The 1880s saw intense competition between two electricity giants to convince millions of Americans that their version of the electric current was the safest. In what has to be one of the dirtiest tricks in corporate history, the industrial magnate and inventor Thomas Edison made sure his competitor’s current was used to power the new fangled electric chair. A means of execution intended to be modern and humane. But Edison realised – nobody would want the “death current” in their home!
Edison’s war on the alternating current – involves electrocuting an elephant!
Electricity transformed homes and cities bringing light and energy where there had previously been darkness and drudgery. Just by flicking a switch, people could illuminate the rooms in their houses without candles or gas. Streets were made safer by being lit up. Machines and transport revolutionised by this new source of power. Surely the world was about to be a much happier place!
Surely not – of course. The ruthless capitalism of the 19th century would put a stop to that. For a start, there was a bitterly competitive war over what kind of electricity generator would be used, making the company with the patent and talent immensely rich. Ruthless inventor Thomas Edison backed the so-called ‘direct current’ (DC). His rival, George Westinghouse, championed the ‘alternating current’ (AC), which he claimed could bring electricity to a far larger area from a single generator.
Edison set about destroying the reputation of the AC. He toured the United States with a mission to prove the competitor technology was extremely dangerous. The Westinghouse alternating current, could kill you in a literal flash, Edison declared. And to prove the point, he hired an engineer – Harold Brown – to electrocute various animals, mainly cats and dogs, using the Westinghouse AC. When the authorities pointed out that these animals were quite small compared to humans. Edison got Brown to electrocute an elephant!
The Electric Chair provides Edison with a devastating PR opportunity
Then came a brilliant public relations opportunity for Edison. New York state wanted a more modern way to execute its convicted criminals. The wily inventor suggested they use Westinghouse’s alternating current which, Edison claimed, was prone to unpredictable and powerful surges.
Why, the inventor and industrial magnate exclaimed, they could even describe AC as “the executioner’s current”. While the act of being accidentally electrocuted should be termed “Westinghousing” in much the same way as the company name Hoover became a popular verb – to hoover (clean electronically) your carpet.
Westinghouse’s AC to terminate a murderer’s life
New York’s prison authorities concurred with Edison and identified a convicted murderer, William Kemmler, to be the first person who would be duly Westinghoused. At this point, Westinghouse snapped. Lawyers paid for by his corporation took Kemmler’s case to the United States Supreme Court arguing that the electric chair was a cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional. The court disagreed. Many hangings in 19th century America had been botched so the judges felt the chair should be given a try as a modern and scientific alternative.
Right up until the day of the execution, the Westinghouse Corporation deployed every legal tool to put a stop to it. Or at least to prevent its generator being applied. AC could not be discredited through its use as a means of execution. Kemmler got a brief reprieve from the electric chair.
Shortly before his execution, Kemmler was taken into the room where his punishment would be administered. A newspaper report of the time that I unearthed described him turning pale as he eyed the voltameter and control switchboard. All the equipment was Westinghouse technology acquired via an intermediary by the prison. One can reasonably assume the intermediary had a link to Edison. Most likely it was Harold Brown.
Kemmler faces his appointment in the electric chair
Both Edison and Westinghouse opposed capital punishment. But shamefully, Edison put his ethical considerations firmly to one side when it came to scoring a commercial point over a dread rival. Kemmler was just a pawn in this game. And who cared about an illiterate butcher’s boy found guilty of the brutal murder of his girlfriend, Tillie Ziegler?
Kemmler and Ziegler had run away from their respective spouses to live together (Kemmler after only 48 hours of marriage!) in complete squalor near Buffalo. With no money, Ziegler had turned to prostitution and Kemmler to the bottle. Drunk and enraged one night, he beat Ziegler to death. The only defence offered at his trial was that he was so intoxicated, he had no idea what he was doing. Ziegler’s body was discovered drenched in her own blood. So, when Kemmler was sentenced to die by new fangled electricity, there was no sympathy – only curiosity.
