William Kemmler arrived in Western New York with his common-law wife Matilda, “Tillie” Ziegler via the Erie Canal roughly sometime in 1888. Both he and Tillie had been married to others before and most likely still were. Predictably, this new union was not marital bliss either.
Kemmler was a drunk, a huckster (i.e. a fruit and vegetable man), well known for lavish spending on dancers at the Imperial Ballroom and his quick-temper. He once made a bet that he could jump his horse and wagon over an eight foot fence.
Tillie was rumored to host ‘parties’ with a number of gentlemen during the day while William tended to his rounds. When William came home, she often berated him and loud arguments were a regular complaint of the neighbors.
On the morning of March 30th, 1889, Kemmler woke in their cramped apartment at 526 Division Street, and noticed Tillie’s travel trunk was packed with, among other things, the couple’s money. This, combined with Tillie’s overly friendly tone towards their roommate, John “Yella” DaBella, precipitated a loud argument. The neighbors, accustomed to such events, ignored the sound until William staggered into the apartment of the landlady, and announced, “I’ve killed her.”
Seeing the blood on Kemmler’s hands, she grabbed her children and ran next door where Asa King was visiting his father. King implored Kemmler to get a doctor, but Kemmler had other priorities. He stepped over the body of his deceased beloved and into Thomas Martin’s saloon where he ordered his customary morning beer. King followed, and convinced the barkeep not to serve Kemmler, as he had “just brained his wife and she [was] weltering in her blood”. Kemmler moved on to the next bar. He was drinking a beer when officer John O’Neill from the third precinct apprehended him.
Kemmler had sunk the blunt end of a hatchet into Tillie’s head 27 times, nonetheless, she was not dead. She was rushed to nearby Fitch Accident Hospital where Dr. Roswell Park worked on her to remove 17 bone fragments from her skull, stopping when her brain began to leak out. She breathed her last 16 hours after William ruined Friday’s breakfast.
William said, “I had to do it. There was no help for it. Either one of us had to die.”
Two years earlier, Roxalana Druse had also sunk an axe into her spouse’s head. She was hanged for the crime, but the combination of her slight weight and the legally mandated six-foot length of rope left her alive and dangling for an excruciating fifteen minutes. The public outcry had been building since, if not for an end to capital punishment, at least for a more humane method of execution.
Enter Buffalo dentist Dr. Alfred Southwick and the miracle of electricity. An 1881 account of a drunk man killed by a live electric generator led Dr. Southwick to imagine a humane alternative to hanging. Along with Dr. George Fell and the head of the SPCA in Buffalo, he ran a series experiments on stray dogs to determine the appropriate amount of electricity needed to dispatch various animals.
If electrocution was, indeed a quick and painless death, it would appease those decrying the inhumanity of hanging and the state would again be free to kill criminals as they saw fit. State Senator and Southwick associate Daniel MacMillan took the idea of electrocution to Governor David Bennett Hill, who, in turn, appointed Southwick to a commission to determine the most effective and humane method of execution. The 95-page report, which included an alphabetical listing of pretty much every method of execution throughout history, did indeed recommend Southwick’s method.
So, electrocution it would be for “Philadelphia Bill” Kemmler. But the process was not as obvious as might be thought. During the 1880s, there was a battle raging between direct current advocate and Wizard (of Menlo Park), Thomas Edison, and Alternating Current champion George Westinghouse, who, holding the appropriate patent from Nikola Tesla, felt that alternating current was the way to go. When it came time to develop an electric chair, New York state went to Edison.
Edison, nearly as talented at PR as invention, was eager to demonstrate the deadliness of the rival current. His electric chair would use Tesla’s alternating current. (Later, using the same method, he’d demonstrate of the evils of AC on Topsy the elephant) .
On execution day, August 6th, 1890, people shuffled down to the death chamber haphazardly and in no particular order. Dr. Spitzka, one of the doctors most involved with the procedure, arrived late and apologized to others who were still eating breakfast. Kemmler was dressed nattily in a suit selected by the warden.
As Warden Durston attached the straps to hold him in the chair, Kemmler noticed the man’s shaking hands and asked, “My God, warden, can’t you keep cool? Take your time. Don’t be in a hurry.”
The electric chair’s electrodes attached to the head and the base of the spine. Sponges soaked in a salt solution provided assurance of good conductivity. As the head electrode was lowered, Kemmler complained of the fit, saying, “You better press that down further, I guess.” The Warden followed his instructions, pressing the electrode on the monk’s spot shaved into the condemned’s hair.
As he looked out to the gathered witnesses, Kemmler spoke his final words, “Well, gentleman, I wish everyone good luck in this world, and I think I am going to a good place, and the papers have been saying a lot of stuff that isn’t so. That’s all I have to say.”
“How long shall I have the current on?” warden Durston asked the doctor.
“Fifteen seconds,” Spitzka replied.
“That’s a long time,” the Warden said.
The switch was thrown for seventeen. After the alternating current was cut off and Kemmler stopped convulsing, a fly lighted on murderer’s nose, which had turned bright red with bursting capillaries.
The doctors examined the body. Kemmler’s thumb was torn open by his clenched finger, and the wound continued to bleed. Fluid streamed from Kemmler’s mouth and ran into his beard. He began to groan, quiet at first, then more loud and distinct. His chest strained against the leather harness.
He was coming back to life.
“Turn on the current,” Dr. Spitzka said.
The electrician threw the switch again, and now 2,000 volts played in short, successive shocks down Kemmler’s spine. The groans stopped with the first convulsion, but the fluid continued to drip from the mouth and down the beard.
The smell of burning flesh and hair filled the room. Blood formed beads like perspiration on the killer’s face. Altogether, it took eight minutes to execute the murderer.
During the autopsy that followed, doctors found the area around the head electrode singed, the blood vessels between the brain and the skull “were like charcoal,” and the electrode placed on Kemmler’s spine had burned a four-inch hole into his back and the flesh beneath was described as “having the consistency of well-done beef.”
Body parts were distributed among the doctors who pronounced the execution a resounding success. The consensus was that even if Kemmler hadn’t died instantly, he was assuredly unconscious by the time the switch was thrown the second time – what they had witnessed were simply muscle contractions.
Westinghouse was a bit more direct when he said, “They would have done better using an axe.”