The First Death by Electrocution & My Novel-in-Progress

For the last several years I've been working on a story surrounding the first death by electrocution, the history of which is what inspired the novel. Sign up for my newsletter to be notified of when it comes out.

William Kemmler, a confessed murderer, became the first man executed via the electric chair in the basement of Auburn New York's state prison in 1890. During the sixteen months the condemned man stayed at Auburn Prison, Warden Charles Durston, his wife Gertrude, and the prisoner's primary guard Daniel McNaughton grew close to the prisoner. Daniel read to him from the Bible as well as other books and Gertrude taught him to read and write in addition to her evangelizing. 

photo credit: TaranRampersad via photopin cc
Despite the extremity of his crime and his immediate confession, prominent lawyer and orator W. Bourke Cockran suspiciously offered to represent William Kemmler without charge and make an appeal on the grounds of cruel and unusual punishment.  All of society speculated the prominent businessman George Westinghouse was the real benefactor because it had been decided that his company's electrical current, Alternating Current, would be used for the new electric chair. 
At the time, Westinghouse's Alternating Current (AC) could travel farther than Thomas Edison’s Direct Current (DC) but it was more expensive, so Edison wasn't worried until his former employee Nikola Tesla joined Westinghouse and patented an invention that would make AC run in an efficient, cost-effective manner.

The commission that discussed the best means of replacing hanging executions had asked Thomas Edison if electricity would be a painless method. Despite the fact that Edison openly disapproved of capital punishment, he wrote to the commission that an electrical current would cause instant and painless death but only if AC current were used. Edison knew that if Alternating Current became the new means of capital punishment, the public would come to associate it with death and refuse it's use in residential homes and businesses.

The two-week appeal took place in Manhattan and turned into quite the spectacle as both sides paraded out dramatic testimony and famous guests including Thomas Edison himself. In the end, both sides had spent more time arguing over whether or not one current was safer than the other and failed to argue why death by electrocution would be cruel and unusual. The judge had no choice but to reject the appeal.

If Edison truly planned to destroy AC current, it appeared to be working. In the months prior to the electrocution, a lineman was burned to death after falling into several AC power lines. In response, the city approved action to tear down all the AC wires in what would later be called "The Electric Wire Panic." In spite of the horror displayed over the lineman's death, William Kemmler's execution remained on schedule.

A short time before the electrocution, papers reported that William Kemmler had claimed to have seen a vision of Jesus in his prison cell. Suddenly, the prison chaplain and a local reverend became close confidants with William Kemmler and saw to his conversion, baptism, and final prayers before death.

Warden Durston had to keep the day of the execution a secret, but word got out and droves of reporters and spectators crowded outside the gates. Gertrude left Auburn Prison the day before, telling William she couldn't stand to be there with what was to come. Likewise, Daniel McNaughton had explained to William, he could not be present to witness his new friend's demise.

When he entered Auburn Prison, William Kemmler was a drunk who had maintained a grizzly appearance and demeanor, but by the time he sat down in the wired chair, he had combed his hair, trimmed his beard, and wore a suit and bow-tie. He sat tall and spoke without fear when he said, "Now take your time and do it right, Warden. There is no rush. I don't want to take any chances on this thing you know."
Front entrance to Auburn Prison photo credit: 


Later headlines would read "The Auburn Tragedy," and "Horrible Scenes Attending the Execution." The papers speculated as to what had gone wrong, suggesting faulty machinery, mistakes regarding the current, and sabotage, but nothing ever came to light. Despite the initial shock, the same attendees who had had fainted or fled the room reported the execution as a success and the electric chair became the official means of capital punishment in the state of New York. With time, the rest of the country followed.

Although Thomas Edison appeared to have gone to great lengths to sabotage AC current and come up with his own invention to reduce the cost of electricity, Tesla and Westinghouse prevailed landing the contract to electrically light the 1893 World's Columbia Exposition in Chicago and not long after they won the coveted Niagara contract, culminating the symbolic victory of AC over DC. Meanwhile, Edison General's top men decided to merge the company with Thomas-Houston and drop Edison's name, becoming General Electric. It was reported that Edison did not know he was being pushed out until the papers announced it. Thomas Edison ultimately abandoned the field of electric lighting and pursued the filming industry, eventually filming an electric chair execution.

There is so much more to this history, and I will continue to share bits and pieces of it with you in future newsletters and even more via my novel-in-progress The Binding of Saint Barbara, which will be the first novel VIP Readers get to help with, so stay tuned!


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