William Kemmler - The first man to die in the electric chair
Placing a childlike trust in his soon-to-be executioners, Kemmler did what he could in order to assuage their nervousness. Yes. Their nervousness. This including assisting in his own restraint and offering some words of encouragement to the warden and his deputy: “Take your time; don’t be in a hurry. Do it well; be sure everything is all right,” he said.
“It won’t hurt you, Bill,” the warden replied, “I’ll be with you all the time.” The warden probably believed his own words as much as his prisoner did, but this was 1890, and they were attempting to painlessly kill a man using electricity. But it worked well enough on their equine test subject, they reasoned, so how could it not succeed on a much smaller man?
Upon finishing up with the preparations to begin the execution, the warden gave the signal to flip the switch and was obliged almost instantly. Kemmler’s body became rigid with the current flowing through it, and by the end of the ten second mark, everything seemed to have gone according to plan: Kemmler was declared dead.
As the warden and doctors started to wrap up the execution with a businesslike discussion about the preceding events, one of the doctors noticed a cut on Kemmler’s hand that was caused by a piece of the equipment rubbing against it. The wound, by all appearances pretty inconsequential, happened to be bleeding—strongly indicating that William was still alive.
The warden, panicked by the apparent blunder, quickly ordered the current to be restarted in order to finish the job. By this point, fluid seeped from Kemmler’s mouth and ran down his beard as he began to groan repeatedly and increasingly loudly. It was clear that the condemned man was beginning to regain consciousness, which caused even seasoned doctors to turn their heads and pale.
At last, after what seemed like ages to all those involved, the electricity was restarted and Kemmler once again convulsed, ceasing the noise coming from his lips. It was almost a relief to watch as the man died, but then came a sickening sizzling sound from the chair, as if meat was being cooked upon it, followed by a billow of smoke that filled the room with the odor of burning hair.
And it’s with these mental images that we can best remember the advent of the electric chair; a horrifying spectacle that went on to become one of America’s most commonly practiced methods of humane execution.
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Posted by Staff at Tuesday, February 05, 2013