06.08.

1890: First Man Executed at Electric Chair

1890: First Man Executed at Electric Chair
Photo Credit To Wikipedia Commons

Story Highlights

  • Historical event:
  • 6 August 1890
  • A reporter who witnessed it said the scene was horrible, much worse than a hanging. The terrible stench of burnt meat spread through the hall, so that all the witnesses wanted to flee. George Westinghouse commented on the debacle: “They would have done better using an ax.”

On this day the electric chair was for the first time in history used as a method of execution.

On it died William Kemmler, sentenced for murdering his wife with an ax. The execution took place in the Auburn Prison in the American federal state of New York. The recently-introduced electric chair had already caused a lot of controversy. The convict’s attorney had complained that the new method was too cruel.

Incidentally, this event coincided with the well-known conflict between supporters of direct current (Edison) and alternating current (Tesla). It was Edison’s supporters who invented the electric chair.

Namely, Edison urged the introduction of direct current into American homes and it was for this reason that Edison’s associates decided to use alternating current for the electric chair, so as to suggest it is much more dangerous to use and sway American public opinion against it.

George Westinghouse, well-known industrialist and proponent of Tesla’s alternating current, was against the electric chair and agreed with the convict’s lawyer, believing the sentence to be cruel and barbaric.

Despite all complaints, Kemmler was executed on this day. The top of his head was shaved before he was connected to the chair. All this happened under the supervision of an official bearing the euphemistic title of “State Electrician”, who was actually more akin to an executioner.

Kemmer’s head was covered and he was subjected to a current of 1000 Volts for 17 seconds. When the power was shut off, it was discovered that Kemmler was still breathing. The doctor shouted: “Turn the current on instantly! This man is not dead!”

This time they used 2000 Volts, so that Kemmer’s skin started burning. The terrible stench of burnt meat spread through the hall, so that all the witnesses wanted to escape.

Westinghouse commented on the debacle: “They would have done better using an ax.” A reporter who witnessed it said the scene was horrible, much worse than a hanging.

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