On July 30, 1888, before an invited audience, one of the first executions by electrocution took place. The condemned prisoner was a seventy-six-pound dog of both uncertain provenance and unproven transgressions who answered to the name of Dash. The dog, incarcerated in a wooden cage, was brought before about seventy-five electricians assembled at the Columbia College of Mines in New York City. Bound, muzzled, and fitted with electrical contacts, he was initially zapped with 300 volts, which made him yelp and whimper but failed to kill him, then 400 volts, which also failed to do the job, and then 700 volts, which caused him to tear off his muzzle. Some of the witnesses, appalled at the dog’s obvious suffering, demanded that Dash be instantly destroyed—which he was with a burst of alternating current.

This experiment, designed to prove that electricity could replace the hangman, was in some ways typical of what was to follow. Although Dash had a friendly manner, he had been accused of biting two people—a capital offense, then and now—and he was made to suffer terribly from electric current. More to the point, it hardly mattered if Dash was a biter or not. What really mattered, as Richard Moran writes in his clearly presented history of the electric chair, was that New York State, following the advice of a special commission on the reform of capital punishment, had recently enacted a law to change its method of execution from hanging to electrocution. Dash was giving his life for progress.

The Electrical Execution Act of 1888 was the culmination of a long-standing reform effort to save capital punishment from itself. Although in general Americans supported the death penalty, opposition was growing to public hangings, which sometimes turned the condemned into instant, albeit short-lived, celebrities or, as sometimes happened, instantaneous martyrs, the hapless victims of inept executioners. The noose, while traditional, had its drawbacks. It had to be fitted just right, with the knot placed under the left ear, lest the condemned person strangle slowly or, as sometimes happened, have his head ripped from the neck. Occasionally, nothing worked. The New York State reform commission recounted the story of Margaret Dickson, a Scottish murderer, who was hanged in the 1730s, but who revived when the lid of her coffin was jarred open. She was known forever more as “half-hanged Maggie.”

If not hanging, then what? The commission examined thirty-four methods of execution—firing from a cannon, boiling, exposure to wild beasts, etc.—and came down to four. The guillotine, while swift and painless, was excessively gory, distinctly French, and uncomfortably associated with the carnage of the Revolution; the garrote, an iron collar tightened by a screw, while effective, was restricted to Spain and its colonies and presumably considered too exotically foreign; the hypodermic injection required the participation of medical men, who were against it, and one of the drugs proposed, morphine, could make death a blissful experience, eliminating the “great dread of death.”

Electrocution, on the other hand, was said to have nothing but virtues. It was supposedly swift, sure and painless, and undoubtedly modern. Since it hadn’t been tried, it was easy to make claims for it. All anyone knew from autopsies of the occasional person accidentally electrocuted was that the actual cause of death could not be determined. Electricity moved with such speed—far faster than nerve impulses—that the person was presumed dead before he felt a thing. This, truly, was a marvelous thing.

If anyone could figure out how to harness electricity to dispatch the deserving it had to be Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and, later, motion pictures. Although the Wizard of Menlo Park opposed capital punishment, he could overcome his moral principles when a business opportunity came his way. Since the electric chair seemed inevitable, he proposed to have this killing machine identified with the business of his arch-rival, George W. Westinghouse. Edison and Westinghouse, the inventor of the air brake, were busy wiring America’s major cities. Westinghouse used alternating current; Edison used direct current. What better way to deal with Westinghouse than to associate AC with the chair and thus with death?

The leading proponent of using electricity for executions was Dr. Alfred Southwick, a Buffalo dentist and, later, a member of the New York State commission on capital punishment. Southwick had hit upon the idea in 1881 when he saw a man accidentally electrocuted in Buffalo by stepping on an exposed electric wire. The man, a drunk, seemed literally not to have known what hit him. If he suffered, he showed no sign of it—although one could wonder how clearly a dentist could discern pain when he saw it. Still, it was Southwick who recognized that if his bright idea was to have a future, he needed Edison, by then the revered prophet of the Electric Age, on his side. He wrote to him, proposing that electrocution replace the hangman. Edison agreed. America needed a fast and painless method of execution.


