Delving into the history of the electric chair | Steve Canavan

Been anywhere nice lately? I have. On Saturday I had a terrific trip to the back bedroom, where I spent several hours sorting out a wardrobe.

By Steve Canavan
Friday, 24th April 2020, 11:49 am
Updated Friday, 24th April 2020, 11:50 am
Steve Canavan has been researching the history of the electric chair.
Steve Canavan has been researching the history of the electric chair.

Then on Monday evening I made the journey to the conservatory, where I rearranged our collection of potted plants, before, on Tuesday, I took a detour to the spare room where I straightened my collection of shoes and trainers and placed a new set of coasters on the table.

In short, it’s been another thrilling rollercoaster of a week.

However, despite all that non-stop action, I did manage to fit some reading in and I stumbled upon something I thought was pretty interesting.

I’m going to share it here because I think as readers of this column, you know by now that I’m an intellectual man and I like to educate

So here’s another hopefully vaguely interesting thing – it is almost 130 years since the first time the electric chair was used to frazzle someone to death.

I’m not going to get into the morality and the rights of wrongs of it here because it would take all day (though for the record I think it’s obscene). But it is, I think, worth remembering how it all began.

The first fella with the rather dubious claim to fame was William Kemmler and he met his maker at Auburn Prison in New York on August 6, 1890 (which is, coincidentally, my parents’ wedding anniversary – I must ask if they selected that marriage date on purpose).

Mr Kemmler was a bit of a sad case. His mother and father were alcoholics, he wasn’t taught to read or write, and at the age of 10 his parents died due to the booze.

Before you feel too sorry for Mr Kemmler, it’s important to point out that there was a good reason for his conviction. At the age of 30 after a domestic, he calmly strode to a barn outside his house, grabbed a hatchet, and bludgeoned his partner to death.

Unsurprisingly, Kemmler was convicted of first-degree murder and three days later sentenced to death. Months earlier New York had passed a law replacing hanging – the previous preferred method of brutal death – with the electric chair, meaning Kemmler would be the first to die in the new fashion.

Interestingly, the developers of electrical power (including Thomas Edison, he of lightbulb fame) didn’t want to see their new product used in that manner and tried to stop it through the courts, but failed.

Kemmler woke at 5am on his final day of existence, put on a suit, necktie, and white shirt (seems a bit odd going to all that trouble, but each to their own), ate breakfast (surely he can’t have had much of an appetite?), then had his head shaved.

As he entered the execution room, Kemmler looked at the chair and said to the prison warden and 16 witnesses present, ‘gentlemen, I wish you all good luck. I believe I am going to a good place, and I am ready to go,’ which, all things considered, is an impressively calm and composed reaction.

As a hole was cut in his shirt to allow the executioner to attach a metal lead to his chest, Kemmler added, ‘take it easy and do it properly, I'm in no hurry’ … which, spookily, is exactly what I said to the girl cooking my sweet and sour pork at the local Chinese last night.

The switch was flicked and held for 17 seconds. A thousand volts passed through Kemmler’s body. The chair had been thoroughly tested – a horse had been successfully electrocuted the previous day.

However, when they flicked the switch off, they noticed Kemmler was still breathing. The shaken warden said, ‘have the current turned on again, quick – no delay’ and this time 2,000 volts were blown into the unfortunate Kemmler.

A New York Times reporter present wrote that ‘an awful odour began to permeate the death chamber, and then, as though to cap the climax of this fearful sight, it was seen that the flesh under and around the electrode at the base of the spine was singeing. The stench was unbearable.’

It took eight minutes to kill Kemmler – imagine the poor fella’s suffering? – and several nauseated spectators tried to leave the room.

Pretty awful eh.

More than 12 decades later, the only places in the world which still reserve the electric chair as an option for execution are the US states of Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.

The moral of which is if on the off-chance you are a serial killer, I’d suggest not going to any of those places to commit your next offence.