(In the late 1800’s, the battle between two competing electric technologies, AC and DC currents, turned brutal. For Thomas Edison, it was a life and death struggle. This is a fictionalized version of true events in history. If you're just joining us, you can start at Part 1.)
The steel eyes of the witnesses burned under the warden's collar, and heat stung his ears. Somewhere beyond the warden's vision, Kemmler breathed very steady.
The warden wiped his hands and shook the straps to loosen the buckles.
"My God, warden, can't you keep cool?" Kemmler said. "Take your time. Don’t be in a hurry."*
Only two men in the audience laughed.
Gallows humor. It never really worked.
Before the warden strapped in the first ankle, his assistant already secured both wrists to the chair. Harold Brown from the Governor's Commission directed final preparations as the warden fumbled. "Put more salve on the prisoner's head. Right. Secure the cranium cap tight enough so he can barely breathe."
Kemmler grunted as they did it.
The warden finished the second ankle and stood. Kemmler's gaze peered from under the lip of metal. Wires ducked through the doorway to another room.
"Now the spinal lead," Brown said. "Is the clothing cut?"
A guard nodded, and the assistant warden stooped behind the chair. He placed the final electrode.
Brown moved to the doorway so he could relay orders to the men hidden in the room. A churning sound smoothed to a low hum. A vibration buzzed in the floor.
Seconds passed, but Brown gave no indication.
Kemmler began to tap his foot to a silent song. He did that when nothing else occupied his mind.
The warden checked his pocket watch. It was taking too long.
Finally, Brown nodded.
"Do you wish to make a statement?" the warden said.
Kemmler took a breath. "Well, gentlemen, I wish everyone good luck in this world. And I think I am going to a good place and the papers have been saying a lot of stuff that isn't so."*
The warden nodded, and the guards dropped a black cloth bag over his face. The instant the men were clear, the warden took a step backward and signaled.
The air crackled, and Kemmler bulged in the chair.
The warden retreated farther as the man's skin bloomed cherry red. It looked like it might split.
Longer and longer, it went. No one moved. Kemmler's veins ballooned against the straps.
"Seventeen seconds," Brown said.
The warden held up a hand. "Enough."
Kemmler sagged. Almost deflated.
A man in the audience jumped up. "There is the culmination of ten years work and study! We live in a higher civilization from this day." Alfred Southwick, Buffalo dentist. Present at the Governor's request.
But his smile fell when one of the guards shouted. The warden's attention snapped back to the chair.
Kemmler choked, and his chest heaved.
A low moan rattled out.
"Turn it on again!" the warden said.
Brown panicked at the doorway. The warden rushed into the room.
Two technicians were scrambling. The generator sputtered, then chugged alive again.
"Why did you turn it off? Hit him again! Come on!"
One man shook his head. "Not enough voltage yet."
The sounds in Kemmler's chest sucked and gargled.
And they were getting stronger.
*These quotes were actual statements made during the execution.
On to Part 9.
Back to Part 7.