“The most suitable apparatus for the purpose is that class of dynamo-electric machinery which employs intermittent currents,” he wrote to Southwick in 1887:

The most effective of these are known as “alternating machines,” manufactured in this country by George Westinghouse…. The passage of the current from these machines through the human body, even by the slightest contacts, produces instantaneous death.

The human body on which this production was to be tried was that of a Buffalo, New York, peddler named William Francis Kemmler, a heavy boozer who, even when sober, was addled. (He once tried to get his horse to jump a fence, forgetting that it was hitched to his peddler’s cart.) Kemmler had moved from Philadelphia to Buffalo with a woman named Matilda “Tillie” Ziegler. The two of them were married, albeit to others. While he continued to drink to excess, she entertained other men, including his business partner. On the morning of March 29, 1889, Kemmler attacked Tillie, hitting her again and again with an ax. She died the next day.

As if to put the lie to the notion that capital punishment is a deterrent, Kemmler immediately confessed to a neighbor, saying, “I had to do it; there was no help for it. Either one of us had to die. I’ll take the rope for it.” With that, he went directly to a neighborhood tavern for a drink. As luck would have it, he was denied both a drink and the rope. Instead, he became the first man in history to be on the receiving end of the words “suffer the death punishment by being executed by electricity.” Judge Henry Childs then reverted to tradition by adding, “May God have mercy on your soul.”

Kemmler had a touching faith in the efficacy of the chair. He believed his death would be a thoroughly modern one—swift and painless. “I am ready to die by electricity,” Kemmler said after his trial. “I am guilty and must be punished. I am ready to die. I am glad I am not going to be hung. I think it is much better to die by electricity than it is by hanging. It will not give me any pain.” He was wrong.

Before Kemmler could die, his case was appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court. The legal issue was whether dying in an untried electric chair would be unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. Unusual it certainly was, but that didn’t much trouble either the New York or the federal courts. Cruel was a different matter entirely—and this was certainly an avenue of appeal worth exploring.

Kemmler was a poor man. Nonetheless, he managed to secure the services of W. Bourke Cockran, a prominent Tammany Hall politician, who had already served in Congress and would do so again. Cockran was a noted orator whose speaking style, Moran tells us, later served as a model for the young Winston Churchill. In addition, Cockran knew something about public utilities since they were among his clients. He was an opponent of capital punishment. But in a happy marriage of principle and self-interest, he was also getting handsomely paid for his work. His real but secret client was George Westinghouse, who apparently believed there were advantages for his company if its AC current were not used to kill Kemmler. Cockran’s fee was later reported to be $100,000, probably an exaggeration.

Meanwhile, Kemmler was undergoing a metamorphosis. At New York’s Auburn State Prison, the enforced sobriety of solitary confinement improved his health. The warden’s wife took an interest in him. Under her guidance, he was baptized as a Methodist and learned to read. Illiterate at his incarceration, he was literate at his execution. Kemmler was guilty, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for him. He was not a career criminal, but a hard-working man leading a truly hard life. Once his situation was changed—no booze, no perfidious business partner, no cheating wife—he turned out to be a sweet-natured guy. He deserved punishment, of course, but he would have been a good candidate for a sentence of life in prison. Instead, he was killed very much as he himself had killed—clumsily, slowly, and irrationally.

Maybe with his new book-learning Kemmler realized he had become a pawn in the battle between two industrial titans. Probably he did not. He certainly did not think of himself as the first victim of what would become a century-long lie about progress. The lie, of course, was that electrocution was both painless and swift. In too many cases, it was anything but. Like the dogs and horses that died painful and slow deaths in the experiments underwritten by Edison, those who followed Kemmler to the chair often suffered hideously and—it seemed to the witnesses and, we may suppose, the condemned themselves—for long periods. Nonetheless, such was the blind faith in technology that the public continued to disbelieve what many witnesses reported.


