Executioner's Current

Executioner's Current


The impending execution of William Kemmler was the major topic of conversation among the citizens of Auburn. The town was full of rumors concerning Kemmler's fate, the most significant being that Kemmler had lost his mind. If this were true, it would entitle him to a stay of execution and a commutation of his sentence to life imprisonment. However, the general impression was that Kemmler's lawyers had invented the ruse to save him from the executioner's current. According to his keepers, Kemmler's physical and mental condition was about what it had been on the day he was arrested for the murder of Tillie Ziegler. Jailer McNaughton, annoyed by the persistent rumors, remarked that despite his year on death row, Kemmler was "not a gibbering idiot, nor a driveling imbecile."

Four months before his death, under Mrs. Durston's guidance, Kemmler had become religious and was baptized into the Methodist faith. The night before his execution the condemned man received the sacrament of the last supper. His spiritual advisers felt they had done everything possible for a man of Kemmler's "meager intelligence." Warden Durston joined the ministers and the prisoner. Kemmler said he felt fine and would not "flinch at the end. I am not afraid, Warden, so long as you are in charge of the job. I won't break down if you don't."

On the eve of Kemmler's execution, fellow death row inmate Fish played the banjo and the two prisoners sang "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Wait 'Til the Clouds Roll By" one last time. Listening to the minstrelsy, his keepers were awed by Kemmler's spirit. He showed no sign that death was waiting just outside his door. At 9:30 p.m., the lights were dimmed, and Kemmler was told it was time to end the music. Before returning to his cell, Fish took Kemmler's hand and said, "Keep your courage up, Kemmler, it will all be over soon. I will follow you after a little while." Kemmler muttered, in response, "I guess I will behave all right. It can't come too soon for me. Being so near the end is as bad as the actual going." The two men then looked each other in the eye, paused for a moment, and parted company. Kemmler spent the rest of the night alone in his cell, aware that at 6:00 a.m. he would be taken to the death chamber. The horror of his predicament seemed not to register with him; outwardly, he remained calm. He slept soundly. Perhaps it was a matter of pride, or maybe a blind faith in the men of science who had promised him that death by electricity would be quick and painless, but Kemmler assured his keepers that he would "die like a man."

In order to conceal the identity of the executioner and to spare the condemned man and the witnesses from having to watch the switch thrown, Warden Durston had moved the death chair from its initial location to a room immediately under the main stairway. The original execution room had been pronounced perfectly suitable only four months ago, and the change in location came to be viewed as evidence of the bungling and delay that characterized Warden Durston's handling of events. The new room, known as the keeper's mess room, was only a few feet from the room first chosen. Nonetheless, some feared that this last-minute removal of the chair and the reconnecting of its elaborate switchboard might introduce possible glitches.

Edwin F. Davis, a New York electrician who had wired the chair, arrived just before dawn with a replacement voltmeter. Then the work of reinstalling the chair began. In his nearby cage, Kemmler could hear the workmen's conversation and banging. The condemned man listened intently for several minutes, and then said to McNaughton, "They're getting ready, Daniel." When McNaughton told him that the workmen were merely moving the chair from one room to another, Kemmler seemed reassured. The voltmeter, lamps, and switchboard remained in the old execution room. In the new death chamber, the chair was placed at the lower end near a door leading into the control room. It was in this room that Warden Durston would signal for the current to be turned on. Electrician Davis had arranged an elaborate code of signals with the dynamo room, where C. R. Barnes of Rochester was in charge. An electric bell was to be used; two strokes meant to start the dynamo, and each succeeding double-stroke meant to increase the machine's velocity. A single stroke was the signal to stop.

The chair, constructed of heavy oak with a high, sloping back and broad arms, was bolted to the floor. Heavy leather straps with sturdy buckles were attached to the sides and arms of the chair. The electrode, which passed through a wooden figure four, fastened to the back of the chair and adjustable to any height, was suspended from a horizontal arm attached to the back of the chair, above the headrest. A rubber cup containing a natural sea sponge hung above the head of the chair, and another cup and sponge were attached to its lower back. From these cups two wires ran out the window and across the roof to the dynamo in the northwest corner of the prison, about one thousand feet away.

The Westinghouse dynamo was driven by a 45 horsepower engine. Two large wires connected it to the chair through a window in the control room. The switchboard, about five feet long and four feet wide, contained a voltmeter, a resistance box, a board with twenty-one incandescent lamps, an ammeter used to measure the quantity of electricity, a regulating switch, and the execution lever itself. The purpose of the lamps was to measure the force of the current, should the voltmeters malfunction. By arranging the lamps in series, the total voltage across the mains could be estimated. Since the lamps required a known voltage, a drop in voltage would be visible if the lamps dimmed. To test the entire execution apparatus and to assure that everything was in working order, a "gaunt, worn-out horse" had been electrocuted the day before.

