On this day in 1890 the electric chair was used for the first time as a method for execution in the United States as William Kemmler, having been found guilty on the charge of murder, was put to death in Buffalo, New York. Now whilst the death of an individual is always harrowing it is the story behind the chair which is the focus here.
Electricity itself was still in the process of being understood, and harnessed, at this time and the execution marked a significant development in the battle between two pioneers of the energy source. On the one side Thomas Edison and his patented DC flow, on the other George Westinghouse and the AC system. Both men had been battling for supremacy for years and it seems that in their battle to achieve dominance in the electricity market, no area was off limits. As propaganda and publicity campaigns continued relentlessly others were beginning to recognise potential uses for this powerful energy source. In 1888 New York State had implemented legislation decreeing the electric chair was to be the standard process for future executions, replacing the long standing method of hanging, and both an AC and a DC powered prototype emerged.
After years of wrangling, claims, and counter-claims on everything from safety and efficiency, to the value for money provided by the two options the debate over which energy source should power the electric chair was unique.
Now here is where it gets interesting. Edison, a fervent anti-capital punishment man, is actually directly linked to the production of the first ever electric chair, designed and built by a man named Harold Brown. With Brown under the employment of Edison during this project it would suggest the great inventor had put aside any moral issues in favour of expanding the DC format. Why then, when New York State administered the fatal volts to Kemmler, did they do so via a machine powered by Westinghouse’s AC current?
Championed by some as a technological advancement and a potentially lucrative business opportunity (lets face it the US has never been exactly shy when it comes to the death sentence) it seems both Edison and Westinghouse did not see it this way.
In reality neither individual wanted the infamous title of the man supplying the lethal force required to kill; it was bad for business.
Edison therefore implemented perhaps the most lethal smear campaign in modern business as he actively sought to ensure that his rivals AC current would be used on August the 6th. Browns employment by Edison was based largely on his known distain for the AC system and having already conducted a number of stunts in which animals were killed by Westinghouse’s alternate current, they both hoped this most blatant association with danger and death would be enough to sway the population in favour of the direct current option. If people could see AC current killing a man, he believed the public would look on it with scepticism.
Westinghouse himself was aware of the damaging impact this could have for his business and the appeals lodged on behalf of Kemmler during the process were actually funded by Westinghouse’s corporation on the grounds that death by electrocution was a cruel and unusual punishment. The appeals failed however in part due to the testaments of Edison and Brown who claimed the electric chair would provide a quick and painless death.
So it came to pass that on the morning of Wednesday August 6th 1890 William Kemmler was executed by an electric chair powered by AC. The debut run itself did not go smoothly as the prison technician failed to administer the required voltage at first leaving Kemmler severely injured but still alive. With the botched execution lasting eight minutes and leaving the prisoners body bleeding and omitting an odorous smell, newspapers were quick to report sensationalist headlines.
Talk of Kemmler having been set on fire and of his blood vessels bursting is sure to have damaged the reputation of AC but ultimately, despite Edison’s attempts to discredit the system, AC had become the standard output of electricity by the early twentieth century. The competition for supremacy had however set in motion a method which still stands today as people continue to be “Westinghoused” as a form of execution in numerous countries 123 years after William Kemmler.