Archive for August 6th, 2011

This one is not for the faint of heart or sensitive of stomach – it’s the story of the modern electric chair.

Southwick 1

On this day in 1890, the first execution by electric chair was carried out on convicted murderer William Kemmler at Auburn Prison in New York. But we want to begin the story nearly a decade earlier. In 1881, dentist Alfred Southwick witnessed the accidental death by electrocution of a drunk man who touched an electric generator (some sources state he was not a direct witness). Southwick, observing that the man’s death seemed instantaneous and painless, concludes that electrocution would be a more humane method of execution than the common method of hanging. He proposes the idea of an electric chair and campaigns for its use. He serves on a committee to explore the available methods of execution and contributes to the passage of the January 1, 1889, New York state law that legalized electrocution as a method of capital punishment. Southwick was present at Kemmler’s execution and continued to promote the methods, despite the fact that the initial electrocution did not kill him and a second jolt after a delay to allow the generator to recover was needed, during which Kemmler’s body reportedly burned and bled.

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