The electric chair became the emblem of capital punishment itself. It was scientific, precise—a matter of dials and switches, ohms and watts. The executioners were not masked men with axes or clumsy local sheriffs, but engineers and electricians, with the medical doctors hovering nearby to certify death. The contraption lent its considerable weight to the perception that science—precise, verifiable, and white-coat spotless—was being applied to the entire criminal justice process—allegedly infallible police methods (fingerprints, hair analysis, etc.), expert witnesses, and a legal system from which error was presumably increasingly expunged. Official death was to be seen as always just, always clean.

Now we know better. Nearly 130 former prisoners—many of them once on death row—are free today because they were exonerated by DNA testing. They were victims of sloppy or corrupt police work, false or mistaken eyewitnesses, or patently bad laboratory testing—the failure of much of what we regard as scientific. Hair analysis, so convincing in movies and in the courtroom, is little more than junk science, as Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, with the reporter Jim Dwyer, show in their book Actual Innocence.1 The two lawyers, possibly best known for their work in the O.J. Simpson case, have pioneered the use of DNA to prove innocence.

Scheck and Neufeld have had a remarkable impact. In some states—Illinois, for instance—the death penalty has been put on hold following the release of falsely convicted prisoners. Before completing his term in office, the Illinois governor, George Ryan, commuted the death sentence of everyone on death row. His state’s criminal justice system was so incompetent that it took a group of law students from Northwestern to show that Anthony Porter, convicted of double murder, should be released. The students even got the real killer to confess.

DNA analysis, however, is of limited value. When there is no exchange of tissue or bodily fluids—in a drive-by shooting, for instance—DNA is useless. For such crimes, there is no reason to believe that the police are any better or any less corrupt than they were in the cases of those exonerated by DNA. Nor were the prosecutors more diligent, the defense attorneys more energetic and alert, the judges wiser, or the juries fairer. The system no doubt works much of the time, but sometimes not at all.

It does not seem to matter. Just as the electric chair was a reform designed to save the death penalty from its critics (New York State almost abolished capital punishment in 1834), so now the chair itself has been replaced in all but one state—Nebraska—with lethal injection, the sort of change the New York reform commission had once rejected. But injection can be botched and cause suffering, too. If the cocktail of lethal drugs—sodium thiopental, to put the condemned person to sleep; pavulon or pancuronium, to paralyze the muscle system and cause breathing to stop; potassium chloride, to stop the heart—is injected into a muscle instead of a vein, death can be very painful indeed. The risk of such suffering is higher for inmates who were heavy drug users and have damaged veins, especially when they are injected by inexperienced prison employees who, according to medical ethics, cannot be doctors. Even in Texas, where executioners get plenty of practice, death can come slowly. It took technicians thirty minutes to find Claude Jones’s vein in 2000. In Georgia that same year, medical technicians gave up on finding a vein in Jose High after thirty minutes, and others had to continue the probing. It took High one hour and nine minutes to die.

In fact, nothing about the death penalty is new. Each time it comes under attack, it gets tinkered with and pronounced infallible by the authorities. When mistakes are discovered or acknowledged, when people are exon-erated, this is cited as proof that the system works. But according to a study published by Michael Radelet, Hugo Adam Bedau, and Constance E. Putnam in 1994, some 463 people had been unjustly executed during the twentieth century.2 Somehow, in spite of the constant expressions of concern for “victims,” these people have hardly been reported on in the press or on television or mentioned in political debate.

The proponents of the death penalty must know or fear that the innocent have been executed. But what seems to matter most to them is the death penalty itself—its evident righteousness and its reaffirmation of the supreme power of the state. The argument that capital punishment is a deterrent is now gone, since studies have shown that it does not make a difference in homicide rates. The news has even trickled down to George Bush. While campaigning in Iowa for the GOP presidential nomination, the then Texas governor—with a record 133 executions—was asked at a brief press conference why he supports capital punishment. The people want it and the law requires it, he said—and besides, he unexpectedly added, it is a deterrent. “There’s no evidence of that,” I found myself saying. “You’re right,” Bush responded. “I can’t prove it. But neither can the other side prove it’s not.”

