6 August 1890 – William Kemmler
Burying the hatchet
Kemmler had killed his common-law wife Tilly Zeigler after he took a hatchet to her. And he was found guilty of murder in New York in 1890 and sentenced to go to the electric chair.
Electrocution was highly controversial, but despite lobbies to get the penalty changed to a more humane method, his execution took place.
Kemmler took his penalty very stoically. But the irony of his final words ‘Take it easy and do it properly, I’m in no hurry’ hit hard.
Understandably the electrocutors were in dire need of practice, this being their first time. Despite successfully electrocuting a horse as a trial run, they misjudged the current necessary to kill a man.
According to the ‘New York Times’, R C Barnes, who had tuned the electric chair being used, went on record with the statement ‘no electrician who understands the subject and knows what the apparatus is can doubt that it will kill Kemmler’. But he had based his supposition on the fact that they’d use around 15,000 volts.
In actual fact, a mere 1,000 volts coursed through Kemmler’s body for 17 seconds, on the presumption that that’d kill him. Despite the smell of frying flesh, Kemmler was still breathing at the end of his electrifying session.
A second stint, this time of 2,000 volts ran through Kemmler’s body. The electricity caused his blood vessels to rupture and blood to ooze before his body eventually caught fire. The whole thing took an agonising eight minutes causing one spectator to comment: ‘They would have done better using an axe.’