William Kemmler (May 9, 1860 – August 6, 1890) of Buffalo, New York was the first person to be executed via electric chair. He had murdered Tillie Ziegler, his common-law wife, with a hatchet on March 29, 1889, and was sentenced to be executed on August 6, 1890, at 7:00 a.m. at New York’s Auburn Prison.
His lawyers appealed, arguing that electrocution was cruel and unusual punishment. George Westinghouse, one of the backers of alternating current as the standard for the distribution of mains power, supported his appeal.
The appeal failed, partly due to the support of Thomas Edison for the state’s position (Edison was a backer of direct current power supplies, and it is speculated he wanted to use the publicity surrounding the electric chair to convince people that AC was dangerous).
The practical details of the chair were finalised by the first State Electrician, Edwin Davis.
On the morning of his execution, August 6, 1890, Kemmler was awakened at 5:00 a.m. He dressed quickly and put on a suit, necktie and white shirt. After breakfast and some prayer, the top of his head was shaved.
At 6:38 a.m., Kemmler entered the execution room and was presented 17 witnesses by the warden. Kemmler looked at the chair and said: “Gentlemen, I wish you luck. I’m sure I’ll get a good place, and I’m ready.”
Witnesses remarked Kemmler was composed at his execution; he did not scream, cry or resist in any way. He sat down on the chair, but was ordered up by the warden, Charles Durston, so a hole could be cut in his suit, through which a second electrical lead could be attached. This was done and Kemmler sat down again.
He was strapped to the chair, his face was covered and the metal restraint put on his bare head, saying “Take it easy and do it properly, I’m in no hurry.” Durston replied “Goodbye William” and ordered the switch thrown.
The generator was charged with the 1,000 volts, which was assumed to be adequate to induce quick unconsciousness and heart stoppage. The chair had already been thoroughly tested; a horse had been successfully electrocuted the day before.
Kemmler was electrocuted for 17 seconds. Witnesses reported the smell of burning flesh and several nauseated spectators fled the room. The power was turned off and Kemmler was declared dead.
However, witnesses noticed Kemmler was still breathing. The attending physicians, Dr. Edward Charles Spitzka and Dr. Charles F. Macdonald, came forward to examine Kemmler. After confirming Kemmler was still alive, Spitzka reportedly called out, “Have the current turned on again, quick — no delay.”
In the second attempt, Kemmler was shocked with 2,000 volts. Blood vessels under the skin ruptured and bled and his body caught fire.
In all, the entire execution took approximately eight minutes. Westinghouse later commented: “They would have done better using an axe.” A reporter who witnessed it also said it was “an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.”
How his execution might have looked