A “Bungled” Execution and a Doctor’s Guilt: The Horrifying Debut of the Electric Chair

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This post was written by intern Sarah Davis.

In a newspaper article dated July 1932, Alphonse David Rockwell, a renowned New York State physician who was an important contributor to the development of the electric chair, stated, “It is the principle of capital punishment that I oppose…it is only a measure of vengeance, an admission of the law’s futility.” This newspaper article appeared more than forty years after the first man was executed by electric chair; an execution that Rockwell, for all his contributions to the project, did not attend. In the final years of his life, Rockwell would deeply regret his involvement in the development of the electric chair as a means of execution.

Known as one of the pioneers of electrotherapy, Dr. A.D. Rockwell found his medical calling in the days of the Civil War, when he enlisted as a regimental physician. Even as a young man, his “hard, skillful and faithful work” (“Life Story”) caught the attention of his peers and superiors alike, and his extraordinary medical talents earned him the distinction of becoming the Surgeon Major of the Sixth Ohio Cavalry, the youngest in the Union Army (“Life Story”).

After the war came to an end, Rockwell’s interest in medicine grew. He became the family physician of the Roosevelts, caring for the future president as a child, and building a relationship that would last into his later life. Indeed, Rockwell formed a number of important relationships throughout his life, as indicated by the vast amount of letters he preserved in the pages of a large bound album. In addition to correspondence from Teddy Roosevelt, Junior, Rockwell’s associates included First Lady Florence Harding, progressivist clergyman Lyman Abbott, and photographer Jacob Riis.

In addition to his general practice, Rockwell’s more specific interests lay in the promise he saw in electrotherapy. In 1867, Rockwell collaborated with Dr. George M. Beard to publish a book on their findings. Titled The Medical Uses of Electricity, 1stEditionInside2Beard and Rockwell’s work explored the medical benefits of utilizing electrical currents to treat symptoms of various neurological and physiological disorders. Rockwell was one of the first physicians to utilize these somewhat radical ideas regularly in his practice. His proficiency in the field of electrotherapy eventually earned him the title of Professor of Electrotherapeutics in the New York Post-Graduate School of Medicine (“Rockwell Dies”). It was this expertise in electrotherapy that was, simultaneously, Rockwell’s gift and curse.

When the New York State Legislature passed an 1887 reform declaring death by hanging to be inhumane, Rockwell was called to devise a new method of execution by electricity. Known for his friendships with a number of social reform advocates, Rockwell was staunchly opposed to the practice of capital punishment. Feeling that criminals could “be put to better use” than death, Rockwell followed the consensus that hanging was inhumane. “If the law must kill, let it kill decently,” he argued (“Rockwell Dies”). For Rockwell and many others, condemning a criminal to swing from the hangman’s rope was anything but decent.

Execution by hanging was the primary method of carrying out death sentences in the United States for much of the country’s history. Initially believed to result in quick, painless death, improper calculations often resulted in slow death by strangulation. A slight miscalculation could result in the condemned taking up to twenty minutes to die by asphyxiation, or, in extreme cases, being brutally decapitated by the snap of the rope (“Hanging”). Regardless of one’s personal views for or against capital punishment, many at the time felt that a more humane method needed to be devised.

With this in mind, Rockwell answered the call of Prison Commissioner Gerry, agreeing to work on the project only once others were appointed to work with him. Assisted by Dr. MacDonald, an acquaintance from Rockwell’s Civil War days, Dr L.H. Laudy, a professor at Columbia’s School of Mines, and inventor Thomas Edison, Rockwell used his knowledge of electricity’s effects on the human body to develop the first suitable electric chair in Edison’s own New Jersey laboratory. The men experimented with various animal deaths until the state sentenced Buffalo resident William Kemmler to death by Rockwell’s device. Convicted of murdering his common-law wife, Matilda “Tillie” Ziegler, Kemmler’s death sentence resulted in an uproar of protest. Objection came from citizens who believed the death penalty to be inhumane no matter the method, as well as from corporate entities such as the Westinghouse Electric Company. Westinghouse felt they had a corporate stake in the execution, fearing that such a practice would harm their push for electricity in all private dwellings. Despite this opposition, including a failed trial for appeal, the State emerged victorious, and Kemmler’s sentence was upheld (“Rockwell Dies”). He was formally sentenced to die by electrocution on May 29, 1890.

