William Kemmler – 1889

By | November 12, 2016

“Don’t let them experiment on me more than they ought to”


William Kemmler become the first person to die in the electric chair at Auburn Penitentiary in 1890


Born on 9 May 1860 William Kemmler achieved criminal notoriety by becoming the first person to die in the electric chair. Kemmler was an illiterate conman from Buffalo, New York, who, on 29 March 1889, murdered his mistress Tillie Ziegler with art axe in a drunken fit of jealousy. Found guilty, he was sentenced to death.

The night before his execution Kemmler danced and sang to a banjo played by a fellow death-row inmate, but the following morning he begged the Deputy Sheriff Joseph Veiling: “I’ll promise you that I won’t make any trouble… Don’t let them experiment on me more than they ought to.” Veiling shaved Kemmler’s crown then cut the back of his trousers, exposing Kemmler’s spine for the second electrode. Kemler entered the death chamber wearing yellow-patterned prison trousers, a dark grey sack jacket with matching waistcoat, a white linen shirt, highly polished black shoes and a bow tie which he self-consciously straightened. At 6.34am Warden Durston asked if he had any last words and he said: “Gentlemen, I wish you all good luck. I believe I’m going to a good place, and I’m ready to go.

A great deal has been said about me that’s untrue. I’m bad enough. It’s cruel to make me out worse.” Kemmler removed his jacket and sat in the chair but was asked to stand again because Durston suddenly realized he needed to cut another hole in the back of the shirt — Kemmler told him, “Take your time, Warden, and do it right. There’s no rush. I don’t want to take any chances on this thing you know.” When the electrodes were securely attached Durston said, “God bless you, Kemmler,” who replied, “Thank you.” Durston then said, “Goodbye William,” but there was no reply. Durston rapped twice on the door, the executioner threw the switch and Kemmler’s torso convulsed. His face and hands turned first red then ashen — his staring eyes terrified the 25 witnesses. One of his fingers clenched so tight the nail cut into the flesh and blood started trickling down the arm of the chair. Fierce red spots appeared on his face. After 17 seconds Edward Spitzka, a celebrated anatomist, announced, “He’s dead.”


New York City, USA


Friday 29 March 1889


The electricity was turned off and the body sagged forward. But as Durston started to remove the headpiece Kemmler’s chest heaved, a gurgling sound came from his throat and foam bubbled out of his mouth. The switch was thrown again and the lifeless body sat up taut as the current surged back though it. This time smoke rose from the top of his head and drops of blood sparkled on his face, accompanied by a sizzling sound like meat frying in a pan. The smell of charred skin, singed hair, urine and faeces pervaded the room. At 6.51am Spitzka signalled Durston to turn the power off. Kemmler’s second electrocution had lasted about a minute. Shocked witnesses agreed with Spitzka, “I’ve never seen anything so awful. I believe this will be the first and last execution of the kind.” Though most of the press denounced electrocution as little more than torture, The New York Times said it would be absurd to go back to “the barbarism of hanging”.


The world’s first official electrocutioner was Edwin F. Davis, who went on to electrocute 240 others including the first woman, Martha Place.


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