Warden Durston returned to the condemned man's cell with Erie County undersheriff Joseph C. Veiling, Kemmler's Buffalo keeper. Kemmler seemed pleased to see Veiling, and insisted that the jailer stay for breakfast. While the two men waited for Kemmler's last meal to be prepared, Reverend Houghton of the First Methodist Church and prison chaplain Reverend Yates entered the cell. Kemmler talked with them at length about his imminent execution, and afterward, Kemmler and the ministers knelt in prayer.

Breakfast having been completed, Veiling told Kemmler that it was time to shave his head, for the skullcap required a direct contact with the scalp. While Veiling cut, the two men talked. "They say I am afraid to die, but they will find that I ain't," said Kemmler. "I want you to stay right by me, Joe, and see me through this thing and I promise you that I won't make any trouble." Veiling tried to reassure Kemmler, but the jailer was himself filled with fear and apprehension. By the time the two men finished talking the straight razor had done its work, and the top of Kemmler's head was bleeding slightly.

At last the time had come. Warden Durston reentered Kemmler's cell. After bidding farewell to Veiling and McNaughton, who had been his faithful companion and spiritual adviser during his sixteen-month confinement, Kemmler glanced around the grim, rusting steel walls of his cell for the final time. "Come, William," the warden prompted.

Walking slowly down the long, narrow passageway, they reached the doorway to the death chamber at 6:38 a.m. Warden Durston entered first, followed by the condemned, and then the two clergymen. The electric chair stood at one end of the small, gray, square room. William Kemmler was an average-sized, broad-shouldered thirty-year-old man with a full beard; before it was sheared, his carefully arranged dark hair had been stylishly clustered around his forehead. He would be executed dressed in store-bought clothes—a sack coat, a dark gray vest, yellow trousers, and white shirt with a bow tie. Kemmler also wore a breastpin Mrs. Durston had given him; it was in the shape of a star, and he treasured it because it was "pointing to heaven."

Kemmler walked into the death chamber in a composed, easy manner. A dreadful silence fell over the assembled men of law, science, and medicine, many of whom looked more anxious than Kemmler. The silence was broken by Warden Durston. "This is William Kemmler. I have warned him that he has got to die and if he has anything to say he will say it." Kemmler bowed before speaking, "Gentlemen, I wish you all good luck. I believe I am going to a good place, and I am ready to go. I want only to say that a great deal has been said about me that is untrue. I am bad enough. It is cruel to make me out worse." After bowing a second time, Kemmler turned his back to the witnesses, took off his coat, and handed it to the warden. Then he straightened his black-and-white bow tie.

Warden Durston stepped forward, and Kemmler, in compliance, sat down on the chair. Sun from a small raised window shone brightly on his face. The warden motioned Kemmler to stand. He needed to check Kemmler's clothing to make certain that it had been cut away to allow for a clean contact between the electrode and the spine. The warden discovered that the sack coat had been cut, but not the white shirt. Taking a pen knife from his pocket, Durston cut two small triangular pieces out of the shirt.

Kemmler sat down again. The warden placed a skullcap on his head. The witnesses muttered as Kemmler calmly turned toward Durston and 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." The warden then strapped Kemmler into the heavy oak chair. The straps were necessary not only to discourage a possible escape attempt, but to anchor his body to the chair after the electricity was discharged. Without such a precaution, Kemmler's body would be thrown across the room by the force of the current. After each of the eleven straps was tightened, Kemmler tested them, making certain they were properly secured. Those that did not meet his standards were readjusted. "All right, William?" asked the warden. As Durston retightened the rubber skullcap that held a moistened, dense elephant-ear sponge, the caustic soda solution ran down Kemmler's face and neck. Dr. Fell had injected the solution into the sponges with a syringe to allow for better contact with the current and prevent burning or scorching of the flesh. Once finished, the warden stepped back. Like a dog trying to dry himself, Kemmler shook his head. As calmly as before, he said, "Warden, just make that a little tighter. We want everything all right, you know." Warden Durston obliged, once again tightening the skullcap.

All that remained was for Durston to place the leather harness on Kemmler's head. Designed to act as a muzzle, the broad straps went across the condemned man's forehead and chin. Another thinner strap pressed down against Kemmler's nose, flattening it. As this was going on, Dr. Edward Charles Spitzka, who would help perform Kemmler's autopsy, whispered softly, "God bless you, Kemmler." The condemned man, his jaw sealed shut, nodded his thanks.

