William Kemmler


August 15, 2022

William Francis Kemmler, born May 9, 1860 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and died August 6, 1890 in Auburn, New York, was the first person to be executed by means of an electric chair.


Both of her parents were German immigrants and both were alcoholics. He dropped out of school at the age of 10 and left without knowing how to read and write. Kemmler works in his father's butcher's but the latter dies of an infection after a fight started following a drinking binge. His mother also succumbed to the consequences of his alcoholism. When his parents died, he went into business and earned enough to buy a horse and a cart. He then became a heavy drinker making absurd bets which led to the loss of his meager assets. In Buffalo, where he had taken up residence, his drinking parties were famous.


Kemmler, an alcoholic, killed his companion Matilda "Tillie" Ziegler after an evening of drinking on March 29, 1889, with an ax, after a heated argument. He is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The execution was to take place on August 6, 1890, at six o'clock in the morning at the Auburn Jail. His lawyers appealed, arguing that the electrocution was an atrocious and unusual punishment; George Westinghouse, one of those who supported the use of alternating current as the standard for power distribution, supported their call, which was however rejected in part because Thomas Edison approved of the state's position (Edison supported the use direct current for the supply of current, and it is believed that it was he who saw in the publicity surrounding the electric chair a means of convincing the public that alternating current was dangerous). The practical details of the electric chair were worked out by the first "State Electrician", Edwin Davis. The first execution attempt failed: Kemmler received an electric shock for 17 seconds, but remained alive. The voltage was raised to 2,000 volts, but the generator needed time to recharge. But after the first discharge, Kemmler was still breathing imperceptibly. The second attempt lasted over a minute and the scene was described as gruesome by many who witnessed it, with the smell of burning flesh and smoke billowing from Kemmler's flesh. Westinghouse later commented, "They better have used an axe." A journalist who witnessed the execution also declared that it was “a terrible spectacle, much worse than a hanging”. The controversy between Westinghouse and Edison (despite Westinghouse's legal recourse, the execution did take place, but Edison nevertheless failed to impose the word "westinghouse" instead of "electrocuted" in public language), as well as the many discussions which took place in the months which preceded and followed the execution of Kemmler were followed by scientists and politicians of the whole world, relayed, as much as the means of the time allowed by the press, in particular the specialized technical press from France, Belgium and England. What was at stake was neither more nor less than the development of a capital execution breaking with the brutality of the usual methods (hanging, guillotine). The failure in this direction of this first execution and those which followed caused a rapid disinterest of the foreign countries, which did not make it possible to solidarize productively the reflection on the techniques of killing of the fundamental question (the death penalty) , a debate that is still topical in the States concerned. Christopher Davis's novel Peek into the Twentieth Century (Harper and Row, 1971) offers a fictionalized account of the last weeks of Kemmler's life and the war of the Co