Wednesday, September 19, 2007

"Westinghoused," Part 8

(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.)

Electric Chair at Auburn Prison
Auburn, New York

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.

"He's breathing!"

Kemmler choked, and his chest heaved.

A low moan rattled out.

"Turn it on again!" the warden said.

Nothing happened.

"Again! Now!"

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.


Shesawriter said...

OMG. Ewwwwwwwwwww. That was oh so creepy. And it's weird, because I just finished watching my Season 6 DVDs of Oz. One of my favorite characters went to the chair in the end.

mermaid said...

I'm smiling (though I thought I'd be crying).

Here's to karma and good writing to make me believe in it:)

SzélsőFa said...

His death is withdrawn, and so is the outcoming of the story, the success of experiment with the electric chair...

The Quoibler said...

I realized I didn't breathe for the last few paragraphs... ironic, because apparently Kemmler did.

Great writing!

The Anti-Wife said...

Wow! "There is the culmination of ten years work and study! We live in a higher civilization from this day."

A higher civilization?

Church Lady said...

This is writing at its best. Is this part of a short story or novel?

Ello said...

I just read all 7 previous parts and they were a fast read for me. I love historical fiction like this. But it feels like snippets. Is that purposeful?

Why did Kemmler feel no fear? That part bothered me only because I had no understanding of his mindset. I also don't know what his thoughts were about the electrocution outside of what his attorney said, was his attorney there? You don't delve into the reactions of the audience, but wouldn't there be horror?

Even though I have questions, I'm very intrigued by all this and will be looking for more.

mysfit said...

i agree with mermaid... i'm smiling. weird

i'm glad you put the comment that Kremmler's words were historically accurate. knowing that adds to the story, to kremmler's character. his attitude is pretty understated/implied ever since the murder scene.

jason evans said...

Tanya, sorry about your favorite character. That's rough.

Mermaid, yeah, Southwick, Edison, and Brown got it stuck to them. At Kemmler's expense, of course. Thanks for the compliment. :)

Szelsofa, the first time certainly didn't go so well. It's amazing that the truth was not spread more widely.

Quoibler, thanks, my friend. It's nice to hear when the tension works. :)

Anti-Wife, I try to give Southwick the benefit of the doubt, but I have to wonder if he didn't secretly enjoy killing.

Church Lady, it's just as it exists here. Little pieces designed to put a human face on history. **I really enjoy doing these. Perhaps some publisher might be interested in a book of longer, more polished versions. Maybe.

Ello, yes, they're intended to be little windows into history jumping from person to person to give more perspectives. **That's a fair point about Kemmler. I could have delved into his mind much more. As for the reaction of the audience, I agree, they would have been horrified. However, my POV is the warden, and he was embroiled (not pun intended) in the process. I could have him note the crowd's reaction, but it would have to be brief. Thanks for the constructive comments!!

Mysfit, I don't know why, but I sometimes think about what it would be like to walk to one's own execution. What it would feel like. (I tend to have these thoughts going to the dentist, BTW. No mystery there.) **Smiling, yeah. It's kind of poetic how it doesn't go as planned for the greedy folks.

angel said...

oh my word! thats dreadful!!!

Verilion said...

So there has to be more right? You can't leave it like that? But if it is the end, I've really enjoyed the tight snippets, but I can see that this would be a really great longer piece. You've really kept your readership hooked and you could really delve into each characters POV. I for one would love to read more.