The emptiness of Bush’s response suggests that the proponents of capital punishment are left with one main motive: vengeance. The principle is so important that occasional mistakes, even abuses, the proponents argue, have to be tolerated. Just as it really didn’t matter to Edison whether Kemmler lived or died—only the machinery of his death concerned him—so it doesn’t matter to most capital punishment proponents if the occasional innocent person is executed. They value the penalty more than they do any single life.

Moran has an important and quintessentially American story to tell, but sometimes it seems thick with unnecessary details. For instance, instead of choosing one or two newspaper editorials from the period, he gives you several, from both sides of the issue. Still, his portrait of Thomas Alva Edison is telling. Ultimately, Edison would be granted 1,093 patents—more than anyone else in history. He was to become the personification of Yankee ingenuity and applied science. Yet he was not a serious scientist. He avoided theory, abhorred math, and didn’t know all that much about electricity. He was a plodder, a true trial-and-error tinkerer, who had no interest in pure science.

By the time Edison came into conflict with Westinghouse, he had become certain in his prejudices and underhanded in his practices. Just as Westinghouse was the not-so-hidden hand behind Kemmler’s doomed appeal, so was Edison the secret sponsor of the experiment designed to prove the merits both of the chair and of the lethal qualities of AC. He must have known that AC was no more lethal than DC, yet he repeatedly said otherwise, both in pamphlets distributed to the public and in statements to newspapers. He stuck to DC not because it was better—it was, in fact, considerably more expensive to transmit over long distances—and not because he could not have adapted to AC current, but because he was loath to admit a mistake. He could be mean, unprincipled, and ungenerous, but above all he was stubborn, a quality that helped make him rich.3

In the end, Cockran could not save Kemmler from the chair—or Westinghouse from having his AC dynamo used as the power source. (During one of the appeals, however, Cockran had a chance to question Edison, who proved not all that conversant with electrical engineering.) On the morning of August 6, 1890, Kemmler’s head was shaved and he was escorted into the death chamber. To the assembled witnesses—men of law, science, and medicine—Warden Charles Dunston announced, “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 did have something to say:

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.

With that, Kemmler sat in the brand- new heavy oak chair. He was tightly strapped in so that the force of the current would not propel him across the room. The dynamo was set to produce 1,000 volts. When all was ready, the warden said, “Goodbye, William,” and a state employee named George Irish reportedly threw the switch.

Kemmler stiffened, his eyes bulged, and soon his skin went ashen. After a mere seventeen seconds—as swift as Edison would have liked—a physician announced, “He is dead”; and Dr. Alfred P. Southwick, the Buffalo dentist, declared, “There is the culmination of ten years’ work and study. We live in a higher civilization from this day.”

But the day was not over. Witnesses noticed that the dead Kemmler was not only alive but actually kicking—or at least twitching. “Great God! He is alive!” one of them shouted. Another shouted, “Turn on the current,” and a newspaper man screamed, “For God’s sake, kill him and have it over.” He then fainted. Even the district attorney who had convicted Kemmler, George T. Quinby, was not unaffected. He clutched his stomach and ran from the room. He, too, fainted.

The two physicians in attendance approached Kemmler and examined him. He was clearly still breathing and when they checked for a heartbeat, they found one. “Have the current turned on again, quick—no delay,” one of them shouted to the warden. This time, the dynamo sent 2,000 volts into Kemmler. Spittle ran from his mouth. Blood vessels under his skin burst. Blood ran down his arms. His body smoldered and then caught fire. He was dead.

By the time it was over, the instantaneous execution had taken eight very long minutes and thoroughly sickened some of the witnesses. Yet the champions of the electric chair pronounced the electrocution a success. Others differed, but they were ignored. Among them was George Westinghouse himself. “They could have done better with an ax,” he said.

Edison carried the day, although he lost the war of the currents. It’s tempting to wonder what would have happened if America’s most famous and influential scientist and inventor had not recommended the electric chair but instead had warned of its deficiencies, characterizing it as an instrument of torture. He might also have said something about the impossibility of certainty of guilt, especially in the courtroom, and therefore the possibility of murderous error. But business came first, and Edison moved ahead with his promotion of DC current—over Kemmler’s dead body.

This Issue

August 14, 2003