William Kemmler

The first person executed by electric chair:

Witnesses remarked Kemmler was composed at his execution; he did not scream, cry or resist in any way. He sat down on the chair, but was ordered up by the warden, Charles Durston, so a hole could be cut in his suit, through which second lead of electricity could be attached. This was done, and then Kemmler sat down again. He was strapped at the chair, his face was covered and the metal restraint put on his bare head, saying “Take it easy and do it properly, I’m in no hurry.” Durston replied “Goodbye William” and ordered the switch thrown.

The generator was charged with the 1,000 volts, which was assumed to be adequate to induce quick unconsciousness and heart stoppage. The chair had already been thoroughly tested; a horse had been successfully electrocuted the day before.

Kemmler was electrocuted for 17 seconds. Witnesses reported the smell of burning flesh and several nauseated spectators fled the room. The power was turned off and Kemmler was declared dead.

However, witnesses noticed Kemmler was still breathing. The attending physicians, Dr. Edward Charles Spitzka and Dr. Carlos F. Macdonald, came forward to examine Kemmler. After confirming Kemmler was still alive, Spitzka reportedly called out, “Have the current turned on again, quick — no delay.”

In the second attempt, Kemmler was shocked with 2,000 volts. Blood vessels under the skin ruptured and bled and his body caught fire.

In all, the entire execution took approximately eight minutes. Westinghouse later commented: “They would have done better using an axe.” A reporter who witnessed it also said it was “an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.”