Illustrations3The morning of August 6th of that year,, less than three months after Kemmler’s fate had been sealed in a court of law, he was seated in the electric chair at Auburn Prison, having the distinction of being the first man in the world to die by its power. Unfortunately for him, as well as for the State officials who were determined to prove the new method less cruel than hanging, Kemmler’s death was anything but quick and painless.

Witnesses reported that, once the switch was thrown by the executioner, Kemmler’s body stiffened “as though cast in bronze,” and flushed a bright red color as 2,000 volts of electric current were applied for seventeen seconds. After the current was switched off, one of the attending physicians declared him dead, but within moments, witnesses noticed that he was still groaning and struggling to breathe. The current was applied again, this time for a full minute, with the second time more horrifying than the first:

The current could be heard sharply snapping. Blood began to appear on the face
of the wretch in the chair. It stood on the face like sweat. The capillary or small
blood vessels under the skin were being ruptured…an awful odor began to permeate the death chamber, and then, as though to cap the climax of this fearful sight, it was seen that the hair under and around the electrode on the head and the flesh under and around the electrode at the base of the spine was singeing. The stench was unbearable (“William Kemmler”).

It was reported that a number of witnesses, mostly members of the press, fainted at the sight. Others were nauseated. New York’s Deputy Coroner was questioned after the event, and he noted that, “I would rather see ten hangings than one such execution as this. In fact I never care to witness such a scene again…no humane man could witness it without the keenest agony” (“William Kemmler”). It seemed that the State’s goal of a more humane method than hanging had failed.

In spite of his absence from the proceedings, the reports eventually came to Rockwell that the execution had been “barbarously bungled” (“Doctor, 92”). The executioner in charge of the affair, Edwin Davis, had apparently ignored Rockwell’s specific instructions regarding the specific placement of the electrodes, resulting in the horrific scene that followed.

This fact in itself unnerved Rockwell, who had seemed to have had a significant moral conviction in joining the project; a conviction that if he could not abolish the law, at least he could improve upon it so that the condemned could die with humanity. One can only imagine the disgust felt when his “decent” method of execution had not gone as he had intended. Despite his aversion to the principle of capital punishment, Rockwell resigned himself to attending all future executions by electric chair to ensure that the proper procedure was followed, calling the poorly carried out execution of Kemmler “shocking and hateful” (“Advocacy of Electric Chair”). It seemed that his only consolation was to ensure that such a horrific execution did not happen again.

It is almost no surprise that forty two years later, Rockwell took an opportunity to publicly declare his “bitter” opposition to the RegretArticle2idea of capital punishment, and to renounce his role in the adoption of the electric chair. “Today, at 92, the oldest physician and criminologist in New York wishes he hadn’t done it,” the 1932 article declares of Rockwell’s work with the electric chair (“Doctor, 92”). It is likely that the first “bungled” execution of William Kemmler had a lasting effect on Rockwell. Despite his absence from the proceedings, the fact that his name was associated with a device that so inhumanely ended a man’s life was undeniably painful.

Rockwell was a dedicated physician who displayed incredible expertise in using electricity to treat and heal his patients. This expertise became a curse when Rockwell was called to contribute to the creation of a device destined to carry out a principle of law he did not agree with. His unique ability to improve the quality of life was twisted into a method to take life. Though executions thereafter were carried out with strict adherence to procedure, it is undeniable that Rockwell continued to harbor guilt for the first “barbarously bungled” execution.

Works Cited

“Doctor, 92, Regrets Day He Originated Electric Chair.” July 1932. Newspaper Article in Archive.

“Dr. A.D. Rockwell Dies in 93rd Year.” Newspaper Article in Archive.

“Dr. Rockwell’s Advocacy of the Electric Chair Writes the Climax of His Career.” Newspaper Article in Archive.

“Hanging.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

“Life Story of Dr A.D. Rockwell Goes Back to Days of Lincoln.” Newspaper Article in Archive.

“William Kemmler – Things To Remember While Reading Excerpts From “far Worse Than Hanging:” Excerpt From “far Worse Than Hanging.” jrank.org. n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.

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