Everybody involved in the Kemmler case seems to have taken sides in the Edison v Westinghouse battle. Harold Brown advised the New York authorities as an independent engineer but was clearly acting for Edison. Lawyers helping Kemmler stay out of the chair for as long as possible were agents for Westinghouse. And even the judges had their own preference – mainly for Edison. He was the charismatic inventor-cum-entrepreneur of his day. Think Elon Musk meets Richard Branson and a bit of Jeff Bezos.
Edison reacts to a botched execution
On August 6, 1890, Kemmler was taken to the electric chair. Edison had finally got his wish. He was to be comprehensively Westinghoused to death. Early that morning, Kemmler was taken from his cell where he had been autographing countless blank cards clearly convinced he was going to be famous in death. A newspaper from that day in my archive describes every last moment of the execution.
Having seen the room before, Kemmler was very calm. The prison staff, however, were not. There was considerable unease about the new technology. The prisoner was strapped in; salty water applied on top of his head and at the base of the spine where the electrodes were placed; and then everybody assumed their positions.
The rubber cap with a soaked sponge was fastened to Kemmler’s head and he remarked that it should be a little tighter. Then the prisoner, with astonishing composure, wished everybody well as if this was just an interesting scientific experiment from which he might emerge and they would all discuss it afterwards.
The AC was turned on. And the current pulsed through Kemmler’s body. There was a flash of pain on the condemned’s face followed by silent convulsions. But not a word was spoken. Nor a cry emitted from his lips. For seventeen seconds, the body was rigid. Then the judge and jury, appointed to witness the execution, rushed forward to take a closer look at Kemmler – who they assumed must now be dead.
The doctors present agreed and began to loosen the straps ordering the ancillaries to take Kemmler’s body to the prison hospital. But then suddenly, one doctor noticed something odd. A small rupture on the prisoner’s arm began bleeding so he was showing distinct signs of life. “Turn the current on instantly, this man is not dead!”
However, the primitive dynamo had to be fired up again and that could not happen instantly. The voltameter was registering next to nothing in power. At which point, Kemmler began to drool from his lips and worse, his chest began moving. He was breathing! Then a dreadful noise from his mouth, like a low growl. Thankfully for those present, the technicians got the generator going again after about thirty seconds and doubled the shock to 2,000 volts on the second attempt.
Kemmler’s body went rigid once more. Only now a pale white vapour rose from the prisoner and a revolting smell. He was basically being cooked. The witnesses yelled to the technicians to stop. And on this occasion, Kemmler was definitively dead. But how had the prison so badly botched the execution?
Some fingers pointed at Westinghouse, accusing Edison’s rival of having sabotaged the technology. People on the inside in the pay of Westinghouse had made sure the electric chair didn’t work properly. Meanwhile, Edison was accused of promoting a macabre approach to capital punishment. But the irrepressible evil genius insisted it simply needed some minor modifications. For example, Edison suggested that the AC should flow through jars of salty water into which the condemned’s hands were placed.
FIND OUT MORE: Galvanism – using electricity to revive the dead!
Edison makes a movie glorifying the electric chair
One might have assumed that this appalling episode would have seen off the electric chair – but far from it. Nine years later at Sing Sing prison, the first woman to be electrocuted – Martha Place – was fried, prayer book in hand. In October 1901, the man who assassinated US President William McKinley – an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz – not only went to the electric chair but Edison then made a movie reconstructing his execution. Possibly the earliest example of a true crime documentary.
In 1912, a teenage killer – Albert Wolter – was sent to the chair. Many of those executed in this manner seemed to take a keen and somewhat morbid interest in the preparations such as the straps and electrodes being applied. As if they were considering it for future use on a victim. Wolter had to be asked to sit back as he leant forward to take in all that was happening to him.
As early as 1927, Danish physicians were claiming that the chair didn’t actually kill anybody. They were merely paralysed. What finished off prisoners like Wolter was that no effort was made to revive them after the electric shock.
During the Cold War in 1946, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted for selling American secrets to the Soviet Union. In 1983, an electric chair caught fire during an execution. And in 1997, one foot high flames sprang from the head of Pedro Medina at a Florida prison in what has to be the worst example of a botched execution in a 74-year-old chair. The event was referred to sarcastically as the Florida flambé.
From his grave, how Edison must have chuckled.