After Kemmler murdered his wife with an axe in 1889, he became a natural test subject for a new method of execution, ostensibly more humane than hanging or the firing squad: alternating current electricity, marketed by the inventor George Westinghouse. According to early witnesses, the gruesome execution took two tries over an eight-minute period.
On the morning of his execution, August 6, 1890, Kemmler was awakened at 5:00 a.m. He dressed quickly and put on a suit, necktie, and white shirt. After breakfast and some prayer, the top of his head was shaved. At 6:38 a.m., Kemmler entered the execution room and Warden Charles Durston presented Kemmler to the 17 witnesses in attendance. Kemmler looked at the chair and said: "Gentlemen, I wish you luck. I'm sure I'll get a good place, and I'm ready."
Witnesses remarked that Kemmler was composed at his execution; he did not scream, cry, or resist in any way. He sat down on the chair, but was ordered up by the warden so a hole could be cut in his suit through which a second electrical lead could be attached. This was done and Kemmler sat down again. He was strapped to the chair, his face was covered and the metal restraint put on his bare head, saying "Take it easy and do it properly, I'm in no hurry." Durston replied, "Goodbye, William" and ordered the switch thrown.Sketch of the execution of William Kemmler, August 6, 1890
The generator was charged with the 1,000 volts, which was assumed to be adequate to induce quick unconsciousness and cardiac arrest. The chair had already been thoroughly tested; a horse had been successfully electrocuted the day before.
Current was passed through Kemmler for 17 seconds. The power was turned off and Kemmler was declared dead by Dr. Edward Charles Spitzka.
However, witnesses noticed Kemmler was still breathing. The attending physicians, Dr. Spitzka and Dr. Charles F. Macdonald, came forward to examine Kemmler. After confirming Kemmler was still alive, Spitzka reportedly called out, "Have the current turned on again, quick — no delay."
In the second attempt, Kemmler was shocked with 2,000 volts. Blood vessels under the skin ruptured and bled and some witnesses erroneously claimed his body caught fire. However, Kemmler's body did not catch fire. The New York Times reported instead that "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." Witnesses reported the smell of burning flesh and several nauseated spectators unsuccessfully tried to leave the room.
In all, the entire execution took approximately eight minutes. The competitive newspaper reporters covering the Kemmler execution jumped on the abnormalities as each newspaper source tried to outdo each other with sensational headlines and reports. A reporter who witnessed it also said it was "an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging." Westinghouse later commented: "They would have done better using an axe."