

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