After securing Kemmler in the chair Durston walked over to Drs. Spitzka and Carlos F. MacDonald, and said: "How long shall I have the current on? You shall say whether it shall be fifteen seconds or three or five."

"Fifteen seconds," Dr. Spitzka abruptly replied.

"That's a long time," said the warden.

"Will you say, Doctor?" said Dr. Spitzka, turning to his colleague. "You have had more to do with these things than I have."

"Well, I have left the matter entirely to you," said the warden. "How much time do you say?"

"Well, say ten seconds at least," replied Dr. MacDonald.

"All right," was the warden's restrained answer, and he turned sharply around and went into the next room.

During his absence Dr. Spitzka asked, "Has any gentleman here a stopwatch?" MacDonald produced one and handed it to Spitzka.

Finally, everything was in order. The dynamo in the machine shop was running at a steady speed and the meter on the wall read a little more than 1,000 volts. His task completed, Warden Durston stepped back from the chair. Turning to the witnesses, the warden asked, "Is all ready?" No one said a word. Kemmler raised his eyes and turned his head just enough to feel the warm sunlight on his face. Then Warden Durston gave the signal. "Good-bye, William." George Irish, a New York state government clerk who "had always been good at that kind of work," is thought to have pulled the lever. Later at the Osborne House, he bragged about having thrown the switch.

A click was heard and Kemmler's body strained against the leather straps, every muscle in full extension. Kemmler's eyes bulged but did not otherwise move. His body remained rigid except for the right index finger, which contracted, curling so tightly that it dug into the flesh of the first joint, causing blood to trickle onto the arm of the chair.

Next, the condemned man's complexion turned ashen. "Death spots" appeared on his skin. After seventeen seconds, Dr. Spitzka shook his head and declared, "He is dead." Warden Durston gave the signal to stop the flow of electricity. Dr. Alfred P. Southwick, a Buffalo dentist who was an early proponent of the electric chair, solemnly declared the first execution by electricity a grand success, saying, "There is the culmination of ten years' work and study. We live in a higher civilization from this day." The witnesses, who had averted their eyes, now turned back toward the chair. But their sighs of relief turned to gasps of horror as they faced Kemmler's still-twitching body. "Great God! He is alive!" yelled one. "Turn on the current," screamed another. "See, he breathes," hollered a third. "For God's sake, kill him and have it over," shouted a newspaperman, who then fainted. District Attorney Quinby clutched his stomach and ran for the door; once outside, he fainted.

Drs. Spitzka and MacDonald calmly stepped forward to examine the body. Warden Durston began to unscrew the electrode attached to the skullcap. Spittle dripped from Kemmler's mouth as the condemned man continued to breathe, his chest rising and falling convulsively. The medical men, present to pronounce death, listened for a heartbeat and, finding one, signaled Durston to reconnect the electrode on Kemmler's head. Turning toward the warden, Dr. Spitzka shouted, "Have the current turned on again, quick—no delay." Warden Durston ran to the door and sounded the bell twice, which was the signal to the men in the machine shop room to turn the current on again. Once more the click, and again Kemmler's body, like a toy soldier, snapped to attention. The scene grew more gruesome as the dynamo, now running at top speed, sent 2,000 volts through Kemmler's body. On the other side of the prison, in the dynamo room, convicts were pressed into service, holding the new leather belt on the dynamo; it hadn't been stretched properly before the execution, and it almost fell off several times. Froth oozed out of Kemmler's strapped mouth. The small blood vessels under his skin began to rupture. Blood trickled down his face and arms. Twice Kemmler's body twitched as the current was switched on and off. The awful smell of burning flesh filled the death chamber. Kemmler's body first smoldered and then caught fire.

When the current was finally turned off, Kemmler's body went limp. This time he was dead—there could be no doubt of that. From the moment he first sat down on the chair until the electricity was shut off the second time, eight minutes had elapsed. Kemmler's blackened, smoldering body was left strapped to the chair as the horror-stricken witnesses were marched out of the death chamber into the stone corridors of the prison. A "pungent and sickening odor" followed them. For a long time, no one spoke. Finally, Dr. George E. Fell, the Buffalo professor, turned to a reporter and said: "Well, there is no doubt about one thing. The man never suffered an iota of pain." With the exception of Dr. Fell, few others felt much pride in their participation.

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Excerpted from Executioner's Current by Richard Moran. Copyright © 2002 by Richard Moran. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.