The Man You Never Knew

Kemmler had come to work for Copper John almost nine months earlier.

He hadn’t seen the copper statue of the Continental soldier keeping watch over the administration building since the day he stepped inside Auburn Prison in upstate New York. It had been a cold, calm winter’s day and Copper John stood tall against the crisp, blue sky. Once inside William Kemmler spent his days confined to a small cell wearing his prison issued black and white stripped jumpsuit.

Left in solitude Kemmler was saddled with memories of what was. There were places in his memory that he tried not to visit. Some were drunken stupors. Some were wildly humorous such as the time he tried to jump his horse and grocery cart over an eight-foot fence. The horse was fine, but his cart was a miserable wreck. Maybe I should chalk that one up to drunken stupidity, he thought with a smile. Then there was that night with his lover Tillie. The night, in a drunken rage, he took to her with a hatchet.

“I sentence you to death by electrocution.”

The words hung heavy in Kemmler’s ears almost a year later.

At the time he no idea what electrocution meant, but he was familiar enough with Edison’s play with electricity. Quickly, he’d been made to know it intimately.

The Dangers of Alternating Current! Edison Despises Capital Punishment: If Task Be Done, Do With Alternating Current. Two Dogs And Horse Westinghoused! Headline after Headline; article after article. Westinghoused. That was the word that had crept out of Menlo Park. The newspapers had quickly picked up on it, and soon, so had the inmates within the walls of Auburn. Kemmler was going to be the first person ever to be Westinghoused.

He knew he was a pawn torn between two of America’s greatest billionaires: George Westinghouse and J. P. Morgan. The two men were the financial backers of the alternating vs. direct current war raging in the halls of academia, laboratories, and banking halls around the world. Westinghouse on the AC side with Tesla; Morgan on the DC side with Edison. Neither man wanted to see their investment fail, and both men were funding the attorneys in the appeal. It made Kemmler feel like he was something.

Like his mother and father, he was also an alcoholic. Both his parents had died from the drink–his father in a brawl and his mother from acute alcohol poisoning. His parents expected little of young William and when he dropped of school at ten it made no difference to them. He tried his hand at being a butcher and a push cart vender, but his drinking always got the best of him. Now, he sat in his cell thinking about one thing: Immortality. He would go from a nothing, a vagabond and a drunkard, to having his name forever attached to science and engineering. People would speak his names for centuries. The thought was enough to crease a smile in his small, round face.

“All the world will know your name. We will name the direct current voltage meter the Kemmler suppressor.” It was a promise from Morgan’s lawyers, and Kemmler repeated it quietly, but proudly, in his little cell as he watched the sparrows flitter from the vines along the walls to the trees in the courtyard. “Mr. Edison has done tests and he feels that you will be killed in the ten-thousandth of a second. You will feel no pain.” Kemmler’s shoulders broadened and his chest swelled. “Better than fifteen minutes at the end of the hangman’s noose,” he often told his guards.

It was early and the sky was clear; it was as though heaven was waiting. The prison was eerily silent. With Morgan’s money and Edison’s insistence, Kemmler’s appeal failed. Everyone knew that today William Kemmler was going to the chair and that he’d be fried. Kemmler dressed himself in his woolen pants of a varied yellow pattern, dark gray sack coat and vest, a crisp with linen shirt, and a black checkered tie. All gifts from the warden. These fineries hid a specific and unusual nuance: a small oval in the pants where one of the electrodes would be attached. Kemmler spoke with his two guards who had gotten to know the man well, and he waited for the warden and chaplain to come for him.

He entered the execution chamber like a little child, trusting and innocent. He greeted everyone with a smile and no ill-will.

“Take your time. Do it well. Be sure everything is alright,” Kemmler said softly. He was about to die for science, to make men millions, and to set his name into immortality. Linemen would speak his name daily. Students would study electricity and read his name in books. They would speak of him as the man who help move the world forward.

After the first seventeen seconds, Kemmler thought he’d died. Then he heard them talking. He felt his finger twitched and that’s when they noticed it. He was struggling for a breath. An unfamiliar voice: “Good God, he’s still alive!” “Turn on the current!” It was warden’s familiar voice. It would take time before the capacitors recharged. In that time, Kemmler wondered. He hurt. Kemmler didn’t see heaven or a light at the end of any other tunnel.

Two minutes later he died.


Prompted by Studio 30+: Fried.


If you are new to my writing, a little background. As a history teacher I am most fascinated by the Gilded Age. It was as though America has just become a toddler and the world was their’s for the exploration.

This story is based on the first electrocution of a prisoner in the United States. In what had become known as the “War of Currents” Thomas Edison was doing all he could to maintain revenue on his patents for direct current. He was facing off against George Westinghouse and his company Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company.

Thomas Edison was strongly against capital punishment, but he saw an opportunity when the New York Committee investigating a new form of capital punishment. Edison argued that Westinghouse’s alternating current was the best means of electrocution, not because of voltage or any other dangers, but because he was trying to destroy Westinghouse and his expanding empire of alternating current power plants. Backed by John Pierpont Morgan, Edison was able to defeat Westinghouse and the attorneys he’d hired to push the appeals case to the Supreme Court.

In the end, William Kemmler died twice. His execution was so poorly done that once word reached Westinghouse, he was said to have replied, “They would have done better with an ax.”

Those of you who would like to take me on the usage of “fried,” please note that I understand that the first usage of fried to mean electrocuted was in the 1920s. However, in the case of William Kemmler, the term fits.


4 thoughts on “The Man You Never Knew

  1. Hi Bryan!

    Thanks for linking up. As a rule I always read every post and comment on them prior to sharing them with our network. Things are a bit crazy right now for me, so I do plan on returning possibly later today or tomorrow. Let me know if you have a twitter account so I can include your user name in the tweets also!


  2. Pingback: Topsy admits Carol McFadden did not use Bigwig Money | Minuto Bahnuto

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