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Auburn Correctional Facility
"Thomas Alva Edison, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front". Photographic print. Credit: Bachrach Studios (Public domain)

Thomas Edison not only invented the light bulb and the phonograph; he also gave us the electric chair. In a desperate attempt to demonstrate that George Westinghouse's alternating current—which could be stepped up to a higher voltage for more efficient transmission over long distances—was dangerous, Edison toured the United States in 1890, using his rival's AC power to electrocute cats, dogs, horses, and elephants (a process which Edison called "Westinghousing").

Ironically, Edison's attempt to "Westinghouse" a New York felon named William Kemmler with "a current of several thousand horsepower" dramatically backfired. After eight minutes, Kemmler started smoking and a stronger burst was needed to finish him off.

[A century later, the chair was still rather unpredictable: In July, 1999, when Allen Lee Davis became the first person executed in Florida's new 2,300-volt electric chair, blood gushed from his nose. And two years earlier, foot-long flames were seen shooting from Pedro Medina's head.

According to Wikipedia:

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 warden Charles Durston presented Kemmler to the 17 witnesses in attendance. Kemmler looked at the chair and said: "Gentlemen, I wish you all good luck. I believe I am going to a good place, and I am ready to go.

Witnesses remarked that 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 to get up by the warden 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. He said, "Take it easy and do it properly, I'm in no hurry." Durston replied, "Goodbye, William" and ordered the switch thrown.

Sketch of the execution of William Kemmler, August 6, 1890 The generator was charged with 1,000 volts, which was thought to be adequate to induce quick unconsciousness and cardiac arrest. The chair had already been thoroughly tested; a horse had been electrocuted the day before. Current passed through Kemmler for 17 seconds. The power was turned off and Kemmler was declared dead by Edward Charles Spitzka. Witnesses noticed Kemmler was still breathing. The attending physicians, Spitzka and Carlos Frederick MacDonald, came forward to examine Kemmler. After confirming he 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 his skin ruptured and bled, and some witnesses claimed his body caught fire. The New York Times reported instead that "an awful odor began to permeate the death chamber, and then, as though to cap the climax of this fearful sight, it was seen that the hair under and around the electrode on the head and the flesh under and around the electrode at the base of the spine was singeing. The stench was unbearable." Upon autopsy, doctors had found the blood vessels under the cap of his skull had carbonized and the top of the brain had hardened. Witnesses reported the smell of burning flesh and several nauseated spectators tried to leave the room.

The killing took approximately eight minutes. The competitive newspaper reporters covering the Kemmler execution jumped on the abnormalities as each newspaper source tried to outdo each other with sensational headlines and reports. A reporter who witnessed it also said it was "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging". Westinghouse later commented "They would have done better using an axe".

Kemmler is buried in the precincts of the prison where his execution took place.


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